It would be very easy to read this lovely novella about a woman called Elizabeth and her love of gardens, as an autobiography in disguise. At least, it was very easy for me to be led down this particular garden path for quite some time.
At every turn, Elizabeth and Her German Garden felt biographical. From the diary entry dates, to the very personal, confessional tone.
Eventually, though, I had to confront the facts, that the lovely, audacious Elizabeth, had written a very modern story that combined facts and fiction, in a very fast and loose fashion. Just when you thought you had hold of a certain fact, she would skip away down a different path, throwing your certainty back in your face, with what sometimes felt like unseemly joy!
At first I felt a little cheated.
The facts known about the real Mary Annette (May) von Armin née Beauchamp are pretty basic and it can be very, very tempting to read more of her into her stories that actually exists. For a little while, I believed I had made discoveries about the real May that no previous biographer had ever discovered!
That was when I knew I had completely fallen for the charms and wiles of one Elizabeth von Armin.
Elizabeth, the writer, protected the identity and private life of May, yet happily trawled her feelings and memories for scenes and vignettes that could be woven into her stories. She wrote about what she knew, and happily made up the rest.
For the second half of the book, I sat back and let myself be thoroughly entertained. I gave up all pretence at trying to tease out the fact from the fiction, the bio from the make believe, and I let the magic of Elizabeth’s garden wash over me.
|Nassenheide, Pomerania c. 1860|
The specific garden she wrote about was the von Armin estate, Nassenheide in Pomerania, where Elizabeth lived and wrote from 1896 until 1908 (they had to sell the estate in 1910 to alleviate the Count’s financial problems). In 1911, a recently widowed Elizabeth, moved to Switzerland and the newly built, Chalet Soleil. In 1930 she resettled to Mougins in the south of France, in a house she renamed Mas des Roses. At the beginning of WWII in 1939, she moved to the US, to be closer to her daughter, Liebet. She died in 1941 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Elizabeth obviously loved her garden and the freedom she felt there. There was a wistful, wishful air to many of the passages and a search for belonging.
The garden is the place I go to for refuge and shelter, not the house. In the house are duties and annoyances, servants to exhort and admonish, furniture, and meals; but out there blessings crowd round me at every step– it is there that I am sorry for the unkindness in me, for those selfish thoughts that are so much worse than they feel; it is there that all my sins and silliness are forgiven, there that I feel protected and at home, and every flower and weed is a friend and every tree a lover.
A nostalgia for a more innocent, carefree childhood appeared at times. Was she remembering her childhood years in Sydney, Australia?
Why should I not go and see the place where I was born, and where I lived so long; the place where I was so magnificently happy, so exquisitely wretched, so close to heaven, so near to hell, always either up on a cloud of glory, or down in the depths with the waters of despair closing over my head? Cousins live in it now, distant cousins, loved with the exact measure of love usually bestowed on cousins who reign in one’s stead; cousins of practical views, who have dug up the flower-beds and planted cabbages where roses grew; and though through all the years since my father’s death I have held my head so high that it hurt, and loftily refused to listen to their repeated suggestions that I should revisit my old home, something in the sad listlessness of the November days sent my spirit back to old times with a persistency that would not be set aside, and I woke from my musings surprised to find myself sick with longing.
I went from entranced, to cheated, to utterly delighted in less than a hundred pages. I wanted the story to be completely true, a proper biography. I wanted to think of Elizabeth rambling around her garden, chasing after her April, May and June babies, and rolling her eyes at the Man of Wrath and his conservative ways.
The people round about are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceedingly eccentric, for the news has travelled that I spend the day out of doors with a book, and that no mortal eye has ever yet seen me sew or cook.
As one would expect from a novella, Elizabeth and Her German Garden is a story with one simple central theme and very little character development. There is no crisis to be resolved or problem to be solved. It’s simply a diary of one woman and her love of nature.
I don’t love things that will only bear the garden for three or four months in the year and require coaxing and petting for the rest of it. Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women.
Elizabeth was also very funny, at times sarcastic and a feminist in the making. She obviously baulked at the Prussian way of doing things and found the strict gender roles expected in Germany to be restrictive. (These references in her book may be why she chose not to have the book translated into German!) Yet, it’s her lively, playful character that makes this story so captivating, even more so than her descriptions of the garden.
What nonsense it is to talk about the equality of the sexes when the women have the babies!
“Quite so, my dear,” replied the Man of Wrath, smiling condescendingly.
“You have got to the very root of the matter. Nature, while imposing this agreeable duty on the woman, weakens her and disables her for any serious competition with man. How can a person who is constantly losing a year of the best part of her life compete with a young man who never loses any time at all? He has the brute force, and his last word on any subject could always be his fist.”
Elizabeth Jane Howard, in her introduction to the 1985 edition of the book, wrote that while the novella, ‘appears to be an ode to nature; within that ode is a determined rebellion.‘ EvA wanted to do physical work in the garden, she wanted to control the money her writing produced and she wanted to be free from society’s desire (as well as her husband’s) to produce an heir to the estate.
I wish with all my heart I were a man, for of course the first thing I should do would be to buy a spade and go and garden, and then I should have the delight of doing everything for my flowers with my own hands and need not waste time explaining what I want done to somebody else.
I can imagine nothing more uncomfortable than a son-in-law, and besides, I don’t think a husband is at all a good thing for a girl to have.
I loved every minute with Elizabeth in her garden.
Three early childhood years does not necessarily make you an Australian (whatever that means) with Australian sensibilities (whatever that means). But Elizabeth and her older siblings were all born in Sydney. As siblings do, they would have constantly retold and shared stories about their Sydney childhood years. The older ones would have talked about their Australian memories over family dinners and in front of their Swiss fire.
As Gabrielle Carey said in her memoir, Only Happiness Here,
I am not certain that Elizabeth remembered her Australian beginnings but neither am I convinced that she had forgotten them altogether.
The comments that evolved from that post had a number of bloggers wondering if we could really claim EvA as an Australian and did she even want to be remembered as being Australian. To my mind, she is as Australian, as say, Germaine Greer, Madeleine St John, and Clive James. Their particular feelings about their childhood in Australia are complex and complicated, as are their reasons for leaving, although ‘cultural backwater’ is a phrase that springs to mind. Elizabeth is also as Australian as J. M. Coetzee, who we now claim as Aussie, since he moved here from South Africa in 2002 (becoming an Australian citizen in 2006). They are all part of the ‘Australian, maybe?’ team.
Keeping secrets and protecting her privacy was something EvA was well-known for. It would seem that one of her very first secrets was about her place of birth. Perhaps it was this need to keep quiet about her early years in Australia that turned EvA into such a private adult?
Whenever I’ve travelled overseas (remember when we used to do that?), plaques stating that so-and-so was born here, lived here, died here were everywhere, celebrating their local writers and artists. Australia is not so good at doing this. Even the Sydney Writers Walk around Circular Quay has some rather dubious Sydney connections with the likes of James A Michiner, Charles Darwin and Anthony Trollope, simply because they visited once or wrote a passage in a book about Australia, but no Elizabeth. Disappointing.
EvA’s Wikipedia page sums it up perfectly, ‘Elizabeth von Armin was an Australian born, British novelist who married a Prussian Count.’
My edition of Elizabeth and Her Garden was produced as a Project Gutenberg Australia anniversary edition in 1998.
- Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898)
- The Solitary Summer (1899)
- April Baby’s Book of Tunes (1900)
- The Benefactress (1901)
- The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen (1904)
- Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905)
- Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907)
- The Caravaners (1909)
- The Pastor’s Wife (1914)
- Christine (1917) (published as Alice Cholmondeley)
- Christopher and Columbus (1919)
- In the Mountains (1920)
- Vera (1921)
- The Enchanted April (1922)
- Love (1925)
- Introduction to Sally (1926)
- Expiation (1929)
- Father (1931)
- The Jasmine Farm (1934)
- All the Dogs of My Life (1936)
- Mr. Skeffington (1940)