Jane's Reviews > Elizabeth and Her German Garden

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
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's review
Mar 25, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, victorians-challenge
Read from April 04 to 09, 2012

Where I got the book: purchased on Kindle.

"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."

This little gem of a book, the first novel by Elizabeth Von Arnim I had read, both delighted and intrigued me. It is about a woman called Elizabeth who has moved, with her husband and children, to their country estate in a remote part of Germany. Elizabeth dislikes the indoors with its responsibilities, servants and other interruptions, and spends most of the time reading in her garden. She does not actually garden, being a lady; she says on several occasions that she wishes she could just get a spade and dig instead of having to give instructions. I got a very sharp impression of the restrictions on a lady's life in the late 1800s.

In describing her garden, Elizabeth gives the reader glimpses of her own past and present, and of her husband (dubbed "the Man of Wrath") and her "babies," her three young daughters. It occurred to me at some point that if Elizabeth Von Arnim had been alive today, this would not have been a novel but a blog, because that's exactly what it resembles. As a novel it really doesn't have a whole lot of structure, but its charm comes precisely from the juxtaposition of the freedom and beauty of the natural world with that of a wealthy aristocrat who cannot escape all of her duties.

Elizabeth Von Arnim was evidently a very cosmopolitan woman, and that shows in the novel. In fact, from reading the novel I would have thought her an aristocratic German raised, as many were, by English and French governesses. We tend to forget that the Gilded Age society was extremely well traveled and spoke several languages. But I read in her biographical note that the novel is "semi-autobiographical" and maybe this is one way in which the author distances herself from the text. That's what intrigued me, and if I can find a biography of Von Arnim that untangles truth from fiction, I'll definitely read it.

After the initial chapters which are more about the garden than anything else, there is a wonderful November chapter in which Elizabeth returns to her father's house, a train ride away, and deciding not to call upon the cousins who inherited the property (which was entailed, meaning that she lost her father and her home at the same time) wanders around the garden in the damp fog. The episode ends splendidly when she thinks she has encountered her own ghost.

Then follows a winter episode where Elizabeth has to entertain two guests, a close friend and a woman foisted upon her. Here we see the more acid, worldly side of Elizabeth, and learn more about the Man of Wrath who has evidently earned his nickname. Even though it could reasonably be claimed that Elizabeth acted very bitchily toward her unwanted guest, I did find myself sympathizing with her.

This edition did have a few errors, especially in the rendering of the German words with which Von Arnim liberally sprinkles her prose. Readers who do not know German might want to look for a footnoted edition with translations, or have an electronic translator handy.

I have downloaded the next book, The Solitary Summer . I think I've become a fan.
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Reading Progress

26.0% "Very charming - but sad that for Elizabeth her garden and books are an escape from an oppressive life."
35.0% "SPOILERS: so now we learn that Elizabeth's father's property was entailed and went to her cousins when he died. That must have been absolutely shattering - to lose father and home at once. Under her cheerfulness, she's a deeply wounded soul."
46.0% "The November episode was both funny & touching. What a magical book."
48.0% ""The women get less, not because they work less, but because they are women and must not be encouraged.""

Comments (showing 1-12)

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message 12: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell I believe she was Katherine Mansfield's cousin!

message 11: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane How interesting. I had never heard of her, but that's why I joined the Victorians! group, to get me out of my 19th century reading rut.

message 10: by B0nnie (new)

B0nnie This is free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1327 Is the Amazon version better? I thought they just used gutenberg for books like this. It does seem like a very charming read.

Jane Yeah, I probably could have taken it from Gutenberg and got just as good if not better quality. I paid 99 cents for it, for which they should have presented a clean text! It's actually worth buying a decent paperback, an edition with notes and maps preferably. If you come across one, let me know.

message 8: by B0nnie (new)

B0nnie Amazon is now charging $6.18 for the ebook, shocking. It's on abebooks cheaper than that. Hmm, I see Elizabeth von Arnim also wrote Mr. Skeffington - a great melodrama with good old Claude Rains.

Hana Karlyne thought I would like this and it sounds wonderful--but the poor thing, not being able to get out there and dig!!

Jane Ha...another reminder of a book I meant to read but haven't. The Solitary Summer has been sitting on my Kindle for a long, long time. Still it's lovely to revisit this thread and be reminded of a very enjoyable read. Hana, you should definitely read this.

Hana I'm going to! Thank you, Jane, your review is beautiful. The Solitary Summer sounds lovely as well.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

I haven't read any of von Arnim's books, but I've watched a film adaptation of The Enchanted April, which is a lovely little film.


Jane Cool, I'll have to watch out for that.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I think it's on netflix.

Jane Hey, thanks, it is! I put it on my list.

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