The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim

The year is 1922. In February, two unhappy ladies slosh through the dripping streets of London in their galoshes and dream of sunny days. On the table in her club’s smoking room one of them, Lotty Wilkins, happens to see this advertisement.

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“To those who appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small Mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.”

She sighs and as she’s retrieving her macintosh and umbrella to fight her way onto a crowded omnibus, Lotty sees Rose Arbuthnot, whom she knows only by sight, staring at the same advertisement. After much wishy-washy back and forth about whether they deserve such a lavish expenditure, they decide that they do. They both have rainy day funds.  Further, they will economize by searching for two others to share the expenses.

Lotty and Rose find Lady Caroline Dester and Mrs. Fisher. Young and single Lady Caroline possesses a head-turning face that infects otherwise intelligent men with imbecility. She longs to get away from anyone she has ever known and she’s sure Lotty and Rose know no one she knows. Old Mrs. Fisher assures them she wants to sit quietly in the sun and remember all the great men of letters she knew in her youth.

“Did you know Keats?” eagerly interrupted Mrs. Wilkins. Mrs. Fisher, after a pause, said with sub-acid reserve that she had been unacquainted with both Keats and Shakespeare.”

Four unhappy women head to San Salvatore each hoping to replenish their souls with April gardens and sunshine.  Lotty, the innocent of the group, is the most optimistic. She “sees” the good in everyone well before others do. She’s married to Mellersh, a family solicitor who has wondered on occasion if it might have been a mistake to wed Lotty.

Rose, who spends her time caring for the poor, has grown distant from her husband Frederick. He supports them by writing wildly successful biographies of royal mistresses, of which there are enough to feed a long career. Rose is anguished that she is supported by past imperial sins. She prays a lot for Frederick.

Upon arrival the four are still in a London state of mind. Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline reach the castle ahead of Lotty and Rose to claim the best rooms. They direct the servants to move excess furniture to the smaller accommodations awaiting the other two. Mrs. Fisher plays hostess at the head of the dining table, infuriating Rose who tries unsuccessfully to unseat her.

The next morning Lotty is so taken by the beauty of the place that she is moved to invite Mellersh.

“The delicate and delicious fragrance of freesias came through the door and floated around Mrs. Wilkins’ enraptured nostrils. Freesias in London were quite beyond her. Occasionally she went into a shop and asked what they cost, so as just to have an excuse for lifting up a bunch and smelling them well knowing that it was something awful like a shilling for about three flowers. Here they were everywhere—bursting out of every corner and carpeting the rose beds. Imagine it—having freesias to pick in armsful if you wanted to, and with glorious sunshine flooding the room, and in your summer frock, and its being only the first of April!”

What? Lotty is with Lady Caroline Dester?  Mellersh thinks his wife has finally used her brain to further his career. He sets off immediately for San Salvatore.

When Mellersh arrives he must refresh himself in the recently installed bath which is both the pride and terror of the servants. The wood fire must be coaxed. The tap, if turned on too fast runs cold, if turned on too little, the heater blows up and floods. The servants do not speak English but they wish to assist Mellersh in his bath. Mellersh does not speak Italian but he wishes to bathe alone. Of course he turns the spigot off too soon and the water heater erupts.

Mellersh quickly leaps from his bath into the hall wearing only a towel, encountering Lady Caroline. Water dripping on the floor, his legs and shoulders exposed, he takes her hand and says how do you do. Lady Caroline suppresses her laughter. They converse as though he is fully clothed. Mrs. Fisher hears the commotion and enters the hallway. Lady Caroline makes the introductions and Mellersh continues his polite discourse.

That evening at dinner, both Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline are favorably inclined toward Mellersh. Perhaps it is because they have seen his legs. Mrs. Fisher wonders why he married Lotty.

Lotty’s obvious delight at sharing San Salvatore with Mellersh infects Rose. She finally invites Frederick. Being off on a mission of his own, he never receives her letter. He arrives at San Salvatore hot on the trail of Lady Caroline. A string of near misses and misunderstood circumstances follow, with no one the wiser. Lady Caroline is a good sport. The passion in Rose and Frederick’s marriage is suddenly rekindled presumably by gardens and sunshine.

“That last week the syringa came out at San Salvatore, and all the acacias flowered…. When, on the first of May, everybody went away, even after they had got to the bottom of the hill and passed through the iron gates out into the village they still could smell the acacias.”

Von Arnim is wise and gentle with her characters. Using an omniscient point of view, she humorously dissects the motives of each, pardoning excesses, foolishness and selfishness.

Who knows if Mellersh will continue to value Lotty, if Rose will cease to bore Frederick, if Lady Caroline will find meaning in her privileged life or if Mrs. Fisher will forsake the past for the present. All we know is a garden in Italy has replenished the souls of four women.

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“The Occasional Garden,” H.H. Munro (Saki)

What a pity that H.H. Munro had to go off and get shot by a German sniper in The Great War. He was only forty-five. His short stories appeared in British newspapers from 1899 up until he enlisted. A master of comic brevity – you might call his the flash fiction of its day. Under the pen name Saki, he concentrated on political and social satire in the O. Henry, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward tradition. ”The Occasional Garden” was later published in a collection, The Toys of Peace. His work is downloadable at Project Gutenberg.

I was going to post only novel reviews, but couldn’t pass up this short gem. I found it in a collection called Garden Tales, Classic Stories from Favorite Writers with a lovely introduction by Martha Stewart. She talks about how both her love of reading and of gardening began as a child. Besides Saki, the book includes garden tales from Katherine Mansfield, Eudora Welty, John Steinbeck and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jane Gottlieb’s garden photographs are interspersed.

I think you’ll agree, this one’s a hoot.

 

THE OCCASIONAL GARDEN

“Don’t talk to me about town gardens,” said Elinor Rapsley; “which means, of course, that I want you to listen to me for an hour or so while I talk about nothing else.  ‘What a nice-sized garden you’ve got,’ people said to us when we first moved here.  What I suppose they meant to say was what a nice-sized site for a garden we’d got.  As a matter of fact, the size is all against it; it’s too large to be ignored altogether and treated as a yard, and it’s too small to keep giraffes in.  You see, if we could keep giraffes or reindeer or some other species of browsing animal there we could explain the general absence of vegetation by a reference to the fauna of the garden: ‘You can’t have wapiti and Darwin tulips, you know, so we didn’t put down any bulbs last year.’  As it is, we haven’t got the wapiti, and the Darwin tulips haven’t survived the fact that most of the cats of the neighbourhood hold a parliament in the centre of the tulip bed; that rather forlorn looking strip that we intended to be a border of alternating geranium and spiræa has been utilised by the cat-parliament as a division lobby.  Snap divisions seem to have been rather frequent of late, far more frequent than the geranium blooms are likely to be.  I shouldn’t object so much to ordinary cats, but I do complain of having a congress of vegetarian cats in my garden; they must be vegetarians, my dear, because, whatever ravages they may commit among the sweet pea seedlings, they never seem to touch the sparrows; there are always just as many adult sparrows in the garden on Saturday as there were on Monday, not to mention newly-fledged additions.  There seems to have been an irreconcilable difference of opinion between sparrows and Providence since the beginning of time as to whether a crocus looks best standing upright with its roots in the earth or in a recumbent posture with its stem neatly severed; the sparrows always have the last word in the matter, at least in our garden they do.  I fancy that Providence must have originally intended to bring in an amending Act, or whatever it’s called, providing either for a less destructive sparrow or a more indestructible crocus.  The one consoling point about our garden is that it’s not visible from the drawing-room or the smoking-room, so unless people are dinning or lunching with us they can’t spy out the nakedness of the land.  That is why I am so furious with Gwenda Pottingdon, who has practically forced herself on me for lunch on Wednesday next; she heard me offer the Paulcote girl lunch if she was up shopping on that day, and, of course, she asked if she might come too.  She is only coming to gloat over my bedraggled and flowerless borders and to sing the praises of her own detestably over-cultivated garden.  I’m sick of being told that it’s the envy of the neighbourhood; it’s like everything else that belongs to her—her car, her dinner-parties, even her headaches, they are all superlative; no one else ever had anything like them.  When her eldest child was confirmed it was such a sensational event, according to her account of it, that one almost expected questions to be asked about it in the House of Commons, and now she’s coming on purpose to stare at my few miserable pansies and the gaps in my sweet-pea border, and to give me a glowing, full-length description of the rare and sumptuous blooms in her rose-garden.”

“My dear Elinor,” said the Baroness, “you would save yourself all this heart-burning and a lot of gardener’s bills, not to mention sparrow anxieties, simply by paying an annual subscription to the O.O.S.A.”

“Never heard of it,” said Elinor; “what is it?”

“The Occasional-Oasis Supply Association,” said the Baroness; “it exists to meet cases exactly like yours, cases of backyards that are of no practical use for gardening purposes, but are required to blossom into decorative scenic backgrounds at stated intervals, when a luncheon or dinner-party is contemplated.  Supposing, for instance, you have people coming to lunch at one-thirty; you just ring up the Association at about ten o’clock the same morning, and say ‘lunch garden’.  That is all the trouble you have to take.  By twelve forty-five your yard is carpeted with a strip of velvety turf, with a hedge of lilac or red may, or whatever happens to be in season, as a background, one or two cherry trees in blossom, and clumps of heavily-flowered rhododendrons filling in the odd corners; in the foreground you have a blaze of carnations or Shirley poppies, or tiger lilies in full bloom.  As soon as the lunch is over and your guests have departed the garden departs also, and all the cats in Christendom can sit in council in your yard without causing you a moment’s anxiety.  If you have a bishop or an antiquary or something of that sort coming to lunch you just mention the fact when you are ordering the garden, and you get an old-world pleasaunce, with clipped yew hedges and a sun-dial and hollyhocks, and perhaps a mulberry tree, and borders of sweet-williams and Canterbury bells, and an old-fashioned beehive or two tucked away in a corner.  Those are the ordinary lines of supply that the Oasis Association undertakes, but by paying a few guineas a year extra you are entitled to its emergency E.O.N. service.”

“What on earth is an E.O.N. service?”

“It’s just a conventional signal to indicate special cases like the incursion of Gwenda Pottingdon.  It means you’ve got some one coming to lunch or dinner whose garden is alleged to be ‘the envy of the neighbourhood.’”

“Yes,” exclaimed Elinor, with some excitement, “and what happens then?”

“Something that sounds like a miracle out of the Arabian Nights.  Your backyard becomes voluptuous with pomegranate and almond trees, lemon groves, and hedges of flowering cactus, dazzling banks of azaleas, marble-basined fountains, in which chestnut-and-white pond-herons step daintily amid exotic water-lilies, while golden pheasants strut about on alabaster terraces.  The whole effect rather suggests the idea that Providence and Norman Wilkinson have dropped mutual jealousies and collaborated to produce a background for an open-air Russian Ballet; in point of fact, it is merely the background to your luncheon party.  If there is any kick left in Gwenda Pottingdon, or whoever your E.O.N. guest of the moment may be, just mention carelessly that your climbing putella is the only one in England, since the one at Chatsworth died last winter.  There isn’t such a thing as a climbing putella, but Gwenda Pottingdon and her kind don’t usually know one flower from another without prompting.”

“Quick,” said Elinor, “the address of the Association.”

Gwenda Pottingdon did not enjoy her lunch.  It was a simple yet elegant meal, excellently cooked and daintily served, but the piquant sauce of her own conversation was notably lacking.  She had prepared a long succession of eulogistic comments on the wonders of her town garden, with its unrivalled effects of horticultural magnificence, and, behold, her theme was shut in on every side by the luxuriant hedge of Siberian berberis that formed a glowing background to Elinor’s bewildering fragment of fairyland.  The pomegranate and lemon trees, the terraced fountain, where golden carp slithered and wriggled amid the roots of gorgeous-hued irises, the banked masses of exotic blooms, the pagoda-like enclosure, where Japanese sand-badgers disported themselves, all these contributed to take away Gwenda’s appetite and moderate her desire to talk about gardening matters.

“I can’t say I admire the climbing putella,” she observed shortly, “and anyway it’s not the only one of its kind in England; I happen to know of one in Hampshire.  How gardening is going out of fashion; I suppose people haven’t the time for it nowadays.”

Altogether it was quite one of Elinor’s most successful luncheon parties.

It was distinctly an unforeseen catastrophe that Gwenda should have burst in on the household four days later at lunch-time and made her way unbidden into the dining-room.

“I thought I must tell you that my Elaine has had a water-colour sketch accepted by the Latent Talent Art Guild; it’s to be exhibited at their summer exhibition at the Hackney Gallery.  It will be the sensation of the moment in the art world—Hullo, what on earth has happened to your garden?  It’s not there!”

“Suffragettes,” said Elinor promptly; “didn’t you hear about it?  They broke in and made hay of the whole thing in about ten minutes.  I was so heart-broken at the havoc that I had the whole place cleared out; I shall have it laid out again on rather more elaborate lines.”

“That,” she said to the Baroness afterwards “is what I call having an emergency brain.”

Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim

 

Watching an episode of Downton Abbey, I noticed one of the Crawley girls carrying a book called Elizabeth and Her German Garden. How true to detail is this Masterpiece series, as the book was an overnight success in 1898. Twenty-one editions were printed by 1899. Of course Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil would be reading it. This first post in my garden-friendly fiction blog celebrates Elizabeth von Arnim.

One might think a German garden would be humorless. But she’s a sassy one – this aristocratic Elizabeth. Her charming diary is filled with deep love of nature and witty pokes at German society. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of her. I was an English major. I knew of her cousin, Katherine Mansfield. Maybe the comedy in her writing made critics treat her less seriously.  I’m glad she is getting more attention now. The International Elizabeth von Arnim Society was founded in 2015 and is dedicated to fostering scholarly work on her writing.

I recently read Jennifer Walker’s lovely biography, Elizabeth of the German Garden and found her life thoroughly fascinating. Oh, the people she knew – E.M. Forster, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Edith Wharton, Virginia Wolfe and so many more notables.  I only knew of her first book and her revered The Enchanted April. I will post a future review of this book, as an Italian garden does figure in the rejuvenation of four unhappy women.  Come to find out she wrote twenty-two books. The last one, Mr Skeffington, came out shortly before she died at the age of seventy-four in 1941.

Elizabeth was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Australia to a British father and Australian mother. The family returned to England when she was three. She was musically gifted and attended the Royal College of Music where she studied the organ. At twenty-two, her father took her on a tour of Europe in search of a husband. In her family’s mind, age would soon limit her prospects. She met and fell in love with Graf Henning von Arnim Schlagenthin, a Prussian aristocrat. Living at their country estate near the Baltic Sea, she found a new love – gardening. Assuming her literary name, Elizabeth, she wrote her first book anonymously about her garden, her young daughters, and her husband, whom she called ‘The Man of Wrath.’  There are scenes where ‘The Man of Wrath’ earns his name.  He was big on duty and didn’t believe gardening could be considered such. She begged to differ.

“No,” he replied sagely; “your garden is not your duty, because it is your Pleasure.”

Elizabeth extends her wry observations of German society to a rose she’s having trouble with.

Dr. Grill must be a German rose. In this part of the world the more you are pleased to see a person the less is he pleased to see you; whereas, if you are disagreeable, he will grow pleasant visibly, his countenance expanding into wider amiability the more your own is stiff and sour.  But I was not prepared for that sort of thing in a rose, and was disgusted with Dr. Grill. He had the best place in the garden  – warm, sunny, and sheltered; his holes were prepared with the tenderest care; he was given the most dainty mixture of compost, clay, and manure; he was watered assiduously all through the drought when more willing flowers got nothing; and he refused to do anything but look black and shrivel.

She delights in her three little girls, writing amusingly about the unnamed April, May and June babies.

My three babies sang lustily too, whether they happened to know what was being sung or not. They had on white dresses in honour of the occasion, and the June baby was even arrayed in a low-necked and short-sleeved garment, after the manner of Teutonic infants, whatever the state of the thermometer. Her arms are like miniature prize-fighter’s arms – I never saw such things; they are the pride and joy of her little nurse, who had tied them up with blue ribbons, and kept on kissing them. I shall certainly not be able to take her to balls when she grows up, if she goes on having arms like that.

Elizabeth’s descriptions of nature are rhapsodic.

My garden is surrounded by cornfields and meadows, and beyond are great stretches of sandy heath and pine forests, and where the forests leave off the bare heath begins again; but the forests are beautiful in their lofty, pink-stemmed vastness, far overhead the crowns of softest gray-green, and underfoot a bright green whortleberry carpet, and everywhere the breathless silence, and the bare heaths are beautiful too, for one can see across them into eternity almost, and to go out on to them with one’s face towards the setting sun is like going into the very presence of God.

Her aristocratic station in life puts constraints on what tasks may be properly performed by a lady.

If I could only dig and plant myself! How much easier, besides being so fascinating, to make your own holes exactly as you choose instead of giving orders that can only be half understood from the moment you depart from the lines laid down by that long piece of string! In the first ecstasy of having a garden all my own, and in my burning impatience to make the waste places blossom like a rose, I did one warm Sunday in last year’s April during the servants’ dinner hour, doubly secure and feverishly dig a little piece of ground and break it up and sow surreptitious ipomoea, and run back very hot and guilty into the house, and get into a chair and behind a book and look languid just in time to save my reputation. And why not? It is not graceful, and it makes one hot; but it is a blessed sort of work and if Eve had had a spade in Paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business of the apple.

Elizabeth’s small stature housed a strong constitution. All her life she traveled extensively, hiked and sledded for miles at her beloved Swiss mountain retreat and took part in endless social activities in London. Here she expresses the philosophy she lived by.

Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women.

She is opinionated about her flowers too, beautifully describing what enchants her.

I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace, and next to a hyacinth look like a wholesome, freshly tubbed young girl beside a stout lady whose every movement weights down the air with patchouli. Their faint, delicate scent is refinement itself; and is there anything in the world more charming than the sprightly way they hold up their little faces to the sun. I have heard them called bold and flaunting, but to me they seem modest grace itself, only always on the alert to enjoy life as much as they can and not afraid of looking the sun or anything else above them in the face.

Above all, she aches to break the Victorian restraints on her sex.

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.  It is dull work giving orders and trying to describe the bright visions of one’s own brain to a person who has no visions and no brain, and who thinks a yellow bed should be calceolarias edged with blue.

No apologies for Elizabeth’s opinion of the lower classes. She is a product of her age, but a gifted writer.  Her own words are the best indication of what a delightful read this diary of one year in a German garden is. That’s why I have showered you with so many of them.