Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: An acerbic wit in an idyllic garden

Review of: Elizabeth and Her German Garden
Author: Elizabeth von Arnim
Publisher: Virago Press Limited, 1985
Source: Library
Grade: B+

Don’t search for advice on how to prune your roses in Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Instead, in this semiautobiographical novel originally published in 1898, von Arnim gently satirizes the turn of the century, gone-with-the-wind Prussian aristocracy in which marriage to Graf (Count) Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin mired her.

He was a recent widower desperate for a new wife who could produce an heir. She was Mary Annette (called May by her family) Beauchamp, a 23-year-old English music student whose family was on the prowl for a suitable husband, as novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard writes in her introduction to the 1985 Virago Press edition of von Arnim’s story.

Stifled by the Berlin society circles in which Henning moved, May (who name changed to Elizabeth somewhere along the way), came into her own during a visit to her husband’s country estate. The estate included a long unoccupied 17th century house surrounded by a huge garden – “less a garden than a wilderness.” It was May’s (or Elizabeth’s) idea – a place of wild beauty and isolation.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden is written in diary form, beginning with a May 7 entry in which she introduces the garden, “an oasis of bird-cherries and greenery,” and continuing through the garden year until April 18, in which she records “the garden hurrying on its green and flowered petticoat.”

In between, there is time to discuss the weather (were her tea roses really able to survive German winters near the shores of the Baltic?); an eerily beautify midwinter sleigh ride to picnic on the shores of the frozen sea; the estate’s gardeners (one “went mad soon after Whitsuntide and had to be sent to an asylum” after threatening Elizabeth with a revolver); and her neighbors, including an industrious aristocratic housewife who runs her estate’s dairy farm with an iron fist (literally).

“We are allowed by law to administer ‘slight corporal punishment’ to our servants,” Elizabeth writes, “it being left entire to individual taste to decide what ‘slight’ shall be. . . ”

And there’s room between roses, lilies, and hollyhocks for a war of the sexes between Elizabeth, her female visitors, and her husband (referred to only as the Man of Wrath).

Elizabeth von Arnim
The majority of laborers on the von Arnim estate were itinerant Russian peasants who “do the work of animals.. . (but) come home from their work at dusk singing. . . I have not persuaded myself, however, that the women are happy. . . It is quite a usual thing to see them working in the fields in the morning, and working again in the afternoon, having in the interval produced a baby.”

Riding past one such woman with her husband, Elizabeth remonstrates, “. . . her wretched husband doesn’t care a rap, and will probably beat her tonight if his supper isn’t right.”

“‘Quite so, my dear,’ replied the Man of Wrath, smiling condescendingly. ‘These women accept their beatings with a simplicity worthy of all praise, and far from considering themselves insulted, admire the strength and energy of the man who can administer such eloquent rebukes.’

(Earlier, Henning had remonstrated with Elizabeth for not writing to him for weeks while she was living alone on the estate, supposedly supervising renovations to the house. “. . . when I told him that I had been literally too happy to think of writing he seemed to take it as a reflection on himself that I could be happy alone.”)

Is Elizabeth and Her German Garden a gardening book, a feminist manifesto, a history of a vanished era? All those and more, transcribed in Elizabeth’s inimitable voice.


I was intrigued last month by the European Reading Challenge 2017 at Rose City Reader. The idea is to read books by European authors or set in European countries. Since I belong to a book club that specializes in non-U.S. books, it should be a snap to double dip my book club reading with the challenge. So here goes – assuming I can figure out Mr. Linky. . . 

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