Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: Elizabeth and Her German Garden

This is a post participating in Allie's Victorian Celebration, hosted at A Literary Odyssey.

Like Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which, more or less truthfully, chronicles the author’s experience as a writer in Paris, Elizabeth von Arnim’s first and most well-known novel Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898) is a perhaps fictionalized account of her life at a remote estate in Pomerania and her deep love for the gardens she kept there.  It was published anonymously under the name “Elizabeth,” and it is impossible as you read it to separate the novel’s narrator Elizabeth from von Arnim herself.  I first encountered Elizabeth von Arnim’s witty prose and lush descriptions of flowers in The Enchanted April; I enjoyed this novel even more.  I had to laugh out loud when I came to this passage in the novel, because, coincidentally and unusually for me, I actually did read at least half of this book while outside in the summer sunshine: “the dullest book takes on a certain saving grace if read out of doors, just as bread and butter, devoid of charm in the drawing-room, is ambrosia eaten under a tree” (88).  I’m happy to report that Elizabeth and Her German Garden is neither dull nor devoid of charm, but delightful in every way and makes for the perfect summer novel.  Written as a diary, it contains musings not only on gardening and nature but also on solitude, religious life, learning from mistakes, humility, working with others, managing one’s reputation, happiness, houseguests, thankfulness, the conflict between duty and pleasure, parenting, gender relationships, class privilege, and even birthdays.  The novel recommends “plain living and high thinking,” already an ideal of mine but never before expressed so simply and eloquently.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden expresses quite a few themes also found in other books I’ve read this year.  I’m not sure if that’s because my reading choices tend to be fairly homogenous, or because there are certain universal truths with which all authors grapple.  In any case, Elizabeth’s thoughts on neighbors and solitude call to mind two other great works of fiction.  Elizabeth loves decorated gardens but also unadorned, unfurnished rooms.  What she truly values is solitude, particularly the opportunity to be alone with nature and growing things.  As I write this, that premise reminds me very strongly of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, which I just finished this morning.  And so, consider this to be a preview; I’ll explore that theme in greater depth within a few days when I get to my review of Burnett’s novel.  Nor is solitude in a garden enough; Elizabeth also desires that the house itself be safe from intrusion by well-meaning neighbors: “If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?” (43).  This need to get away to a remote house, with only a few chosen friends for company, to enable life to be lived and dreams to be attained forms the basis for Vita Sackville-West’s wonderful novel All Passion Spent.  An introvert like me (and, I imagine, most avid readers of classic literature) can certainly sympathize with this desire.

Elizabeth has quirky names for her family: her husband is the Man of Wrath (so called because he was unhappy that she was happy alone in the garden without her family) and her children are the April baby, the May baby, and the June baby.  This lack of name or detail seems strange, especially in comparison to Elizabeth’s lush descriptions of all manner of flowers, until you consider that society’s expectations for wealthy women at this time held that their entire lives should be devoted to the wellbeing of their husbands and children.  Elizabeth does not neglect her husband or daughters.  Some of the funniest moments in the book recount conversations with them.  What Elizabeth demonstrates through her use of these improper nicknames for members of her immediate family is that they are not her whole world, her sole focus of attention.  Elizabeth’s delight in her garden flouts convention; her unashamed joy in a pastime regarded as improper for a woman of her station makes Elizabeth a feminist long before the current usage of the word was imagined.

If my review isn’t enough to make you rush out and find a copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden immediately, I’ll let the book speak for itself.  Here are a few of many wonderful, funny quotes.  I marked far too many favorites to copy them all!

“I am always happy (out of doors be it understood, for indoors there are servants and furniture), but in quite different ways, and my spring happiness bears no resemblance to my summer or autumn happiness, though it is not more intense, and there were days last winter when I danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden in spite of my years and children.  But I did it behind a bush, having a due regard for the decencies” (2-3).

“In the first ecstasy of having a garden all my own, and in my burning impatience to make the waste places blossom like a rose, I did one warm Sunday in last year’s April during the servants’ 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 ipomæa 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” (25-26).

“I wonder why governesses are so unpleasant.  The Man of Wrath says it is because they are not married.  Without venturing to differ entirely from the opinion of experience, I would add that the strain of continually having to set an example must surely be very great.  It is much easier, and often more pleasant, to be a warning than an example, and governesses are but women, and women are sometimes foolish, and when you want to be foolish it must be annoying to have to be wise” (106).

Books I've finished (posts coming soon):
Wicked, Gregory Maguire
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Things I'm currently reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett

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