Historical Fiction Four: The Physic Garden - What If?


So many things I write begin as plays, and the Physic Garden (published this year in paperback and as an eBook by Saraband), is no exception. It began as a two hander, a conversation between the two central characters. I wrote it initially with the Oran Mor ‘A Play, A Pie and a Pint’ season in mind, encouraged by the lovely, late David McLennan. But it soon became apparent that there was much more to the tale and not nearly enough elbow room in a short play to tell it. It needed to be a novel.

The Physic Garden is set in the very early 1800s, in and around the gardens of the old college of Glasgow University. I had the idea for this many years ago, long before I even tackled it as a play. Browsing one day, I found an old book in the Oxfam shop on Byres Road. It was called The Lost Gardens of Glasgow University- a factual history of the gardens and the gardeners who had worked there, through the ages. I read it and was intrigued by the (real historical) story of William Lang in particular.

Briefly, his father Robert was the head gardener. William himself was born and brought up at the old college and became a gardener in turn. But the gardens were suffering from industrial pollution, especially the physic garden. The university had allowed a ‘type foundry’ to be built close by and the heavy metals and other pollutants were killing the plants. But the university needed printing, and they needed metal type for that printing, so the gardens lost out. It was clear that the gardeners knew something was up, but Faculty wouldn't listen. (Sounds familiar, eh?)

There was a professor of botany, one Dr Thomas Brown. He had been engaged to deliver the botanical lectures instead of Professor Jeffray who was far more interested in surgery than in physic or medicine. (I sometimes think I ought to have called this novel the Psychic Garden, because that's what so many people call it!) But to do that he needed lots of plant specimens which the gardens couldn’t supply. So he asked William to go out into the surrounding countryside to gather them for him. When William was only 19, his father died quite suddenly. William was left with a widowed mother and a number of younger siblings to support. He applied for and was given the position of head gardener, on the recommendation of Thomas Brown. But he had taken on far too much – including the specimen gathering. And he soon got into trouble with Faculty for neglecting the gardens although it is clear from the records that the state of the gardens had more to do with pollution than with William’s neglect.

So much is true, a matter of historical fact.

I thought at first that Thomas was a much older man who had taken the younger man under his wing, but it was when I realised that he was only a few years older than William that my story fell into place. It seemed clear that these two young men had become friends across a divide of class and background. William, at least, disappeared almost completely from historical record. But when I browsed Glasgow directories of the time, some years later, a printer and publisher called William Lang suddenly appears. There is, of course, no indication at all that it really was the same man. But as a novelist , you can say ‘what if?’ What if this was the same William, and what might have happened in between?

That ‘what if?’ question is the writer’s best friend.

Most writers find themselves asking it all the time, but especially writers of historical fiction. You begin with the bare facts, but then you interrogate them. What if this happened? What if this character did this, or this? That’s where it becomes interesting. William’s voice was a very clear one for me. I think some of this has to do with the fact that I’ve worked as a playwright for so long. Playwrights definitely hear voices in their heads and I heard William’s voice very strongly indeed. At some point, somebody (not my current publisher, I must hasten to say) suggested that this story would be better told in the third person: he said, she said. I tried to do it and came as close as I’ve ever come to getting writer’s block. I like to think that William wouldn’t let me. By this time, it was almost as though he was shaking me awake in the middle of the night, telling me that he had more to say, and demanding to know when I was going to write it down!

I finally finished it, and it was not so very different from the book you see now. There were a few bits and pieces of editing, things that I worked with the wonderful Ali Moore at Saraband on - but nobody tried to make it into something it wasn’t and structurally it didn’t really change at all.

It is I think, a book about friendship and betrayal. The two central characters are friends against all the odds. But when William begins to tell his story, we are soon aware that things have gone rather horribly wrong – but we don’t know exactly how – although we can guess some of it. There is no big ‘twist in the tale’. It isn’t that sort of novel and it isn’t necessary. I often think Roald Dahl, while a very fine writer, has a lot to answer for. I never mind if a novel doesn’t have a twist in the tale as long as the journey from beginning to end is satisfying and enlightening. You don’t have to surprise me unless I’m reading one of those pieces of crime fiction where you’re not supposed to be able to guess whodunnit till the very end. For the rest, I don’t care as long as I find the ending satisfying. But if you want something swift paced and deeply mysterious, I can tell you right now that this probably isn't the book for you! It's a slow, sweet exploration by an elderly man looking back on a deeply troubled episode in his past - and trying now, in old age, to come to terms with it. 

Jenny's needlework?
The Physic Garden is a book about closeness and trust and affection. It’s also a book about the getting of wisdom. And about – as one colleague said – the price of knowledge. It’s also a love story of sorts, although whether that love is between William and his sweetheart Jenny or William and his good friend Thomas, I leave you to decide. Traditional activities play their part – beekeeping, foraging, fine needlework and embroidery. Tensions between medicine and new developments in surgery are also central to the story, especially the idea that with the burgeoning factories in the city, a ready supply of workers is needed, and there is some idea that you might be able to ‘fix’ workers, just as a machine can be fixed.

But most of all, this is a story about betrayal, a terrible betrayal, and the possibility of coming to terms with it, towards the end of one’s life. It’s a story that asks – what if things changed quite radically for the narrator, the main character? How might he himself have changed in the course of his long and fulfilling life? How did he arrive at this point and how has the wisdom acquired along the way influenced the way he feels now? 

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