Glasgow life in the early nineteenth century was never short of drama. Poverty, and pollution preyed on all but the lucky few and ‘resurrection men’ prowled the streets to procure corpses for anatomists to experiment on. In this setting, young college gardener, William Lang, begins courting weaver’s daughter Jenny, a fine needlewoman, and forms an unlikely friendship with botanist Dr Thomas Brown while working in the university’s physic garden for a leading professor of surgery. The young couple’s relationship seems to blossom, but seeds of trouble threaten to grow out of control.
Partly based on the true history of the gardens and gardeners of Glasgow University, the Physic Garden is the story of a close friendship and a betrayal so shocking that it pervades the whole novel like the memory of a nightmare.
I’m a keen but haphazard gardener. There are plenty of wildflowers and herbs in my garden. But I found that I understood William’s passion for ‘green and growing things’ very well indeed.
In the novel, William, older and wiser, tells his story and attempts to come to terms with the disturbing and distressing events of his youth. His voice was so strong for me that there were times when it seemed as though the real William was hovering somewhere, determined to be heard.
‘What am I afraid of? That a million thoughts, feelings, memories, will come rushing back to overwhelm me? I cannot begin to describe to you the terror – there is no other word for it – engendered by the thought of him, even now, and yet he was as kindly a man as you could wish to meet, one who inspired trust and friendship in equal measure, a man who inspired great love in all those who knew him. I used to think it an unmitigated blessing, used to envy him. But now, with the wisdom of my years, I realise that it can be a peculiar curse and a burden, to be a man whom people love.’