Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

Today would have been Elizabeth von Arnim’s birthday and she is the next author to be celebrated in Jane from Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Having previously read only The Enchanted April, I had plenty of von Arnim books to choose from, but as my experience of her work is so limited, it seemed sensible to pick another of her better known ones to read next. I hoped Elizabeth and Her German Garden would be a good choice…and it was.

Published in 1898, the book has an autobiographical feel and is written in the form of a diary in which the narrator, Elizabeth, takes us through a year in her life, describing her love for the garden of her home in northern Germany and the changes she sees as the seasons go by. At the beginning of the book Elizabeth knows little about gardening, so there is a sense that she is learning by trial and error as she goes along, discovering which flowers will grow in the soil and climate and which won’t, and trying out different colours and arrangements in different beds. Of course, due to her gender and class, she doesn’t do the hard work herself – she has gardeners to dig and plant for her – but this is a source of frustration to Elizabeth, as the gardeners never seem quite able to bring her visions to life!

Elizabeth is the sort of person who is perfectly happy on her own, as long as she can be outdoors, surrounded by the beauty of nature, and she doesn’t at all regret the city life she has left behind. And in any case, she rarely has time to feel lonely as she has her three young daughters for company. We never learn their names as Elizabeth refers to them simply as the April baby, May baby and June baby (although at five, four and three they are no longer really babies), but it is obvious that she loves them very much – even if she does despair of them at times! The babies provide a lot of the humour in the book, as children often do. Her feelings for her husband are slightly less tender; she calls him ‘The Man of Wrath’, which probably says a lot about their relationship!

Despite her love of peace and quiet, Elizabeth does find herself entertaining visitors now and then, including two who come to stay for the winter: Irais, who shares Elizabeth’s dislike of convention and becomes a good friend, and Minora, a young woman from England who is writing a book on the German way of life and spends most of the winter irritating Elizabeth and Irais with her questions and observations. The women also have some interesting discussions with The Man of Wrath, in which he makes it clear that he thinks a woman’s place is in the home. I suppose The Man is a man of his time, while Elizabeth is a woman ahead of hers.

Although my lifestyle is very different from Elizabeth’s, I liked and understood her almost as soon as I began to read. I’m not much of a gardener myself but, like Elizabeth, I do enjoy sitting outside and reading in the garden on a warm summer’s day and I have always envied those women from years gone by who lived on large country estates with huge gardens to wander in. Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a lovely read; I found it light, entertaining and often funny, with a similar feel to Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. I will be reading the sequel, The Solitary Summer.

This is the last book I will have time to finish and review for my 20 Books of Summer this year. I have managed 15/20 and will post a full summary of the challenge next week.

25 thoughts on “Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. heavenali says:

    I love this book, and so did the rest of my book group who I read it with. I have always thought her portrait of The Man of Wrath is a mixture of exasperation and affection.

  2. Carmen says:

    This one sounds like a light, airy read. Glad you liked it. Not bad for this challenge, 15 out of 20 books in a summer. I barely finished two. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Yes, this was a lovely summer read. You watch a lot more films and adaptations than I do, so two books is still good, especially if you enjoyed them. 🙂

  3. Lark says:

    I really loved Enchanted April, but I’ve never read any of von Arnim’s other books. This one sounds like a charming read. I’ll have to look for it. 🙂

  4. piningforthewest says:

    This is the first von Arnim book that I ever bought and I didn’t even know who the author was as my copy is a really old leather bound one and she was keeping quiet about being a writer. It’s still my favourite although I’ve read almost all of her books now.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve only read two of her books so far and I think I enjoyed The Enchanted April a bit more, but I did like this one and can see why it’s your favourite. It’s interesting that you have such an early copy.

  5. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Loved this book too and love seeing it more widely read and being rediscovered.

    I’m not sure about those people living on country estates, with so much work to do they probably have little time to sit in the garden and read.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    I think I would get along with Elizabeth. I have had 20 years in the dry and hot California areas slowly learning what I could grow. I was from the temperate climate of Michigan.

  7. Sandra says:

    I’ve fallen behind with both blogging and reading in recent weeks, but I am reading this book at the moment, despite missing the birthday. And I’m enjoying it enormously. I agree with everything you’ve said in your review, Helen.

  8. Liz Dexter says:

    This is lovely – I first read it years ago and have read it a few times. Simple pleasures! And well done on your 15, a lot more than most people manage to read in a summer!

  9. buriedinprint says:

    That’s where I began with her too. And Enchanted April was next. After that, it was mainly dictated by what books of hers I was able to find overseas/second-hand and I ended up reading a charming memoir about her dogs, which was short but sweet. You might enjoy that one too, but of course it makes perfect sense to read TSS next, as you’ve said.

    • Helen says:

      As I enjoyed this book so much, I think The Solitary Summer will probably be the best choice for me to read next, but I do like the sound of the dogs book! I’ll have to investigate. 🙂

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