I don't generally read introductions before reading the actual book (see yesterday's post), but I started reading Deborah Kellaway's introduction to Elizabeth von Arnim's The Solitary Summer and couldn't stop. Besides this is a novel that is not really like other novels, so I'm not afraid of plot spoilers ruining my fun. It's a companion piece to Elizabeth and Her German Garden, of which I have fond recollections, but as it also isn't a straightforward story (the form of the books is closer to a series of essays), all I'm left with are pleasant impressions. These books are the sort where not a lot happens, though a lot does happen, if you know what I mean. They are filled with very vivid descriptions of her garden and reminiscences of how she's cultivated it (she's far too humble I think), conversations with her husband, who she refers to as "the man of wrath", and other simple meanderings. It's all quite delightful.
From the very first I have been drawn to von Arnim's books, and now I think I know why. In a letter to one of her daughters she is quoted as saying "What I really am by nature is an escapist." Someone I can relate to.
"It was true. And all the heroines of her novels are escapists too. They escape from richness into the simple life, or from conventional home they escape into foreign travel; life from houses into caravans. Above all they escape, or need to escape, from husbands. Elizabeth saw marriage as tyranny, husbands as tyrants, women as overdue for liberation."
Von Arnim was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Australia in 1866 but grew up in England. Katherine Mansfield was her cousin and Hugh Walpole and E.M. Forster were her children's tutors (imagine!). She married into the German aristocracy and it sounds as though she had a rocky marriage. The Count was very demanding and it took five children before she provided the all-important male heir. I think I can see why she needed solitude in her garden, though the man of wrath seemed happy enough to let her go all summer with no visitors. The Solitary Summer was her second published work. It came out in 1899 to much acclaim, though perhaps some of the allure of the books might be due to the fact they were published under the name of "Elizabeth". Still, her books (in particular the early couple) went through multiple print runs. She would go on to publish another nineteen or so books, a number of which have been reissued by Virago Press.
This is a book that could easily be devoured, but I'd rather take my time and savor it. I was reading it at work in our break room, but it was so noisy I shut the book and set it aside preferring to take it somewhere quiet where I could escape into its pages. I wish I could spend my summer this way.
"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 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 go 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'."
There's much to be said about silence, don't you think? I already think there is too much noise in the world and so much more than in von Arnim's day. But I especially like the idea of the sort of silence you would find in a garden--not a complete silence, but the sort of hum you would find in nature. I'll be taking my book to peaceful, quiet corners and imagining the solitude von Arnim writes about. And I think I need to go looking for a few of her other books as well. I suspect I'll be writing more about her this year!