Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: Elizabeth and Her German Garden

September 15th: This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under the acacias instead of the too shady beeches; of wood-fires in the library in the chilly evenings. The babies go out in the afternoon and blackberry in the hedges; the three kittens, grown big and fat, sit cleaning themselves on the sunny verandah steps; the Man of Wrath shoots partridges across the distant stubble; and the summer seems as though it would dream on for ever.

Published in 1899, this is the journal of Elizabeth von Arnim, cousin of Katherine Mansfield, through a year at her husband's estate north of Berlin. Elizabeth's life takes on a totally new dimension when she discovers this estate, her husband's second home. The grounds are in a state of disarray, and Elizabeth sets out to surround the castle with gardens. She goes from being a good German hausfrau and socialite to a master gardener.

The book opens with Elizabeth alone at the estate; with her husband and children ("the babies") back at their first home, she find absolute bliss in her solitude. She immediately sets out to tame the wild gardens and to simply revel in the outdoors. Eventually her babies join her there, and her husband, known as the Man of Wrath, comes occasionally. Very little is said about the inside of the estate, except that she dreads sleeping each night.

I can so relate to Elizabeth on so many levels. Her writing is poetic but witty, and she speaks about her garden with such joy and reverence. She is just a happy, grateful person—at least when she is free to be outdoors and do her own thing. She writes: "We were meant to be happy, and to accept all the happiness offered with thankfulness—indeed, we are none of us ever thankful enough, and yet we each get so much, so very much, more that we deserve." For Elizabeth to have to be a perfect hostess and attend operas, however, would be like me having to awaken at 6 a.m. and be at business meetings all day.

Elizabeth is constrained by the times, however, in a way that I am joyfully not. She is continuously frustrated by being a woman and having to abide by certain rules. She despises having nurses for her children, preferring instead to let them run wild in the gardens. She writes: "It is so nice without a governess that I would put off engaging another for a year or two, if it were not that I should in so doing come within the reach of the arm of the law, which is what every German spends his life in trying to avoid. … We are liable at any moment of receive a visit from a school inspector, who will inquire curiously into the state of her education, and, if it is not up to the required standard, all sorts of fearful things might happen to the guilty parents."

She yearns to do all the yard work herself but to do so was simply out of the question. "I wish with all my heart I were a man, for of course the first thing I should do would be to buy a spade and go and garden, and then I should have the delight of doing everything for my flowers with my own hands and need not waste time explaining what I want done to somebody else. It is dull work giving orders and trying to describe the bright visions of one's brain to a person who has no visions and no brain."

The book is so much more than Elizabeth's gardening journal. It is the story of a woman who seized a world for herself and her children, rather than allowing society to dictate her life. It's a book that embraces personal freedom and the joy that comes with going against traditional expectations.

Other Reviews
Girl eBooks ("One of the beauties of reading well-seasoned literature is that we modern women forget what life was like for women a hundred or more years ago.")
So Many Books ("A pleasant book, perfect for spring.")


Marbel said...

This sounds interesting to me. Thanks!

Sarah M. said...

I love literature from the late 1800s and early 1900s. I've never heard of this book. It sounds so interesting! A little "Secret Garden" in the sense of Elizabeth working on a garden. I am adding this to my TBR list. Thanks!

Ann Flowers said...

Thanks for sharing the book review of Elizabeth and Her German Garden. I found it interesting and will order my copy today.

Katrina said...

I found Elizabeth and Her German Garden by accident years ago. My copy is very old and didn't even have the author's name on it.
It's worthwhile tracking down her other books too.