Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898, this edition 2018) is a year-long semi-memoir from 7 May 1897 to 18 April 1898, set in a remote garden wilderness in Nassenheide, Pomerania, Germany (now Poland).
The author – real birth-name Mary Annette Beachamp – was born in Australia in 1866, raised in England, and joined her husband Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin in Germany in 1891.
In 1897, Elizabeth goes to their remote, run-down farm in Nassenheide (unlived in for 25 years), with their three girls, aged five, four, and three (they eventually have five children). She calls her girls, the April baby, the May baby, and the June baby [their real names are Evi, Liebet, and Trix.] Henning, whom she refers to as Man of Wrath, joins them occasionally.
In the wilderness, with her gardener, gardener’s assistant, and children’s nanny, the author is in a ‘dream of pink and purple peace.’ Her city friends can’t understand why she is so happy there, even in winter. In winter, she is in the library: ‘Anybody can have a husband, but not many people have the luxury of a library.’
She endures the visits of her city friends, who take her away from the dandelions and daisies, and the solitude of the garden. But it is through their conversations that her humour is in its prime. It is also when readers learn of the times she lives in – the lifestyle, society’s expectations, politics, and feminism. Women couldn’t vote, nor ride on top of double-decker buses lest their stockinged ankles were showing when going up and down the stairwell.
Henning, the Man of Wrath, did not provide funds for garden supplies, and Elizabeth had to use her own pin-money. Armed with a German gardening book, she shows her gardener what she wants: ‘I quite recognize that this must be annoying.’ What she really wants to do is to dig her own holes and plant her own seeds wherever she wants, but she has a reputation to uphold. Nevertheless, she surreptitiously ‘digs a little piece of ground’ and plants ipomaea. She describes herself as original. Her husband describes her as eccentric.
This is a humorous, endearing, memoir of a garden well loved, and nature as an understanding, enduring companion.
Elizabeth von Arnim, in real life, has a three-year affair after Henning’s death in 1910 with Herbert George (H.G.) Wells – British author of The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). She marries English aristocrat Earl Francis (Frank) Russell, brother of Bertrand Russell, from 1916-1919, and then lives alone in Switzerland to 1920, southern France to 1939, and, after evacuation due to World War II, in America, until her death in 1941 of the flu.
Photographer: Martina Nicolls