Monday, April 07, 2008

Kindred spirit

Although I have read Elizabeth von Armin's The Enchanted April several times, I have only just acquired a copy of her first book, the almost-biographical Elizabeth and her German Garden. I rarely read a book in one sitting but I just couldn't put this one down. Fortunately it only has 206 pages, so I didn't have to neglect too many chores.

As I was being informed, amused, surprised, occasionally shocked and generally delighted, I couldn't help feeling that Elizabeth von Arnim would have been a fantastic blogger and I would have been her number one fan. The book is written in the form of a journal, covering a year from May to April. Each 'entry' would provide material for several posts and I had great fun in thinking up titles for them.

Elizabeth, the young English wife of a middle-aged German aristocrat, has grown tired of the constraints of upper-class life in Berlin; having produced three daughters in as many years has probably also contributed to her need for a period of escape to the country. She goes off alone to her husband's estate in Pomerania, supposedly to supervise the preparation of the house for the family to move in but she falls in love with the neglected garden and spends all her time and energy in restoring it. She knows nothing about gardening and she certainly doesn't produce a Sissinghurst but I found her uninformed enthusiasm very engaging. The garden becomes her place of escape, her inspiration and her friend. I would call her first post A dream of pink and purple peace.

Elizabeth becomes so engrossed in her garden that she neglects to write to her husband and he arrives at the estate after six weeks to see why she has apparently forgotten about him and their three babies. At this point, she nicknames him the Man of Wrath and he deserves several posts as do the babies, nicknamed April, May and June according to their birth dates. At the time that the book was published, in 1898, the critics described Elizabeth as selfish, in fact Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote in the Spectator... "not only selfish, but quite inhumanly so and her mind ... of that order which finds smart self-satisfaction in proclaiming how thoroughly dominated by self". He misses the essence of her writing which shows an independent spirit but also an underlying warmth and deep affection for her husband and children, expressed, in a thoroughly English way, through humour.

The sidebar would list posts labelled The Man of Wrath's sagacity; The Babies; Women friends and unwelcome visitors; Gardeners, governesses and housework. I could go on but I won't spoil the joy of discovery for anyone who might be reading the book for the first time. I don't know what Elizabeth would have called her blog but her distractions were many and random!

Don't forget that a copy of Elizabeth von Armin's The Enchanted April is the prize in my first Book of the Month draw.


  1. I bought this recently in the new edition. I'm glad you enjoyed it and will have to move it up the TBR pile as it sounds like fun.

    Of course, the old green Viragos are much more covetable than the new ones.

  2. I discovered Elizabeth von Armin through All the Dogs of My Life - yes, she was a dog-lover too, M - which I came across by chance in Dulverton's excellent secondhand bookshop. (It has a dedicated Dogs section!)

    Did you know that Elizabeth von A was once married to Bertrand Russell's elder brother? She fled the marriage pretty rapidly by all accounts (funny lot those Russells) but hung on to the title she'd acquired through the marriage.

  3. Hello and welcome, Sarah. Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the 'German garden'. I'm not keen on overtly feminist writing, this subtle poke at life through humour is much more entertaining and effective, in my view.

    Good luck in the draw for The Enchanted April.

  4. D, you must tell me where to find this treasure-filled bookshop. Perhaps Dulverton should be our next lunch-stop? I've put 'All the dogs of my life' on my list for the next rummage for old Viragos, along with 'Mr Skeffington' and 'Vera'.

    I had read something about her life, she was quite a character and I think I would have liked her a lot.

  5. This year Virago are to republish In the Mountains an Evon A which has been out of print for years. My purchase of this will complete all of her books which I now have on my shelves. I have hunted them down over the years and can tell you now, there is not a duff one amongst them. I love the lot.

  6. Luck you, Elaine. I must get out more and scour the bookshops!


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