Elizabeth Taylor: The Soul of Kindness (1964)

Published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s later novels. It’s the seventh novel by her that I’ve read and since I want to read everything she has written, it won’t be my last. I have to be honest though – if this had been my first, I might not have been so keen to carry on. While most other novels have one, or two central characters, this is more of an ensemble piece. It says in the foreword that it is one of three novels that don’t centre on a main character. The other two being In A Summer Season and The Wedding Group, both of which I haven’t read yet. This may sound as if I didn’t like it – that’s’ not the case but I think it works better when you know her writing already and read it as part of her oeuvre. If not, you might feel a bit let down by the lack of plot and its feeling a bit disjointed at times, especially since the blurb tells us this is Flora’s story. I suppose that was a marketing decision, as it isn’t her story, not in a traditional way that is. She’s more like the central figure among a group of people. But she’s definitely “the Soul of Kindness” the ironic title alludes to.

When the book opens, we see her as a shining bride, all eyes on her. She’s the belle of the ball. While people do admire her and many think highly of her, nobody does so as much as she does herself. Right away she is presented as attractive and nice, but also too fond of herself and a little ridiculous.

“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.

Most of the central characters of this novel, are present at the wedding. Especially those whose lives Flora wants to improve. Among those unlucky ones are Meg, her best friend, Kit, Meg’s brother, and Percy and Ba, her father in law and his mistress. They are unlucky because Flora might be well meaning but she’s so self-centred, her attempts to help leads to smaller and bigger catastrophes. To help another person one has to be able to see them for what they are and that’s something Flora is incapable of.

While there isn’t really a plot, and after these initial scenes, not even a main character, the book still offers a lot. There are so many astutely observed character portraits, small vignettes, and scenes, some of which quite funny, that it’s a joy to read. I was particularly fond of Elizabeth Taylor’s use of atmospheric descriptions to convey a mood.

Here’s a very melancholic passage. We see Mrs Secretan, Flora’s mother, who was wishing so much for Flora to marry well, but never thought what it would mean for her, as a widow, that her daughter would move out.

The air smelt autumnal. In no time there would be thick evening mist coming up from the water, a complete silence from the towing-path, and the river rising; perhaps floods. And Flora would be settled in London and never to come here again, except as a guest.

I made all the plans, Mrs Secretan thought; down to the last detail. But I forgot this, I forgot myself and the future. I particularly overlooked this evening. She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes.

This passage shows us, quite clearly that even her mother doesn’t think of Flora as kind and good, but merely as well-meaning with fatal consequences.

And here’s a funny passage in which Mrs Secretan, encouraged by her son-in-law, thinks about travelling. It captures both characters, of Flora and her mother so well.

To Flora’s astonishment she (her mother) was quite seriously weighing the pros and cons – of Hellenic tours (‘might be too scholarly’), India (‘but I dare say it is spoiled, now that it doesn’t belong to us’), the Holy Land for Christmas.

‘Yes, I might plump for the Holy Land for Christmas,’ she had told Flora, who had been deeply shocked. At Christmas! she had thought in dismay. So what shall we do? Christmas had always been a sacred time, with cherished customs, not one for taking oneself off to the Holy Land.

Flora is so oblivious of other people and their needs that she’s pretty much the only happy character in this novel. All the others strive for something or someone they can’t attain. Or, because of Flora, they start to strive for something that’s not attainable, risking their contentment for a mirage.

In The Soul of Kindness, like in all of her novels, Elizabeth Taylor excels at creating well-rounded, believable characters. Their relationships are complex and at times complicated. Nothing is as simple as Flora perceives it. Not even her own husband Richard. He’s very much in love with his wife, because of her beauty, but knows that she’s too self-centred to be clever. No wonder he’s attracted to his unhappy neighbour. This relationship triggers Flora’s jealousy and we see, she can be perceptive when she feels threatened.

In the foreword, Flora is called demonic, which I find a total exaggeration. I don’t think she’s as bad as we’re initially led to believe. Yes, she’s self-centred, oblivious, and puts in motion some things that go terribly wrong, but she’s the glue that holds all these people together. Without her, this particular group of people and their relationships wouldn’t exist. And that’s not a little thing. It’s a gift to attract interesting people and to bring them together. I would, if I had to judge her, call her very imperfect, but neither demonic nor mean. That’s why, ultimately, she’s liked and forgiven.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don’t think it’s as good as others. I believe it doesn’t succeed at being the portrait of one central character like Angel for example, but that’s how the beginning reads. All the initial chapters place Flora at the centre but this cohesion eventually fizzles out. As if Elizabeth Taylor had realized too late that Flora wasn’t a big enough character to carry a whole story. I could be totally wrong, of course, as critics have called this one of her, if not her best book.

Since this is one of three “group stories” I hope I will like the other two In A Summer Season and The Marriage Group more.

Here’s another take on this novel by Jacqui. 

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson (1931)

Feeling a little under the weather a couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed something to cheer me up. E. F. Benson’s much-loved novel Mapp and Lucia seemed an excellent choice. I didn’t expect to have such a peculiar reading experience though. Mapp and Lucia has been on my piles for ages and ever since I got it, I saw people mention it as a novel they loved. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was planning to read it, the reactions were enthusiastic. Logically, I was sure, I would love it but for the first hundred pages I did not only not love it, I almost hated it. And then, I still don’t know why, I started to like it so much, that I still miss reading it. I believe that’s what some people call a book hangover.

At the beginning of the novel, we find Lucia and her best-friend Georgie, still in Riseholm, where Lucia owns the most beautiful house and occupies the centre of the social life. That is, she did before her husband died. While he’s been dead for over a year, Lucia felt it was her duty to still live like a recluse. But enough is enough and she’s planning to re-enter Riseholm’s social life and be its queen again. Georgie who missed her shenanigans, is happy that she’s finally back. We’re led to believe that her mourning was only in part real, a lot of it was just for show. And so are most things with Lucia. She does and says so much just for show and to grab the attention of the people around her. One of the funniest things she does for show, is pretending that she speaks Italian. She addresses Georgie, and other people, constantly with little Italian sentences and phrases, exclaims her joy or distaste in Italian morsels. The people of Riseholm and Tilling admire and envy her for that.

After reclaiming the Riseholm stage, Lucia is soon bored and wishes to conquer new territory. She decides to rent Mallard, the most beautiful house in Tilling. The house belongs to Miss Mapp, the centre of Tilling’s social life. Just like Lucia, she’s an attention-grabber, self-centred to the max, and never shies away from thinking about her own advantage. It’s the custom amongst the Tilling upper middle-class to sublet their homes in summer. Mallard being the most expensive one, it’s rented to foreigners; the next in line, Diva’s house, is taken by Miss Mapp. Diva rents someone else’s, and so on. Luckily for Lucia, Georgie decides to rent Mallard cottage and join her for the summer. He will prove, once more, to be her most ardent ally.

At first, things are amicable enough, but soon Lucia isn’t satisfied anymore and wants to become the centre of Tilling. Things are a bit different here though. While there was no real competition for her in Riseholm, there’s formidable Miss Mapp in Tilling to be reckoned with. She’s the most important person in Tilling and there’s nothing that she doesn’t preside over, nothing she doesn’t decide, much to the annoyance of some of the other inhabitants of Tilling. Lucia might always have wanted to become Tilling’s most influential person, but having competition spurs her on even more. In Miss Mapp, she’s found her match. While things don’t often turn out the way Miss Mapp has planned, she still wins more than one small skirmish in this war.

As I said, initially, I hated the book because I found the characters obnoxious and nasty. But once the reader gets to see behind Lucia’s mask and Miss Mapp defeats her more than once, it’s more and more enjoyable.

And there’s life at Tilling. A carefree life that’s so different from most of our lives nowadays. Not only because it’s set before WWII, but because it’s set among the British upper middleclass. Nobody works in this book. All the main characters own beautiful houses. All they think about is, where they will dine next, who gives the best tea party. Gossip and petty quarrels aside, it’s a peaceful world. The conflicts are entirely the character’s own making. Nothing dramatic ever comes from outside. At least not until the end. After a while, I found spending time in this world very comforting. And funny. It’s a terrific social comedy. Lucia’s pretence to know Italian is hilarious and so is the way they constantly try to outsmart each other.

When I got the book, I wasn’t aware that it was part of a series, and not even the first in the series, but the fourth. Luckily, it works very well as a stand-alone. As far as I know, this is the first of these books that feature both Lucia and Miss Mapp.

Has anyone read other books in this series? Are they just as good?

Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions For a Heatwave (2013)

I’m so behind with book reviews that it’s highly unlikely, I’ll ever catch up. This would have been one of many I was going to put aside “for later”, but the title’s too fitting to postpone reviewing it. And it was enjoyable.

The heatwave of the title refers to the heatwave of 1976, one of the worst the UK has ever seen. I don’t know anyone who was alive back then, no matter how small, who wouldn’t remember it. While it’s possibly as hot now as it was then, the heat started earlier, I think, in June and there were massive water shortages. Let’s hope that it won’t come to that. Although it looks dire already. “Over here”, where I live, Continental Europe, it’s even hotter. And, just like in the UK, we have no air conditioning. In Switzerland it’s even forbidden to have them in your own home. Small ones, yes, but they don’t help much. Before diving into the review, let me moan some more – yesterday, the thermometer in our flat showed 35°! Only two degrees less than outside. Sleeping, you wonder? Not so much. My poor cats crawl into dark corners, hoping dark means cool and stay there until the evening. Normally, they run around all day. Unfortunately, he’s afraid of the fan, while she enjoys it

Now on to Maggie O’Farrell. As I mentioned already, Instructions For a Heatwave is set in 1976 during the heatwave and tells the story of the Riordan family. One morning, the dad, Robert Riordan, leaves the house and doesn’t come back. His wife Gretta is shocked and flustered. She calls her children hoping they will come and help her. Already the first phone calls show the family dynamics. There are misunderstandings, half-truths, accusations, exaggerations, tensions. And the three children are facing troubles of their own, that are now, through this family emergency, magnified. At the same time, the emergency shows how frail their family bonds are, how dysfunctional. Gretta is a hypochondriac. She changes subjects when she feels she doesn’t want to talk about something and that is often. She pops pills, makes stuff up and has her kids constantly on alert. Some of the reasons for her behaviour will be revealed later.

Michael Francis is the oldest sibling and in the middle of his own family crisis. It may very well be that his wife, who is reinventing herself, will leave him. He’s not entirely without fault though. Monica, the first daughter, married for the second time, is also doubtful about the future of her marriage. And Aoife, the youngest, is in New York, trying desperately to hold on to a life she loves but that is threatened because it’s built on a lie – nobody knows that she’s a functional illiterate.

When they hear of their dad’s disappearance they all return home. At first, the reunion is frosty and awkward. There are too many things that have been left unsaid in the past and too many family secrets. The biggest is the reason for their dads’ disappearance.

It will take them a few days to sort some things out and then they take a family trip to Ireland, where the parents originally come from.

Instructions for a Heatwave is in many ways an astonishing book. It’s so intricately told, the stories are so tightly interwoven that I was constantly wondering – how did she do that? She moves in out of characters’ minds, switches from the present to the past and back again, but it’s never confusing because it’s so well done.

This is the story of a dysfunctional family but one with hope. They do not give up on each other nor on themselves. Gretta was possibly my favourite character although she reminded me of my late mother (minus my mother’s meanness that is). It’s fascinating to see a character description that resonates so much. Just like Gretta, my mother would always change the subject if she didn’t want to talk about something, pretending she hadn’t heard what had been said and then pretending she had an attack of something (cough, sickness, stomach cramps, “nerves”) and urgently needed her pills. Also, like Gretta, she would start chatting with anyone, finding out family stories and other people’s secrets without ever revealing any of her own. Since the Riordan’s are Irish and Catholics, that was something I could relate to as well. Looking back, it was no fun being brought up by a Catholic mother – my dad was anti-clerical, so that balanced things out a bit.

While this book resonated a lot with me because of my own history, I still think anyone who loves complex family stories would like this very much. In the past, I had mixed experiences with Maggie O’Farrell. I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but didn’t care for another one of her books (I think it was After You’d Gone). This rich and lovely novel has put me in the mood to read more by her. Her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am is already on my piles.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (2016)

Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives. But like a diagnosis, a story can become a prison, a straight road mapped out by the people who went before. Stories are not the truth.

Rave reviews of Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone caught my attention and I decided I had to read it. I’ve read two of her earlier novels, Cold Earth, a stunning ghost story, and Bodies of Light, a mesmerizing historical novel. I enjoyed them very much and was pretty certain I would love The Tidal Zone as well. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I liked it but didn’t love it. I’m not exactly sure, why I didn’t warm to this ambitious book. It offers so much. Meditations on life and death, gender, politics, family life, illness, the NHS . . . I could go on.

It’s the story of a family that almost unravels when the heart of the 15-year-old daughter, Miriam, stops. Miriam survives the episode but has to stay at the hospital for a long time as it’s not clear what brought on this reaction. She seems to suffer from some type of allergy. Adam, a stay-at-home dad, spends most of his time at her side, only occasionally replaced by his overworked wife, a doctor, who works for the NHS.

Many reviewers called this a “state of the nation” novel and that’s accurate. It definitely looks at the way people live in Britain now. Or rather, the way middle-class, white people live in England. Adam’s a bit of a failed academic and is working on writing something about the Coventry cathedral. The book alternates between reflections on the cathedral, which was, along with most of the city, destroyed during WWII. Like Miriam’s incident, the stories that are told in these parts are about human frailty and the unpredictability of life. But they also help to illustrate the family history as Adam’s Jewish dad was born in the US. The family fled Europe during the war.

Fiction is the enemy of history. Fiction makes us believe in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy and comedy. There is neither tragedy nor comedy in war, only disorder and harm.

While I didn’t warm to this book, I enjoyed many of its parts. This is a family of intellectuals who seem to love a good argument. The descriptions of family life are often hilarious. Miriam’s a great, great character.

Here’s  her answer to her dad’s question whether she’ll go with him to Coventry cathedral:

It’ll take more than coloured glass and old music to make me sign up to homophobia, misogyny and the grandfather of all patriarchal institutions.

She’s bright, very political and engaged. She will never let anyone get away with bullshit. It was so refreshing to read their repartees.

She had joined Amnesty International and Greenpeace and the Green Party. She said patriarchy and hegemony and neo-liberalism, several times a day. She put streaks of blue in her hair and enjoyed baiting her teachers by wearing mascara: but Miss, you’re wearing makeup. But Sir, aren’t you just inducting us into a world more interested in policing women’s sexuality than giving us knowledge?

Obviously, this isn’t your every day family as Adam’s a stay-at-home dad. While it does sound like hard work at times and he makes huge efforts to ensure that the family always has clean clothes, nourishing, healthy meals and that the house is clean and tidy, we never hear it mentioned that he struggles. I found that interesting because I can’t remember every reading a novel about a stay-at-home mum who also was an academic and tried to get work done and it sounded so harmonious. I wonder if that was a conscious choice and if so, why. I remember that the mothers in Sarah Moss’ earlier books struggled quite a bit with motherhood.

As you see, there’s a lot to love here. So why didn’t I warm to this? The book had the misfortune of reminding me of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. None of the characters is even remotely as obnoxious as those in Saturday, still, there’s a similarity. Probably because the characters both occupy the same social territory. Or maybe I didn’t warm to this because Sarah Moss tried hard to show us another side of her talent. While the other novels I read were very atmospheric and spoke to the senses, this one speaks purely to the mind and – depending on the reader – to the emotions. Since I had no emotional reaction to this, it spoke only to my mind, which wasn’t enough for me to love it.

Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (1949)

a-wreath-of-roses

Published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses was Elizabeth Taylor’s fourth novel and the sixth I’ve read. Usually, when I decide to read everything by an author, I try to read in chronological order, not so in Elizabeth Taylor’s case. I seem to jump back and forth in time. I can’t say it minimizes my enjoyment but I might be less aware of her development as an author.

Every summer, Camilla, Liz and Frances meet for a month at Frances’ house in the country. Camilla and Liz have been friends for years. The much older Frances, who is now a painter, was Liz’s governess. For years, the month in the country was the highlight of their year, but this year things have changed. Liz who is newly married and wonders if she’s made a mistake, has brought her baby and is constantly afraid something might happen to him. Frances is getting very old and can hardly paint anymore. And Camilla, the main point of view character, is scared of old age as a spinster. All three of them are aware that things are not like they used to be. They still talk openly but they aren’t lighthearted anymore. While they still enjoy each other’s company, the changes and differences also bring out their darker sides.

The novel begins with Camilla waiting for a train. Richard, a very handsome man, is waiting next to her. He’s the kind of man she would never be interested in normally but the two witness a horrible tragedy and when they meet again, later at the local pub, they talk and she’s suddenly attracted. Liz who is there as well warns her. She has a bad feeling about this man. She is not the only one. Frances has invited an admirer of her paintings, Mr Morland, who stays at the same hotel as Richard. He finds him sneaky and dishonest. Richard is that and much worse. He’s a notorious liar and, as Camilla will find out, very dangerous.

Camilla’s affair with Richard stands in stark contrast to the rest of the novel, which explores the friendship of the three women and their characters. The book is filled with wonderful, psychologically astute character descriptions. The three women are very honest with each other and accept each other in spite of their differences and the many changes they have undergone. Some of their exchanges are wonderfully outspoken. Camilla doesn’t even shy away from telling Liz she hates her husband.

Loneliness is a theme in almost all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. In A Wreath of Roses, she excels at exploring it from different angles. All of the characters are to some extent afraid of loneliness and try to combat or prevent it in different ways. Liz has married, almost out of the blue, a very pompous man, whom Camilla dislikes. Camilla has begun the affair with Richard because she dreads the idea of another lonely, uneventful year as a secretary in a school. And Frances, the most independent of the three, not only accepts Morland’s friendship but Liz’s offer to possibly live with her and her husband in the future.

Of the three women, Camilla is the one the reader gets to know best. She’s in many ways the most tragic because she’s alone although she’d like to be in a relationship. Only she hasn’t found the right man. Richard is only a distraction. In their discussions, the women speak openly about marriage and gender roles. They don’t seem to think that there could be camaraderie between a husband and a wife, but they know there is companionship, which might be preferable to loneliness. This view of marriage is quite pessimistic but what struck me even more is that the life of a single woman is portrayed in an equally pessimistic way. Unless a woman has a vocation that fulfils her completely, like Frances has her art, she will end up sad and lonely. On the other hand, marriage might stifle her development.

A Wreath of Roses caught me by surprise for many reasons. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did and certainly wasn’t prepared for something as sinister. But there was also a small disappointment. I didn’t appreciate the somewhat circular structure and the way it ended. Those who have read it will now what I’m talking about. But don’t get me wrong, it’s a minor reservation. Otherwise, this is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s richest and most nuanced novels. It combines a wonderful cast of characters with a tone and mood that is at times acerbic but mostly bitter-sweet and melancholic. An interesting combination, for sure. In spite of the somewhat puzzling ending, A Wreath of Roses has become one of my favourites, together with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek.

Elizabeth Taylor: Angel (1957)

Angel

Angel was my fifth Elizabeth Taylor novel and it was nothing like the ones I’ve read before. It’s almost entirely a character portrait, covering one person’s life from her teenage years to her death. I can’t remember many other of her novels spanning so many years, with the exception of A Game of Hide and Seek, but even that stops before middle age, as far as I remember.

The novel starts with an éclat. Fifteen-year-old Angel is caught lying. She’s been telling two small girls of her glamorous life at Paradise House. In reality, she and her mother live in a crammed apartment above her mother’s shop and Paradise House is the place where her aunt, a lady’s maid, works. When her mother finds out about her lies, she’s so angry that she slaps her. Not something Angel’s likely to forgive. Since she was a child, Angel fantasizes about the house and thinks that she should be living there and not the other Angel, the daughter of her aunt’s mistress.

This early scene tells us a lot about Angel. Not only is she unhappy about her circumstances but she imagines a better life for herself, feeling that she’s entitled to it. Since she’s got such a rampant imagination, she thinks the best revenge is to do something with it and she begins to write a novel. Her mother and her aunt are horrified. Writing? What and idea! But Angel doesn’t care. No matter the cost, she will become a famous author. This is another of her traits – she is determined and when she’s determined she doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants. All this wouldn’t be so bad but Angel is also deluded. She thinks that she’s a great writer although what she produces is pure schlock. She loves to imagine things but she never does any research. She’s also quite ignorant. People in her books open champagne bottles with a corkscrew. Her books are not only risqué but full of inconsistencies, melodrama and bad taste. At first her novel is rejected but then she finds a publishing house that is willing to give it a go. The two publishers are so amused by her writing that they can’t let it pass, thinking that the public might enjoy it for its raunchy scenes and wild spinning of tales. And they are right. Angel’s novels are a major success, making her not only famous but very rich.

Unfortunately, and this is the true tragedy, she doesn’t know that her books are loved in spite of being bad and not because they are, as she believes, masterpieces.

It wouldn’t be an Elizabeth Taylor novel if it wasn’t astute, witty, and wonderfully well-observed. Not only Angel’s mother, but also her aunt, the publishers, the servants, her friend Nora, and Nora’s brother Esmé, are all fully rounded characters.

Obviously, delusions like Angel’s cannot last a life time. While the book is funny and often hilarious in the beginning, the tone and mood get darker and very melancholic in the end.

I thought that Angel was grotesque in many ways but she had endearing qualities. She discovers vegetarianism and a deep love for animals. The big house in which she lives swarms with cats and there are many wonderful scenes. Elizabeth Taylor must have had cats because so many details are so well captured.

Angel’s a lonely figure but she has some relationships. With her live-in friend Nora, her gardener, and others. While they are all exasperated, they stay with her. Not only because of her money, although that’s part of it, but because she’s so genuine. She may be deluded, she may be flawed, but she’s true to herself. Always and at any cost.

I was wondering the whole time while reading this book where the inspiration for this novel came from. Hilary Mantel, who wrote the introduction, thinks that in writing this book Elizabeth Taylor showed how bad writers can make money while good ones, like Taylor herself, are never fully recognized during their life time. But that’s not all, according to Mantel, it’s also a very astute depiction of the life of a writer. I’m not entirely satisfied with these explanations. I think she must have met someone like Angel. When I started reading the book, I found Angel unrealistic, but then I remembered a woman I once worked with who was almost exactly like Angel.

Angel is very different from the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read so far but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t as good. It’s an amazing book. It’s funny, clever, and so well-observed. I read so many novels that I forget within a month or two, but I’m not likely to forget Angel and its fascinating eponymous character.

Here are my other Elizabeth Taylor reviews, should you be interested. They aren’t in any particular order.

At Mrs Lippincote’s

A Game of Hide and Seek

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Blaming

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.