‘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]
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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.
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.
If you would like to read more about Louise Beebe Wilder, see these posts:
Pomona: Bibliography for Louise Beebe Wilder here
Pomerania: Bibliography for Elizabeth von Arnim here
For more information regarding my works of fiction: here