Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Summer reading

The Solitary Summer, Elizabeth von Arnim

A recent review of this book (I wish I could remember where) reminded me that I had a copy of it on the TBR stacks, perfect for summer reading. I was expecting a sequel of sorts to Elizabeth and Her German Garden, focused on the summer months in her beloved garden on the family's estate in Nassenheide, Pomerania (now called Rzędziny), with her husband (the famous "Man of Wrath") and her three little girls, the April, May & June babies. Like the earlier book, this is in the form of a journal, which begins in May and ends in October. In the first entry, Elizabeth tells her husband,

"I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will go into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I'll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace."

He warns her that she'll catch cold and sunburn lying around in the fields, people will think she is mad, and she will be bored, but "You know you do as you please, and I never interfere with you." He reminded me a bit of Marmee in Little Women, when the four girls want to spend their vacation time free even from their household work, who wants to teach them that all play is just as bad for them as all work. I settled in to read, already envious of her long leisurely summer days (and sure she would prove her husband wrong in the end). But while there is plenty of discussion of her garden, her delight in it, her frank accounts of her failures with it, the peace she indeed finds, it moves far beyond her garden, and I found those excursions fascinating.

Elizabeth usually takes a book with her on her rambles, which leads to a discussion of how books must be read in their proper place and at the proper time. Thoreau is for outdoor reading, out of place inside the house, while Boswell and Johnson belong "in the library when the lamps are lit . . . surrounded by every sign of civilisation." She moves from there to a meditation on reading: "What a blessing it is to love books." In her library, her favorite books are in cases built around a central pillar. The books on these shelves

lose the gloss of their new coats, and put on the comfortable look of old friends in every-day clothes, under the frequent touch of affection. They are such special friends that I can hardly pass them without a nod and smile at the well-known covers, each of which has some pleasant association of time and place to make it still more dear.

As her tastes change, books are promoted or demoted from the central cases to the wall cases, or to even more distant shelves - a system that we have in common. I love re-arranging shelves to accommodate some wonderful new book, debating which one must give way. I was glad to see that the first author she names from the prime favorite shelves is Jane Austen. I'd love to know which books are among the American and French and German children's books that she continues to read and love.

On one of the rare cloudy and windy days of the summer, Elizabeth's conscience drives her to make some long-delayed visits to the tenants in the village (reminding me of Austen's Emma on a similar errand when she meets Mr Elton). And suddenly the book becomes something of a social history, as she takes us into the cramped cottages and describes health and hygiene and diet. And in this book published in 1899, she calmly tells us that most of the couples in the area already have a child, in the cradle or on the way, by the time that they marry. While the local pastor denounces the sin and the sinners, his parishioners carry on, and Elizabeth herself can't condemn them, because "They only know and follow nature..." and divine forgiveness must surely encompass them. I found the whole discussion fascinating, and I wondered what her Victorian readers made of it.

One evening she drives out to an old mill for a solitary picnic. The elderly caretaker who lives there "informed me once that all women are mistakes, especially that aggravated form called wives . . ." As she sits in the gloaming, reading The Sorrows of Werther, suddenly she declares,

But here I am talking about Goethe, our great genius and idol, in a way no woman should. What do German women know of such things? Quite untrained and uneducated, how are we to judge rightly about anybody or anything? . . . Sitting there long after it was too dark to read, I thought of the old miller's words, and agreed with him that the best thing a woman can do in this world is to keep quiet.

Where in the world, I thought, did that come from? Is this "Elizabeth" speaking, or the real-life Mary Annette Beauchamp, who did not keep quiet, who spoke so frequently and definitely through her books? It is hardly a positive argument for the training and education of women. This might have been written by Baron von Ottringel of The Caravaners, whose pomposities about the proper place of women she so slyly tears to shreds. And then the book ends in October, with a discussion between husband and wife, and a final question that I find equally hard to interpret.

As often happens, this book was not what I expected, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, even as it left me puzzling over some of its parts.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!