On Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Elizabeth and her German Garden”

Elizabeth and her German Garden

I thought this would be my first book by Elizabeth von Arnim but I’d totally forgotten the wonderful The Enchanted April, which I’ve read a long time ago and enjoyed a great deal.

Published in 1898, Elizabeth and her German Garden was von Arnim’s first novel and was a huge success when it came out. It’s inspired by her own life and the time she spent in her garden in Nassenheide, Germany.

The book is written in form of a diary.

This is how it begins

May 7th—I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by the mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half an hour ago in a cold shower. Two owls are perched near me, and are carrying on a long conversation that I enjoy as much as any warbling of nightingales.

Elizabeth is married to an oldfashioned, stern man, she calls The Man of Wrath. She’s in her early 30s and has given birth to three girls she calls the April, May, and June baby. Unlike most other women of the German high society, Elizabeth hates living in Berlin where she suffocates indoors and has to put up with many obligations. She feels she can only be truly herself in her garden. She’s actually pretty clueless when it comes to gardening but that doesn’t diminish her enjoyment. She loves spending her money on seeds and plants and tries to be outdoors as much as possible. She reads, writes, and eats in her garden. Sometimes, to her annoyance, she has visitors. With the exception of one friend, Irais, she despises all of them.

The book is filled with beautiful, lyrical descriptions of her garden, the nature, and landscape of Pomerania. Elizabeth is an oddity in this society. A woman who prefers solitude and the outdoors.  She wishes, she were freer through, allowed to pick up a spade, do her own digging.

In spite of the many beautiful passages and witty comments on the people around her, I liked this far less than I thought I would. Elizabeth might rebel against her situation and the way women are treated, she’s aware of injustice when she’s its victim, but, unfortunately, when it comes to others she is far more condescending than kind. She hardly ever sympathisez with anyone, not with the workers on her husband’s farms, nor with the gardeners, the visitors, the horses she abuses to travel during icy periods, knowing very well it’s hard on them. Yes, she’s witty but she’s also quite cruel. She questions the treatment of women but isn’t bothered all that much how the workers are treated. She makes fun of them, even goes as far as calling them dumb. Maybe this is due to personal frustrations, still, I found her to be very unkind and, in the end, it tainted my reading experience. I was surprised to discover this side of the book as I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere. I only ever saw it praised for the lovely descriptions and sentiments on solitude and nature. Keen to see whether there were other reviewers feeling similar, I discovered an article in the Financial Times called The hidden dark side of “Elizabeth and her German Garden”. The writer wrote about a BBC radio 4 programme that left out all those negative passages that I mentioned before. He too, was baffled.

I would understand this kind of whitewashing if the passages were minor but they aren’t. The last third, for example, is dedicated to the visit of Elizabeth’s friend Irais and a young English woman called Menora. Menora is enthusiastic and very naïve, which Irais and Elizabeth find hilarious. They constantly make fun of her, make sure, she commits silly errors, let her believe that Elizabeth is German, although she’s English. There’s even some cruelty. All this shows that both Elizabeth and Irais feel superior.

Before ending this post, I d’ like to mention one aspect that I found funny and often touching – the way she wrote about her babies. Those passages showed great love and concern and underlined her fears for the future of the girls, knowing so well, how little freedom women had in this society.

I’m still glad I read this because the beautiful passages on nature are truly remarkable. Who knows, perhaps my memory will do its own whitewashing and I’ll only remember the positive aspects of the novel in a few years. That said, I’ll read more of Elizabeth von Arnim. Maybe I’m not being just and read this too much like an autobiography but it seemed so close to her life.

29 thoughts on “On Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Elizabeth and her German Garden”

  1. Sounds like a very fair assessment of the novel’s strengths and limitations, Caroline. I have this, but will probably start with The Enchanted April as it’s the one everyone seems to love. Plus it’s on my Classics Club list so that’s an added incentive. It’s a shame about the lack of sympathy in this one, rather surprising in many respects. I wonder how I’ll find it – at least I have an idea of what to expect now.

    • I was a bit disappointed. She is ironic at times and maybe some of the harsher things were meant that way. Not sure though. She came across as very self-centered and not because she likes to be alone and loves nothing more than her garden. I’d love to hear what you think.

  2. There’s some beautiful writing but I know what you mean – I think it’s kind of a class thing. I’ve been encountering that in Dorothy Richarsdsom, a real disdain and discomfort expressed towards working people. A product of the time I guess.

    • Yes, I agree. I just think, why couldn’t she see that the way women were treated wasn’t so much different from the way working people were treated. The beautiful passages were lovely though.

  3. This was one of the first books I read this year. I too was a little puzzled by her mean streak. I wasn’t entirely sure if she was mocking herself, or didn’t really see herself in a complete light. However, it was a beautiful book!

    • At times I was wondering the same but in the end I think she didn’t.
      I’m glad I’m not the only one who found her mean.
      The beginning and the descriptions are lovely.

    • I watched the movie but forgot all about it.
      I really liked the novel though but it’s been so long since I read it. I was still a teenager I think. Not sure I would still like it.

  4. I too was surprised that I didn’t like Elizabeth and Her German Garden better. The woman speaking to us knows what she wants and likes but has little patience with others, such as the unwanted guest and the Man of Wrath. Some people see this as feminist protest, but I’m not no sure.

    Nevertheless I went on to read Vera and The Pastor’s Wife, both of which I thought were great. They are portraits of two very different marriages. In Vera, a naive young woman is taken over by a know-it-all husband and it is scary in its depiction of his attack on her independence of mind and spirit. In The Pastor’s Wife we have a marriage of two well-meaning individuals without the least understanding of each other, whose marriage works — mostly — for that reason. Both books are better plotted than the German garden book.

    • I really couldn’t see those passages as a feminist protest. Why would she have to be so unkind and unfeeling. I get the annoyance with the clueless Menora but not with the workers.
      I also found the structure clumsy, so I’m glad to hear other novels are better, especially since I’ve got The Pastor’s Wife.
      I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who was surprised by the book.

  5. I’m so glad I’ve read your review as I read ‘An Enchanted April’ very recently and loved it, and was soon to launch headlong into ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’. I still intend to read it, but will approach with caution!

    • I think coming to this totally unprepared wasn’t ideal. I wish, I had known more before reading this. It was one of the reasons why I decided writing about it. I rememberloving The Enchnated April a great deal and I’m certain I’ll like some of her other novels.

  6. This is one which I used to buy in small quantities and give as gifts, especially, of course, to gardeners. But after two friends confessed that they’d found her unlikeable, I kept her to myself! Although I agree that the contrast in tones is a little startling, she does seem a realistic character, if not an entirely comfortable one with whom to spend time. I don’t recall there being much of a change in tone with the sequel, but perhaps even knowing what to expect will make it a little more enjoyable!

    • I think that if I had known more about it, I would have enjoyed it more. I was so startled and unprepared. And the structure is uneven. In the second part she moves away from gardening. I’m glad I read it though. She’s a fine writer.

  7. I must say I loved this book, but yes Elizabeth is definitely a product of her class and the society she is part of. Her astute observations do make her cruel sometimes. I agree she writes so beautifully about her children.

  8. Great review Caroline.

    Based on your commentary it sounds as if many readers have missed or ignored major aspects of the main character. It seems like it might be interesting as a character study. The fact that it has strains of autobiography complicates the issue.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      I think what might have kept some people from paying attention to these aspects is the fact thta it’s not only a beautiful but alos, in many places, a feminist text. Her rebellion against patriarchy and tradition is obvious. Some readers might have forgive her her other shortcomings.

  9. I read another review of this book by someone who loved it and picked it up shortly thereafter. Just did not like her or her attitude towards other people. I enjoyed Enchanted April, however.

  10. My memory must be worse than I thought! I certainly don’t remember experiencing feelings about Elizabeth as you did. A good reason for reading it again. I am surprised at my reaction because I like character driven books and Elizabeth seems to have been a real ‘character ‘. I’ve read The Caravaners and Elizabeth’s Adventures in Rugen as well as The Enchanted April and must admit that it was the descriptions that affected me most.
    I need to reacquaint myself with Elizabeth. I am intrigued. Thank you for reawakening my interest.

    • I’m very glad the post inspired you to rediscover hear. Let me know how you about her now.
      I could imagine that if I hadn’t written this post I might have ended up forgetting my negative reaction. I picked it up because I love books on nature and gardens and it didn’t disappoint in that.

  11. Thanks for this wonderful review, Caroline! I haven’t read an Elizabeth von Arnim book before and despite its flaws this is very appealing to me. Beautiful garden, beautiful passages on nature, introvert writer who hates people – I will try to get it soon. Can’t wait to read. Thank you 🙂

    • Thank you Vishy. I’m so glad the review makes you wish to read it anyway. I wish she’d been kinder but there were moments when I felt a kinship. I don’t think utvwas easy being married to the kind if man she was married to. Her love for her garden is very deep. Let he know how you like it if you read it.

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