Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 132 pages; 2013.
Elizabeth von Arnim, the Australian-born British writer, is probably best known for her delightful novel The Enchanted April, first published in 1922, which is about a disparate group of women who holiday together in an Italian villa. (I have a small review of it here.)
Elizabeth and her German Garden was her debut novel. It was published in 1898 and charts a year in the life of the first person narrator’s plans to create a garden on her husband’s family estate in Pomerania.
The garden is the place I go to for refuge and shelter, not the house. In the house are duties and annoyances, servants to exhort and admonish, furniture, and meals; but out there blessings crowd round me at every step—it is there that I am sorry for the unkindness in me, for those selfish thoughts that are so much worse than they feel; it is there that all my sins and silliness are forgiven, there that I feel protected and at home, and every flower and weed is a friend and every tree a lover.
It is said to be semi-autobiographical, for the author was from the upper classes, having married a Prussian aristocrat, and the story is dotted with references to high society types and the German bourgeois elite.
Written in diary format (although the entries are often months apart), employing a gently mocking tone throughout — her husband, for instance, is only known as “the Man of Wrath” — it is a delightful excursion to another world, where what women could (or could not) do was strictly controlled by societal norms.
Gardening is expensive, I find, when it has to be paid for out of one’s own private pin-money. The Man of Wrath does not in the least want roses, or flowering shrubs, or plantations, or new paths, and therefore, he asks, why should he pay for them? So he does not and I do, and I have to make up for it by not indulging all too riotously in new clothes, which is no doubt very chastening.
A garden of her own
Much of the book describes how Elizabeth defies the conventions of the day. She wants not just a room of her own, but an entire garden — and she wants to create it by herself. Unfortunately, she cannot get her own hands dirty (that would be taking things a little too far) and has to rely on a male gardener to carry out her plans.
The gardeners in her employ, whom she describes in quite a judgemental way, are not without their own character flaws — one walks around with a revolver, for instance, and has to be sent to “an asylum as expeditiously as possible” when he answers her back — and there’s an air of sad resignation in the way she writes about the frustration of not being able to do the work herself.
I wish with all my heart I were a man, for of course the first thing I should do would be to buy a spade and go and garden, and then I should have the delight of doing everything for my flowers with my own hands and need not waste time explaining what I want done to somebody else. It is dull work giving orders and trying to describe the bright visions of one’s brain to a person who has no visions and no brain, and who thinks a yellow bed should be calceolarias edged with blue.
Much of the book has forays into what I would describe as “early feminism”, with Elizabeth bemoaning her inability to be allowed to live her life as she truly desires, free and unencumbered by male constructs. But complaints about her own situation pale by comparison with the servants (or “lower classes”), mainly from Russia, who work on her estate.
Her husband believes the women are kept in line by their brutal husbands — accepting their “beatings with a simplicity worthy of all praise, and far from considering themselves insulted, admire the strength and energy of the man who can administer such eloquent rebukes” — but Elizabeth is less sure.
I have not yet persuaded myself, however, that the women are happy. They have to work as hard as the men and get less for it; they have to produce offspring, quite regardless of times and seasons and the general fitness of things; they have to do this as expeditiously as possible, so that they may not unduly interrupt the work in hand; nobody helps them, notices them, or cares about them, least of all the husband. It is quite a usual thing to see them working in the fields in the morning, and working again in the afternoon, having in the interval produced a baby.
But the novel is not all heavy-handed (and anger-inducing) about the inequality between the sexes or the lives of the “lower classes”. Many of Elizabeth’s diary entries are delightful descriptions of her garden and the passing of the seasons.
September 15th.—This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under the acacias instead of the too shady beeches; of wood-fires in the library in the chilly evenings.
December 22nd.—Up to now we have had a beautiful winter. Clear skies, frost, little wind, and, except for a sharp touch now and then, very few really cold days. My windows are gay with hyacinths and lilies of the valley; and though, as I have said, I don’t admire the smell of hyacinths in the spring when it seems wanting in youth and chastity next to that of other flowers, I am glad enough now to bury my nose in their heavy sweetness.
I love the way she champions rural living at a time when this viewpoint was not popular, and her desire for solitude — to be away from family, friends and acquaintances who sap her energy and leave her no room to be herself — is a constant refrain.
The passion for being for ever with one’s fellows, and the fear of being left for a few hours alone, is to me wholly incomprehensible.
The narrative does lose its way a little when she hosts two visitors for an extended stay, but Elizabeth has just as many insights into human relationships and writes about them with the same eloquence that she does about her garden that it’s not too difficult to forgive her for going off on a tangent. I think I might have even laughed out loud at the following passage:
Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs—useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them.
This is my 6th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it as a Kindle edition in June 2019, but I have a paperback copy, too, which I have had since circa 2015. On the basis that von Arnim could be claimed as an Australian writer, this is also my 12th book for #AWW2020.