VRW: Elizabeth & Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

I was moved to immediately begin reading this lovely book at last by Danielle’s sensitive and moving description of von Arnim’s sequel to Elizabeth and Her German Garden, The Solitary Summer. (And now I want to read that one too, because Elizabeth and Her German Garden was over all too soon!) But I’ve had a bit of a hard time thinking about how to write this review. I absolutely adored the first half or two-thirds (or maybe it’s three-fourths?) of this book, so much so I even considered typing them up to keep forever as my very own because I’m only reading from a very tattered library copy. I love flowers and gardens, even though I am definitely not a gardener, they are my safe place and I’ve always felt that trees and flowers were my friends, just as Elizabeth does. And she mentions all my favourite flowers (lilacs, sweet peas and roses) and it was idyllic and so relaxing and private, describing just the sort of place I’d love to live in (with my very sweet and lovable husband however, not the Man of Wrath!)

There were a few feminist bits, actually, she sees peasant women who’ve just given birth and then go back to work that very same day and feels sorry for them (and definitely doesn’t agree with her husband, the Man of Wrath, who argues that it does women good to be beaten, oh my word!!) but then in the last bit, she has two women come to visit, one of whom she and the other guest make fun of extensively. This girl’s from Britain and keeps taking out a notebook just to jot down whatever strange things these Germans talk about or do, in order to throw them together in a little book, which would get annoying I suppose, especially as she is oblivious to their hints to stop it.

Perhaps it’s the whole making fun of obnoxious Britishers at travel (looking down at everyone else, because of their bigger empire? This attitude of course, provoking Germany in particular which eventually led to a lot of trouble), which E.M. Forster also does in A Room With A View (Forster was, incidentally, the tutor of von Arnim’s children!) and especially the British travel writer type, like his sentimental novelist, Eleanor Lavish. But the thing is, both Elizabeth von Arnim and E.M. Forster were writers themselves and writers about the Englishman abroad too, what gives them the right to criticize their fellow travelers and fellow writers? Von Arnim at least actually lived in Germany, but she’s the one who’s actually written what seems like a rather autobiographical novel about the people around her, did she steal all her copy from them? (As they keep teasing the girl in the book.) Do they make fun of writers in their books to distract the reader from thinking of them as the same kind of writers? I’m not sure, but I found it an odd ending to such an otherwise delightful book and I definitely want to read more of her books now, The Enchanted April too. What a great wealth of richness this reading week has given me!

Here are some lovely bits:

On some very specially divine days, like to-day, I have actually longed for some one else to be here to enjoy the beauty with me. There has been rain in the night, and the whole garden seems to be singing — not the untiring birds only, but the vigorous plants, the happy grass and trees, the lilac bushes — oh, those lilac bushes! They are all out to-day, and the garden is drenched with the scent. I have brought in armfuls, the picking is such a delight, and every pot and bowl and tub in the house is filled with purple glory, and the servants think there is going to be a party and are extra nimble, and I go from room to room gazing at the sweetness, and the windows are all flung open so as to join the scent within to the scent without; and the servants gradually discover that there is no party, and wonder why the house should be filled with flowers for one woman by herself, and I long more and more for a kindred spirit — it seems so greedy to have so much loveliness to oneself — but kindred spirits are so very, very rare; I might almost as well cry for the moon. It is true that my garden is full of friends, only they are — dumb.

(Lovely lilacs, how I should love to have a house full of them!)

But while admiring my neighbour, I don’t think I shall ever try to follow in her steps, my talents not being of the energetic and organising variety, but rather of that order which makes their owner almost lamentably prone to take up a volume of poetry and wander out to where the kingcups grow, and sitting on a willow trunk beside a little stream, forget the very existence of everything but green pastures and still waters, and the glad blowing of the wind across the joyous fields.

Oh how I can relate! I’m afraid I’m much less organized than many book bloggers and much prefer being spontaneous, I try to finish more books to keep up with all of you speedy readers and then just wish I could do more wandering about, reading randomly! (I’m an INFP in the Myers-Briggs personality scale, if you were ever wondering, just that kind of daydreamy idealist.)

In the summer, on fine evenings, I love to drive late and alone in the scented forests, and when I have reached a dark part stop, and sit quite still, listening to the nightingales repeating their little tune over and over again after interludes of gurgling, or if there are no nightingales, listening to the marvelous silence, and letting its blessedness descend into my very soul.

This reminded me of a summer I spent working in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, at Lake Louise near Banff, a glorious deep green blue lake with the mountains all behind it and such stillness in the air at times, especially in the evenings, with the moon overhead — go if you are ever in the area (and then visit me too!), it will take your breath away. The air there is so fresh and pure, like glaciers and pine trees, I am always longing to breathe it in again.

Go read Claire’s review from earlier in the week if I’ve got you longing for more from this delicious book! And then read it and smell flowers and breathe deep and enjoy the last day of Virago Reading Week!

(I will admit I’ve read two Elizabeths this week, Taylor and von Arnim, partly because in Nancy Pearl’s book Book Lust her first entry is all about recommending authors whose first name is Alice. I began musing last year, after adding Elizabeth Gaskell to my list of favourite authors which also includes Elizabeth Bowen, that surely there must be more Elizabeth authors I would love! My first official Virago read last year was Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare and that made me think more Viragos would be worth reading. And these two have been great novelists I’m glad I’ve finally read, with Elizabeth von Arnim sure to become a firm favourite. Any other Elizabeths you can recommend to me?)

Rachel will be doing the round ups today and tomorrow and then we’ll have to announce our prize winners, she’s got one for the person who can convince her that their favourite Virago is most worth reading, I have the photo contest so I can see all your lovely Viragos, and we’re both going to be picking one of our favourite reviews each for two more awards and then we’re thinking of the last award for one overall great participant, that’s the hardest one to choose as you’ve all joined in so heartily this week and it’s been such a pleasure.

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12 thoughts on “VRW: Elizabeth & Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. heather says:

    Okay, I couldn’t resist adding a few more:

    DSCF5751
    and
    DSCF5754
    (the viragos are on the very end of that one)
    I have really enjoyed reading all the virago related reading posts this week and I thank you and Rachel for hosting!

  2. Elizabeth Roberts says:

    My grandmother gave me her copy (probably an early edition) of Elizabeth and Her German Garden fifty years ago. I was too young and inexperienced (aged 14) to appreciate its wry tone but am going to see if I can locate it. Since Elizabeth herself was not only technically British, but also a ‘colonial’ – being Australian-born – , is it possible that the ‘guest’ she was poking cruel fun at was herself? What an extraordinary life she had: is there a biography?

    • Alex says:

      Carolyn

      Thanks for writing such a brave review. I too wrestled with Elizabeth’s behaviour to her guest. I thought Elizabeth and Irais were so mean ganging up on that girl but then again I wondered if she really was unbearable and that was why. I thought she showed herself in a rather unflattering light and then I thought well, that is interesting, because I guess she’s being honest about her feelings. Definitely worthy of a book club discussion I think!! By the way, you’ve done much better than me in terms of reading….I haven’t even managed to read one book this week….so many distractions!!

  3. Darlene says:

    Oh doesn’t this sound like such a perfect read for the middle of winter! Also, because my father was stationed in Germany during the Bay of Pigs crisis I was born there and sadly know next to nothing about this country. Sounds like a great book to catch me up on a few things about the people and their way of life from a previous era.

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, read it, you will love it! I have some ancestors from Germany and had been wanting to read something from there, so this is a start. They do explain some of the social customs at the time (the very end of the 19th century was when it was published) and especially their expectations of women, to only be good housewives, not daydreamy gardeners! How interesting that you were born there!

  4. Cristina says:

    Thank you for an insightful review! The only von Arnim I’ve read is ‘Enchanted April’, straight after watching the film again last year. I found two von Arnims (‘The Caravaners’ and ‘The Pastor’s Wife’) in a wonderful second-hand shop in Melville, South Africa. It seems that someone had a large Virago collection and had sold it to them. I could only afford to pick up four Viragos but there were so many by authors I’ve never heard of.
    Thank you once again for a superb and enjoyable week. I found your blog for the first time because of Virago Reading Week and I have thoroughly enjoyed your posts! I’m looking forward to your round-ups 🙂

  5. Thomas at My Porch says:

    I just wrote about my one VMC read for the week, von Arnim’s novel Love so it was very interesting to read your review. Having now read two of her novels I am looking forward to reading more. And I love her connection with Forster. Coincidentally, I also mentioned Forster’s A Room With a View today in a post.

  6. Melwyk says:

    I loved this book – I read it first many years ago and enjoyed it for her evocation of her garden and for the amusing tone. The Man of Wrath was something else, wasn’t he?!

    I find I agree with Elizabeth, above, who suggests that Von Arnim was partly poking fun at herself with her depiction of the English girl writer. I imagine she’d heard many of those criticisms herself, being a young English girl with hopes of being a writer who had married into a German family…I am sure she was fond of taking notes for books such as this one! 🙂

  7. Litlove says:

    I just adore that book, and should reread it. It makes life worth living. And we should all say a huge thank you to you and Rachel for having organised Virago week. I’ve loved reading all the posts, and it’s felt like a lovely, special way for the book blogging community to get together.

  8. Cristina says:

    Hello again!
    To quote you: “I absolutely adored the first half or two-thirds (or maybe it’s three-fourths?) of this book, so much so I even considered typing them up to keep forever as my very own because I’m only reading from a very tattered library copy.”
    I found 9 von Arnims available in e-format at Project Gutenberg here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search.html/?default_prefix=author_id&sort_order=downloads&query=603

    and ‘German Garden’ here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1327

    Not the same as owning your own physical copy but it should save you typing it out 🙂 I’ll keep a look out for a copy for you the next time I’m in a second-hand shop.

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