- Susan Groag Bell’s Contributions to the History of Gardens
From the moment I met her, I was aware of Susan’s passion for gardens. I encountered her in the spring of 1987, in my second semester of graduate school in history at Stanford University. I remember having lunch together at her Forest Avenue apartment in downtown Palo Alto, California, where she had photographs on the walls of gardens from her previous homes. Not long after, Susan moved into the Palo Alto, a distinctive high-rise building on Alma Street, where she lived until she died. There she had oranges and geraniums and orchids and violets on the loge, and there she patiently instructed me, a West Texas girl schooled in cacti, about more exotic flora, like the azalea bushes as large as buildings that I did not recognize as such—as I had never seen an azalea outside of a pot!
What I did not know then, however, was that gardening was also a scholarly interest of hers. I initially met her because I wanted to study women’s history and, at the time, Stanford’s History Department had no faculty in modern European women’s history. I eventually worked for two years as her assistant on a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to create an annotated bibliography of British women’s autobiographies. In the course of our work, we spent a great deal of time together. Yet it was some time before I understood that Susan had spent years working on women and gardens.
Not until Susan’s death did I fully grasp the centrality of her research on the history of women and gardens to her overall body of work. I knew for some time that Susan intended for me to serve as her literary executor; following her memorial service in August 2015, I spent a week in her Palo Alto apartment, sorting books and papers. I donated the great bulk of her papers to the Stanford University archives, where Susan had already deposited a good deal of material. Although, I kept a box of papers on an unfinished project on the history of women and gardens, as its status within the collection seemed unclear (I will eventually add it to the other materials in the archive). Several months later, I rediscovered this material among some forty other boxes of books shipped to me in Maryland and I opened it to find numerous files on this project in progress (as well as several published articles).
On the subject of women and gardens, Susan published three articles, wrote another that was never published, and outlined a book manuscript [End Page 220] that excited interest among a number of publishers, although it remains unfinished. Susan’s work on gardens, I have come to believe, is the least discussed and yet most critical of her scholarship, for two reasons. First, Susan’s work on women and gardens was the pivot—chronologically and conceptually—between her early teaching and lecturing on women’s history and her research over many years, culminating in her last book, The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan’s Renaissance Legacy, published by the University of California Press in 2004.1 Second, Susan’s work on women and gardens—when seen as part of her other interests in tapestries and books—suggests that in addition to seeing her work as central to the development of the history of women, we should also see it as making contributions to the history of material culture, a field in its infancy until fairly recently. Here, as in the history of women, Susan was an innovator who laid the groundwork for a great deal of important scholarship.
Susan’s first published work on the garden was “Lady Warwick: Aristocrat, Socialist, Gardener,” included in San Jose Studies in 1982.2 It begins with a brief biographical introduction to Lady Warwick, a well-known Victorian and Edwardian socialite and philanthropist, who historians now remember largely as a royal mistress. The article then moves to the garden, a recurring theme in Lady Warwick’s life and thought. Susan lovingly described the...