Sunday, July 4, 2010

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim (Marie Annette Beauchamp)

The introduction to this book is almost as interesting as the book itself, for it explains, briefly and lucidly, the life and works of our authoress, and why she happened to have two names. The lady was born in Australia Marie Annette Beauchamp, and was a cousin of the more famous, New Zealand born writer Katharine Mansfield (nee Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp). Reared in England, where she "was always called Elizabeth," she married, or "was persuaded to marry" a German count, and so became a rather young countess Elizabeth von Arnim. For the publication of her first book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, the former Miss Beauchamp acquired in 1898 a third name: for in the gentle but surely expiring tradition of lady writers even then, she was at first Anonymous.

The book was a huge success, so that for subsequent editions her name, or at any rate her German name, was permitted to grace the cover. The Garden was followed in later years by more books, a few of which we might know better. She wrote Mr. Skeffington, made into that great movie of the same name in the early 1940s with Bette Davis and Claude Rains; she wrote Enchanted April, made into a movie in the early 1990s starring actors not quite so well known.

All this we have from one R. McGowan, writing in San Jose on April 11, 1998. Apparently he or she is the one responsible for getting Elizabeth and her German Garden scanned into the files of Project Gutenberg as long ago as that. Indeed he closes with, "In the centennial year of this book's first publication, I hope that its availability through Project Gutenberg will stir some renewed interest in Elizabeth and her delightful work. She is, I would venture, my favorite author ...."

I don't think I'll count Elizabeth as my favorite author quite yet. Her rough diary of a year at her country estate is certainly a unique view into a strange and vanished world -- faint praise; any good book should be that -- but there is also something unpleasantly dreamlike in these cool, guarded, yet outlandish portrayals of family, guests, servants, routine, holidays, chores, and weird excursions. There is warmth in the garden, but only there. And even there, the reader who is also a gardener will not be able to follow her too far in her hobby, even in sympathy, unfortunately. Though she began as an absolute amateur, still she was the wife of a count, and had the means -- the pin money -- to order things like a hundred rose bushes at a time, and to speak of stream and woods. Like so many garden writers, where she says "garden," she means property. There is a big difference, even if one tries to rejoice for her.

The rough diary, set down from the beginning of May to the end of the next April, is one half given over to the garden, and one half to a chronicle of indoor domesticities, chief among them a long midwinter visit from Irais and Minora. These are two women whom Elizabeth would far rather not have left on her hands, especially Minora, who is merely a young relation of a friend, taken in as a favor because she is alone in Germany and requires chaperoning. The girl also has literary pretensions. She is gathering material for a book on Germany. Elizabeth and Irais find her ignorant, credulous, and yet absurdly timid when it comes to any chance for an authentic German adventure.

Such as, for instance, a sleigh ride to the Baltic coast in the depths of winter. Minora starts out happily enough with her two companions, but after six hours of the cold and a cold picnic and then the swiftly gathering darkness, and pop-eyed, faux innocent assurances from Elizabeth that the elderly coachman doesn't fall asleep and overturn the carriage too often, she turns desperate and drops broad hints that they ought to stop at a neighbor's house for the night and continue home in the morning. Upon that she is treated to a long, sumptuously composed speech from Irais about how vulgar and pushing such a visit would be, and how even if they all were such rubes as to dare it, she herself would promptly be seated in the most uncomfortable chair in the house, in the spot preordained for unexpected visitors who are also virgins of no rank. Granted Minora's idea was a little awkward, still the reader wonders if indeed German etiquette at this time was so atrocious, or if Irais was indulging in deviltry, or if Elizabeth was making the entire scene up for the sheer joy of invention.

Regardless, it makes one sympathize with Minora, even though perhaps she was sometimes an annoying chit. And, to be fair to Elizabeth, long country house visits must have worn on the hostess' nerves in any society or era where they were once commonly made. Elizabeth wanted to get back to her garden and her family privacy. Still, in setting the stage for this long and not very funny story, Elizabeth had told us that she also likes to take her truly wearisome summer guests to these same Baltic beaches. The great joke there is that the seacoast in summer swarms with mosquitoes, which spoil the expectations of visitors who had thrilled to the suggestion of refreshing ocean breezes. After that, they tend to pack their bags and go home. So, I think, would I. I think also I do not make Elizabeth one of my favorite writers, not just yet.

A couple of scenes, if they are not much warmer than any others, nevertheless ring with a likable and unmistakable truth. In one, the young wife, mother and gardener tells us what it was like, not only to have servants to do your work, but to be forbidden to do your own work -- even if it was work you loved:

I did one warm Sunday in last year's April during the servants' dinner hour, doubly secure from the gardener by the day and the dinner, slink out with a spade and a rake and feverishly dig a little piece of ground and break it up and sow surreptitious ipomaea [morning glory], and run back very hot and guilty into the house, and get into a chair and behind a book and look languid just in time to save my reputation.

This was the mistress of the estate, and she could not garden. In another scene, that same young mistress proves her mettle when it is time to sack one of those servants. One day a door to a parlor swings open and the governess, Miss Jones, is accidentally overheard criticizing her employers in a private talk with our Minora. She pronounces, in a general way, that most parents "are not wise," that most pious husbands including the present master were probably rakes as bachelors, and that it's a sore trial for the governess to have to be polite and "even humble" to such pompous fools. Elizabeth walks in to the parlor, icily invites Minora to tea, and tells the governess she "wants the children for a little while." The next day, Miss Jones is gone, flung out into the great world with no good references, we may be sure. No mention of consulting the husband, "the Man of Wrath," in all this. No need to, it seems.

R. McGowan's introduction tells us that in time, Elizabeth had to leave this idyllic home -- we never quite know where it is, except that it is fifteen miles from the Baltic -- and go on to a probably much more urban second half of life. (Back in England? We don't know.) After the Man of Wrath died, she circulated among people fine enough to introduce her to friends like H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell, whose brother she married. Somehow, one doesn't see men like that mucking about in the compost days from any town, and knowing the names of a hundred roses, too.

The second marriage ended in divorce. With the outbreak of World War II, she fled to America, where she died in 1941.

Now of course the Garden is not all unpleasantly dreamlike, and mosquitoes and sacked servants. There is humor in it, and it would be unfair to leave you with no idea of it.

"I really think, Elizabeth," said Irais to me later, when the click of Minora's typewriter was heard hesitating from the next room, "that you and I are writing her book for her. She takes down everything we say. Why does she copy all that about the baby? I wonder why mothers' knees are supposed to be touching? I never learned anything at them, did you? But then in my case they were only stepmother's, and nobody ever sings their praises."

"My mother was always at parties," I said; "and the nurse made me say my prayers in French."

And there is the garden and the flowers, "which I have loved so much." (Even on the last page we hear a hint of a goodbye.)

"I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace, and next to a hyacinth look like a wholesome, freshly tubbed young girl beside a stout lady whose every movement weighs down the air with patchouli."

I'm curious to know what Elizabeth's last novel, Mr. Skeffington, is like. Of course I have seen the movie, but I'd like to know if Skeffington shows some kind of arcing journey of the woman and the writer. I think it must, unless Hollywood transformed it sight unseen. From idyllic and adored German garden, the titled young mother, thirty, becomes a seventy-year-old telling the tale of a Jewish banker who barely escapes with his life from a Germany that now occupies another universe.


  1. discovering my Elizabeth and her German Garden 1901 edition, most intriguing and enchanting, considering selling it

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