Reading Elizabeth and her German Garden reminded me how few Elizabeth von Arnim books I have read really. I must remedy this, there is something so appealing in her voice, that I feel, not only that I like her books very much, but also that I would have really liked the woman behind them.
“Not the least of my many blessings is that we have only one neighbour. 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?”
Described as a novel, Elizabeth and her German Garden has the feel of a memoir. Written in the form of a diary, it was Elizabeth von Arnim’s first novel, originally published anonymously. It is immediately very personal as it recounts the first couple of blissful months that the Elizabeth of the title spends alone supervising the redecorating work at her German home.
Here in the garden of her home, Elizabeth is able to escape the traditional routine of German wife and mother. Her simple joy in her garden is adorably infectious, she has a lot to learn about gardens – she orders a mass of seeds and is deflated when the promised paradise doesn’t materialise. Her gardener and his assistant are sometimes bemused by her instructions – but bit by bit her garden begins to take shape. Her days are spent almost entirely in the garden; here her meals of salad and bread are served to her on a tray. At night she keeps an old dinner bell by her bedside which helps to quell the night time fear of being alone. Elizabeth revels in the beauty of her peonies, roses and lilacs. Wishing sometimes that convention didn’t preclude her from getting her own hands dirty.
“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 ipomoea 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.”
Soon her husband arrives, wondering why it is she hasn’t written to him – Elizabeth informs her husband (here after he is called The Man of Wrath) she was far too happy to do so. Elizabeth’s friends and acquaintances regard what they see as her burial in the country as a reason for pity, Elizabeth is amused by their attitude. Elizabeth’s husband the hilariously named Man of Wrath is portrayed with a degree of satirical affection, I get the feeling her teasing of him though irreverent is tongue in cheek. He in turn seems to tolerate with some bemusement his wife’s eccentricities which include spending most of her pin money on things for her adored garden.
In time Elizabeth is joined by her family, The Man of Wrath, and her children, three little girls referred to as: the April, May and June baby respectively, although the eldest, the April baby is actually five. The children are portrayed with deep affection, their little exploits and cute childish sayings recounted with maternal humour and pride. The children are naturally accompanied by their governess, a woman Elizabeth finds just a little trying.
“In common with most governesses she has a little dark down on her upper lip, and the April baby appeared one day at dinner with her own decorated in faithful imitation, having achieved it after much struggling with the aid of a lead pencil and much love. Miss Jones put her in a corner for impertinence. I wonder why governesses are so unpleasant? The Man of Wrath says it is because they are not married. 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.”
Elizabeth’s home and peace is further invaded by a lengthy visit of two women Irais and Minora, their presence and the need to play hostess taking her away from the garden, but when they leave it is spring and Elizabeth can move forward with her plans.
Elizabeth is a woman out of her time in many respects – quietly irreverent she is a woman who appreciates her own space, who feels she has earned the right to her own space, a woman who believes:
“…all forms of needlework of the fancy order are inventions of the evil one for keeping the foolish from applying their hearts to wisdom.”
And who is to say she is wrong?
I loved this book, just as I have loved the other Elizabeth von Arnim books I have read, I feel I must now acquire more – immediately!