The premise of this story is simple: Elizabeth suggests she wants to spend a solitary summer, without the usual company, to read and concentrate on her garden:
“Wouldn’t a whole lovely summer, quite alone, be delightful? Wouldn’t it be perfect to get up every morning for weeks and feel that you belong to yourself and nobody else?”
“The Man of Wrath”, as she calls her husband, agrees, but thinks she will die of boredom. And so this novel follows her summer, Elizabeth wandering around her garden, talking about her babies, visiting the poor. In the end, one could argue her summer is far from solitary, with her family always nearby, and soldiers stationed near her house for a while, and yet the book exudes the atmosphere of quiet and solitary ramblings.
If you are a reader who likes to cuddle up with a book in a quiet corner, it is hard not to relate to Elizabeth’s quest for solitude. Even more so because a large part of The Solitary Summer reflects on her reading during the summer:
“Books have their idiosyncrasies as well as people, and will not show me their full beauties unless the place and time in which they are read suits them. If, for instance, I cannot read Thoreau in a drawing-room, how much less would I ever dream of reading Boswell in the grass by a pond! Imagine carrying him off in company with his great friend to a lonely dell in a rye-field, and expecting them to be entertaining. ‘Nay, my dear lady,’ the great man would say in mighty tones of rebuke, ‘this will never do. Lie in a rye-field? What folly is that? And who would converse in a damp hollow that can help it?’ So I read and laugh over Boswell in the library when the lamps are lit, buried in cushions and surrounded by every sign of civilisation, with the drawn curtains shutting out the garden and the country solitude so much disliked by both sage and disciple.”
It is surprising how easily Elizabeth von Arnim’s books manage to remain interesting, despite a lack of plot. If you were to ask me what exactly this book is about I would find it hard to answer, but I can tell you that I very much enjoyed reading it. There is a quality to von Arnim’s prose that turns it into a comforting escape from the world. I think in part this is due to the feeling of being a kindred soul to Elizabeth, in her love for reading and wandering in a garden it feels as if you are one of the select few invited into her world during the summer. I am sure those of a more active disposition, who dislike reading, would find it much more difficult to love this book. Part of why The Solitary Summer was such a comforting read is also due to the way in which she gives inanimate objects like books, or live objects that we usually don’t give a will of their own, a distinct personality. It shows in the description of the companionship she holds with books, but also in her descriptions of the garden itself:
“I saved the dandelions and daisies on that occasion, and I like to believe they know it. They certainly look very jolly when I come out, and I rather fancy the dandelions dig each other in their little ribs when they see me, and whisper, ‘Here comes Elizabeth; she’s a good sort, ain’t she?’ – for of course dandelions do not express themselves very elegantly.”
Between Elizabeth and her German Garden and this follow-up, I am not sure which one I enjoyed better. Perhaps I enjoyed her meandering writing a little more this time around, because I knew what to expect and so I could appreciate the small details better. On the other hand, while there are as many instances i which gendered roles and hierarchies are subverted in this volume as in the first, the middle part of The Solitary Summer deals with visits to the poorer people living in the village nearby Elizabeth, in which a glimpse of elitism appears: Elizabeth believes the peasants are less modern and are, for example, unlikely to understand the need for modern healthcare. At the same time, she shows true compassion for those she visits. Do not get me wrong, I know that class distinctions were common around the turn of the century, I do not blame Elizabeth von Arnim or anything. Actually, she is quite mild in her descriptions. It is just that, as a reader, these parts felt a little out of sync with the setting at the beginning and the end of the book, that concentrate on her garden, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Three books into Elizabeth von Arnim’s oeuvre, I know I would like to read everything by her, if at all possible. And so, here’s another author for the “Complete works of..” list. Luckily, many of her books are available in the public domain, though I admit: I would love to own the pretty Virago Modern Classic editions of her works.
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