Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a short novel/novella published at the end of the 19th Century by Elizabeth von Arnim. The author was born in England but married a German aristocrat and lived on a country estate in Germany–the location of the eponymous ‘Garden’. While most reviews focus on the garden aspect of this short work, for me it is more an examination of life as a woman, mother and wife in a culture that did not value those roles in life. Yes, the book is about an amateur gardener who yearns for the freedom and solace of nature in general and the garden in particular, but this is really just one way she carves out time and space for herself and her interests in the face of competing demands from her family and society at large. I very much admire the depiction of a woman who absolutely demands that she have the right to her own space and interests and who unapologetically embraces her disdain of boring company. von Arnim has a biting sarcasm and wit that she puts to fulsome use especially when describing the bufoonery of her husband who is given the moniker of “The Man of Wrath”. But in amongst the rhapsodic descriptions of the pleasures of time alone in the garden with a book and her own thoughts, there were plenty of darker elements playing out on the page.
The author rather matter of factly describes in some detail how most of the people who work on the estate are Russian or Polish laborers who are gathered up by a ‘man who can speak their language’ and brought to the estate where they are put under armed guard to try to keep them from escaping to go to work for local peasants who pay them more and treat them better. She does express some empathy for the women who work as hard as the men and are paid less and are expected to cheerfully return to work hours after childbirth. For the most part, however, Elizabeth, disparages most of the servants, peasants and farm laborers as ‘children’ or ‘animals’.
Her vituperative commentary is not not only directed at those of lower classes . There is a long section of the book devoted to a month long visit to the estate of 2 women–one a long-time friend of the protagonist and the other a relative of a friend who found herself alone during the Christmas holidays. Elizabeth and her long-time friend took an almost instant dislike to the other woman and spent the next month making fun of her and making sure she understood that she was an interloper. I understand that at least some of this is supposed to be satiric comedy, but it came across to me as just snarky, privileged snobbery.
Elizabeth is well-drawn as smart, independent woman of means who is successfully mapping out a fulfilling life for herself. The other characters in the book are not fleshed out but are drawn in broad strokes. They are primarily foils that the author uses to illustrates aspects of Elizabeth’s character. While the characters are not full-bodies, they do serve the purposes of the novel. Three out of 5 points for characterization.
There is not really a plot to speak of. The book is a series of diary entries held together loosely with an ongoing narrative about the planning, planting and care of the garden. There are a series of vignettes having to do with visiting neighbors, holiday celebrations, sleigh rides, etc. but not much happens to the characters and none of them undergo any change over the course of the novel. I don’t think plot is that important to the theme of novel (how to live a fulfilling, emancipated life as woman in the 19th Century). Three points for plot.
The writing style is beautiful and easy to read. The descriptions of the landscape are superb and the wit is acerbic and subtle. I have absolutely no complaints about the style. Four stars for writing style.
The book certainly did provoke me into thinking about the privileged position of the upper classes during the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The thing that really bothered me was how Elizabeth was looking for space in her life to be true to herself while at the same time expressing almost a crude disdain for the very people who were making is possible for her to live the life she desired. Of course, the immigrant labor issue is relevant today which was something I certainly did not expect to encounter. The book was also interesting as an early feminist text about gender roles and the difficulty women had (and still have) in finding time just for themselves. Five stars for writing style.
I did enjoy probably 75% of this book quite a lot. The class issues notes above were definitely a problem for me. Three stars for pure enjoyment.
Over all 4 out of 5 stars.