From John Cheever to Zadie Smith, Katherine Mansfield to Lewis Carroll, plenty of writers have use garden parties to set scenes in their books. Eleanor Shakespeare/Penguin

From John Cheever to Zadie Smith, Katherine Mansfield to Lewis Carroll, plenty of writers have use garden parties to set scenes in their books. Image: Eleanor Shakespeare for Penguin

If you have a garden, chances are you've used it a lot over the past few months, given the record-breaking sunshine and the lockdown. Only, social distancing measures have left us unable to use our gardens for what they do best: throwing a banging outdoor party for our friends (or attending one, at least).

Nowadays, a garden party isn't just the clipped-lawns-and-finger-sandwiches type affair of old – unless you're lucky enough to be invited to one of the Queen's famous Buckingham Palace outdoor dos. You don't even need a string quartet; just a music speaker, a BBQ, paper cups, and drinks to put in them. And, of course, good friends.

 

From John Cheever to Zadie Smith, Katherine Mansfield to Lewis Carroll, here are six of our favourite garden parties in books to inspire you when the time comes.

The Sheridan's garden party

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield (1922)

“They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it,” opens Mansfield's most famous short story. “As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden parties.”

The Garden Party is a story about – you guessed it – a garden party, but it is also a merciless takedown of the blind privilege of upper class society. “It is my idea of the perfect story: realistic and subtle but never hiding behind the idea of art for art’s sake,” recently wrote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “It actually has something to say.”

Set in New Zealand (Mansfield's birth country) amid the immaculately shorn lawns of the wealthy Sheridan family, a shindig is afoot. Only when their working-class neighbour suddenly dies, eldest daughter Laura wonders if it should be called off. But then, as her mother notes, “people like that” don’t expect the rich to sacrifice themselves. So the party goes ahead: “The band struck up from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn.”

Considered one of the greatest short stories ever written, the garden party becomes a cipher for the cream-puffed pomposity of the very rich, as well as a profound meditation on life, death and the tug-of-war between illusion and reality.

Bilbo Baggins' eleventy-first birthday party

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)

Bilbo Baggins is tired of home life. So he decides to throw a party to celebrate his 111th birthday. The entire shire of Hobbiton is invited with invitation cards written in golden ink. There's a huge pavilion tent and “an enormous open-air kitchen” set up in a field. The trees are wrapped in bunting and lanterns and then, “the sun got up, the clouds vanished, flags were unfurled and the fun began.”

Cue a day of drinking and feasting, while Bilbo dishes out magical presents “to all and sundry”. But the icing on the cake is Gandalf the wizard's spectacular firework display, best described in Tolkien's words:

“There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices … There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of coloured fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans … there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes.”

Then, to top it off, Bilbo gives a speech, insulting a few of his guests, before vanishing in a “blinding flash of light”.

The Bunkers' pool party

The Swimmer by John Cheever (1964)

Not one, but a series of poolside garden parties feature in John Cheever's short story about a man who decides to swim home via the pools of all his neighbours. 

Neddy Merril is in the garden of his friends, relaxing “by the green water, one hand in it, on around a glass of gin … breathing deeply, stertorously, as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure.”

But something stirs within, and he feels compelled to go home to see his family, all eight miles of it, pool by pool. A few lengths down, he wanders into the Bunkers' garden, where a drinks party is in full swing:

“Preposterous men and women gathered by the sapphire-coloured waters [of the pool] while caterer's men in white coats passed them cold gin.” He is kissed by the hostess, and wades through the crowd stopping only “to kiss eight or ten other women and shake the hands of as many men”.

The Bunkers' is as good as it gets for Neddy, whose journey gets darker after that – literally and figuratively. As dusk falls, he becomes gripped by a sense of existential foreboding. He gets tired, each pool sapping his strength and virility further. An entire year passes in a single afternoon until, finally, he returns home where there awaits a terrible surprise. Still, The Bunkers threw a good party.

The Pageant at Pointz Hall

Between The Acts by Virginia Woolf (1941)

The year is 1939. As the world wobbles on the brink of war, an aristocratic family throws a lavish village pageant to celebrate English history in the grounds of their country pile.

And of course, an English garden party is not an English garden party without an old-fashioned worry about the weather – the great enemy of English outdoor fun.

“[Mr. Oliver] put down the paper, and they all looked at the sky to see whether the sky obeyed the meteorologist … It was green in the garden; grey the next. Here came the sun--an illimitable rapture of joy, embracing every flower, every leaf. Then in compassion it withdrew, covering its face, as if it forebore to look on human suffering.”

It doesn't rain and the pageant goes smoothly enough, a bit like London's 2012 Olympic ceremony, taking various periods of English lliterary history and acting them out on a stage. Woolf's final novel (published after her death) is one of her least known, but also one of her most striking. Permeated with a sense of despair and malaise about the coming war, it captures perfectly that last hurrah before everything changed.

Kiki and Howard's anniversary party

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

Inspired by Howard’s End, Zadie Smith’s third novel is an intimate portrait of two families bound together by professional jealousy, adolescent fascination, female kinship, infidelity and race relations.

Against the politely febrile backdrop of fictional university town Wellington, in Boston, an anniversary party plays out. The garden is host to manual ice-crushing when the machine breaks, and later, a speech:

“Sometimes you get a flash of what you look like to other people. This one was unpleasant: a black woman in a head wrap, approaching with a bottle in one hand and a plate of food in the other, like a maid in an old-movie.”

Smith’s ever pin-pointed dialogue carries us through champagne and bang-bang chicken canapes, through the mirrored perspectives of weary host wife Kiki and her egocentric husband Howard as wine and history collide with acute discomfort.

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

Probably the most famous garden party in all of literature, this – and definitely the most discombobulating. There is no wine, of course, nor sandwiches; no cakes, cream or custard. Just tea.

As for the guests, there's a riddle-obsessed madman (“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”), a narcoleptic dormouse, Alice, of course, and a very rude March Hare:

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.
“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.
“Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,” said Alice angrily.
“It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,” said the March Hare.

Perhaps not the most exciting party in literature, but at least you'd be sure to leave with a head full of weird anecdotes and a tummy full of tea.

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