Miss Willmott’s Ghosts: The Extraordinary Life and Gardens of a Forgotten Genius by Sandra Lawrence

In 1897, during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, all the luminaries of the horticultural world were invited to the Hotel Windsor in Westminster for the awarding of the Royal Horticultural Society’s highest honor, the Victoria medal. There would be 60 medals, one for each year of the Queen’s reign, and two of the winners were women. One was Gertrude Jekyll, famous collaborator of Edwin Lutyens, whose gardens are still famous today. The other was Miss Ellen Willmott, who was famous for her alpines, her bulbs and her talent for growing the ungrowable.

On the day, Jekyll was there to receive her honor, but she was the only woman present. Willmott had not bothered to show up.

This no-show was the beginning of Willmott’s reputation as the Miss Havisham of the English gardening world — the eccentric miserly spinster who, it was said, took revenge on rival gardeners by spiking their borders with the seeds of sea holly, a large spiky plant that multiplies exponentially and was known as Miss Willmott’s ghost. At her house at Warley Place in Essex her famous narcissi beds were booby-trapped with shotguns to deter bulb poachers.

But in Miss Willmott’s Ghosts, Sandra Lawrence — a gardening journalist who became fascinated by Willmott after visiting the ruined gardens of Warley Place, which once contained more than 10,000 plant species — has painstakingly tried to revive the woman behind the battle-ax. It’s a book that feels podcast-like in its storytelling, every chapter triggered by an object — the gold medal, the fur-lined sabots, a silver key — that Lawrence uncovered during her excavations of the Willmott archive.

At Ellen Willmott’s house at Warley Place in Essex her famous narcissi beds were booby-trapped with shotguns to deter bulb poachers.

The Willmott she champions was a child of privilege. Her father was an upwardly mobile solicitor who turned himself into a country gentleman by buying Warley Place. Ellen’s godmother was a countess who sent the child a check for £1,000 every year from her 17th birthday (that’s about $116,000 in today’s money). The Willmotts were not intellectuals, so the girls were not sent to one of the new women’s colleges, but Mrs Willmott was a gardener and Ellen and her younger sister, Rose, became obsessed with plants from a very early age, and taught themselves Latin so they would be able to read gardening catalogues.

After a holiday in the Alps Ellen decided to build a spectacular rock garden at Warley Place, re-creating an alpine ravine 213 feet long, with a waterfall, a fern grotto, a stone bridge across the tumbling stream and thousands of rare alpine plants. It was very expensive, but when Ellen’s godmother died she left her the equivalent of $22 million.

No one taught her how to manage the money. She spent lavishly on plants, clothes, photographic equipment and rare musical instruments (she bought a spinet that had once belonged to George III’s daughter Princess Amelia).

Ellen suffered badly from rheumatism and while on a cure at Aix les Bains she bought a house at Tresserve, where she created another fabulous garden and filled the house with expensive antiques. A few years later she created a second European garden in Italy at the Villa Boccanegra in Ventimiglia.

The one thing Ellen did not acquire was a husband. There were admirers and proposals — she was a very rich woman — but while her sister married into the aristocratic Berkeley family, Ellen remained single.

This did not mean that she did not have romantic attachments. Her gardening mentor, a clergyman called Engelheart, named his choicest narcissus after her, and they were very close until Mrs Engelheart gave him an ultimatum about his relationship with Ellen.

Ellen and her younger sister, Rose, became obsessed with plants from a very early age, and taught themselves Latin so they would be able to read gardening catalogues.

The big reveal in Lawrence’s story, though, is Ellen’s relationship with Gian Tufnell, a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Teck, whose letters Lawrence discovered in the archive. The tone is passionate — “Darling, I do feel the sympathy which you feel when you hold me and it is perfect. I know nothing more resting or more peaceful to me and I would love it if I could have you oftener” — and Lawrence is almost convinced that the two women were a couple in the modern sense.

She argues, convincingly, that the reason that Ellen did not show up to accept her gardening medal was because the day after the ceremony Gian was to marry Baron Mount Stephen, a very rich, very old man. Gian, who was clearly a late-Victorian Becky Sharp, had met the elderly widower on a country house visit and pounced. Ellen was so devastated by the betrayal that she chose to stay in France rather than come to England to accept her medal.

That year was Ellen’s annus horribilis. Yes, she accomplished a great deal in the decades until her death in 1934 — becoming one of the first female fellows of the Linnean Society and of the Royal Horticultural Society, and supporting plant-hunting expeditions to China and Tibet — but she was also running out of money. Gardening was a hugely expensive hobby and, despite her millions, Willmott in later life would sleep on a bench in Trafalgar Square on her trips to London, a far cry from the featherbeds of the Empress Club, a women-only society of which she had been a founder member. In 1928, aged 70, she was arrested for shoplifting, although she managed to get the charges dropped when she threatened to call her friend Queen Mary. She was forced to sell her houses in France and Italy, plus her prized collection of musical instruments. Perhaps the worst humiliation was having to haggle with Gian over the sale of Princess Amelia’s harpsichord.

Willmott left behind two books, and her name on a variety of plants, but tragically none of her gardens survive intact. Even the ghostly sea thistles turn out to be phantoms, a myth propagated by her detractors. Lawrence has done an excellent job of re-creating this eccentric gardening guru’s life; the drifts of narcissi she planted still bloom — minus the booby traps.

Daisy Goodwin is the author of numerous books, including My Last Duchess, The Fortune Hunter, and Victoria