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.