The Quality of Light

IMG_0134

“My studio! I have never had a studio, and can’t understand how one can shut oneself up in a room. To draw, yes; to paint, no…” And with a sweeping gesture toward the Seine, the hills and Vetheuil…. “This is my studio!”‘  –– written of Claude Monet

This milky blue light of winter is strangely alluring. It makes me wish I were a painter, or at least a more capable photographer. At times the mist hugs the window—as if something that ethereal could have smothering arms— we barely glimpse the world beyond its embrace. All we see are ghostly spires of tall evergreens in the distance, shape shifting as though handpainted with tinted mist and not quite dry.

IMG_0135

Winter has its challenges, but I do love this view. As a Pacific Northwest native, I enjoy the rain, (when not wind-driven and torrential—those moments are best spent on the rocky Oregon coast!) and I particularly enjoy the lucent wash of light that acts as a scene change between dramatic rainstorms. Winter in Portland means, among other things: umbrellas, symphony, coffee shop visits, museums, old house tours, and, when the rain stops for a bit, long walks along the river.

Books, of course, can enhance our winter view. One always needs to lay up, like wood for the fireplace, plenty of books for the long, dark days.

IMG_7226

Reading is not as sedentary as it sounds. There is an addictive quality to TV—think binge watching—or that greatest consumer of living brain tissue, video games. Perhaps we find ourselves Pinterest surfing endless recipes that highlight mesmerizing ways to use refrigerator dough resulting in a flaccid product that we would never actually eat; all of which keeps us rooted to our chairs and stills our minds to a slow motion acquiescence, as water droplets might slowly freeze. Our will has been taken over and we begin to resemble life size soft sculpture with beady glass eyes and unnatural hair.

Reading a book, however, can spur us on to try something interesting, or to at least attempt to experience some small part of what it is we are reading.

My reading reflects my domestic interests, and the writing of British authors that I love. They are now long dead but their wisdom and wit, their sometimes high-toned voice of authority, has been bequeathed through their books. They continue to speak, in essence. This is the great comfort in articulate, well chosen words, and the fluid continuity of ideas. But while that is the allure, the magic, it is also the caveat—a book is the product of a mind. Do I want to visit that mind? Do I want to invite that mind into my own, to arrange the furniture, so to speak? Do I want to flood my rooms with their view of light? Choose wisely, for what we read, we become. In winter I find this is even more important, for anything in these short dark days can be brushed, so to speak, with an altering, chiarascuro effect.

Any number of authors inspire us to get out and walk—I have mentioned more than a few on this blog. Smell the pine air, discover a fascinating tree bark, deliver some scones to a sick friend.

Before you deliver the goodies they must be baked, of course—that inspiration came from reading Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Her stentorian voice of authority on crumpets alone is a rousing call to action; her recipes, treatise and anecdotes will have you leaping from your chair to go on a mission for ten pounds of fresh flour just to start experimenting with seventeenth century Scottish bannocks. And then you have something to give away to your Scottish friends, who will love you. Elizabeth David is a positive, invigorating, dynamic woman.


I love to visit her cultured world of absolutes. Don’t even think about making an omelette with eggs that aren’t ‘spanking fresh and buttercup yellow‘. Her recipe for homemade mayonnaise–and she would tolerate nothing less–involves two insanely pristine ingredients, over five pages and fourteen steps of detailed instructions. Reading David gets me into the kitchen, excited to cook, even if I do lack the biceps needed to make the best mayonnaise the world has ever tasted.

Reading Bertha Damon’s Grandma Called It Carnal makes me want to build a time machine from old crockpot parts and ancient kitchen whirly gizmos, travel back with all due haste to Puritan New England, slap some common sense into her fanatical grandmother and save little Bertha’s pet dog. So…decidedly an activity less likely than making refrigerator dough pumpkin strudel product, but somehow still linked to fringe science. (note: although a fine book, I highly recommend you do not read this ‘humorous memoir’ in winter.)

Reading stirs the reader.

Today, via books, we enter the winter worlds of Nan Fairbrother and Elizabeth von Armin. Two writers, two struggling, ‘domesticated’ intellectuals, two ancient country homes, two winters separated by a generation and two world wars, two women with completely different perspectives on how to cope with the feelings of winter isolation.

Nan Fairbrother’s energy is all cerebral and intense, moody and indoors.

OriginalPhoto-471651373.258848

Elizabeth von Armin—in Elizabeth and Her German Garden— invigorates us with her cold weather exuberance, bursting joyously out of doors at any given moment to enjoy sledding, skating, or sleighing in sub zero temperatures.

Both women amaze me, both women are prodigious readers.

Just now I’m re-reading, as I often do, Fairbrother’s book of philosophical musings “An English Year”. FairbrotherEnglishYearThis book is a gem; described, justly so, as ‘a work of provocative insight, and quiet charm.’ I have enjoyed this book for so long, I was just recently amazed to realize I had missed the fact that Fairbrother really hates Winter. Really, really hates it. The darkness she exudes through her prose is powerful. (note to self: read the chapter on ‘Winter’ in the Summer…)

She is also encased in concerns of domesticity—the one area where our thoughts might overlap—but her domesticity is infused by musings on such things as Matisse, the light of Arles, architecture, the proper way to tour the Louvre—‘start at Pre-Columbian art’—Walter Pater, who enables the ‘poetic transmutation of ordinary life’; she ponders the seasons, and ‘the shifting play of their moods on her own sensibilities’…and so on.

Still, Nan Fairbrother hates Winter. She—who capitalizes all the seasons— even mentions this hatred of Winter in the Summer, the Spring, and again in the Autumn. The long arm of Winter, it seems, darkens the door of every season.

In Autumn, ‘Winter’ intrudes, all hope dies, and she cannot believe in a Spring:

‘The weather has changed to a cold and sullen stillness, and this has been the day which comes every Autumn, when all hope dies. The hills are lost in a cold half-mist, the fields flat and dead in the grey light, and the Winter streteches ahead endlessly to a Spring we cannot even try to believe in. After the long days of sunshine we realize again suddenly that the Winter is dark. Cold, too, and shut in and melancholy, but, above all, dark with the short hours grudging daylight only an interruption of the settled night….’

I feel obliged to point out, in all fairness, and feeling like my mother right now, who could find a kindly excuse for everyone’s deficiencies, that Fairbrother’s gloomy view of Winter and feeling trapped indoors surely had a lot to do with the time and circumstance of her writing these words. She lived out WWII in the country to care for her two small boys and keep them safe from bombs and a possible enemy invasion, while her husband served in the British Royal Air Force. The entire world at this time was shrouded in a grim winter. The future itself was uncertain. She had a right to complain about drafts.

OriginalPhoto-471651677.576579

Fairbrother had such a keen, active mind, that these days of being trapped inside a frigid sixteenth century farmhouse, were at times too stifling to bear.

It turns out, even Summer is not safe from Winter:

“We become a different person in the Summer: become an extrovert after Winter’s introspection—these awful words. In the fine weather we are free, not hampered by clothes, not confined in the house, so that even our movements are different, simpler and more gracious, not huddled against the cold. And living out of doors, we become more generous, more tolerant, less shut in and moody in the long daylight.’

Before this she mentioned the dark, strained outlines of Quattrocentro trees. She broods over the art of Hieronymus Bosch, Strindberg, ‘and the rest, who come from lands where the Winter is too long.’ And she reads too much Baudelaire, who wrote:

‘I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.’

‘Melancholy’—capitalized. First rule of capitalized ‘Winter’, Nan: don’t look at suffocatingly dark art, or a tortured artist’s conceptions of nightmarish hell. Don’t read plays that promote humanity as little else than rotting corpses with a sensitive conscience. Why would you do that to your lovely, quicksilver mind?

Nan Fairbrother

Nan Fairbrother

Then she decides, in her boredom, to read the case histories of Havelock Ellis. No…! I want to shout. Change the view! There are ways to get through Winter successfully, and there are ways to make Winter much darker than it actually is. (I want to bake her some Scottish bannocks and rush them over in my time machine)

Fortunately it was a short reading experience for her, perhaps slightly harrowing, but one with interesting results.

‘How very quickly we are bored, how soon they seem only stale and squalid, and above all, dull. We end by feeling, not that neurosis is a fascinating country, but that to explore at such length these small, self-centered and essentially un-original minds must be the most boring branch of all medicine…Not for a doctor perhaps, for he is studying the disease and not the people, but certainly for us.’

As her thinking is never far from art, the conclusions she draws are fascinating.

‘Which I think is one of the reasons why the arts so fail to satisfy when the artists––painters, writers, composers––are looking only inward at themselves. Not at the world reflected in their own unique mind (that is what the great artists do, and quite a different matter), but at themselves. For a great deal of modern art is really elaborated case-histories, and though it has a first quick interest, it does not last. For however brilliant a man’s mind may be, however fascinating an exploration for himself, it can never compare with the outside world in complexity and range and meaning. There is simply not enough in any single mind to be satisfying, we must see the world through it as well.’

Sufficiently intrigued, we waft readily along with her winter prose into the kitchen where there is, interestingly, a print of Renoir. Fairbrother loves this artist as she does many of the French artists, for their depiction of warm, sensual light.

‘I brought it home to pin on the kitchen wall, and now, whenever I feel too shut in this gloomy introspective Winter, I look at it and take myself to France. So there it lives, my Parapluies. A rainy day of black frocks and umbrellas, yet it glows with delight on the kitchen wall.

And this gift of Renoir’s, for making ordinary life delicious, is for me––quite un-English.’

Renoir's Parapluies:

Renoir’s Parapluies: via wiki

There it is, indeed. Lovely, luminous–Renoir engages his viewer with the slightly questioning look of the little girl with the hoop. ‘Why don’t you join us?’ she seems to be asking.

Later, Fairbrother, still musing upon the magic of the French painters, ponders: ‘people, like peaches, need sun to ripen them’…and then wonders if youth could ever truly appreciate the sensual beauty of a Renoir.

“For what does youth, living through the mind and the emotions, know of this direct and untroubled delight in warmth and color, the taste of peaches and the touch of silk and velvet?”

Hmmm…what would she have thought of this digital age? Digital images, sounds, words, digital friends we only know by their computer generated avatars. (interesting word origin: ‘avatar’)

Gradually, we are removing ourselves more and more from the regenerative power of tactile experience. While critical to the developing infant brain, is it any less potent for our elastic, questing, adult minds?

“For all kinds of doors open of themselves as one grows older and more various.” Nan Fairbrother

In Elizabeth von Arnim’s winter world, the weather is just fine. Delightful, in fact. Tactile experience in the crunchy snow abounds. She shares a few similarities of situation with Fairbrother: she is also ‘buried’ in an old country house; she is surrounded by the clatter and clamor of small children (possibly with more help staff, however). The difference is von Arnim thrives in her frozen landscape.

So—it is the winter of 1896, we have just sledded over to the Schloss of a fine lady, and we join Elizabeth as a guest at tea.

“You cannot possibly be happy in the winter entirely alone,” asserted another lady, the wife of a high military authority and not accustomed to be contradicted.
“But I am.”
“But how can you possibly be at your age? No, it is not possible.”
“But I am.”
“Your husband ought to bring you to town in the winter.”
“But I don’t want to be brought to town.”
“And not let you waste your best years buried.”
“But I like being buried.”
“Such solitude is not right.”
“But I’m not solitary.”
“And can come to no good.” She was getting quite angry.
There was a chorus of No Indeeds at her last remark, and renewed shaking of heads.

“I enjoyed the winter immensely,” I persisted when they were a little quieter; “I sleighed and skated, and then there were the children, and shelves and shelves full of —” I was going to say books, but stopped. Reading is an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time.

‘And how could I talk to them of the happiness I felt when the sun shone on the snow, or of the deep delight of hoar-frost days?’

How unlike Fairbrother’s preoccupations in mood! Yet they both love books, and are in pursuit of the all-important Idea; streams of thought that carry one along, transporting yet grounding us.

‘I laughed on the way home, and I laughed again for sheer satisfaction when we reached the garden and drove between the quiet trees to the pretty old house; and when I went into the library, with its four windows open to the moonlight and the scent, and looked round at the familiar bookshelves, and could hear no sounds but sounds of peace, and knew that here I might read or dream or idle exactly as I chose with never a creature to disturb me, how grateful I felt to the kindly Fate that has brought me here and given me a heart to understand my own blessedness, and rescued me from a life like that I had just seen — a life spent with the odours of other people’s dinners in one’s nostrils, and the noise of their wrangling servants in one’s ears, and parties and tattle for all amusement.’

On a brilliant winter’s day Elizabeth and two of her friends set off in the sleigh for a three hour ride in the open air to admire the frozen Baltic Sea. Oh, and yes, to have a picnic. In sub zero temperatures.

“I have a weakness for picnics, especially in winter…yesterday morning we started off in the gayest of spirits, even Minora being disposed to laugh immoderately on the least provocation. Only our eyes were allowed to peep out from the fur and woollen wrappings necessary to our heads if we would come back with our ears and noses in the same places they were in when we started, and for the first two miles the mirth created by each other’s strange appearance was uproarious — a fact I mention merely to show what an effect dry, bright, intense cold produces on healthy bodies, and how much better it is to go out in it and enjoy it than to stay indoors and sulk. As we passed through the neighbouring village with cracking of whip and jingling of bells, heads popped up at the windows to stare, and the only living thing in the silent, sunny street was a melancholy fowl with ruffled feathers, which looked at us reproachfully, as we dashed with so much energy over the crackling snow.’

So much happy energy skimming over ice!

The lucent window of light has now passed, and here, in the present, we have moved on to the torrential rain sequence. In spite of this, Elizabeth von Arnim has inspired me to appreciate the aesthetic possibilities of having a picnic in winter. Unlike Nan Fairbrother, who bemoaned the lack of picnics in the winter—(it is not a picnic if there is no fizzy lemonade and warm, sleepy grass)—I am going to see the potential in a tartan wool rug and a thermos of hot soup. There are wetlands and wild geese aplenty, and this weekend a pudgy old steam engine will be chuffing through the valley, carrying its load of holiday adventurers in search of an Orient Express type experience. The creamy white curls of steam in the cold winter air is a delight to watch.

Nan Fairbrother, with her talk of glowing art, the French painters, and fine light on Renoir umbrellas, has reminded me that there is some very inspiring art just five minutes away at our Portland art museum. Not just any art, but the works of painters who looked out of themselves, and reflected the world through their own unique quality of light.

The exhibition is called, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family CollectionThe exhibit will be there through January.

The beginning quote by Claude Monet, is in connection with his En Paysage dans I’ile Saint-Martin, and is part of the collection. In all there are five landscapes by Monet. And, also part of the collection—the famous Birch Trees, by Gustav Klimt!

Seeing Nature offers an extraordinary opportunity to perceive the world through the gaze of some of the most important artists in history,” said Brian Ferriso, curator of the exhibit here in Portland.

I hope your reading this winter take you to new exciting worlds of discovery, floods light into your interior rooms, or makes even your ‘ordinary life more delicious.’


Additional notes:

Here, produced by Portland Art Museum, is a video on art and the brain:

For further reading on Nan Fairbrother, see here: (or type ‘Nan Fairbrother’ in the search box of this blog for more)

My post on Elizabeth von Arnim

More on Bertha Damon, coming soon

 

 

 

 

We’ll Always Have Pomerania

‘November 11th.—When the gray November weather came, and hung its soft dark clouds low and unbroken over the brown of the ploughed fields and the vivid emerald of the stretches of winter corn, the heavy stillness weighed my heart down to a forlorn yearning after the pleasant things of childhood, the petting, the comforting, the warming faith in the unfailing wisdom of elders. A great need of something to lean on, and a great weariness of independence and responsibility took possession of my soul; and looking round for support and comfort in that transitory mood, the emptiness of the present and the blankness of the future sent me back to the past with all its ghosts…… [Elizabeth von Armin]

The library at Elizabeth von Arnim’s home

One does not need to live in the past to benefit from the past. A garden represents the best parts of our collective selves. In this well-designed tapestry of living things, past, present, and future are all equally represented. There is a comforting continuity in the slow drift of seasons, in the growing softness of the springy turf underneath, and the ebb and flow of the leafy canopy above. One season nourishes the next; death is but renewal. Even as one season ends, there are sure signs of the next to begin.

Leaves come and go, birds scatter their seeds, structure remains. There is a purpose here that is being worked out. This purpose speaks to us in comforting whispers as we walk. Outside, in a garden, is always looking in.

Some say ‘time began in a garden’, but it is really eternity we sense. Something beyond our mere framework of time. Purpose. Paradise lost; Integrity restored. Our DNA–each of us unique–does not exist to be a mere leaf that gets crushed underfoot. We do not drift through life just to provide compost for the next generation. There is more to us than that. A garden renews this conviction.

My stroll through a favorite local public garden, my reset button, for a stormy November day was surprisingly more colorful than I had anticipated. Though the stroll was in the somber present, I felt very much a part of a meaningful past.

The weather was just as ‘Elizabeth’ described above; gray, heavy, with soft dark clouds hung low. Who was Elizabeth? Ah, thereby hangs a tale.

IMG_9740

The book for my dark November day stroll is Elizabeth and Her German Garden.  (I will be lavishly quoting from this book. If you have read it, you know why. If you haven’t read it, these aren’t spoilers, and I hope you will be intrigued enough to discover it for yourself.)

Elizabeth’s garden, begun sometime before 1898, was anything but public at the time. Nor was she really Elizabeth. Nor was she German. And the ‘German’ garden was actually in Pomerania, which is now Poland.

The charming author of this jumbled flowerbed of contradictions is famous as Elizabeth von Armin. Born Mary Annette Beauchamp, though sometimes known as Alice, most often went by the nickname May, and briefly was called Countess von Arnim-Schlagenthin and Countess Russell…making her more appellative rich than even George Eliot.

Given this melange of potential misinformation, what sort of book awaits us? Picture a neglected, ancient schloss buried in the deep mists and outer reaches of countryside near the Baltic Sea, surrounded by ‘a vast, rambling, derelict garden’…the author a vibrant young independent countess who longs to break away from Berlin social life and create her own peaceful, flower-filled haven…

Of course I would love this book! Abandoned gardens? Old, stately homes? Independent heroines of quirky disposition? Yes!

Her narrative is at times pertly irreverant and hints of ‘spoiled rich girl’, yet at other times she is endearingly honest and searching. Viewed within the stilted context of her times, her writing style is quite refreshing.

‘To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important? And is not plain living and high thinking better than the other way about? And all too careful making of dinners and dusting of furniture takes a terrible amount of precious time, and — and with shame I confess that my sympathies are all with the pudding and the grammar. It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else, and there was no one to do the dusting for me, I would cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment, triumphantly selling my dusters to the very next pedlar who was weak enough to buy them.’

This made me laugh. I was raised with similar feelings about dusting—my mother certainly wasn’t a Countess but she would have admired ‘Elizabeth’s’ sentiments very much. Mom infinitely preferred dancing over dusting.

OriginalPhoto-469222139.820651

I found many simpatico moments with this book that brought an amateur, dreamy-eyed hopeful to a garden that had been abandoned and overgrown for decades.

‘If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books, and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?’

Oh, that is so like ‘Allegra’. When I wrote my first short novel, A Garden for Allegra, my heart and mind was infused with the gardens and quaint prose of Louise Beebe Wilder. (1878-1938) Wilder wrote non-fiction with endearing titles as Adventures in My Rock Garden. She is known for her famous garden at Balderbrae in Pomona, New York. This garden, the scene of some of her most exquisite prose and flowery efforts, was planted circa 1914.

I have written more than once of ‘Louise’ in these pages. I have all of her books, and they are treasures in my library. How often, in my mind, I have been in her garden, or—after working a long day in my own garden—sat down with a pot of tea and opened one of Louise’s books to find out how I should manage my wayward sweet peas, or how to curb the ‘tender tufts’ of campanula that are in danger of becoming ‘too riotous’. Like a trustworthy grandmother, she could always deliver a homely bit of wisdom, albeit backed by the stiff spine of cultural refinement, as one might expect from one who could claim descendancy from the Stuart line of kings. I sat at her fireside, so to speak, and listened intently as she explained:

“Adventure is of the mind—a mental attitude toward everyday events wherever experienced. One does not have to sit through the long night of an antarctic winter with an Admiral Byrd to know this, or to explore uncharted airways. Adventure may be met with any day, any hour, on one’s own doorstep, just around the corner; it may lurk in the subway, on a bus stop, in the garden.”

Oh, dear Louise–what would you write today? Perhaps she would feel, more than ever, that we should find noble adventures in the working of a garden, and that our minds and motivations would be the richer for it.

“Ever a season ahead of us floats the vision of perfection and herein lies its perennial charm.” – Louise Beebe Wilder

Even as I was immersed in the adventures of Louise’s garden, her gardening and writing contemporary Elizabeth von Armin was also working steadily on the other side of the Atlantic.

People often recommended von Armin’s books to me, and they couldn’t quite believe—after reading A Garden for Allegra—that I hadn’t read any Elizabeth von Arnim. Truth is, while I was writing Allegra, I hadn’t even heard of Elizabeth who is not really Elizabeth. I had not heard of her lovely German garden that is actually in Pomerania. I had only heard of Louise from Pomona.

How glad I am that I finally made the acquaintance! I thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiastic honesty of ‘Elizabeth’ as she eagerly plotted her garden;

‘May 10th.—I knew nothing whatever last year about gardening and this year know very little more, but I have dawnings of what may be done, and have at least made one great stride—from ipomaea to tea-roses….

Luckily I had sown two great patches of sweetpeas which made me very happy all the summer, and then there were some sunflowers and a few hollyhocks under the south windows, with Madonna lilies in between. But the lilies, after being transplanted, disappeared to my great dismay, for how was I to know it was the way of lilies? And the hollyhocks turned out to be rather ugly colours, so that my first summer was decorated and beautified solely by sweet-peas…

How I long for the day when the tea-roses open their buds! Never did I look forward so intensely to anything; and every day I go the rounds, admiring what the dear little things have achieved in the twenty-four hours in the way of new leaf or increase of lovely red shoot.’

What the dear little things have achieved’….that is pure Louise-speak, in the quaint, post-Victorian cant. It would have been wonderful had these two women ever met. Perhaps they did.

In the interior of ‘Elizabeth’s’ book, however, we come to quite another kind of garden. This was when I became most intrigued; as though a voice, in the midst of happy chatter, suddenly drops to an intense whisper. We strain our ear to hear every nuance.

When the narrative comes to the month of November, ‘Elizabeth’ longs to revisit the garden of her past. The mystery of where it is and how she gets there she leaves to the reader to solve. We only know that:

‘It was a complicated journey, and lasted several hours.’

She must have been traveling, not only by train, with her soon-to-be-soggy simple lunch of sandwich and pear, but by time machine, as well. For clearly she was going back in time. We know from the scraps of her actual history that she was born in Australia and raised in England. So where was this childhood garden, this intensely personal place, this now slug-infested arbor where once her Grandfather sat in kingly isolation, drank his coffee, intimidated the mosquitos, ‘and could have been a great man’?

‘The arbour had fallen into great decay, and was in the last stage of mouldiness. My grandfather had had it made, and, like other buildings, it enjoyed a period of prosperity before being left to the ravages of slugs and children, when he came down every afternoon in summer and drank his coffee there and read his Kreuzzeitung and dozed, while the rest of us went about on tiptoe, and only the birds dared sing. Even the mosquitoes that infested the place were too much in awe of him to sting him; they certainly never did sting him, and I naturally concluded it must be because he had forbidden such familiarities.’

‘Although I had played there for so many years since his death, my memory skipped them all, and went back to the days when it was exclusively his. Standing on the spot where his armchair used to be, I felt how well I knew him now from the impressions he made then on my child’s mind, though I was not conscious of them for more than twenty years. Nobody told me about him, and he died when I was six, and yet within the last year or two, that strange Indian summer of remembrance that comes to us in the leisured times when the children have been born and we have time to think, has made me know him perfectly well.’

‘It is rather an uncomfortable thought for the grown-up, and especially for the parent, but of a salutary and restraining nature, that though children may not understand what is said and done before them, and have no interest in it at the time, and though they may forget it at once and for years, yet these things that they have seen and heard and not noticed have after all impressed themselves for ever on their minds, and when they are men and women come crowding back with surprising and often painful distinctness, and away frisk all the cherished little illusions in flocks.’

What beautifully written, insightful, and personal words. The impulsive November garden visit in the cold mist gives the feeling that it was transplanted from another place, and certainly from real memories. There is an authenticity to the narrative as it becomes quickly more agitated and bitterly nostalgic. Suddenly the mood of light-hearted fanciful gloss is gone and we are living scenes unedited, straight from the author’s memory.

IMG_9765

‘Then the place was unchanged. I was standing in the same mysterious tangle of damp little paths that had always been just there; they curled away on either side among the shrubs, with the brown tracks of recent footsteps in the centre of their green stains, just as they did in my day. The overgrown lilac bushes still met above my head. The moisture dripped from the same ledge in the wall on to the sodden leaves beneath, as it had done all through the afternoons of all those past Novembers.’

‘This was the place, this damp and gloomy tangle, that had specially belonged to me. Nobody ever came to it, for in winter it was too dreary, and in summer so full of mosquitoes that only a Backfisch indifferent to spots could have borne it. But it was a place where I could play unobserved, and where I could walk up and down uninterrupted for hours, building castles in the air. There was an unwholesome little arbour in one dark corner, much frequented by the larger black slug, where I used to pass glorious afternoons making plans. I was for ever making plans, and if nothing came of them, what did it matter? The mere making had been a joy. To me this out-of-the-way corner was always a wonderful and a mysterious place, where my castles in the air stood close together in radiant rows, and where the strangest and most splendid adventures befell me; for the hours I passed in it and the people I met in it were all enchanted.’IMG_7689

‘Standing there and looking round with happy eyes, I forgot the existence of the cousins. I could have cried for joy at being there again. It was the home of my fathers, the home that would have been mine if I had been a boy, the home that was mine now by a thousand tender and happy and miserable associations, of which the people in possession could not dream. They were tenants, but it was my home. I threw my arms round the trunk of a very wet fir tree, every branch of which I remembered, for had I not climbed it, and fallen from it, and torn and bruised myself on it uncountable numbers of times? and I gave it such a hearty kiss that my nose and chin were smudged into one green stain, and still I did not care.’

IMG_9627

There is even a little twelve year old girl that surprises ‘Elizabeth’ in her November garden. Pert, saucy, curious—and with the same disregard toward handkerchiefs that ‘Elizabeth’ herself had claimed as she stepped into the garden and felt like a child again..

‘As a Backfisch I had never used handkerchiefs—the child of nature scorns to blow its nose—though for decency’s sake my governess insisted on giving me a clean one of vast size and stubborn texture on Sundays. It was stowed away unfolded in the remotest corner of my pocket…’

Is she seeing a shadow of her young self in her garden?

“Why don’t you rub it off?” [asked the little girl.]

Then I remembered the throwing away of the handkerchief, and blushed again.

“Please lend me your handkerchief,” I said humbly, “I—I have lost mine.”

There was a great fumbling in six different pockets, and then a handkerchief that made me young again merely to look at it was produced. I took it thankfully and rubbed with energy, the little girl, intensely interested, watching the operation and giving me advice.’

‘Elizabeth’ even hears the call of the girl’s governess, and runs, just as she had when a child…

“So strong was the force of old habits in that place that at the words not allowed my hand dropped of itself from the latch; and at that instant a voice calling quite close to us through the mist struck me rigid.
“Elizabeth! Elizabeth!” called the voice, “Come in at once to your lessons—Elizabeth! Elizabeth!”
“It’s Miss Robinson,” whispered the little girl, twinkling with excitement; then, catching sight of my face, she said once more with eager insistence, “Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m a ghost!” I cried with conviction, pressing my hands to my forehead and looking round fearfully.
“Pooh,” said the little girl.
It was the last remark I heard her make, for there was a creaking of approaching boots in the bushes, and seized by a frightful panic I pulled the gate open with one desperate pull, flung it to behind me, and fled out and away down the wide, misty fields….’

She ends this scene with a brief aside that informs us she later finds out this little girl’s name is…what? You guessed it. Elizabeth.

Yes, this was the most interesting garden of the book. The real garden. The real Elizabeth.

IMG_9771

I enjoyed this book very much. She is an author worth revisiting—likely the next book to discover will be her semi-autobiographical work entitled ‘My Life With Dogs’. Yet another reason to feel a kinship.

And for you, friend, may the ‘strange Indian summers of our remembrance‘, always contain thoughts of spring.

The Schloss at Nassenheide, Pomerania


Additional notes:

If you would like to read more about Louise Beebe Wilder, see these posts:

The Twilight of Our Year

Shadow and Substance

In June She Reads Louise

Pomona: Bibliography for Louise Beebe Wilder here

Pomerania: Bibliography for Elizabeth von Arnim here

For more information regarding my works of fiction: here