Tulip Fever, Deborah Moggach

Imagine, the first really big boom and bust in the history of financial markets was over plants – tulip bulbs.

It is the 1630s in The Netherlands. People are enchanted by the beauty of the newly arrived Turkish bulbs. Their value climbs into the stratosphere with every level of society trying to get in on the action. It’s a country gone mad with some betting their very homes on the value of one bulb. In 1637 the Dutch government steps in to stop the craziness and declares them worth ten percent of what speculators are paying. The move is too late and all lose in the depression that follows.

This is the Golden Age in the Netherlands. Amsterdam is the richest city in Europe because of its far-flung shipping trade. The Dutch East India Company brings to the city exotic goods from all over the globe. Everyone from fishmonger to ship owner has extra guilders.

The Reformation is in full swing with Calvinism taking over Amsterdam. Catholics are tolerated but their churches closed. They are allowed to worship in private homes but only members of the Reformed Church can hold public office.  The new religion doesn’t go in for elaborate decoration like the Roman church. That dries up church patronage of the arts. Wealthy Dutch businessmen take up the slack and commission art for their homes. Portraits and Dutch interior paintings are in vogue.

Deborah Moggach deftly uses this historical setting in Tulip Fever, her tale of love and betrayal.  It’s the story of Sophia, a lovely young girl from a recently impoverished Catholic family who is married off to a widower, Cornelis Sandvoort, who has already lost two children and a wife. He is Protestant, wealthy and greatly desires an heir. Sophia submits to his nightly attempts to bring that child into being. She is grateful for his support of her family but thinks of herself as an upturned beetle pressed down by a shoe in their bed. Not exactly a romantic description of lovemaking.

Enter handsome young artist Jan van Loos. Cornelis hires him to paint their portrait. He buys a bouquet of Tulipa Clusiana to include in the portrait.

“Do they not remind us of the transitory nature of beauty, how that which is lovely must one day die?” he says.

Yes, beauty is transitory and so is youth and passion and the stock market. Hold your breath. Moggach’s prose is exquisite. Here are the Dutch after Sunday church.

“Churchgoing has purified them; they have repented their sins and been made whole; they have been saved from eternal damnation. They move like a black wave through the streets. Their souls are as scrubbed clean as the doorsteps along the way; their faith is as shiny as the door knockers. How clean is his nation, scoured both within and without!”

As tulip bulbs fuel recklessness in the people of Amsterdam, love ignites madness in Sophia. She and her maid Maria, concoct an outlandish plot. Circumstances have left them with no other choice, they believe.  But fear of the supernatural creeps in on Sophia. She sees condemnation as she walks the streets of Amsterdam.

“It’s raining. I hurry down the Street of Cheeses, down toward the harbor. The place is deserted. In the shops the huge Goudas sit like boulders; they sit in judgment.”

Amsterdam is a significant character in Tulip Fever.  Its beauty is mirrored in its canals; its energy bursts out of its warehouses. Like a woman, the city has many faces -the rinsed-clean look of a sunny day – the moodiness of a misty night.

“Nights are eerily still. Fog rises off the water. Figures can slip through the alleys undetected, for the fog is so dense that a man can scarcely see his hand in front of his face. Amsterdam is a city of ghosts, of crimes that leave no trace, for those who commit them are swallowed up into the vaporous night.”

This is a well told morality tale attesting to the greed of all. It is greed for beauty, deceptive beauty at that. For the most prized tulips with bold stripes and patterns are products of a virus. Only many years later do botanists make that discovery. So the Dutch, with their big windows open to the world, are still deceived. Jan, the artist, knows all about that. He looks at his painting of Sophia.

“She stands there motionless. She is suspended, caught between past and present. She is color, waiting to be mixed; a painting, ready to be brushed into life. She is a moment, waiting to be fixed forever under a shiny varnish.”

Alicia Vikander is lovely as Sophia in the movie version of Tulip Fever. Christoph Waltz is a believable combination of pomposity and generosity as her husband Cornelis. There are many good things about the movie. But Moggach’s prose is what gives the book its magic. The tulip is a mistress to speculators caught in her embrace.

“Tulipomania has claimed him too, and what a mistress she is! She flirts with other men; she leads them on. In the end, however, just when he thinks he might lose her, she surrenders to him. She gives herself up gladly to his arms, and a spasm of pleasure floods his body. For a while he is sated. Then the hunger rises again; the hunger is unslakable. That is the sort of mistress she is. Who could resist her?”


Black Orchids; A Nero Wolfe Mystery, Rex Stout


On a windy autumn morning we took a walk down west 35th street heading toward the Hudson River. After passing 9th Avenue and Dyer Street and before reaching 10th Avenue we spotted it on the building at 454.


IMAG0515The plaque was placed there by The Wolfe Pack, the name the Nero Wolfe  Society goes by.  The sight of it sent us back to the Manhattan of the 1930s and 40s, Nero Wolfe comfortably seated in his special chair in his brownstone, his leg man, Archie Goodwin, hot footing it around the city in search of clues. Through seventy-three mysteries, Wolfe dotes on orchids, but in Black Orchid, he shows the length to which he would go to obtain one or three.

Those familiar with Rex Stout mysteries know Wolfe’s ironclad schedule of spending two hours every morning (9 to 11) and two hours every afternoon (4 to 6) with his rooftop orchids. Solving mysteries must take place outside those hours.  He employs a live-in orchid expert named Theodore Horstmann, who sleeps up there. In “Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids,” Rex Stout assures us that growing orchids is not difficult with the right conditions, but breeding them is more complex than the work of a surgeon. Hybridizing is a career and Wolfe is committed to creating new orchids from the 10,000 already in his possession.

In Black Orchids Stout makes the plant business central to the plot. At the annual New York Flower Show there is a display of three black orchids. Not much can get Wolfe out of his made-to-fit yellow leather chair; so he sends Archie to study them on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and look for signs of wilt. Finally, on Thursday he must have a look for himself. He pushes his seventh of a ton frame from the yellow chair to take a trip to the show.

On his way to view the orchids Wolfe passes another display that has fascinated his assistant all week. Archie doesn’t know a peony from an azalea, but he knows a good looking gal when he sees one.  She is Anne Tracy, a young secretary for the nursery in charge of the display. She pantomimes a picnic in a woodland glade with a handsome fellow. They pick flowers, eat lunch, read on the grass and each afternoon at four he lies down with a newspaper over his head to take a nap. She takes off her shoes and stockings and wiggles her toes in the pool. The crowd swells. Wolfe is there too and notes that the broadleaf evergreens on display look sickly. That’s where a fictitious disease comes in – Kurume yellows, fatal to broadleaf evergreens and highly contagious.

At 4:30 Anne flips a little water out of the pool onto her sleeping co-star. That’s his cue to wake up. But on Thursday he doesn’t. It just so happens that the walking stick of the black orchid owner is found behind the door to the display, connected to a string that is connected to the pistol that shot the man so silently in the head as he lay in the grass. Wolfe’s offer to purchase a black orchid has already been roundly refused. He now seizes this new opportunity. He will solve the mystery and his payment will be not one but three black orchids. The black orchid owner fusses at the terms but sees no way out. Wolfe is even willing to sit on an uncomfortable little stool that barely supports him to further his investigation. That’s how important the black orchids are.

Why are the Nero Wolfe mysteries still popular?  After all, the last volume was published over forty years ago. Crime always comes about from universal human frailties like envy and greed. Stout knew that so he created a lazy, obese, genius detective. Then he added a sidekick who is the wisecracking New York version of Huck Finn. Who wouldn’t want to get a front seat on the shenanigans of these two. Here’s what we found on Dec 1st at Pete’s Tavern on 18th street near Gramercy Square. An enthusiastic group of Wolfe Pack members gathered upstairs in a private room to discuss the novella “Before I Die” and watch an A&E TV episode of the book. Conversation was lively and the food was good.

The Wolfe Pack is  forty years old and boasts over 500 members. Aside from the main pack in New York City there are racemes that meet in New England, the Mid Atlantic, Western New York state and online. (Orchids form elongated clusters of flowers called racemes along the main stem, bottom flowers opening first. Thus, a raceme is a local offshoot of the pack.) Each year the society announces its Annual Black Orchid Novella Award at the Black Orchid Banquet. It is given to the best submission that conforms to the tradition of the Nero Wolfe series. They publish a journal, The Gazette, twice a year and hold monthly book discussions.

You may wonder why Rex Stout’s mysteries are included in garden-friendly fiction, for the books are unquestionably who-dun-its. My reasoning is Nero Wolfe is truly besotted by orchids and his dedication is apparent in each mystery. How many gardeners spend four hours a day, each and every day, at garden tasks? And he cuts an orchid bloom each day to grace his desktop where he spends the rest of the day when he is not cooking and eating with Chef Fritz Brenner or sleeping in his yellow pajamas.

Nero Wolfe has been accused of misogyny; his household is all male and unlike Archie he never exhibits a romantic interest.  Could it be that to Wolfe the orchid is the mistress who never disappoints?  Whether she’s a showy Cattleya or a shy Cymbidium, under his unfaltering care she showers him with unending beauty and faithfulness. To those who say Nero Wolfe mysteries are not garden-friendly fiction, I say, “Pfui.”


The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.”

This opening line of The Secret Garden is as classic as the first words of Pride and Prejudice. The story continues by describing ten year old Mary “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.” She was always given her own way by her servants in India. Her parents were ashamed of her plainness and neglected her. So how she turned out when they died of cholera and left her an orphan was not really her fault.

The Secret Garden was unique in its time as Frances portrayed two distinctly unlikable children who, without the help of adults, pull themselves up out of malaise and nastiness to discover their own goodness and purpose in life. As contrived and full of prejudice as the story is, its concept of thinking positive thoughts to attain a positive life inspires young minds. Mary was pampered with all the physical necessities of life, but denied love and counsel and interest by anyone at all.

I have heard so many people point out The Secret Garden as a favorite childhood book. Though dated in attitude, something about it is magic to young readers. I think the obstinate girl, who would never think to ask permission, sleuthing through locked doors and hidden rooms is universally mysterious and captivating.

Frances’ own life has parallels to Mary’s. She was born in England into an affluent family. Her father died when she was five, considerably reducing the family’s circumstances. She was transplanted to a foreign country (America) as a child where her family lived in poverty.

Frances sold her first story to Godey’s Lady’s Book when she was eighteen. Her writing became the main support of her family. Her novels, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Little Princess, brought her fame and wealth. But The Secret Garden, published in 1909, is the one that has hung on and is considered a children’s classic.

Frances was inspired by the Christian Science Movement, newly popular at the time. She embraced its philosophy of mind over body. All healing is possible if only one pushes out negative thoughts. Christian Science philosophy guides the story line. Mary and her cousin Colin, an invalid confined to a wheelchair, heal themselves through nature, fresh air, gardening and positive thinking.

The ‘secret’ in the title is fitting for the garden is a secret, locked and abandoned for the ten years since Colin’s mother was tragically killed by a fallen tree branch. Mary and Colin are secreted away in the hundred room manor where servants and masters alike are forbidden to explore. Mary’s uncle has hidden himself away from his son by incessant traveling. The story of Colin’s mother’s death is a secret. Only the poor local families are free of secrets and presumably healthy and happy because of that.

What is probably so enticing for children is the spunk in Mary. She hears weird cries in the night and is told to dismiss the sounds, but steals through the dark corridors anyway until she finds her cousin Colin. He’s as nasty as she is, but she dismisses his complaint that he is destined to grow a grotesque hunchback and will soon be at death’s door.

Slyly Mary introduces Colin to the secret garden to which she has found the key. She has also found the old curmudgeon gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, who knows the history of the secret garden and is finally won over by Mary’s doggedness. Her other new friend, Dickon Sowerby, possesses close to divine qualities and communes with all wild creatures. Together the cousins and Dickon work to reclaim the garden and secretly plot to surprise Colin’s father with a healthy, straight-backed, walking son.

From their first meeting, Dickon enchants Mary with the magic of the moor in his broad Yorkshire dialect.

“There’s naught as nice as th’ smell o’ good clean earth, except th’ smell o’ fresh growin’ things when th’ rain falls on ‘em. I get out on th’ moor many a day when it’s rainin’ an’ I lie under a bush an’ listen to th’ soft swish o’ drops on th’ heather an’ I just sniff an’ sniff. My nose end fair quivers like a rabbit’s, Mother says.”

By the end of the book, Mary and Colin have worked harder than they had ever worked before, loving every minute of their secret mission. Archibald Craven finally comes home to a son he can hardly recognize and a garden brought back to the way it was meant to be.

The place was a wilderness of autumn gold and purple and violet and flaming scarlet, and on every side were sheaves of late lilies standing together – lilies which were white or white and ruby. He remembered well when the first of them had been planted that, just at this season of the year, their late glories should reveal themselves. Late roses climbed and hung and clustered, and the sunshine deepening the hue of the yellowing trees made one feel that one stood in an embowered temple of gold. The newcomer stood silent just as the children had done when they came into its grayness. He looked round and round.
“I thought it would be dead,” he said.

There are many editions of The Secret Garden. The photo above is a recent hardcover edition published by Canterbury Classics. The beautiful illustrations are by Kelly Caswell.

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.

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.