Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

Elizabeth and Her German Garden
by Elizabeth von Arnim

"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.

My Reaction:
I wanted to read this book because I remembered L.M. Montgomery mentioning it in her journals.  The entry I remembered (see the section below for more specifics) and the title itself led me to expect something focused on gardening.  While gardens-- flowers, specifically-- are important to "Elizabeth" (probably both the author and her character), the book has less to do with gardening than with humor.  I wouldn't say that's a bad thing.

I'd recommend this to other readers who are fond of gardens, turn-of-the-century settings, and humorous commentary on human nature.  It helps if you are also an introvert or have sympathy with the type of person who enjoys solitude. (If not, you'll probably be exasperated, at some point.)

Specifics (Mostly Quotes):
--  From The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Volume 1: 1889-1910:  "I brought home a library book the other night-- "Elizabeth and her German Garden"-- taking it as Hobson's choice because I couldn't get anything else.  I didn't know anything about it, didn't think it was worth much, and made no haste to read it.  Finally last Thursday I began it.  Before I had read a chapter I was ready to kick myself for no having found out what it was before.  It was delightful-- the whole book.  My "twin soul" must live in Elizabeth-- at least, as far as gardening is concerned.  She has said a hundred thing that I always meant to say when I had thought them out sufficiently.  I shan't have to say them now-- Elizabeth has done it so well."

--  The book starts off a bit strangely, I think, and when Elizabeth's husband first appears-- and is called by his nickname, "the Man of Wrath"-- you begin to wonder what kind of book it will be... But despite the name and some of the things he says (at least partially in jest, one hopes), he never seems particularly wrathful.

--  "The passion for being for ever with one's fellows, and the fear of being left for a few hours alone, is to me wholly incomprehensible."

--  The mentions of "kindred spirits" are of course interesting, given the L.M. Montgomery/"Anne" connection.  "I long more and more for a kindred spirit-- it seems so greedy to have so much loveliness to oneself-- but kindred spirits are so very, very rare; I might almost as well cry for the moon."

-- "She had found a kindred spirit, and it has been ruthlessly torn from her arms as kindred spirits so often are."

--  "I have been much afflicted again lately by visitors-- not stray callers to be got rid of after a due administration of tea and things you are sorry afterwards that you said, but people staying in the house and not to be got rid of at all."

--  "It is so sweet to be sad when one has nothing to be sad about."

-- "Humility, and the most patient perseverance, seem almost as necessary in gardening as rain and sunshine, and every failure must be used as a stepping-stone to something better."

--  "I had an awful reverence for my grandfather.  He never petted, and he often frowned, and such people are generally reverenced.  Besides, he was a just man, everybody said; a just man who might have been a great man if he had chosen, and risen to almost any pinnacle of worldly glory.  That he had not so chosen was held to be a convincing proof of his greatness; for he was plainly too great to be great in the vulgar sense, and shrouded himself in the dignity of privacy and potentialities.  This, at least, as time passed and he still did nothing, was the belief of the simple people around.  People must believe in somebody, and having pinned their faith on my grandfather in the promising years that lie around thirty, it was more convenient to let it remain there."

--  "'What nonsense it is to talk about the equality of the sexes when the women have the babies!'  'Quite so, my dear,' replied the Man of Wrath, smiling condescendingly. 'You have got to the very root of the matter.  Nature, while imposing this agreeable duty on the woman, weakens her and disables her for any serious competition with man.  How can a person who is constantly losing a year of the best part of her life compete with a young man who never loses any time at all?  He has the brute force, and his last word on any subject could always be his fist.'"

--  "I have taken care in choosing my yellow plants to put down only those humble ones that are easily pleased and grateful for little, for my soil is by no means all that it might be, and to most plants the climate is rather trying.  I feel really grateful to any flower that is sturdy and willing enough to flourish here."

--  Elizabeth and her friend Irais can be "mean" at times.  They're not always understanding of the difficulties of others-- not quite conscious, perhaps, of the benefits they enjoy.  By the end, I've forgiven them.

--  "If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don't listen to the shrieks of your relations, to their gibes or their entreaties; don't let your own microscopic set prescribe your goings-out and comings-in; don't be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbor in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck."

--  "Women are responsible for such lies, because they believe them.  Their amazing vanity makes them swallow flattery so gross that it is an insult, and men will always be ready to tell the precise number of lies that a woman is ready to listen to.  Who indulges more recklessly in glowing exaggerations than the lover who hopes, and has not yet obtained?  He will, like the nightingale, sing with unceasing modulations, display all his talent, untiringly repeat his sweetest notes, until he has what he wants, when his song, like the nightingale's, immediately ceases, never again to be heard."

--  "...Let me warn you that, as things now are, 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 as their slaves than their equals."

--  Elizabeth considers that Minora's nose isn't bad-- might even be pretty-- "but she does not know how to carry it, and there is an art in the angle at which one's nose is held just as in everything else, and really noses were intended for something besides mere blowing."  Reminds me of Anne's vanity over the niceness of her nose...  Sadly, I'm not particularly fond of my own nose.  It's alright, but nothing to brag about, I'm afraid.  I wonder what is the right, artful angle for holding the nose?  I'd say tilted back-- but I'm afraid of looking snooty or giving too much a view up the nostrils.

--  "The nightingales in the forests about here all sing the same tune, and in the same key of E flat."  ...Is there a difference from place to place?  I know very little of nightingales.

--  Minora's eyes:  "...They are large eyes with long dark eyelashes, and far be it from me to deny that each eye taken by itself is fine, but they are put in all wrong."

--  The bit about washing laundry only four times a year was amusing-- and familiar.  I wonder where else I've heard the suggestion that doing laundry too frequently indicates that you are poor/don't own a substantial a stock of household linens...

--  Elizabeth writes that she has spent much of her pin money on "artificial manure".  "The Man of Wrath says he never met a young woman who spent her money that way before; I remarked that it must be nice to have an original wife; and he retorted that the word original hardly described me, and that the word eccentric was the one required."

-- Irais writes that she is beset by house guests:  "My husband goes off after breakfast to look at his crops, he says, and I am left at their mercy.  I wish I had crops to go and look at-- I should be grateful even for one, and would look at it from morning till night, and quite stare it out of countenance, sooner than stay at home and have the truth told me by enigmatic aunts."

--  "It makes one very humble to see oneself surrounded by such a wealth of beauty and perfection anonymously lavished, and to think of the infinite meanness of our own grudging charities, and how displeased we are if they are not promptly and properly appreciated.  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."