Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

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.

45 comments

  1. I’m a von Arnim fan too and have read around 6 of her books … but still have more to go. Elizabeth was my introduction and it won be over. If you’re an Austen fan you can’t help being a von Arnim fan I think – same sharp eye on humanity with a sense of light.

    1. Interesting, the comparison with Austen – I hadn’t thought of that before, wg. I do think there is a shared quiet perception and humour…and an ability to get to the heart of things without any fuss. I am really looking forward to attacking my von Arnim collection this year now!

  2. I am reading this now! However, my copy is called “Solitary Summer”, so at first I thought I had a new EvA to add to my list. I am about half waythrough and am reading so slowly because I love her descriptions.

    1. Excuse my jumping in, but Solitary summer IS a new one – it’s a companion or sequel to Elizabeth …. I have them both and they are different. So, you still have Elizabeth as a treat in store for you.

    2. Yes, Solitary Summer is the sequel to this…so you must go back and read this now! Glad you are enjoying it anyway though – she is such a beautiful writer, isn’t she?

  3. This was my first EvonA and I wasn’t all that struck with it — so it took ages for me to read another one. I’ve now read Vera and Enchanted April and loved them both, and have started Christopher and Columbus. Not sure now why I didn’t like the german garden — though I think the appalling husband had something to do with it. She is a terrific writer and I look forward to discovering more of her novels.

    1. Oh that’s surprising, Harriet – though I suppose I know what to expect from her and I like her witty yet quite challenging characters. If I’d started with this I might have thought differently too. I’m glad it didn’t put you off altogether – I think you should try it again! Please do!

    1. It was quite a special moment, I must say – I felt a part of Downton!! I’m glad to hear a reread is on the cards…such a gorgeous book. I think I shall pick it up again often.

  4. You’ve definitely inspired me to give one of her books a shot. (Shamefully, I have to admit that this had never occurred to me before – considering that I’m named after her, how embarrassing! My mum was reading a book about her when she was pregnant and decided to call me Bettina – Elizabeth was half Italian and in Germany she goes by the Italian diminutive of her name). So thank you for bringing home the obvious – I should finally read a book by this awesome woman.

    1. … the mind boggles… I just realised that Elizabeth von Arnim and Bettina von Arnim are actually two different people (it seems I’m set on ruining all my bookworm street cred in one day). Well, I’ll just read them both. Ha.

      1. Well you just taught me something! I googled Bettina von Arnim and it seems like she was quite the lady! I wonder if she was a relation to Elizabeth’s husband. Bettina seems worth reading for historical significance to German literature but Elizabeth is definitely a beautiful novelist you must pick up as well!

  5. You MUST read all of EvA’s books – they are GREAT. Soem of them are more gentle like this one, and The solitary summer is a lovely follow up, and then some of them are more quirky and entertaining.

    1. I am going to, Verity! I have so many stacked up ready to read…I’m getting excited at the prospect…long winter weekends of tea and toast and Elizabeth while curled up on the sofa!

  6. First saw reference to Elizabeth and Her German Garden in Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seeker, where Sophie is reading the book the night before her fateful trip to London. You’ve encouraged me to follow up by reading.

  7. Thank you for introducing me to this book, I need to get my hands on a copy, I love The Enchanted April, such an evocative book – I last read it in about Feb when I needed some literary sunshine.

  8. I read The Enchanted April around twenty years ago and remember liking it but her novel, Love, annoyed me at times. Elizabeth and Her German Garden isn’t a book I come across all that often in second-hand shops so people must be keeping it close for a reason. The next time a copy presents itself I’ll pick it up and it will be a tie-breaker novel for me.

    Oh, and I found a way to sneakily watch the second series of Downton. Pointing out that scene to R, I told him that you had the same edition. He laughs that we pay attention to all things bookish so closely, even in television. Well, duh.

    1. Darlene I KNOW you will love this. I know it! You must try and find it. If I find a spare I shall send it your way!

      Good for you! I hope you’re loving it. I’m in floods every week!! Of course the books get all the attention! I’m always scanning bookshelves!

  9. Excellent choice- I adore Elizabeth Von Arnim. Who can forget the “Man of Wrath”? A quick look on Wikipedia reveals the complexities of her relation to authorship, since she used simply “Elizabeth” at times, as well as other pen names. Also– fascinating connections to her real life– she was acquainted with Winston Churchill and her children’s tutors while in Pomerania were E. M. Forster and Hugh Walpole. I fell totally in love with her stories and “The Solitary Summer” (1899) is a glimpse into more of her odd life in Nassenheide. She is simply too fabulous to be as obscure as she seems to be.

  10. Now I have two gems to look forward to. The second installment of Downton Abbey come January here in the states, and” Elizabeth and Her German Garden”. I’ll be looking for the book on the used shelves of my favorite book haunts AND I’ll be looking for it on Downton! Yea!

    1. You have so many joys coming your way, Penny! Downton Abbey will be treat enough, I can promise you that, but I know, with your great love of the outdoors, that Elizabeth and Her German Garden will greatly touch and delight you.

  11. This one has been on the wish-list ever since Claire (Captive Reader) raved about it, but it bumped up the list when Downton Abbey’s Anna was reading it.

  12. Firstly, thank you for the lovely mention in the first lines of this!
    Secondly, you have confirmed what I have suspected ever since, in 2003, I saw this book mentioned in the Provincial Lady book – that I must read it! I’ve had it for so long (two copies, actually) and somehow I still haven’t – I think I might have been put off by the idea that it was too much to do with gardening, which doesn’t interest me at all, but I’m glad to hear that it isn’t. I’ll make sure to take it off the shelf before the end of 2011!

    1. You are welcome Simon! You HAVEN’T read this?! Simon, you would adore it! And it would probably take you about an hour and a half to read – get it off that shelf!!

  13. Sounds like a really great book. I’d never heard of the author before… But I must ask: What is the name of the painting at the top of the post? I really love paintings of women who read and this one is absolutely stunning, I must know who it’s from an what it’s called! Thanks…

    1. Hi Charles-Adam – I’m sorry but I really don’t know! I’ve had the picture for a while and I didn’t save the name of the artist. Maybe someone else can help us?!

  14. I read Elizabeth and Her German Garden (from the library) many years ago. Your review brings back delightful memories. I need to be on the hunt for it since owning a copy is imperative. It’s such a treasure. Great post!

  15. How wonderful that others are discovering the joys of reading Elizabeth’s books. I was disappointed to find that my local libraries did not have any of them. I am now trying to buy all of her books that are in print, and any that are not, as well as any biographical material about her. I hope that there will be a reading revival of her works.

    1. I’m glad you’re another big fan, Marilyn! Elizabeth’s books are fairly easily available here and I have a huge collection but I need to get reading! I hope there will be a revival, too!🙂

  16. All fans of ‘Elizabeth’ might be interested in my new biography, out now! It’s called ‘Elizabeth of the German Garden – A Literary Journey’. You’ll find her life is as fascinating as her fiction and I hope a revival is on the way.

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