Saturday Storytime: The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society

I treasure fantasies of manners when I find them. Science fiction of manners is far more rare these days, but this story by Henry Lien certainly qualifies. It was nominated for this year’s Nebula Awards.

Mrs. Howland-Thorpe vs. Mrs. Fleming, Battle One
In Which Mrs. Howland-Thorpe Loses Her Seating
At Supper Four Seats from Mrs. Vanderbilt and Blames That Italienne Creature, Mrs. Fleming.
Mrs. Fleming Prevails.

     Good sense advises that it is not prudent to make war against the garden of a lady of breeding and society with words, moles and voles, or combustibles, for she shall grow cross and vengeful.

Mrs. Honoria Orrington Howland-Thorpe came of family of no particular distinction. The Orringtons had once begun to build some beginning towards a fortune in whaling but that was gone now and long ago, after the carcass of one specimen was left too long unbutchered on the dock and the foetid gases growing in its belly as it decayed caused it to explode all over the street, resulting in a series of lawsuits that were small in value but legion in number and unending in appearance, which eventually reduced the Orrington business and family name to nothing worth noting. They were now far from among the first families in Boston. They saw in Honoria, possessed of an unearthly beauty and famed for her complexion, the last great hope of their line and did all in their power to send her to Farmington for the finishing of her education, though it caused them to have to repair to a house in the Fens to pay for it. Honoria made good return on the investment and married Tiberius Howland-Thorpe, as much for his railway fortune as for his relations, and thought well of the placement, although looking at his features produced in her a state of mild but constant irritation that continued without cease for the next 50 years. Together, they managed to keep themselves on the invitation list to sup at Marble House with Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt and her husband each summer at Newport.

Mrs. Cecilia Contarini Fleming was a great beauty of foreign extraction. She was the last of a noble Italian family that could trace its lineage back to ancient Etruscan lines but whose prospects had grown more modest with each successive generation. She married Patrick Fleming, an industrialist of humble origins who made his fortune importing combustibles from the Orient and selling them to interests who employed them in the laying of railways and the hollowing of mines. Mrs. Fleming had been among the first women to study at Newnham College at Cambridge and had followed her education not with the customary Grand Tour Abroad, for, being an Italienne, she was from abroad, but with several years in Japan studying lacquerie, gardening, and poetry, and then a brief tour traveling with missionaries in Africa. She could dance, sew, sing, play the pianoforte, draw, paint, compose poetry, compose music, ride, fence, perform archery, and read and speak Greek, Latin, Italian, French, English, and Japonais.


     Before Mrs. Fleming arrived in Newport, Mrs. Howland-Thorpe had been famed for the grandeur of her rose gardens, which all Newport society had declared among the most original of the age, for they, when viewed from a height atop the viewing pedestals, reproduced the tableaux of famed paintings by the Flemish masters. Mrs. Howland-Thorpe’s garden had for several seasons been gilded with the honor of being the first that Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt visited during each summer’s garden tour among the great houses of Newport. Mrs. Vanderbilt could hardly have bestowed her attention upon a more grateful object and the distinction turned Mrs. Howland-Thorpe a peculiar mixture of haughtiness and sycophancy.

Alas, all of that changed when Mrs. Fleming and her husband purchased the great chateau next to the Howland-Thorpes’ home and Mrs. Fleming took it upon herself to plant a garden of her own.

Mrs. Fleming’s new garden was of no style that Newport society had ever seen. It was neither French nor was it English. It was composed of neither grand geometric promenades à la Française nor meandering paths laid for lonely contemplation in the English style. It was, to the contrary, a style of Mrs. Fleming’s own devising, mixing the green upon green and the water stairs of Italianate gardens with the shocking spareness and otherlandish asymmetries of the Oriental aesthetic. It used only plants that were native to the region of Newport, for Mrs. Fleming was a voluble promoter of creating gardens in harmony with their natural environs.

It was the first garden that Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt chose to visit during this season’s garden tour.

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Saturday Storytime: The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society