Reading Group Guide
Leaving London to grow food for the war effort, Gwen discovers a mysterious lost garden and the story of a love that becomes her own.
From the Author
The Lost Garden was inspired by events in the lives of my grandfathers. My mother’s father was a painter and a keen amateur gardener. For the last few years of his life he lived on an English country estate that had been converted into apartments for the elderly. While exploring the grounds of the estate, he discovered a lost garden and spent his remaining time on earth bringing this neglected garden back to life. Shortly after he died, at the age of ninety-one, the estate was sold to condominium developers and the whole complex, including the restored garden, was razed to the ground.
My father’s father was an RAF bomber pilot. He went missing in the spring of 1941 during a night flight to Malta. His disappearance affected my father’s life profoundly and brought home to me the staggering human cost of war, not just in terms of those who died in the service of war but also in the continuing affect of their death on those who loved them and were waiting for their safe return.
It was the combination of these two stories, of my two grandfathers, that provided the framework for the writing of The Lost Garden.
- The author says that she was inspired by her grandfathers’ lives to write this novel. Indeed, the worlds of war and country gardens are the realms of men, but the novel is about women and their experiences of those two worlds. How does Humphreys explore the different experiences of men and women in the book and in her own family’s life?
- At the beginning of the novel, the narrator says, “What is love if not instant recognition? A moment of being truly equal to something.” Gwen loves London because of its familiarity and complexity. She is overwhelmed by both Jane and Raley when she first meets them. Can she define her love for Raley in the same way? Or for Jane? Does Gwen’s ability to love other people change over time, from her distant connection with Virginia Woolf to her moments of closeness with Raley and Jane?
- While David knits sweater after sweater for his fiancée in Newfoundland, Jane’s love for Andrew consumes her heart and her body. Is her love for Andrew like David’s love for his fiancée, or even like her love for David? What does Gwen think of the nature of Jane’s love?
- Gwen’s most valued possession is her copy of The Genus Rosa by Ellen Willmott, given to her by her emotionally remote mother for her graduation. Not only does Gwen love the thorough and scientific listings of roses, but she also loves the physicality of the book. How does this book appeal to her intellectual and emotional sides? Does this gift fit or redefine her relationship with her mother? In the beginning, Gwen uses the weight of the book to stand in for the weight of a lover in her bed. How does this parallel her changing relationships with people?
- Gwen also uses her reference books to discover the meanings of the plants in the secret garden. Often the meanings derive from the way the plant grows and dies: “Soon their heads will become too heavy for the thin, weed-like stalks on which they rise with such hope, and the peonies will crash to the ground in a wave of grief. They are too much for themselves, and soon they know it.” Besides giving clues to the original gardener, can these plants symbolize the people around Gwen?
- Homosexuality is an undercurrent throughout the book. Gwen, once she recognizes it, sees it as one permutation of the complexity of love between people. How does Gwen understand it in other people, or in herself?
- Gwen seems to identify with the character of Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. Are Virginia Woolf, Lily Briscoe, and Gwen Davis alike in their creative occupations? How is a book like a painting like a garden?
- The dances and picnics between the Land Girls and the Canadian soldiers distract them from the inevitable future. Is Raley right to allow his soldiers to ignore the war, and their own possible deaths, while they are stationed at the estate? What is it that the Land Girls are escaping? How do their drawings on the blackout curtains help them deal with the war and their lives?
- Gwen sees the past and the present intersecting in the secret garden, and on the estate as a whole. When Raley falls asleep in what becomes Gwen’s room and the wooden arch catches fire above him, the white roses he sees are the roses growing in the secret garden. A previous generation of gardeners and laborers had created the garden and gone off to fight in World War I. How do you see the past and present lives on the estate intertwining? What does it mean for Gwen? For Raley?
- The garden that Gwen discovers seems to have been untouched for years, but she feels sure that someone created it out of a deep love and that she will be able to unlock its secrets. She feels more entwined with the past as she works to restore the garden. Is she right to tell Jane that she made it? Why is Gwen so eager to keep her secret garden a secret? What kind of ownership can she feel for it, while acknowledging that it is not the garden she would have planted?
- Gwen dedicates herself to debunking the estate’s legend of the ghost that steals chickens, and she discovers that the white flash is actually an albino fox. The original creator of the secret garden trimmed one of the yew trees near the garden into the shape of a fox head. Do you think this shared secret between Gwen and the original gardener—both know that the “ghost” is a fox—is a clue to the personality or identity of the creator of the garden? Are there other parallels hinted at between Gwen and the original gardener?
About Helen Humphreys
Helen Humphreys, a poet and novelist, is the author of The Lost Garden, Afterimage, Leaving Earth, and Coventry. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.
Books by Helen Humphreys
“Elegant . . . illuminates the impact of war on ordinary people . . . an elegy and a celebration.”—Ann Hood, author of The Knitting CircleMore
In 1933, two women aviators try for the longest flight-endurance record while, in Toronto below, war looms.More
Leaving London to grow food for the war effort, Gwen discovers a mysterious lost garden and the story of a love that becomes her own.More