It is so beautiful here today, 73 degrees (F) above zero, that I am tempted to chuck the blog and go revel in the warm outside. The one thing that is stopping me is that it is pretty windy out and I don’t want to mess up my perfect hair. The windy part is true at any rate.
Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim (also known as Mary Annette Beauchamp and a cousin of Katherine Mansfield), was published in 1898. I had thought it was fiction but it turns out to be a sort of memoir in a diary format the goes from May to April. But the dated entries are only meant to serve as loose indications as to the time of year rather than strict XYZ happened today. In fact von Arnim ranges all over, forward and backward through time so that when April and the end of the book arrive it feels as though a good number of years have been covered.
Von Arnim has such a light and happy voice that makes her a pleasure to read. Ostensibly, the book is about her garden in Germany at the old house she convinced her husband, referred to throughout as The Man of Wrath, to allow her to fix up and rescue the garden. But Elizabeth is a novice gardener who makes lots of mistakes. But mistakes, as all gardeners know, are opportunities to learn and do better the next year. While Elizabeth is disappointed by her mistakes, she always manages to see the bright side of things and how beautiful her garden is and how much more lovely it will become.
The house is in a small German village. She finds her neighbors amusing and they find her, well, I’ll let her tell you:
The people round about are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceedingly eccentric, for the news has travelled that I spend the day out of doors with a book, and no mortal eye has yet seen me sew or cook. But why cook when you can get someone to cook for you? And as for sewing, the maids will hem the sheets better and quicker than I could, and all forms of needlework of the fancy order are inventions of the evil one for keeping the foolish from applying their heart to wisdom.
I was disappointed to find out that von Arnim doesn’t actually do any of the work of the garden herself. Women of her station were apparently not allowed to dig in the dirt. So while she may be eccentric, she is not eccentric enough to flout this restriction and get blisters on her hands from a spade. All she does is choose the plants and tell the men she hires where to put them.
While I loved all the talk about gardening – and this being spring and the crocuses showing their tiny faces and the tulips shooting up their green leaves and me anticipating the May plant sale catalog to arrive at any moment – my favorite part of the book is a long section in the winter where she has her friend Irais and a woman named Minora whom another friend asked her to invite for a visit. Minora is young and English and wants to be a writer and thinks Elizabeth and her family will make great copy. She is forever scribbling notes in her notebook. Elizabeth and Irais are constantly making fun of Minora and telling her things about Germany and German families that are exaggerations or simply not true. But Minora takes everything seriously and is so gullible she falls for everything they say. And then they go on a winter picnic to the Baltic, a sleigh ride of a couple hours. Oh, how it made me laugh!
Winter ends, her guests leave, and Elizabeth is left to her books and her garden again. She concludes:
I do sincerely trust that the benediction that is always awaiting me in my garden may by degrees be more deserved, and that I may grow in grace, and patience, and cheerfulness, just like the happy flowers I so much love.
It’s so sugary it is almost too much, but the book is so lighthearted and enjoyable that by the time I reached the end I sighed in happiness instead of gagged.
A pleasant book, perfect for spring. I downloaded the book for free for my Kindle- it’s public domain – from ManyBooks. If you are interested in reading it on an electronic device, check it out, the download formats are numerous and sure to meet your requirements.