I am such a naughty girl when it comes to buying books. When I moved in with my flatmate, I brought one small bookcase with me, and just enough books to fill it. The rest went into boxes that now live in my mum’s attic, and so ashamed was I at the colossal amount of unread books I possessed, I swore blind to my flatmate that I would be adopting a ‘one in, one out’ policy from now on. Only what could be housed in the little bookcase would be brought into our flat, and if I wanted to buy a new book, I had to get rid of an old one. Ha! Of course, this did not happen. I have a secret hiding place – the bottom of my wardrobe – where I have been squirrelling away my illicit book purchases. I only buy books that I love, in the prettiest editions I can find, so getting rid of any of them is unthinkable – these are not mere bog standard paperbacks! This has made the one in one out policy unworkable, and as such, my wardrobe is now my second book shelf. My flatmate does not know this has happened and I fear the day will soon come when she will discover my shame. Until then, I continue to buy books unchecked, and my greatest weakness is antique editions of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s novels, which my favourite book shop on Charing Cross Road always seems to have in stock. They cry out to me – no one else will buy us, Rachel! We’re so dusty up here! – and so I sigh and climb the little ladder (the ‘A’ section is too tall for even a very tall girl like me to reach unaided) and take them down and pay my £2 and another Elizabeth Von Arnim gets added to my pile of naughtiness in the wardrobe. I now have about ten I haven’t read and so this weekend I decided to take one off that pile and actually open its covers. The Solitary Summer turned out to be the perfect read for a lazy, largely housebound weekend, and transported me once again to the tranquil beauty of Elizabeth’s German Garden during a long, hot Victorian summer.
The book opens with Elizabeth declaring to her husband – ‘The Man of Wrath’ – that she wants to spend the whole summer alone, with no guests, so that she can enjoy her garden and the surrounding countryside, and be free to ‘let her soul grow’. For a woman of her social status – a Countess, with a Schloss and country estate to run in the German countryside – there is a certain pressure to be a part of society, to have people to stay for weeks on end, to give parties and dinners and balls. Elizabeth wants none of this; she hates hours of dull conversation and the stress of having people in the house, invading her private space and preventing her from doing what she wants with her day. The Man of Wrath thinks Elizabeth will not be able to bear several months of such solitude, with just him and their three baby daughters for company, but Elizabeth knows otherwise. Her soul is trapped by the confines of respectable life, and she loves nothing more than escaping into her garden with a teapot and a book, her mind free to wander and her eyes free to rest on the beauty of the burgeoning flowers all around her.
The joy of The Solitary Summer is much the same as that found in reading Elizabeth and Her German Garden; Von Arnim’s voice is so utterly charming, warm, witty and insightful that each page is a delight to read. Whether she is describing the loveliness of a dew-drenched rose bush, the pleasure of reading Jane Austen, the unintentional hilarity of children’s observations or her thoughts on human nature, she is always totally engaging and manages to get right to the essentiality of the topic and why such a thing so moves the human heart. When a writer declares: ‘What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden’ then you know you are on to something special. The Solitary Summer is filled with similar sentiments that had me nodding and smiling the whole way through, and I particularly loved the image of Elizabeth sitting in the garden with her teapot and a book in the early morning, just revelling in the peace and silence and beauty of the deserted paradise all around her; what could be more perfect?
The Solitary Summer also provides a little more context into the life of Von Arnim outside of her garden and Schloss. She describes her visits in the role of Lady Bountiful to the village that the Man of Wrath manages as part of his estate; the people who live there are desperately poor and live governed by age old traditions and superstitions that are anathema to Elizabeth. She is saddened by their suspicion of fresh air and their cavalier attitude towards illness and childcare; she longs to change their ways, but they don’t listen and she is forced to look on as children die unnecessarily due to their parents’ old fashioned beliefs. She also disagrees with the local Parson’s insistence on preaching to the villagers about their sin of women having children outside of marriage – Elizabeth sees no harm in it, as they all end up marrying their children’s fathers anyway, and all things told, is love something to be punished? Quite the risque sentiment for a Victorian lady to be expressing, indeed. This little glimpse into a world order that is now totally obsolete was fascinating, and also demonstrates that contrary to her portrayal of herself as a solitary, idle creature, she did perform many duties during an average day and this was why she relished time alone so much.
The Solitary Summer is incredibly short, and written in diary form, but is filled with so many beautiful images and sensitive, insightful thoughts on life and how we should treasure it, that it has a profundity and a power far weightier than its appearance suggests. I loved every minute of it; it reminded me of the importance of slowing down, of appreciating the world around me, and of reclaiming time in my day to just be, without feeling guilty for being idle. It’s pure loveliness from beginning to end, and I highly recommend you picking it up to enjoy now the lazy days of summer are in sight. The photographs in this post are of my neighbourhood park, Waterlow Park, where I would give anything to be able to spend a Solitary Summer with just my teapot and a book…what utter bliss that would be!