Elizabeth and her German Garden: Elizabeth von Arnim

★★★★

After discovering Elizabeth von Arnim* through The Enchanted April, I was keen to read some more of her work and the natural next step was to find a copy of this book: her first novel, published in 1898. It has been a complete joy to read. Presented in the form of a diary by the semi-autobiographical Elizabeth, it takes the reader through the span of a year in her beloved garden in Northern Germany, following her trials and errors in planting and her passionate appreciation of the way every season affects her little corner of the earth.

Like The Enchanted April, it is full of rapturous descriptions of nature, drawing a stark contrast between the ever-changing vista of a country garden and the stultifying, stifled view of life to be gained from living the ‘civilised’ life in a city. Surrounded by her three beloved ‘babies’ and her cherished books, Elizabeth tells us that she is far happier now, in her self-imposed exile, than she was in the days when she was one of those ‘eyeless and earless persons‘ who formed a cog in the great wheel of Society.

You might be tempted to write this off as an angel-of-the-hearth style book written by a maternal Victorian lady gardener. Please don’t be deceived. Elizabeth’s poetic rhapsodies on her garden are woven in with a picture of her everyday life, which is reported with a scarcely-blunted rapier wit. With her tongue firmly in her cheek she reports her sorrows over cooks who see ghosts; her frustration at gardeners who give notice on the first of every month; and the pains of having impertinent governesses. She loves her children but is under no illusions about them, deploring their tendency to dip their fingers in her inkpots when she’s trying to write, and despairing at the ‘miniature prize-fighter’s arms‘ of her youngest (‘I shall certainly not be able to take her to balls when she grows up, if she goes on having arms like that‘).

Her social position obliges her to welcome guests and be a gracious hostess, but she finds her courtesy tested to the limit whenever she has visitors. Many of them try to sympathise with her for living so far from the city and are completely unable to appreciate the joy of a well-stocked library and a beautiful garden. Even when Elizabeth’s guests are dear friends such as the irrepressible Irais, their very presence keeps her from being able to run out into the garden and hide with a book. And that’s not to mention the stress of having guests like the superior, self-important English student Minora, whose visit during the winter leads to a subtle campaign of polite needling from both Elizabeth and Irais – neither able to help their mischievous urges.

Then there’s Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband, which is a glorious series of exquisitely polite sparring matches, in which neither participant can come close to understanding the other’s worldview – and indeed, as a reader you end up wondering how they ever became close enough to marry. Elizabeth always refers to him as The Man of Wrath, which I found rather wonderful. I warmed to her virtually from the beginning, when I realised that there was a distinctly Provincial Lady cast to the tone of her narration; and I began to adore her when I read about her sudden crazed (but fearfully discreet) rebellion in the garden:

I did one warm Sunday in last year’s April during the servant’s dinner hour, doubly secure from the gardener by the day and the dinner, slink out with a spade and a rake and feverishly dig a little piece of ground and break it up and sow surreptitious ipomaea, and run back very hot and guilty into the house, and get into a chair and behind a book and look languid just in time to save my reputation. And why not? It is not graceful, and it makes one hot; but it is a blessed sort of work, and if Eve had had a spade in Paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business of the apple.

Elizabeth (whether or not the narrator is a true reflection of the author – on which more soon) is a wonderful character because she strains against the conventions she must live by: even in her comfortable exile, she must conform to notions of proper female behaviour. Occasionally she feels obliged to trot out tropes like ‘a woman’s tongue is a deadly weapon‘, but I swiftly came to realise that this was all underlaid with a rich sense of the ridiculous, and that she was dutifully mouthing the words while – no doubt – her eyes were twinkling with mischief between the lines. Much of the time she (and Irais) take a dismissive approach to matters which were meant to preoccupy the ideal Victorian matriarch, and their disdain finds expression in some lovely aphorisms: for example, ‘Dirt is like wickedness … its being there never matters; it is only when it shows so much as to be apparent to everybody that we are ashamed of it‘. Or, when Elizabeth describes her impatience with sewing: ‘All forms of needlework of the fancy order are inventions of the evil one for keeping the foolish from applying their heart to wisdom.’

Her preference for books over housework is one that I can entirely sympathise with, although unlike Elizabeth I don’t have any servants to do it for me, and I was amused by her solution to dusting: she proudly proclaims that if her furniture ever went so far as to annoy her by demanding to be dusted, she ‘would cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment, triumphantly selling my dusters to the very next pedlar who was weak enough to buy them‘. Just remember that this was written in 1898, and marvel at her.

It’s no wonder that this book has charmed so many people over the years. I’m now firmly among their number. If you enjoy The Enchanted April, you must read this, because it has the same heartwarming, languid wit and, if you’re a fan of E.M. Delafield, you might enjoy the similar underlying humour of the narration. Besides, once in a while it’s just so lovely to read a book that, far from being about inner struggle or angst, is simply a celebration of being happy. Of course, I should really have read it in the balmy days of summer rather than now, as the weather takes on a decidedly autumnal tinge (and, being in London, I have no garden; not even a window-box), but even so it makes me want to fill my flat with bowls of tea-roses and armfuls of lilac.

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* Since writing my post on The Enchanted April I’ve become aware that Elizabeth von Arnim is not the author’s real name, but in order to avoid confusion I’m going to continue to call her ‘von Arnim’ here. To find out more about her life and background, take a look here.

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