by Elizabeth von Arnim
Published by Random House
"Elizabeth and Her German Garden," a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, was popular and frequently reprinted during the early years of the 20th century. "Elizabeth and Her German Garden" is a year's diary written by Elizabeth about her experiences learning gardening and interacting with her friends. It includes commentary on the beauty of nature and on society, but is primarily humorous due to Elizabeth's frequent mistakes and her idiosyncratic outlook on life. The story is full of sweet, endearing moments. Elizabeth was an avid reader and has interesting comments on where certain authors are best read; she tells charming stories of her children and has a sometimes sharp sense of humor in regards to the people who will come and disrupt her solitary lifestyle.
I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by the mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half and hour again in a cold shower.
This is less a garden than a wilderness.
I’m going to make one of those odd statements that I’m often afraid I’m the only one who gets, but it makes sense to me, so here goes. This book was both exactly what I was expecting, and nothing like I was expecting.
See? Doesn’t really make sense. But it does in my head, so I’m going with it.
You see, first off, I can’t tell if it’s a novel or a diary. If you read the description above from Goodreads, it calls it “a year’s diary written by Elizabeth.” Everything else I’ve looked at (Wikipedia, other reviews, and other websites) call it a novel. The protagonist is named Elizabeth. It is written in diary form. So which Elizabeth is it? The writer or the fictious character? A autobiographical novel? Novelised nonfiction? I’m going with fiction for now, until I see something of a life story about Mrs. Von Arnim.
The “novel diary” is a chronicle of the year of the life of the CHARACTER Elizabeth as she spends said year, in the late 1890s, in Germany. Elizabeth is a highly inquisitive character, who saying;
I believe all needlework and dressmaking is of the devil, designed to keep women from study.
I love this woman.
Elizabeth is content to putter in her garden, something unheard of for a woman of her station. She buys countless seeds for her garden, writing her pages and pages long diary entries, reading, and plays with her children when the mood strikes her. She calls her husband the Man of Wrath, but he seems to be quite the indulgant character.
The people round about are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceedingly ecentric, for the news has travelled that I spend the day out of doors with a book, and that no moratl eye has ever yet seen me sew or cook. But why cook when you can get some one to cook for you?
What a happy woman I am living in a garden, with books, babies, birds, and flowers, and plenty of leisure to enjoy them.
I spent equal amounts of time envying Elizabeth, being annoyed by Elizabeth, marvelling at her gorgeous prose, and wishing she would just hurry the hell up. She waxes on and on about her beautiful garden, her life in the house, the Man of Wrath, her Spring babies, that at times you just want to tell her to shut up and get on with it. Her commentary on the beauty of nature is what makes the book. Plus, Elizabeth is something of a precious character, she knows she’s precocious, and she milks it. She’s the type of bumbling female character that inspires you to think her adorable and hilarious when she makes mistakes, but it can also eventually wear on the nerves.
She wore on my nerves.
But then she writes something like this:
From us they get a mark and a half to two marks a day, and as many potatoes as they can eat. The women get less, not because they work less, but because they are women and must not be encouraged.
They are like little children or animals in their utter inability to grasp the idea of a future; and after all, if you work all day in God’s sunshine, when evening comes you are pleasantly tired and ready for rest and not much inclined to find fault with your lot. I have no yet persuaded myself, however, that the women are happy. They have to work as hard as the men and get less for it; they have to produce offspring, quite regardless of times and seasons and the general fitness of things; they have to do this as expediously as possible, so that they may not unduly interrupt the work in hand; nobody helps them, notices them, or cares about them, least of all the husband. 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. The baby is left to an old woman whose duty it is to look after babies collectively.
You can’t help but love her a bit for this, right? She notices. She writes about it. She talks about it. Listen to this. This is to her husband!
“Poor, poor woman!” I cried, as we rode on, feeling for some occult reason very angry with the Man of Wrath. “And her wretched husband doesn’t care a rap, and will probably beat her to-night if his supper isn’t right. What nonsense it is to talk about the equality of the sexes when the woman have the babies!”
You gotta admire her spunk!
And she feels the restrictions on herself too, and doesn’t hesitate to remark on it:
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.
I can only imagine her reaction when her husband says things like:
“I like to hear you talk together about the position of women,” he went on, “and wonder when you will realise that they hold exactly the position they are fitted for. As soon as they are fit to occupy a better, no power on earth will be able to keep them out of it. Meanwhile, let me warn you that, as things are now, only strong-minded women wish to see you the equals of men, and the strong-minded are invariably plain. The pretty ones would rather see men their salves than their equals.”
He goes on, but you get the drift.
All in all, Elizabeth and her German Garden is mostly a delight. While the gardening parts, while lovely ( “Oh, I could dance and sign for joy that the spring is here! What a resurrection of beauty there is in my garden, and of the brightest hope in my heart!”), the comments on society and class are by far the most interesting parts of the book. It’s well worth your time for it has definitely earned its place as a classic.