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Blink acquires ‘beguiling’ biography of trail-blazing horticulturalist Ellen Ann Willmott

Blink Publishing, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK, has acquired the vivid and passionately researched biography of Ellen Ann Willmott, a woman forgotten by mainstream history and, when remembered, often entirely misunderstood.

Author and journalist, Sandra Lawrence, has spent years unearthing the life of Willmott, a trail-blazing horticulturalist battling for her place in a man’s world.

Susannah Otter, editorial director of Blink Publishing, acquired UK/Commonwealth rights (excluding Canada), from Ella Kahn at DKW Literary Agency.

Miss Willmott’s Ghosts by Sandra Lawrence explores the world of Ellen Ann Willmott, a remarkable woman whose polymathic achievements as a gardener, musician, antiquarian, raconteuse – and obsessive photographer – should have made her one of the most famous horticulturalists of her age. Yet today her genius comes down to us compromised. Descriptions of an inspired innovator and audacious plantswoman invariably finish the sentence with Ellen’s reputation as an eccentric: bitter, miserly and cantankerous. If Miss Willmott is known at all today, it is from an apocryphal tale of sprinkling seeds from a particularly prickly sea holly in the borders of other people’s gardens. New evidence, however, proves there is much, much more to the story.

Drawing on previously undiscovered sources, the book sheds new light on this multi- faceted woman, revealing the challenges and hurdles she faced as a single woman of significant means – and a Victorian girl’s education. Sandra has been granted unparalleled access to Miss Willmott’s newly excavated archives and uncovered her secrets, one by one. Her spectacular riches-to-rags story is one of elegance and excess, of gossip and rivalry, of determination and achievement – and yes, perhaps just a little eccentricity. At the heart of It all lies Ellen herself: trail-blazing, talented and tough.

Susannah Otter said: “How had I, a Victoriana/gardening nut, never heard of Ellen Willmott? I can’t wait for the rest of the world to (re)meet this astonishing woman and hear the twists and turns of her unexpected story, vividly and beautifully told through Sandra’s perfect prose and immaculate research.”

Sandra Lawrence said: “Even after a lifetime’s obsession with Ellen Willmott I had no idea just how complex, exciting – and brave – her story would turn out to be. Scrambling through those cellars, clad in boiler suit, head torch, mask and gloves, piecing together the truth from rotting fragments, has been the most exciting time of my life.”

Sandra Lawrence is a journalist and author specialising in heritage and garden writing. She is a full member of the Garden Media Guild and was shortlisted for GMG Journalist of the Year, 2018-19, for a series of three long-form essays in Hortus about the Victorian Kitchen Garden; she was also shortlisted for the SLA’s Information Book Award in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. She is author of The Witch’s Garden, published by Welbeck/ Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

Miss Willmott’s Ghosts by Sandra Lawrence will be published in hardback, eBook and audio in May 2022.