The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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!

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.

The Caravaners by Elizabeth Von Arnim

When Simon emailed and said, do you want to do an Elizabeth Von Arnim readalong? I said YES PLEASE it’s about time I read some more Elizabeth Von Arnim, after reading The Enchanted April nearly two years ago and loving it. Isn’t it awful how time flies and you do none of the things you intend on doing? I’ve managed to buy plenty of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s books, but read them? Apparently I’ve been too busy doing other things! Thankfully the New York Public Library had a copy of The Caravaners, the title we agreed upon reading, and I started it not really knowing what to expect. I found a book so hilarious and cleverly written that I am now a Von Arnim fan for life. The story of a mixed band of well to do German and English friends and acquaintances taking a caravan holiday across Kent and Sussex is narrated by one of the most wonderfully obnoxious men I have ever come across in literature – Baron Otto Von Ottringe – whose ridiculous, pompous and entirely oblivious statements of his own brilliance compared to that of his fellow travellers cannot help but leave you in stitches. Here is an example:

‘Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak, on every table, and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.’

Otto is an officer of the Prussian Army and likes his life to be run in an orderly fashion. The way he does things is the right way, and any other way is, of course, wrong. Women were made to please and pamper men, and to be quiet when not needed by their husbands or relatives. Otto’s opinions are, according to him, completely sensible, reasonable, and practical, and anyone who opposes him is a fool or delinquent, who must surely appreciate being clearly shown the errors of their ways. Otto lives in a small German town, in a neat and tidy flat, with his young second wife Edelgard, who it is perfectly obvious Otto doesn’t love – he is incapable of such an emotion – and who is the model of Otto’s vision of the good German wife – quiet, subservient, and malleable to his will. He does not mourn his first wife, but simply views her and Edelgard as the same thing – a personage whose presence in his life is necessary to make him more comfortable. So little does he distinguish between the two as people, that on the 25th anniversary of his married life – the length of his first and second marriages together – he decides that he and Edelgard will go on a celebratory holiday. When Edelgard protests that they have not been married for 25 years, Otto soon brings her round to his opinion, and they plan a holiday to Italy. However, Frau von Eckhart, a local widowed beauty with a progressive nature and a sister married to an Englishwoman, suggests that they join her and her sister on a caravaning holiday in the English countryside instead. Otto, who is tight as a drum and fancies the pants off the good Frau, decides that, as the trip will be cheaper than going to Italy, and will enable him to flirt with the tiny footed, soft voiced Frau, that he and Edelgard will indeed join the caravaning party for a month, and so off they go.

The book is written in the form of Otto’s journal of the trip, which he intends on reading aloud to friends for entertainment. As such, his viewpoint is all we see, though his notes of how others react to him make it perfectly clear to the reader that his fellow caravaners cannot stand him. On arrival in England, the German party meets up with the English; the Frau’s sister, her husband, two male friends and two young nieces. The English men are far too lazy and effeminate for Otto’s tastes, and the Frau’s sister far too outspoken. Before long Otto is throwing his weight around and appalling everyone with his sexist, right wing, ignorant opinions, and Edelgard is rebelling under the influence of her radical German friends. On top of all this, it is perpetually cold and wet, there is no food, the caravans are not as comfortable as the publicity brochure had them believe, and no one is there to care for Otto’s needs. His grumblings, misunderstandings, attempts to improve everyone, and shock at Edelgard’s newfound independence are hilarious to read, and especially more so as he has absolutely no idea of how his pompous attitude has repelled every member of his travelling party.

Von Arnim’s writing is wonderfully witty, clever, nuanced and tongue in cheek – it merits close reading to fully appreciate its depth and humour. The characters are brought effortlessly to life and Otto especially is a divine creation – horrible, but wonderful at the same time. However, underneath the witty surface is a serious message about the subordination of women and abusive marriages, which Otto and Edelgard’s certainly is. Edelgard is belittled and bullied, and treated like a child by Otto. When she refuses to do as she is told, then she is ignored or severly reprimanded, and Otto never thinks of her comfort or happiness unless it happens to coincide with his own. While in England, under the influence of her two progressive, outspoken, educated friends, who are not hindered by husbands like Otto, Edelgard sees the light, and that she has a right to independence, and an opinion of her own. Otto is shocked and appalled by her refusal to tend to his every need, but the reader cannot help but cheer at her tart responses to Otto’s ridiculous demands. However, at the end of the holiday, the two must, of course, return home, and Otto notes that Edelgard is beginning to turn back to her old subservient ways after a few months. Initially I was horrified at this, and it gave the book a rather sour ending for me. Obviously I didn’t expect miracles, but for Edelgard to have had that freedom, only to meekly turn back to Otto and his demands, was incredibly frustrating. However, thinking on it, I wonder whether this is Von Arnim’s wit at work. Otto is so blind to anything outside of his own viewpoint that Edelgard could be subverting his authority in any number of ways without him noticing. I think her taste of independence has given her a strength Otto doesn’t see, and though he thinks she is reverting back into being the doormat he thinks all women should be, I doubt very much that is Edelgard’s intention. Von Arnim’s depiction of marriage and how damaging it can be for women is autobiographical, and I am delighted that she managed to break free. Her ability to mock Otto’s behaviour and show an alternative to submitting to a husband who is abusive is wonderful considering what she went through in her own marriage, and left me with a great respect for her as a woman. I can’t wait to read more of her books.

Simon and Claire are joining in on this readalong, but haven’t posted yet – so stay tuned for their reviews!

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

I was a bit behind the times in reading this, as I bought it months ago and was fully intending on reading it in April, but then time went by and my stack of to be read books increased, and somehow The Enchanted April slipped down the pile and only managed to peep out of its hiding place behind many other books and arrest my immediate attention two weeks ago.  So instead of reading this in a crisp, blooming April, I read The Enchanted April over a sweltering, airless week in June while sitting on a stuffy, sweaty, overcrowded London commuter train. One would think that this was a depressing period of time over which to read such a novel, about four strangers renting the beautiful old castle of San Salvatore in an Italian coastal town during a glorious, sun and flower filled April, but I actually enjoyed the experience. It made the powers of my imagination even more important as I read while gazing over grubby chimney pots and high rise offices…as I sunk even deeper into this wonderful story, I leant against the train window and could almost smell the ‘wistaria’ and feel the fresh clean Italian air on my face. Once I had put the book away for the day, and was sitting at my desk, I found myself daydreaming about how I could change my life to experience the freedom, both physical and emotional, the people in this book found once they had removed themselves from the restrictions and expectations of their every day lives. Where would I go? What would I discover about myself? Important questions to ponder whilst pretending to work.

On the day I finished this wonderful novel, I found the lovely painting below attached to a Times article about summer reading, and for me, it perfectly illustrated the relaxed, beautiful, contented atmosphere I imagined at San Salvatore. The book concerns four previously unconnected ladies who all, for their own reasons, want to get away from it all for a while. Lottie Wilkins, a rather downtrodden young wife trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, finds an advertisement in a newspaper while lunching at her club- ‘”To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small Mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the Month of April. Necessary Servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times” – and unexpectedly finds herself wanting to answer it. By chance she finds a similarly unsatisfied woman, Rose Arbuthnot, sitting in the same room who has also seen the advertisement, and after much discussion and advertising to find two suitable ladies to share the cost of renting the castle, they find themselves in Italy. These four women, each with their own agendas and troubles, will soon see their whole outlook on life begin to change as the usual ties that bind them to their unsatisfactory lives at home are broken. Unlikely friendships are made, peace for troubled souls is found, a spirit of generosity replaces hearts that have become hard and selfish, and love blossoms among the flowers, sunshine and gentle breezes of an April in Italy.

This is gentle, peaceful, inspiring literature; it is not the most powerful or impressive prose I have ever read, and neither is it action packed, but it delighted me, charmed me, amused me, and gave me the chance to leave London for a precious hour or so every day, even if I had only left in my imagination. An absolutely stunning read, and not just for April, either.

Please do get yourself a copy here and read it. At the top is a photo of the painting by the Hon Lady Mallet which forms the frontispiece of my lovely first edition, which was purchased from the ever reliable Oxfam online. Oh, Oxfam and your reasonably priced guilt free books…how I love thee.

Read it, enjoy it, immerse yourself in imaginary sunshine and flowers. And then go on to watch the film. I am waiting with anticipation to see it myself, but will have to wait until finances permit such indulgence!