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Review: Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim


Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

Category: Fiction ā€“ Paperback: 224 pages ā€“ Publisher: Virago Modern Classics ā€“ Source: The Book House, Otley (secondhand bookshop, now closed)
First Published: 1898

Back to the start with Elizabeth von Arnim’s works then: this was her debut novel in 1898 and so popular that it rapidly went through twenty reprints and her later books were simply labelled ‘by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden‘.

Published anonymously but largely autobiographical, it’s rather plotless but charmingly meanders through a year of journal entries as the narrator tries to grasp the basics of gardening on a neglected German estate while dodging her three young children and being ‘afflicted’ by house guests who keep inconveniently dropping in.

It opens with this enticing snippet:

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, Opening

I love the phrase, ‘properly constructed German she-owl.’

From there on in we are treated to the very unconventional thoughts and honest pleasures of Elizabeth as she juggles gardeners who inconveniently fall in love or go mad (and have to be replaced either way), scandalously wishes she could do the digging herself, spends hours debating which roses to order and occasionally has to submit to grown up tasks she loathes – like taking tea with neighbours who are all convinced she must be miserable all alone in that great house.

Coming back from one such polite excursion she says:

‘…and when I went to the library, with its four windows open to the moonlight and the scent, and looked round at the familiar bookshelves, and could hear no sounds but sounds of peace, and knew that here I might read or dream or idle exactly as I chose with never a creature to disturb me, how grateful I felt to the kindly Fate that has brought me here and given me a heart to understand my blessedness, and rescued me from a life like that I had just seen – a life spent with the odours of other people’s dinners in one’s nostrils, and the noise of their wrangling servants in one’s ears, and parties and tattle for all amusement.’
(Page 39/40)

Now honestly, who amongst us hasn’t felt that sense of relief at least once on retreating from other people and into our bookstacks?

Elizabeth might be absent-minded, unsocial and determined but does at least always know how lucky she is. I think this goes a long way to explaining the book’s enduring popularity – in the wrong hands and without von Arnim’s astute balancing act Elizabeth could have been truly hideous, a fixated snob who neglected her children and snubbed neighbours and guests alike. Instead we adore her good humour and candour from the opening entry and even sympathise when she has to take guests on day trips to the mosquito-ridden Baltic coast to persuade them it is time to go home. (I also particularly enjoyed her impulsive invention of a ghost to rid herself of a friend of a friend who’d outstayed her welcome.)

‘Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women.’
(Page 70)

I’m not normally a fan of books based around episodes rather than a plot, they’re usually such wispy things, but this won me over completely and I think there’s plenty to love here even if you don’t daydream of gardens or swoon over plant catalogues. Elizabeth herself is such a breezy, buoyant, thoroughly alive character that it’s hard not to feel a little lost when you turn the final page and have to let her disappear once more.

For myself, I suspect I will re-read it less than Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther but I think I can still chalk this up as another new favourite.

Further Reading: The Captive Reader, A gorgeous, illustrated edition from 1901 is available to read online

List of books read in 2014 / Index of Fiction

Author: Alex in a Library

Reader, book blogger and adventuress. My home appears to be morphing into a library... I can be found on Twitter as @AlexInALibrary.

18 thoughts on “Review: Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. I’m enjoying this book very much. I don’t garden myself, but I love to talk to gardeners and look at their works in progress. No garden is ever finished according to them. There’s always something. Just returned from visiting my 93-year-old uncle in southern California. The sugar peas are disappointing, the rats are eating the guavas and lemons, but the kohlrabi is coming along nicely, and the stupid tomatoes are so confused, they are full of ripening fruit. The tiny little violets and the fancy roses on the north side of the house are blooming, too. A delightful visit and an even more delightful man.

    • Sounds a great man and garden to visit Kilian, even when the weather is creating such flux. I agree there’s no such thing as a finished garden but they do refine themselves over the years. :)

  2. I so love this book. I haven’t read it in too long, though…. great reminder about how charming it is, and why reading this 20 years ago started me off on my great love for Elizabeth von Arnim!

  3. I definitely need to read this. The Enchanted April helped get me through one of the worst times in my life and I am forever grateful to von Arnim, but I’ve never even seen a copy of this book.

    • I can see von Arnim being a good author to shelter with in a crisis. You should be able to find a copy of this fairly easily, it’s been reprinted a couple of times by Virago but it’s also available on Project Gutenberg if you fancy trying it as an e-book. :)

  4. I read this such a long time ago – surely time for a re-read. I remember not really caring very much about the garden — this would definitely have changed in the 20+ years since (not that I do much gardening, but I am so much more attune to the wordy magic of a garden now.)

    • ‘the wordy magic of a garden’ – I own more ‘wordy’ books about gardening than I do practical ones. I’d rather have Vita Sackville-West’s arch columns about plant selection and books about re-creating medieval gardens than proper factual ones. :)

  5. Well done on your first read! You might want to follow it up with The Solitary Summer which carries on much in the same vein. I think you’re spot on about why von Arnim succeeds – Elizabeth could have been insufferable but her honesty and thankfulness overcome that risk. I must explore von Arnim’s writing more!

    • My library doesn’t have The Solitary Summer *sob* I’m going to buy it but might have to resort to reading a Project Gutenberg version first. I’m trying to read her works in order so I couldn’t possibly skip it and come back!

  6. I think I might have this and The Enchanted April somewhere. You are convincing me to dig them out. Your synopsis and description of the episodic style reminded me of Barbara Comyns’ Sisters by a River, which is a similar story told from the point of view of the three children who are subsequently neglected by their dreamy, reclusive mother. Have you read Comyns? If not I think you would like her too.

  7. Oh I really haven’t read enough Von Arnim. This sounds rather lovely.

  8. Pingback: Die Sonntagsleserin – 3. KW 2014 | buchpost

  9. Many thanks for the link to the 1901 illustrated version, which downloaded to Kindle in seconds. It looks great – all we need now is colour!

    Which reminds me, does anybody know the title of the children’s book Elizabeth wrote about [no prizes for the subject] a little girl and her garden? It was ‘by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden’ and in the sort of pictorial cover popular in the 1920s, but the title is long gone: my mother threw all my books away as, I suppose, a form of celebration when I went to uni back in the early 60s and I have never come across it since. There was a wise old gardener, and his lesson about poppies and how what appears to be attractive can cause you nothing but grief, and not just in a garden, sticks in my mind . . .

    Love reading your blog, Alex . . .

    • Eep, what a horribly late reply I’m making to a lovely comment. Forgive me. I think you’re remembering April Baby’s Book of Tunes (1900)? I’ve not read it but saw an illustrated edition at the York Book Fair earlier in the year. Such a shame you lost your copy but I think it’s one that might now be digitised somewhere. :)

      • Sadly, no . . . April Baby’s Book of Tunes [with the Kate Greenaway illustrations] is famous, and quite a different sort of book, very ‘Christmas gift’ish. This obscure volume, with one of those pictorial but rather dim covers so typical of the period, was full of personal interaction and gardening wisdom. It was brilliant. I can only imagine I got it at a jumble sale. It really is a mystery, as the authorship is certain but I’ve never seen any available title of EVA’s that sounds remotely convincing. Possibly a short print run followed by oblivion? Who knows.


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