The man standing at the front door of the house we were renting in East Devon said: ‘I’m the gardener.’ We’d seen him from the living-room window a few days earlier, standing amidst the sea of fallen leaves, spending a while raking up enough of them to fill a couple of wheelbarrows. Now he wanted to do about fifteen minutes’ strimming: pretty noisy but not for long. Was that okay? Of course, I said.
I was reading a Maigret novel that day, Georges Simenon’s 1947 Maigret se fâche, translated by Ros Schwartz as Maigret Gets Angry. Maigret, in retirement with his wife at their house in Meung-sur-Loire, is fighting a battle against the Colorado beetle in defence of his aubergines: in the hot sun, he is ‘barefoot in his wooden clogs, his blue linen trousers riding down his hips, making them look like an elephant’s hindquarters, and a farmer’s shirt with an intricate pattern that was open at the neck, revealing his hairy chest.’ The formidable Madame Bernadette Amorelle marches in through the ‘little green door in the garden wall that led on to the lane and was used only by people they knew’ and, straight away, has ‘mistaken Maigret for the gardener.’
(Georges Simenon: Photograph, Bettmann/CORBIS via The Guardian)
Maigret does, then, look a likely candidate for the role of gardener, at least in Madame Amorelle’s eyes; and, of course, he is a gardener – but not only that. What does a – or the – gardener look like? In Kipling’s story of that title, which has generated a remarkable quantity of commentary, criticism and speculation, the reader isn’t told. The gardener here is defined by what he does rather than how he looks or how he’s dressed: ‘A man knelt behind a line of headstones – evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth.’ When Helen Turrell leaves the war cemetery—still in the making but with more than twenty thousand dead already—she sees. in the distance ‘the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.’
The last half dozen words echo John 20:15, where Mary Magdalene, discovering that the body of Christ has gone from the sepulchre, finds him standing behind her, though she doesn’t immediately recognise that it is him. He asks why she’s weeping and she, ‘supposing him to be the gardener’, asks where the body has been taken. Are we to take Kipling’s gardener to represent Christ? A lot of readings do precisely that but there’s no real need to do so. Just as Helen Turrell and the people around her in the village will believe what they wish to believe and structure their lives around their chosen stories while leaving some things open or unsaid, the reader does also – or can do. He’s gardening, then – but we have moved from ‘evidently’ to ‘supposing’, so is he the gardener?
Here is one version of the meeting between Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, who would collaborate on three books in the next decade:
Conrad stood looking at the view. His hands were in the pockets of his reefer-coat, the thumbs sticking out. His black, torpedo beard pointed at the horizon. He placed a monocle in his eye. Then he caught sight of me.
I was very untidy, in my working clothes. He started back a little. I said: ‘I’m Hueffer.’ He had taken me for the gardener.
Untidy; working clothes; but again, Ford is a gardener and odd-jobman. He just happens to be also—even by 1898—poet, novelist, biographer, art critic and writer of fairy tales.
Kipling’s story was first published in April 1925 and collected in 1926; this autobiographical volume of Ford’s in 1931. An earlier account of the initial meeting between the two writers occurs in Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance. There, Conrad is carrying a child—his son Borys had been born eight months earlier—and, while the word ‘gardener’ is not specifically mentioned, Ford recalls that he had been ‘overcome by one of those fits of agricultural enthusiasm that have overwhelmed him every few years, so that such descriptive writers as have attended to him have given you his picture in a startling alternation as a Piccadilly dude in top hat, morning coat and spats, and as an extremely dirty agricultural labourer.’ At the time of his meeting with Conrad, he was ‘trying to make ten lettuces grow where before had been ten thousand nettles and was writing articles for the Outlook on the usage of the potato as an extirpator of thistles, in sand.’
Does ‘extremely dirty’ trump ‘very untidy’? The point is that he’s getting stuck in, as he would do for much of his life: irrigating, planting, growing things, pruning. What might have been ‘experiments’ in 1898 became, at times during the 1930s in Provence, a rather more critical affair: feeding himself and his partner Janice Biala, keeping them alive in those periods when they had, quite literally, no money at all.
We might be prompted to remember the discussions that Ford would recall a quarter of a century later than that first meeting, as he crafted his memoir of Conrad:
Then we would debate: What is the practical, literary difference between ‘Penniless’ and ‘Without a penny’? You wish to give the effect, with the severest economy of words, that the disappearance of the Tremolino had ruined them, permanently, for many years…. Do you say then, penniless, or without a penny? … You say Sans le sou: that is fairly permanent. Un sans le sou is a fellow with no money in the bank, not merely temporarily penniless. But ‘without a penny’ almost always carries with it, ‘in our pockets.’ If we say then ‘without a penny’, that connoting the other, ‘We arrived in Marseilles without a penny in our pockets.’ . . . Well, that would be rather a joke: as if at the end of a continental tour you had got back to town with only enough just to pay your cab-fare home. Then you would go to the bank. So it had better be ‘penniless.’ That indicates more a state than a temporary condition. . . . Or would it be better to spend a word or two more on the exposition? That would make the paragraph rather long and so dull the edge of the story. . . . (Joseph Conrad 85-86)
(Stevie Smith, via the BBC)
‘Penniless’ or ‘without a penny’? A garden in which you grow the food to keep your family this side of starvation—it helps if you’re a good cook, which Ford certainly was—or a garden to be maintained, tidied, to please the aesthetic sense and lift the spirits. Stevie Smith’s Pompey Casmilus needs cheering up much of the time; and can appreciate the positive effect of work done: ‘Yesterday the gardener was here, and now the garden, newly prinked and tidied, the paths as neat and formal as a parade, shines beneath this early morning sun that has broken through to break the rain and storm clouds of past months. How very spry the garden looks, like a good child that has a washed face and a clean pinafore.’
We don’t grow our food here, though we did manage some tomatoes a year or two back. We have one gardener; and two other residents that benefit from her efforts. Still, she’s a gardener, rather than the gardener, while Harry is the cat and I – am something other. . .
 Georges Simenon, Maigret Gets Angry (Maigret se fâche, 1947), translated by Ros Schwartz (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 3, 4, 9.
 Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Gardener’, in Debits and Credits, (1926; edited by Sandra Kemp, London: Penguin Books, 1987), 287.
 Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 52.
 Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 15-16. Conrad would later confirm that ‘The first time I set eyes on you was in your potato-patch’: letter of 15 December 1921, quoted by Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 521n4.
 Stevie Smith, Over the Frontier (1938; London: Virago Press, 1980), 115.