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Review: Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim


Pages: 207
Original date of publication: 1898
My edition: 1985 (Virago)
Why I decided to read: AV/AA
How I acquired my copy: September 2011, London

I’ve had Elizabeth and Her German Garden on Mount TBR since last September, and it came to my attention recently while watching the second season of Downton Abbey, when two characters talk about the book briefly in passing. The novel is a kind of diary that our heroine keeps in order to record her thoughts about motherhood, marriage, life—and, of course, her garden, in which she spends most of her time in order to get away from the stresses of daily life. Her husband, the Man of Wrath, doesn’t understand it, but Elizabeth’s situation will probably resonate with a lot of fellow introverts—she likes having the space in order to recharge.

Yes, there’s a fair amount in the book about gardening. But you don’t have to be a gardener necessarily in order to enjoy the book (in fact, in an early review, a reviewer was disappointed that there were no gardening tips for the amateur). Knowing what we know about Elizabeth, it’s interesting to watch how she handles the invasion of two unexpected houseguests at Christmastime—and how her husband assumes that she’ll enjoy it (why did those two get married in the first place? They seem to have nothing in common). There is something kind of poetic about Elizabeth’s prose, particularly in her descriptions of her need for solitude.

There is a (slight) autobiographical note to the novel, as Elizabeth von Armin was married to a German aristocrat. Homesick for England, in 1896 she accompanied her husband to his country estate as Nassenheide, outside Berlin, where she became enamored of the garden; Elizabeth and Her German Garden describes the first spring months that von Arnim spent there. I wasn’t quite as bothered by the Man of Wrath’s actions as some other readers, but then again I think von Arnim was satirizing the Count. It was also interesting to me to find out from the Introduction to the Virago edition that EM Forster visited the estate at Nassenheide in 1904.

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