I very rarely plan what I’m going to read ahead of time, preferring to pick books from my shelves as the mood takes me, so it’s even more surprising when literary serendipity strikes. I really enjoy suddenly discovering that the book I’m reading is set in a place that I’ve just visited, references a book that I’ve read recently or has some other connection which makes it seem particularly relevant to me. In the case of Elizabeth and her German Garden, by complete coincidence I started reading it on the same date as the first entry in the book, May 7th. This should give you some idea of how long it has taken me to get round to this review, but my first foray into Elizabeth von Arnim’s writing was such a lovely experience that I can still remember the book remarkably clearly.
Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a semi-autobiographical account of a year in the life of Elizabeth von Arnim in the garden of her house in Pomerania. It is a book which is in equal parts an elegiac description of her physical surroundings and a keenly observed, wryly detached depiction of the people who inhabit that world with her, most of whom are apparently rather unwelcome.
At only 207 pages in the edition I read, and that with large type and larger margins, it is a short book but full of excellent content. Whether she is discussing plants or people, von Arnim’s writing is a delight to read, and my copy of the book is littered with tiny bits of paper marking pages with particularly lovely passages. Her musings on governesses are typical of her style which is both insightful and often amusing:
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.
One of the things that struck me about this book was the faint air of sadness about it. I think it came across particularly because of reading Perfume from Provence quite recently, which also has a section on the trials and tribulations of creating a beautiful European garden. Whereas Winifred Fortescue’s happiness and enthusiasm burst from the page, Elizabeth appears to have a rather unhappy life and to be trying hard to create her own happiness along with her garden, although her attempts are often frustrated. I initially thought that The Man of Wrath must be a teasing, affectionate name for her husband, but the more she spoke about him, the more apt the name seemed, while Winifred Fortescue and Monsieur are obviously perfectly matched and gloriously content together. Had Perfume from Provence not been so fresh in my mind, this impression might not have come across so strongly, but as it is the tone felt slightly wistful.
I long more and more for a kindred spirit–it seems so greedy to have so much loveliness to oneself–but kindred spirits are so very, very rare; I might as well cry for the moon. It is true that my garden is full of friends, only they are dumb.
In spite of this, Elizabeth and Her German Garden is not a sad or depressing book. Von Arnim has a great sense of comedy and the book is filled with wit and charm. Thankfully von Arnim seems to have been rather prolific, so I have plenty more of this to look forward to in her other novels.
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim. Published by Virago, 1995, pp. 207. Originally published in 1898.