Sunday 27 May 2012

What a Blessing it is to Love Books - and Gardens

The cover on my 1992 Virago edition
bears a detail from Vase aux Anemones,
1942, by Marevn (Maria Morobieff)
This week I have been busy in the garden, trying to restore some kind of order by pulling up weeds, which always reminds me of Persephone, because in the version of the myth I read as a child she was tugging at a particularly tough plant, and when it finally came out it left a huge hole in the ground, from which Hades, God of the Underworld, emerged and carried her off to his domain. All things considered, coping with slugs and snails should be quite simple compared to what Persephone had to contend with.

Anyway, there I was, hot, tired and cross, all ready to relax with a good book – and I decided the perfect volume to read in the garden on a hot, sunny day was The Solitary Summer, by Elizabeth von Arnim, so I’ve been joyfully rediscovering it after an absence of several years. Published in 1899, it’s a follow-up to Elizabeth and her German Garden and is, I think, even better, linking the garden, life and books in a series of essays or discourses, rather than a conventional novel.

It’s written in the form of a diary, with two entries a month from May to September, and one for October, so I’ve decided to try and post a few short thoughts, or an extract, over the summer. I’m not always in favour of splitting books into sections, because I can never manage to restrain myself to a slow read over a period of time – once I’ve started, I have to find out what happens (unless, of course, it’s a book I don’t like). But this lends itself to that approach, and is worth taking a closer look at. So, having read it in one sitting I can revisit the individual chapters in a more leisurely fashion.

It’s an enchanting book, witty, light-hearted and beautifully written – but be warned, Elizabeth von Arnim is very much a product of her time and class, and on occasions she can come across as more than a little snobbish. However, she has the ability to laugh at herself, and her joy in life is infectious.

The book opens with her desire to be alone for the whole summer, so she can enjoy her garden undisturbed by visitors. In the first entry, for May 2, she tells us: “I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no-one to bother me.” Her prosaic husband, the Man of Wrath, warns that she will get her feet damp, catch cold, and be dull. But she waxes lyrical about the joys of a solitary life, the peace she will find, and the beauties of nature.
Each chapter has one of these drawings at the beginning but,
sadly, there seems to be no attribution
I suppose these days many people might regard the way she writes about her garden as overly sentimental, but I enjoy her style, and she has a keen eye for nature. Describing her tulips, she says: “The only ones I exclude are the rose-coloured ones; but scarlet, gold, delicate pink, and white are all there, and the effect is infinitely enchanting. The forget-me-nots grow taller as the tulips go off, and will presently tenderly engulf them altogether, and so hide the shame of their decay in their kindly little arms.” Don’t you think that’s a lovely (and accurate) account of the way tulips go over, and get swallowed up by airy clouds of sky blue myosotis?

Elizabeth von Arnim was born Mary Annette
Beauchamp. Her first husband was Count
Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenchin
The Solitary Summer, like many of Elizabeth’s other books, draws on her own life, and reflects her love of the garden – and her love of books, as the entry for May 15 shows. For her, each author and book must be read in a particular place, at a particular time of day.  Thoreau, one of her favourites, is best savoured outside, by a pond, because he likes the open air, but Boswell is deemed unsuitable for the great outdoors.

“So I read and laugh over my Boswell in the library, when the lamps are lit, buried in  cushions and surrounded by every sign of civilisation, with the drawn curtains shutting out the garden and  country solitude so much disliked by sage and disciple,” Elizabeth writes.
Afternoons are for pottering in the garden with Goethe, while in the evening, when everything is tired and quiet, she sits by the rose beds with Walt Whitman and listens to what he has to tell her of night, sleep, death and the stars.

And who could argue when she says: “What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such unfailing returns as books and a garden.” 


  1. I am a big fan of Elizabeth von Arnim and love her writing about time spent in the garden. I'm not a great gardener myself, but I feel as if I could be after reading one of her books. (The feeling soon goes away!) Lovely post.

    1. I'm not really much of a gardener myself (hence the huge weeds!). I love von Arnim's descriptions of plants, and her comments on books, and life in general. After first reading this (and the German Garden) many years ago, I'm only just discovering her other work, but she is definitely an author I can return to again and again.

  2. Hello, another EvA fan here, although I was put off for years by reading The Enchanted April when I was a teenager and thinking it totally naff. I've mellowed over the years; still, I think this is much better than The Enchanted April and I love it even more than the German Garden. You write about it beautifully.

    Perhaps the fact that she wasn't the one actually yanking out the weeds but instead contemplating it in the company of great writers is what makes those of us with a similarly idle disposition when it comes to the graft of gardening can share (for yes, my 'garden' is really more of a dandelion patch).

    Have you read The Morville Hours? I've just started it and love it. It's very different to The Solitary Summer but I think you might enjoy it.

    1. Helen, I have read the Morville Hours, and I love it. I like the mix of history, myth, legend, gardening law - and her description of the way she created her garden. I would love to have that ind of determination - and the money to finance that kind of scheme!

  3. I loved Elizabeth & Her German Garden, and I've had this on my to-read list - and I'll add The Morville Hours too!

    1. Lisa May, if you enjoyed Elizabeth and Her German Garden, you will love The Solitary Summer. And The Morville Hours (by Katherine Swift) is a really magical read. Hope you enjoy them!