Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898)
Virgo Modern Classics
This is such a strange little book, and I absolutely loved it. Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a semi-autobiographical account of a year in the life of a garden created by an amateur gardener and, if I have the timeline correct, a relatively young writer. Throughout the book, von Arnim talks a great deal about the flowers she’s trying, the difficulties of communicating her vision for the garden (this was written at a time when it was rather outre for a woman to be operating her own shovel and spade), and the pleasures of sitting the whole day in one’s garden with nothing but a book and the greenery to amuse oneself. But there’s much, much more than musings on gardening going on in this deceptively small tome. There are strains of an ardent, homespun feminism that weave in and out of observations about the irritations of having guests to stay, amusing anecdotes about her children and husband (whom she refers to as the Man of Wrath), and lovely and amusing reflections on Christmas, libraries, and servants.
To be clear, though, I did not always find her thoughts on servants to be either charming or amusing, but I think these bits fall flat largely as a function of time and glaring class differences. For example, she seems to find it very funny that her seventy-year old carriage driver has developed the habit of falling asleep on his box; my reaction to that story was to want to shake her until she realized the decency of giving a man his retirement. These sections are few and far between, and none of them cross the line into abject cruelty or the boorish inability to imagine the experiences of others. Rather, they read to me like evidence of a very privileged person blinded by her own lack of experiences outside of a highly regulated realm, so I give her— more or less—a pass for these problematic passages.
At any rate, it can be difficult at times to decide when von Arnim is having her Elizabeth character be in earnest or slyly satirical. One of the joys, as well as one of the frustrations, of this book is that, at least upon a first reading, it often seems wholly up to the reader to decide how seriously to take many of her comments. Most of the more egregiously shocking comments (namely, upon the subject of women’s rights and abilities) come from the Man of Wrath, and her blithe willingness to accede to him a few points made me grimace, but, again, there’s the trusty function of time, etc. excuse for this. Doubtless, many of von Arnim’s contemporaries would have had similar reactions to the parts of the book I liked most.
Many of my favorite passages were charmingly insistent on the pleasures of solitude and the horrors of bad company. A few examples:
“If you have to have neighbors 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 their satisfaction?”
“…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.”
“The longer I live the greater is my respect and affection for manure in all its forms…. The Man of Wrath says he never met a young woman who spent her money that way before; I remarked that it must be nice to have an original wife; and he retorted that the word original hardly described me, and that the word eccentric was the one required. Very well, I suppose I am eccentric, since even my husband says so; but if my eccentricities are of such a practical nature as to result later in the biggest cauliflowers and the tenderest lettuce in Prussia, why then he ought to be the first to rise up and call me blessed.”
All of these passages made me smile, but it was her longer anecdotes, which I won’t copy out here, that made me laugh out loud several times as I read this book. Quaint, old-timely British humor does it for me like few other things do, and this book definitely did it for me. (The title of the book makes it very clear that this is a German garden, but von Arnim originally hailed from England so I’m counting this as British humor.) Think P.G. Wodehouse or A.A. Milne (about whom I’ll be writing more here in a few days, I expect), but imagine them as women in a natural setting. The result is wonderful. Also, like much of Wodehouse’s and Milne’s work, there’s loads of von Arnim’s stuff available free on Kindle which is perfect if you’re still on the fence about giving her a try. 4/5.