Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Armin.
This book was first published in 1898 and was an immediate success. Elizabeth von Armin was born in Australia and was a cousin of Katherine Mansfield. Her real name was Mary Annette Beauchamp and she was known as May by her family. She grew up in England and had quite an unconventional upbringing. Her father who was a keen traveller carted his family round Europe often for months on end. It was on one of these trips that Elizabeth met the aristocratic Graf Henning August Von Armin-Shlagenthin. He was recently widowed and much older than Elizabeth but he fell for her and followed the family around until he persuaded her to marry him. He treated her like a child, his ‘Dollie’, and insisted that she learn German before their marriage.
The book is a semi-autobiographical account of her life living on an isolated estate amongst the pine forest and heaths of Pomerania. The garden and house had been neglected for 25 years because the family lived in Berlin. Elizabeth was immediately enchanted by the garden and pleaded with her husband to allow them to live there. The book starts with her living there alone for 6 weeks, ostensibly to supervise the builders, but really to luxuriate in the solitude and the garden. She said that she loved being outdoors because: ‘indoors there are servants and furniture.’ Her romantic imagination fed on Wordsworth, Keats and Thoreau was overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the place. The book is a lyrical account of her love of her garden and the surrounding countryside.
You don’t come to this book to learn about gardening because Elizabeth was learning herself and made all sorts of mistakes. But it is a charming description of a woman in love with nature, her garden and plants and books. She does not say so in so many words but the garden was clearly a refuge from her awful, patriarchal husband; ‘The Man of Wrath’ . When he paid her a visit to see how the work in the house was going on she says:
‘I took him round the garden along the new paths I had had made, and showed him the acacia and lilac glories, and he said that it was the purest selfishness to enjoy myself when neither he nor the offspring were with me and that the lilacs needed thoroughly pruning. I tried to appease him by offering him the whole of my salad and toast supper which stood ready at the foot of the little verandah steps when we came back, but nothing appeased that Man of Wrath, and he said he would go straight back to the neglected family.’
She must have know that her casual al fresco supper would infuriate rather than appease her aristocratic husband who thought that meals should be eaten formally in the dining room with servants in attendance.
The family in question consisted of three little girls; the ‘April’, ‘May and ‘June’ babies. From her diary and letters we learn that she bitterly resented having to produce a baby every year and it came to be yet another serious source of contention between her and ‘The Man of Wrath’. When eventually the whole family were living together Elizabeth must have been pleased that her husband became interested in running the estate and she was left to her own devices. She said: ‘What a happy woman I am living in my garden with books, babies, birds and flowers, and plenty of leisure to enjoy them!’ At least the babies were listed ahead of the birds but one feels, only just. The babies were endearing diversions now and again but they could be whisked away when necessary by the nanny or governess. What Elizabeth really liked was solitude, her garden and her books.
She loved all the seasons in her garden; ‘my spring happiness bears no resemblance to my summer or autumn happiness, though it is not more intense, and there were days when I last winter danced for sheer joy out in my frost -bound garden, in spite of my years and my children. But I did it behind a bush, having a due regard for the decencies’.
What she really wanted to do was to dig and work in the garden herself but this was out of the question. She was never allowed to forget her position and it would be scandalous for her to do any gardening herself and she was constantly frustrated by the succession of bovine gardeners who stubbornly insisted in planting everything in rows. She was also frustrated by visitors who needed to be entertained and she complained that; ‘A garden where you meet the people you saw at breakfast, and will see again at lunch and dinner, is not a place to be happy in’. As readers we are glad that she did sometimes have visitors because it gives us a chance to enjoy her mischievous sense of humour.
The little book is a delight. I thoroughly recommend it. And if you enjoy it you will find that she has written plenty more. A very good account of her interesting and eventful life is to be found in the biography: ‘Elizabeth of the German Garden’ by Lesley De Charms.
This review is linked to The garden Book Review meme at dreamingofroses.blogspot.co.uk