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Review: "Elizabeth and Her German Garden" by Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth and Her German Garden is available in both illustrated and free editions from our ebook catalog.

One of the beauties of reading well-seasoned literature is that we modern women forget what life was like for women a hundred or more years ago. How easily we forget that having the liberty to choose one's own activities is a relatively recent phenomenon for women (and other "lowly" beings.) For Elizabeth, an upper class woman who was not enchanted by cooking and sewing, her passions for such "wasteful" activities as reading books and garden planning could only be fulfilled because of an indulgent husband, but even then, only then with ever-present feelings of guilt.

Indulgent as the husband was, "The Man of Wrath", so Elizabeth called him, still insisted that she pay for her purchase of garden seeds and bulbs. One cannot fault the man, as Elizabeth admits to buying wholesale amounts of seeds and bulbs to fill acres of garden space with vibrant color, or--as often as not--with very expensive bare spots.

Elizabeth's vision of an ideal existence would be to live in a remote house with a very large garden (this part she has realized.) She would be happiest without visitors, preferring the company of plants, pets and her children, ideally sans governess:

"Sometimes I feel as if I were blest above all my fellows in being able to find my happiness so easily. I believe I should always be good if the sun always shone, and I could enjoy myself very well in Siberia on a fine day. And what can life in town offer in the way of pleasure to equal the delight of any one of the calm evenings I have had this months sitting alone at the foot of the verandah steps..."

In addition, she would prefer to fire the gardener, grab a trowel and do the gardening herself. "It is not graceful, and it makes one hot; but it is a blessed sort of work, and if Eve had had a spade, in Paradise and had known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business with the apple." This is the aspect of her station in life that proves the most frustrating. In other discussions about women's status in society, Elizabeth appears rather indifferent--even to the German law that prohibits attendance at political meetings by "women, children and idiots." "The Man of Wrath" wholeheartedly endorses this idea, but one suspects that his "argument" was aimed at getting a rise out of his overly vocal women house guests.

One of the strangest events Elizabeth recounts is an amusing visit to her childhood home, ostensibly to commune again with the flowers and trees, and ideally avoid contact with her cousins, the residents. In this brief caper, Elizabeth shows herself to be an original "tree hugger", with some interesting results.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden can be read as a how-to book as much as a memoir, and in it she gives sound advice to the would-be gardener. Here I can offer some of her wisdom without spoiling the lovely, lively, and relaxing journey of reading this classic.

  1. Don't spend your allowance on exotic plants. They will probably be too cranky to grow in your garden, especially if you don't know what you're doing.
  2. Don't plant very hydrophilic plants a long way from a water source, unless you like carrying water to them endlessly during dry weather (evidently Germany is much dryer than England.)
  3. Always have a few friendly (read low maintenance) plants to fill in areas that are less than ideal.
  4. Have patience. Gardening is not a short-term activity. It takes months and even years to get results.
  5. Don't let failures stand in your way. Failures are the plants' way of communicating with you. You have to keep trying to please them. "Humility, and the most patient perseverance, seem almost as necessary in gardening as rain and sunshine, and every failure must be used as a stepping-stone to something better."
  6. Men may be the socially appropriate people to do the gardening, but a woman's creativity and sensitivity (and tolerance of failure) can advance a garden beyond the prosaic.
  7. "The longer I live, the greater is my respect and affection for manure in all its forms..." Need we say more?

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