Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Gardening in Germany, interrupted by annoying house guests

Elizabeth and Her German Garden
Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth Von Arnim, is one of those books that so many people in blogosphere seem to have on their TBR lists.  Those that do not have already read it and hold it close to their hearts.  I got it on Project Gutenberg and read it while on vacation in Wyoming - not an area with many cultivated gardens, but one that is riotous with wildflowers during the summer.  And this seemed a fitting book to read there, as I often wandered (solitary) among the mountains and streams and flowers.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a semi-autobiographical story of von Arnim's time at her country home in Pomerania.  After living in the city for years and popping out three daughters in three years, von Armin comes across one of her husband's homes and falls in love with it.  She promptly moves there.  (It is unclear to me whether her husband moves there, too.)  And sets out on the tall task of creating a lovely garden for herself to enjoy.

What makes this book so fun is von Arnim's voice.  As Ana said in her review of The Solitary Summer (a companion to this one), von Armin is Austen-esque in her ability to point out our foibles with gentle irony and to bring humor to a lot of everyday, ordinary occurrences.  von Armin invites us into her life and we commiserate with her over uninvited guests that won't leave, condescending husbands who think they know best, and about flowers that won't bloom.  She says wonderfully insightful things like, "It is much easier, and often more pleasant, to be a warning than an example, anad governesses are but women, and women are sometimes foolish, and when you want to be foolish it must be annoying to have to be wise."

There are so many moments of quiet hilarity here - like when her English houseguest gets a little drunk and tries, to no avail, to flirt with von Armin's husband.  Or when von Armin goes to visit her childhood home and is discovered by a very curious and chatty 12-year-old.

But there are also moments when von Arnim's strong convictions and ideas of right and wrong come to the fore and it's easy to love her then.  Like when she says:
Babies are very little and inoffensive and good, and it is hard that they should be used as a means of filling up gaps in conversation, and their features pulled to pieces one by one, and all their weak points noted and criticised, while they stand smiling shyly in the operator's face, their very smile drawing forth comments on the shape of their mouths.
YES.  So true.  Even after people are babies, their bodies and faces are often used as conversation filler.  I know it happens to me every time I visit India and relatives I rarely see feel the need to tell me how much weight I have gained/lost and how much darker my skin is than it used to be.

It's also nice to see the way von Armin stands up to her husband, who is described as being insufferably smug.  She refers to him (and I can't tell if it is affectionately or not) as The Man of Wrath.  Curiously, in reading this book, I really could not tell what von Arnim felt for her husband.  She seems quite happy when he isn't around - very much "out of sight, out of mind."  And who can blame her, when he says things about how women are to be classified the same as "children and idiots," if not worse.

There are so many lovely moments in this book, and I can understand why readers enjoy it so much.  My enjoyment was just slightly muted by the classism present throughout.  I suppose when one is a Lady at the end of the 19th century, these sorts of things are bound to come out.  But they are still jarring to read, especially when von Arnim expresses such annoyance at her husband's sexism.  For example, she says "Servants are only big children, and are made just as happy as children by little presents and nice things to eat."  Considering that she was so incensed by her husband's long lecture on why women are the same as children and idiots, you'd think she would be just a little sensitive to using a similar comparison herself.  But no.  It was disappointing.

And I know that again a bunch of people are going to be annoyed with me for applying 21st century sentiment to the 19th century, but you know what?  I don't care.  Just because everyone else was racist and sexist and classist during the time period, that doesn't mean I can't hold out hope that one author will not be.  And so I continue to wish.

Overall, a fun book!  Unless you are a super-sensitive 21st century person, like me, in which case perhaps your enjoyment will be slightly tempered.

6 comments:

  1. Always good to have the head's-up on the cringeworthy bits in historical books, I think. It is also good, in some ways, that they're in there -- because it allows us to see how easy it is for otherwise intelligent, generous, tolerant people to slip into socially-acceptable bigotry.

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  2. Hm, sometimes it bothers me, sometimes not. Cos well those were the idiotic days

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  3. I haven't heard of this one. But it sounds quite delightful. Glad to hear that it is available from Project Gutenberg. I'm going to download it to my reader.

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  4. This book is new-to-me, but it sounds really good. Thanks for putting it on my radar!

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  5. I hadn't heard of this one either. I know what you mean about the classism of that time period. It's very jarring coming from the mouth of the author and not from a character we're meant to find ignorant or boorish!

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  6. I hear you on both sides of this one; it's one that I often use as a housewarming/new baby/new family gift, and it's (nearly) always gone over well, but I agree that there is something that one must set aside to truly adore it. She is one of my favourite authors, but she is clearly of another time and place and, if I pick up her work in the wrong moment, that can sometimes overwhelm my enjoyment of her work. There is a sequel to this one as well, but I've only read it once, and many years ago now.

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