I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim earlier this year, when I read The Enchanted April almost in one sitting. As often happens with a new-to-me author, I then had a long list of her books to look forward to. I've since gone on to read Christopher and Columbus and The Caravaners.
Elizabeth and Her German Garden is of course the first book that von Arnim published, in 1898, and it was a runaway best-seller, going through eleven printings that first year and ten more in 1899. It is a diary of her life over the course of a year, living on her husband's estate in Nassenheide, Pomerania. After some Google and Wikipedia research, I learned that Nassenheide is now called Rzędziny and sits on the border between Gernany and Poland (and that unfortunately nothing remains of the famous gardens). After reading so much about Prussia in the letters of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess, it seemed a good time to read this. Like the younger Victoria, Elizabeth left her home in England when she married an older man, moving with him to his Prussian home. Like the Crown Princess, she was homesick for her family and England, she found Prussian society somewhat stifling, and she disliked living in Berlin. On a visit to Nassenheide, she fell instantly in love with its 17th century schloss and its derelict gardens, and she persuaded her husband to live there at least part of the year.
When the book opens, Elizabeth is living there alone, supposedly supervising the renovations to the house, but actually spending her time in the garden, luxuriating not just in the beauties of nature but in her solitude, away from the cares of husband and children. Thirty years before A Room of One's Own, I am sure many women reading her book envied her that time above everything. I found myself wondering if the Crown Princess (by then the Dowager Empress) had ever read it and what she might have thought of it.
The book includes detailed descriptions of the gardens, what is planted, how it grows (or doesn't), what she would like to do, and the frustrations of directing the work, rather than getting her own hands in the dirt. Only once does she manage it:
"If I could only dig and plant myself! How much easier, besides being so fascinating . . . I did one warm Sunday in last year's April during the servants' dinner hour, doubly secure from the gardener by the day and the dinner, slink out with a spade and a rake and feverishly dig a little piece of ground and break it up and sow surreptitious ipomaea 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 with the apple."The diary entries also show us Elizabeth's husband, the famous "Man of Wrath" (who reminds me not a little of Baron von Ottringel of The Caravaners), her three charming daughters, "the babies," as well as neighbors, estate workers, and visitors. Two visitors make an extended and not completely welcome stay over the Christmas holidays, and Elizabeth takes them on a winter picnic to the shores of the Baltic, a fourteen-mile drive in the snow and cold. Though it is difficult to picnic under those conditions, the beauty of the scene makes up for all:
"For a long way out the sea was frozen, and then there was a deep blue line, and a cluster of motionless orange sails; at our feet a narrow strip of pale yellow sand; right and left the line of sparkling forest; and we ourselves standing in a world of white and diamond traceries. The stillness of an eternal Sunday lay on the place like a benediction."Like The Enchanted April, this is a book to treasure and to re-read.