Elizabeth von Arnim is one of those writers whose books are so cozy and comfortable and just all around wonderful that they never fail to make me smile. It has been an abnormally warm (for Minnesota) and snowless winter here, the trees are bare and the ground is brown and my eyes are longing for color. And so I’d slip into Solitary Summer and suddenly my vision is filled with flowers, roses, pansies, sweet peas, and the scent, oh I can almost smell them! I feel myself relaxing and by the time my commuter train pulls into my stop, I am grinning. And while it doesn’t last all day, I do find myself thinking of flowers and gardening and I begin to feel sick with spring fever.
Solitary Summer is the story of one summer in which von Arnim decides she wants to spend it alone and in her garden. Now alone doesn’t exactly mean alone. He husband and children are with her and being the village landowners she is obligated to pay regular visits to the women in town. They are also made to put up the army when a battalion arrives in town for a week or two. Solitary means she doesn’t invite anyone to stay, solitary means, aside from the regular obligations, she is free to spend her time however she wishes and that usually means reading in the garden.
How could a book like this possibly be interesting? All I can say is, von Arnim’s is one of the most charming voices; she takes you in, she makes fun of herself and pokes gentle fun at others, and she tells a good story. The book is not one of “today I did ….” No, there are stories about her troubles in choosing a gardener and learning to garden as well as some of her rather unconventional choices of flowers and design. She muses about weeds and her love of dandelions, a love I share which must drive my neighbor crazy since he fastidiously digs them from his lawn while I let them bloom and go to seed in mine. But the way I look at it, I am giving him something to do next spring because I know he would be terribly bored if he didn’t always have dandelions to dig up.
She also talks about her reading, what she reads and where. A typical day might see her reading Thoreau by the pond, Boswell at lunch in the library, Goethe in the afternoon on a bench in the garden, and Whitman in the evening. She 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.
And I shout yes! Yes! And I know that if she were alive today we could be very good friends, sitting side by side reading our books in the garden. Instead I imagine us friends and dream of summer and my garden as she writes of hers. Von Arnim also muses on the joys of reading gardening books in the winter, which I also love to do. And she understands seasons as only a gardener can:
No one can possibly love the summer, the dear time of dreams, more passionately than I do; yet I have no desire to prolong it by running off south when the winter approaches and so cheat the year of half its lessons. It is delightful and instructive to potter among one’s plants, but it is imperative for body and soul that the pottering should cease for a few months, and that we should be made to realise that grim other side of life. A long hard winter lived through from beginning to end without shirking is one of the most salutary experiences in the world.
She also tells stories about her children and doctors and the parson and her husband, The Man of Wrath, who doesn’t seem so very wrathful but rather condescending and at times a bit nonplussed.
Reading von Arnim is such a pleasure. I forget just how wonderful she is until I pick up one of her books. I really must remember to do it on a regular basis. Perhaps once a year in February should do it. She is better than a SAD lamp!