Elizabeth (and her German Garden)

Some writers you love, even though you know you shouldn’t.

Elizabeth von Arnim was rich and incredibly privileged. She was born in to money and married into European aristocracy. She wafted through a beautiful garden admiring the flowers and thwarted in her desire to get her hands dirty only by her attentive gardeners.

And yet I love her passionately.

She wrote about virtually nothing, if you need exciting plots and varied stettings she will infuriate you. If you require complex characters and cliff hanging action, she will bore you.  However, if your heart yearns for green spaces, for gardens and perfumes and flowers, if you basically long for solitude and self determination then Elizabeth von Arnim is like walking into a quiet room after the deafening roar of a city street.

She is most famous for Elizabeth and her German Garden, but my personal favourite is the Solitary Summer .

This is opening to “A Solitary Summer”, which is free on project Guttenberg, as it is out of print.

“May 2nd.—Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will  into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace.”

“Mind you do not get your feet damp,” said the Man of Wrath, removing his cigar.”

 

Elizabeth (1866-1941) was her pen name. She was born Mary Annette Beaucham in Australia, but only lived there for the first few years of her life and her cousin was the famous New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. She married a German noble man and they lived in Berlin until she discovered that her husband owned a country estate in Northern Germany.  The family was moved there and she revelled in the beauty of her garden and the surrounding countryside. She may have been wealthy, but she was still “only “ a woman at a time when women were expected to hold their tongues and uphold social niceties , when she would much rather be alone and free under open skies. Her descriptions of beauty are unsurpassed and I find her observations of humanity refreshingly witty and biting, which to me is an irresistible combination.

Her novel about leaving the rain of London with a group of other disappointed women, to find escape and peace for a short time in an Italian castle was made into a lovely  film “The Enchanted  April” which I can strongly recommend.

Elizabeth wrote to find her own voice in a restraining world; to revel in the beauty of a garden and to make money. She was hugely popular in her day and after her husband lost his fortune, she kept the family afloat. Eventually she divorced her German count and become an independent literary woman in her own right and grew her own  perfect garden in Switzerland .

I would dearly  have loved to swap cuttings with her!!

 

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Rien à Déclaré

E3401D3B-4830-481B-BD0F-8C75AB96C701.jpegI have just finished rewatching a very funny Dany Boon French movie set on the French/Belgium border in 1993, the year European  borders were opened and no one needed customs officials anymore.

The film came out in 2010 and shows what happens in a little border town that basically is no longer a border and how the French and the Belgian customs men have to learn to accept each other as fellow human beings. It is a film about the stupidity of racism,  full of slap stick, silly stereotypes and a soppy romantic ending.

It opens on New Year’s Day, when the laws change and the people can move freely and the irony of watching it while waiting for Britain’s borders to slam shut was not lost on me.

I try hard to avoid all controversial subjects in this blog, for all the blindingly obvious reasons . Maybe it will be just as funny when the border guards and customs people separate Britain from our neighbours in Europe. Maybe standing in queues and being suspicious of foreigners will provide us all with a rich vein of reverse humour.

I cross European borders everyday to shop, to visit friends, to go to the doctor, to work: it is as easy as crossing the street. I want everyone to feel as free as I do right now, walls do not always make good neighbours and the fun comes when you don’t need them at all. Then maybe we will all have Rien a déclaré.

Reading the holidays

We have been off visiting and the birds have abandoned the garden after just a few days without seed, grain or bread crumbs.

So, there is nothing to look at, but plenty of books to read in this blissfully quiet time of year. So what am I reading? Well as usual, I am reading lots of things at once, which is confusing only when the characters meet in my dreams in an after lunch snooze.

Firstly, I am reading “A Visit to Don Octavio” by Sybille Bedford which is a wonderful piece of period travel writing in which two American  women explore Mexico and discover its lush delights and also that, as Don Octavio says, “You will be very uncomfortable and not at all happy”, if they stray from his elegant hacienda.

I am also reading “William the Outlaw”by Richmal Compton and “William the Bandit” as the pitch perfect vignettes of 1930s Britain, with their caustic line drawings which could not have been bettered  by PG Woodhouse and are definitely wasted on children.

To keep me sane on the plane, I escaped in wonderful Muriel Sparks’ “The  Mandelbaum Gate” and the turmoil and intrigue  of the Israel and Palestine border was as heady in 1960s as it is in 2017. I still don’t know what happened to BarbaraVaughan and must read on.

I have just picked up Oliver Rackham’s “The History of the  English Countryside” and am already captivated by his photos of the long lost elm trees of England and for interludes I am savouring the perfect poems of Sasha Dugdale in her collection “Joy”.  “ How my friend went to look for her roots” is more toothsome than a  hazelnut cluster!

 

 

 

Dead Books

I love books. I love the sight, the smell and the touch of them. When I walk into a room and see a line of books I feel at home.

On entering a hotel room, I found this selection on the wall and reached out my hand to pull one down and dive in. They were glued to the wall. An interior designer had stuck the pages together and glued the poor books straight onto the wall. What a frustratingly awful monument to form over function – a cemetery for the soul.

At least the bed was soft.

Escapism  –  to H.M. Scudamore .

 

Second hand book shops have always been my door at the back of the wardrobe and my way through the looking glass when the “real” world is too dull or too frightening to want to spend time in. In England in late June, I picked up this wonderful book from a  charity book shelf and everything about it beckoned me in.

Firstly the title “Garden of Delights” seemed to promise something half way between paradise and indulgent sticky sweet meats. Next the dark green cover hinted at rusticity and the central illustration at Art Deco decadence. The uneven rough cut edges to the thick pages were the result of a paper knife that had pains takingly slit open each sheet in study somewhere under gas light and then the anthology of poetry and prose inside spoke only of beauty in sweeping countryside and secluded gardens.

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It was exactly what I needed. Writers from Shakespeare to Cowper, George Elliot to Andrew Marvel  and Keats to the mysterious Melisande extolled the virtues of the garden, the beauty of the natural world and the ability of nature to consol and restore the spirit.

It was published in 1912 and as I dived into its resorative good sense and elegance, I felt a little guilty at such escapism 104 years later.

Then I looked at the inside cover and saw the neatly inscribed name : H.M. Scudamore  – 1941.  Who ever H.M. was during The Second World War he or she must have loved this book and needed it in far darker times than we know today.

And now in November the book, with its slightly foxed pages, blocked illustrations and musty smell, links me to HM ; to an optimistic England before the First World War; to a second hand book shop in 2016 and takes me out through the open window and on into a wet,winter French garden still  hoping to escape into a timeless spring.

 

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