Monday 16 July 2012

The Solitary Summer in July

Well, it's mid-way through July already, so I thought I'd take take a quick look at the month's happenings in Elizabeth von Arnim's wonderful The Solitary Summer, which has an unexpectedly serious note. In her first entry (for the first of the month), she waxes lyrical about sweet-peas, which are her favourite flowers, after roses. She says:

A garden might be made beautiful with sweet-peas alone, and, with hardly any labour, except the sweet labour of picking to prolong the bloom, be turned into a fairy bower of delicacy and refinement.

Perhaps modern hybrids are more difficult to grow, or perhaps they've gone out of fashion, but you rarely seem to see them these days, and I've never had any luck growing them, but I love the delicate pastel blooms, and the wonderful perfume they give off. Anyway, Elizabeth is shocked to find the head inspector's wife has no sweet peas, but grows 'exceedingly vulgar' red herbaceous peonies in her garden.
Elizabeth von Arnim's comments about sweet peas,
 and a fairy bower, reminded me of Cicely Mary Barker's
painting of the Sweet Pea Fairies.
And there is domestic drama when the June baby falls into a slimy, smelly farmyard pond and is brought home looking like 'a green and speckled frog', so all the children are dosed with castor oil, as a preventative measure against typhoid, and kept in bed for three days, which seems a little extreme, but it did remind me of the various accidents and illnesses my daughters suffered when they were small, and how I over-reacted and always assumed the worst!

But they did nothing, except be uproarious, and sing at the top of their voices, and clamour for more dinner than I felt would be appropriate for babies who were going to be dangerously ill in a few hours; and so, after due waiting, they were got up and dressed and turned loose again, and from that day to this no symptoms have appeared.

On the 15th there's a contrast in tone and subject as we get a glimpse of life in the one-roomed back-to-back cottages where the farm workers live, which are so very different to her own castle home.

The village consists of one street running parallel to the outer buildings of the farm, and the cottages are one-storied, each with rooms for four families – two in front looking on to the wall of the farmyard, which is the fashionable side, and two at ther back, looking on to nothing more exhilarating than their own pigstyes. Each family has one room and a larder sort of place, and share the kitchen with the family on the opposite side of the entrance; but the women prefer doing their cooking at the grate in their own room rather than expose the contents of their pots to the ill-natured comments of a neighbour. On the fashionable side there is a little fenced-in garden for every family, where fowls walk about pensively and meditate beneath the scarlet-runners (for all the world like me in my garden), and hollyhocks tower above the drying linen, and fuel, stolen from our woods, is stacked for winter use; but on the other side you walk straight out into manure and pigs.

Life there can't have been too dissimilar to that of the Birmingham Back-to-Backs, but although Elizabeth describes the conditions, she has no real insight into the way people must feel. She writes about their beds, 'rather narrower than a single bed', where mother, father and a baby manage to sleep 'very well' with three of four children in another such bed in the corner. She cannot understand how so many people sleep in one bed, but attributes it to 'no nerves, and a thick skin', which shows a lack of insight into their lives, for they have no choice.

We see her visiting the poor and offering advice – often on the benefits of fresh air, and seeking (and following medical) advice. She is uneasy with the role of Lady Bountiful, and whilst she can see that conditions are not right, she has little idea of how to change things, and is bewildered by the ignorance she encounters. However, just as my Socialist principles come rushing to the fore, and  I'm thinking 'just stick to the gardening Elizabeth', she endears herself to me by admitting:

But how useless to try and discover what their views really are. I can imagine what I like about them, and am fairly certain to imagine wrong. I have no real conception of their attitude towards life, and all I can do is to talk to them kindly when they are in trouble, and as often as I can give them nice things to eat.

When she does try to do something more practical, her efforts are spurned.

Shocked at the horrors that must surround these poor women at the birth of their babes, I asked the Man of Wrath to try and make some arrangements that would ensure their quiet at those times. He put aside a little cottage at the end of the street as a home for them in their confinements, and I furnished it, and made it clean and bright and pretty. A nurse was permanently engaged, and I thought with delight of the unspeakable blessing and comfort it was going to be.

But none of the women would use it, and at the end of year it was let out to a family, and the nurse dismissed. She has more success helping one of their grooms when he gets a housemaid into trouble, for the Man of Wrath agrees the young couple can live in an empty room above the stable, and he buys 'what is needful', but insists they must pay him back. In this chapter the change in outlook on relationship issues like sex before marriage, and babies born out of wedlock is very clear – when the book was written it was a sin, but but Elizabeth finds she cannot chastise this particular couple.


  1. From sweet peas to sex before marriage via speckled frogs - what a lovely post Christine!

    1. Thank you Karen! You'll find all human life in this book!

  2. I've read Elizabeth & Her German Garden, but not this one yet. I love the idea of actually reading it in the summer, even if I don't have a garden of my own.

    1. I think I like this even better than German Garden. It's an old favourite, so it's a re-read, but it seemed to lend itself to a slow read throughout the summer.