Friday 15 June 2012

A Garden by Moonlight

Right, here is this month's instalment from Elizabeth von Arnim's The Solitary Summer, which I was going to post tomorrow, since one of the 'entries' is for June 16. However, tomorrow is my Saturday Snapshots day, so today we will enjoy Elizabeth's garden, and her reflections on life, the universe and everything – all of which makes her something of an icon as far as I'm concerned. And not only that, but she writes beautifully.
Her first 'entry' for the month is June 3, when she tells us:

The verandah at two o'clock on a summer's afternoon is a place in which to be happy and not decide anything, as my friend Thoreau told me of some other tranquil spot this morning. The chairs are comfortable, there is a table to write on, and the shadows of young leaves flicker across the paper. On one side a Crimson Rambler is thrusting inquisitive shoots through the wooden bars, being able this year for the first time since it was planted to see what I am doing up here, and next to it a Jackmanni clematis clings with soft young fingers to anything it thinks likely to hep it up to the goal of its ambition, the roof. I wonder which of the two will get there first.”

One of my roses - I think it's beautiful, though it's obviously
not in the same league as the roses in Elizabeth's garden.
It sounds so comfortable and pretty I considered sitting in my own small garden to write this while observing the roses (unnamed I afraid) which are trying to cover the fence. There's a honeysuckle there as well, and some jasmine, both of which I grew from cuttings. Sadly, it is too cold and windy to sit outside, and although it is not raining today the garden chairs are so waterlogged they feel as if they will never dry out.

Anyway, Elizabeth's thoughts stray to her children, for through the open window she can hear the two eldest 'babies' at their lessons (the village schoolmaster gives them lessons for a couple of hours every afternoon), and she writes:

I hope he will be more successful than I was in teaching them Bible stories. I never got farther than Noah, at which stage their questions became so searching as to completely confound me; and as no one likes being confounded, and it is especially regrettable when a parent is placed in such a position, I brought the course to an abrupt end by assuming that owl-like air of wisdom peculiar to infallibility in a corner, and telling them they were too young to understand these things for the present; and they, having a touching faith in every word I say, gave three contented little purrs of assent, and proposed that we should play instead at rolling down the grass bank under the south windows...

On June 16 she describes how on the previous day (June 15 – so there is a link to today) she stole through the house at three in the morning, and let herself out into into a wonderful, unknown world. It's one of the most magical passages in the book.

I stood for a few minutes motionless on the steps, almost frightened by the awful purity of nature, when all the sin and ugliness is shut up and asleep, and there is nothing but the beauty left. It was quite light, yet a bright moon hung in the cloudless grey-blue sky; the flowers were all awake, saturating the air with scent; and a nightingale sat on a hornbeam quite close to me, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun. There in front of me was the sun-dial, there were the rose bushes, there was the bunch of pansies I had dropped the night before still lying on the path, but how strange and unfamiliar it all looked, and how holy – as though God must be walking there in the cool of the day.

But after breakfast she cannot believe it is the same garden, because the wind blows, and there are angry showers. It is so gloomy that in the evening, despite her wish for solitude, she welcomes a visit from the 'least objectional' of the candidates seeking a position as parson on the estate. She despises herself for feeling pleased to see a visitor but, with a fine sense of irony, decides that such is the weakness of the female mind, coupled with the effect of a two-day gale after two months alone.

After meeting the impoverished parson, and listening to him talk about his family, and his struggles to make ends meet, Elizabeth reflects on the daily task of distributing sausages (which she hates) to the servants, and the problems of being both poor and genteel, in which case she would sit with a piece of bread, a pot geranium, and a book. Then she would buy a radish, and eat it wit the bread, sitting under a tree, and feed crumbs to a robin, and no creature would be happier.

It sounds an unlikely scenario for someone in her position, but she does seem to have had the gift of taking pleasure from the simple things in life.

Ellizabeth von Arnim
Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, was the daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate. She met Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin (her first husband) in Italy in 1889, when she was 23 and he was a 38-year-old widower. They lived in Berlin for five years, then moved to his family's vast estate at Nassenheide, in Pomerania, which was then part of Prussia.

There, she obviously led a cushioned existence, but in her writing she is quite satirical about the Germans' social conventions and way of life. She didn't enjoy entertaining visitors and playing lady bountiful to poor tenants and servants, and would rather spend her her time reading and thinking as she wandered about the garden and the fields, forests and farms. It is obvious from 'The Solitary Summer' that she was a great reader, who loved her favourite authors, for she talks about them as if they are having conversations with her, whether they are alive or dead.

She loved living on the estate, but in 1908 it was sold to pay off the count's debts, and Elizabeth – who became known by her pen name – moved to England. Her husband died two years later. 

My original post is at


  1. I read Elizabeth and Her German Garden and Elizabeth of the German Garden, a biography by Leslie de Charms, a couple of years ago. Von Arnim was such an interesting woman!

    1. I've been looking for the biography. She wrote an autobiography, All the Dogs of My Life, which I would like to read.