Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1896)

by Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth and her German Garden is labeled a novel but is more a semi-autobiographical account of a year on von Arnim’s husband’s Pomeranian estate. The daughter of an English merchant and his wife, Elizabeth met Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin while traveling, and they began their married life in Berlin. Five years and three babies later, she finally visited her husband’s isolated estate and fell in love with it. She stayed there to oversee improvements with the property, falling more in love with the garden every day.

Plenty of writers rhapsodize about plants and gardening; what makes von Arnim’s book memorable is her witty writing and whimsical personality. Elizabeth is not a “my family always comes first” wife and mother. She is refreshingly honest about craving solitude. She gladly hands off her daughters—called the April, May, and June babies—to the help, and visitors are often an unwelcome intrusion. But she never sounds petulant; Elizabeth pokes fun at family and friends—and herself—with gentleness and charm.

Through the setup of one year, Elizabeth is able to describe a gardening cycle—planning, planting, relishing the blooming plants, and enjoying the beauty of even frost-bound, decayed nature. But Elizabeth and Her German Garden speaks to a broader audience than gardeners. It is also a book about living in the moment, taking joy in unworldly pleasures, and savoring one’s own company. Anyone escaping a multitasking, city life for a vacation in quieter surroundings might want to take along Elizabeth and her German Garden.

The book was such a success it was reprinted 20 times in its first year of publication. In more recent times, it figured in an episode of Downton Abbey.


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