|The cover on my 1992 Virago edition|
bears a detail from Vase aux Anemones,
1942, by Marevn (Maria Morobieff)
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
|Elizabeth von Arnim was born Mary Annette|
Beauchamp. Her first husband was Count
Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenchin
“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.”