Elizabeth von Arnim is an author whose work I have been collecting obsessively for a long time. I probably first heard about her on Simon’s blog – who hasn’t discovered a gem thanks to Simon?! – and after reading The Enchanted April about two or so years ago, I knew Elizabeth was going to be a friend of mine. Since then, however, I’ve only managed to read one other of her novels, despite having loads of them sitting on the shelf. A couple of Sundays ago, however, someone in Downton Abbey gave someone else a book to read (don’t want to be accused of spoiling anything for anyone!) and I squealed out loud – ‘I have that book!’ – because it was my exact copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a little cheap turn of the century hardback that even a servant would have been able to afford. I took it as a Sign and started reading that very night.
This has been my favourite of her novels yet. It is wonderfully witty and warm, but with a tinge of melancholy rippling underneath the surface. The descriptions of nature are beautiful and evocative, as one would expect of a title that has a garden at its centre, but having grown up in a concrete jungle, descriptions of flowers mean nothing to me, as much as I appreciate them in the flesh. Instead, what interests me most are people, and their relationships with one another, and Von Arnim is just as excellent at managing to capture a person’s essence in a perfectly tuned turn of phrase as she is at bringing the heady scent of a garden full of roses to life on the page.
Set loosely over the course of a year, and written in diary format, Von Arnim describes life on her large estate in the German countryside, far from city life and the aristocratic circle she cannot stand. Married to the ‘Man of Wrath’, the strong and silent type who doesn’t understand Elizabeth’s whimsical nature, and mother of three little girls, the April, May and June babies, Elizabeth is at the centre of a busy household whose demands weigh heavily on her shoulders. Her escape from the pressures of wifehood, ‘servants and furniture’ and society is her garden. She delights in the changing of the seasons, in the colours and scents of the flowers that surround her and in the peace, purity and freedom of the great outdoors. It is a charming portrait of a woman whose love of books, beauty, flowers and time to be alone with her thoughts sung to the depths of my own heart. There is nothing I love more than time to just be alone!
Underneath the charm, though, is a wit that both leaves you laughing out loud and masks a deeper sense of unrest and unhappiness. It is clear that Elizabeth’s marriage has been a failure, and that her and her husband’s fundamentally different views on life cause a constant ripple of conflict under the surface of their seemingly idyllic existence. It is also a very interesting and honest portrayal of how difficult it can be to retain a sense of self as a woman after having children. Elizabeth longs for time to be by herself; to read, to sit, to think, to just be, but with an estate and a husband and children and servants and guests and a myriad of other things to worry about, Elizabeth’s time to indulge her inner life is very limited. Her snatched moments of freedom – ‘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’ – are both hilarious and poignant. A book that manages to be both of these at the same time is a rare gem indeed.
It’s also a book about seizing the day; about taking joy in simple pleasures, about throwing public opinion to the wind, and about rejoicing in the gifts of the natural world around us. Von Arnim comes across as an incredibly generous spirited woman, with a rich appreciation of both people and nature, and a heart full of hope and grace and good clean fun. I loved every minute of it, and found her observations to be tender, true and outrageously funny. If you haven’t read this yet, please do; it’s one of the finest novels I’ve read in a very long time, and I know it’s one I’m going to come back to time and time again.