Monday, June 2, 2014
Book Review: The Gardener of Versailles by Alain Baraton
[I was given a review copy of this book in exchange for my opinion.]
There is no shortage of books written about the palace and gardens of Versailles; books about the illustrious place range from standard coffee table photo collections, a nearly endless series of walking guides, and even more unique books like the hauntingly beautiful 'Unseen Versailles,' featuring the eerie photos of Deborah Turbeville. And the books just keep coming--it is an almost sure bet that at least one new book will be published about Versailles every year.
Which is why The Gardener of Versailles by Alain Baraton is ultimately such a unique treasure. Alain Baraton has worked on the actual grounds of Versailles since the 1980s, and his part-memoir, part-garden history stands out from other 'Versailles' books because of the author's own history with the site. The real experiences and thoughts of someone who has worked (and lived!) on the grounds of Versailles add a personal touch that can't be achieved in a simple photobook or even general history of the palace and gardens.
The Gardener of Versailles is part memoir, part garden history, and part fireside story. Baraton writes the way you might envision an uncle recounting stories about his life or his adventures--and it is easy to imagine a little wink here and there as he recounts some of the more unusual stories, such as the one about the mysterious elegant woman who decided to drop her coat (under which she was wearing only her birthday suit) while on a private visit to the gardens after the devestating storm of 1999.
One of the most inviting aspects of the book for me was Baraton's love of the personal and human history of Versailles. In a hypothetical fantasy of the perfect visitor's tour, Baraton says that he would love to "open the hidden door that leads to the private apartments where the rulers actaully lived, laughed, worried or relaxed. ... their private lives unfolded on the other side of doors that the monarchs were careful to close behind them." His appreciation of the human history is reflected in his personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book, where the history of Versailles is mingled with stories about sneaky tourists attempting to stay overnight on the grounds, eccentrics who think they are Louis XIV, and lovers who risk constant discovery in order to enjoy a frolick together in the gardens.
Baraton also discusses the many changes in the gardens since he first began working them--most notably in how they are maintained. Baraton mourns the loss of the use of traditional gardening tool and techniques, such as using wooden hoes and collecting leaves for compost in favor of modern machines that may do the job faster but lose the intricate, personal touch of traditional gardening.
Above all, it is Baraton's passion for the gardens which clearly shines as the heart of this personal, sometimes eccentric, but always inviting garden memoir that is a must for anyone with an interest at at more personal look at Versailles.