Category: Fiction – Paperback: 224 pages – Publisher: Virago Modern Classics – 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:
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.’
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.’
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.