Next we have a run of Elizabeth von Arnim reviews. I’ve now read Elizabeth von Arnim with both my reading groups, because I simply love hearing people’s reactions to reading her. This time was particularly enjoyable as everyone was struck by the quality of the writing and wanted to read more. I was a very happy woman (no point pretending to be unbiased)!
Review by Mary P:
The book covers a year in the life of the author – Elizabeth – a wealthy Englishwoman living with her German aristocrat husband on his country estate – ‘ The Man of Wrath’. Her three children are also not named and called the April, May and June babies.
During the course of the year Elizabeth plans her garden and its planting, and deals with household matters including the servants and visitors to their home.
In the first year of its publication the book went through 20 reprints so it was clearly a very successful book. Julian Fellows writes a scene into the TV series Downton Abbey where one servant gives this book as a present to another servant, again reflecting the book’s runaway success at the time.
In many ways reading Elizabeth von Armin feels like reading a far more contemporary novel. I think this is because of its content, but particularly because of her style of writing. She writes in a mocking and ironic tone. This enables her to comment on the everyday in a humorous way, which can seem quite gentle, but is actually quite barbed.
There is much teasing by the author and her friend Irais of Minora a young English woman studying art in Germany.
‘ I’m just jotting down what strikes me in your country, and when I have time shall throw it into book form’….
’My dear, ‘ I said breathlessly to Irais, when I had got into her room and shut the door and Minora was safely in hers, ‘what do you think she writes books!’….
We stood and looked at each other with awestruck faces.
‘How dreadful!’ murmured Irais.
‘ I never met a young girl who did that before.’ ‘ She says this place is full of copy’.
‘Full of what?’
‘That’s what you make books with’.
‘Oh, my dear, this is worse than I expected! A strange girl is always a bore among good friends, but one can generally manage her. But a girl who writes books-, why, it isn’t respectable! And you can’t snub that sort of people; they’re unsnubbable’.
‘Oh but we’ll try!’…..
They discuss a title for Minora’s book:-
‘ Oh I thought I would call it Journeyings in Germany…or Jottings from German Journeyings – I haven’t quite decided yet which’.
‘ By the author of Prowls in Pomerania, you might add…and Drivel From Dresden…and Bosh from Berlin.’
The author is clearly taking the opportunity to let the reader know she is aware of how female authors are often viewed and is not taking herself too seriously unlike Minora.
Whilst we are given a picture of a privileged woman who is able to afford gardeners to do her bidding in creating her garden, it is made clear that Elizabeth would prefer to be able to get her own hands dirty. She is a woman of her class and time and digging her own garden would not be acceptable. Equally Elizabeth is constantly stopped from pursuing the gardening she loves by household responsibilities not least of all the frustration of constant interruptions by visitors.
There is therefore a sadness about Elizabeth, who for all her privileged position is unable to be her own person and follow her dream of creating the garden that she wishes. In this way the author is able to write about the position of women in a way that speaks to the reader across the generations.
This was my first von Arnim and it’s a lovely book. “The Solitary Summer” follows on I think and is equally joyous and reflects her frustrations at not being left alone!
Great review! That sadness underneath Von Arnim’s novels (at least the ones I’ve read) is to me what makes them particularly poignant. Right now I’m reading a later book of hers, Love, and her female protagonist is in such a socially uncomfortable position, it’s impossible to miss the fact that Von Arnim is trying to communicate to us something about the position of women. And yet, she never resorts to a straight-up diatribe. She’s an incredible writer. I look forward to the string of Von Arnim reviews!
Yes, there is a sadness, and an anger too, I think. Love is a great novel. I prefer the later novels when that ironic voice really reaches it full potential! For me the German Garden is just a bit too charming and whimsical!
I know what you mean about the whimsy, but there is steel there too. Elizabeth’s comments quoted above about Minora, for example – grounded no doubt in comments Von Arnim herself had doubtless made to guests she found tiresome!
That’s true – as evidenced by her behaviour to Walpole!