Jun 11, 2010

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth Von Arnim

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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 that 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.”
The Solitary Summer is a partially autobiographical novel first published in 1899. It’s an account of a summer spent in the country, away from the social world in which a woman of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s social stance was supposed to move. It’s also a companion to Von Arnim’s more famous Elizabeth and Her German Garden, which I’ve yet to read, but now absolutely must.

Despite the title, the narrator’s summer isn’t completely solitary. She’s accompanied by her somewhat condescending husband, to whom she refers ironically as The Man of Wrath, and by her three small daughters. But despite their presence, the book is still about a summer of quiet reflection and nature observation. This might not sound particularly eventful, but trust me wheb I tell you that The Solitary Summer could hardly be more entrancing or more of a delight to read.

What makes this book such a delight is Elizabeth’s voice: she’s thoughtful, funny, extremely likeable, and quietly ironic in an almost Austenesque way, especially when she makes observations about gender roles and the almost arbitrary rules that limit her behaviour as an upper-class woman. But most of the time she’s doesn’t sound ironic – she sounds simply and unapologetically happy. She takes note of the small joys in life, and she does so in a way that makes you notice them too.

Anyone who enjoyed the nature descriptions in Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April should absolutely get a hold of this book. Even if you think you’re not particularly interested in reading about a garden coming into bloom, I’ll wager that Von Arnim can make you care. I could tell you that her enthusiasm for sweet peas, her favourite flowers, is contagious, but it’s really more than that. What makes her writing so enchanting is the fact that more than about her garden, she writes about her joy in being alive.

There’s a section in which Elizabeth visits the local village to ask after its inhabitants, as the local Lady of the Manor is expected to do. This being a late nineteenth-century book, I braced myself for some off-putting class attitudes. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised – while I wouldn’t say that she’s free of class-consciousness, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. She may lament the villagers’ distrust of the modern healthcare methods she wants them to adopt, but she always writes with compassion. And I loved the section in which she says she can’t really bring herself to frown upon single mothers, no matter how much the local vicar goes on about sin. She says she looks at them and sees only young people who are in need of things other than a lecture. This might not sound like much to us, but it’s actually a significantly daring stance for a Victorian lady to adopt.

The Solitary Summer is a kind, gentle, funny, occasionally sarcastic and absolutely delightful book. It made me crave a garden of my own – and while I’m at it, a summer away from everything and everyone I know might not be such a bad idea either.

A few of my favourite passages:
I sometimes literally ache with envy as I watch the men going about their pleasant work in the sunshine, turning up the luscious damp earth, raking, weeding, watering, planting, cutting the grass, pruning the trees--not a thing that they do from the first uncovering of the roses in the spring to the November bonfires but fills my soul with longing to be up and doing it too. A great many things will have to happen, however, before such a state of popular large-mindedness as will allow of my digging without creating a sensation is reached, so I have plenty of time for further grumblings; only I do very much wish that the tongues inhabiting this apparently lonely and deserted countryside would restrict their comments to the sins, if any, committed by the indigenous females (since sins are fair game for comment) and leave their harmless eccentricities alone. After having driven through vast tracts of forest and heath for hours, and never meeting a soul or seeing a house, it is surprising to be told that on such a day you took such a drive and were at such a spot; yet this has happened to me more than once. And if even this is watched and noted, with what lightning rapidity would the news spread that I had been seen stalking down the garden path with a hoe over my shoulder and a basket in my hand, and weeding written large on every feature! Yet I should love to weed.

Thoreau has been my companion for some days past, it having struck me as more appropriate to bring him out to a pond than to read him, as was hitherto my habit, on Sunday mornings in the garden. He is a person who loves the open air, and will refuse to give you much pleasure if you try to read him amid the pomp and circumstance of upholstery; but out in the sun, and especially by this pond, he is delightful, and we spend the happiest hours together, he making statements, and I either agreeing heartily, or just laughing and reserving my opinion till I shall have more ripely considered the thing. He, of course, does not like me as much as I like him, because I live in a cloud of dust and germs produced by wilful superfluity of furniture, and have not the courage to get a match and set light to it: and every day he sees the door-mat on which I wipe my shoes on going into the house, in defiance of his having told me that he had once refused the offer of one on the ground that it is best to avoid even the beginnings of evil.

What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden. And how easy it would have been to come into the world without this, and possessed instead of an all-consuming passion, say, for hats, perpetually raging round my empty soul! I feel I owe my forefathers a debt of gratitude, for I suppose the explanation is that they too did not care for hats.

It makes one so healthy to live in a garden, so healthy in mind as well as body, and when I say moles and late frosts are my worst enemies, it only shows how I could not now if I tried sit down and brood over my own or my neighbour's sins, and how the breezes in my garden have blown away all those worries and vexations and bitternesses that are the lot of those who live in a crowd. The most severe frost that ever nipped the hopes of a year is better to my thinking than having to listen to one malignant truth or lie, and I would rather have a mole busy burrowing tunnels under each of my rose trees and letting the air get at their roots than face a single greeting where no kindness is. How can you help being happy if you are healthy and in the place you want to be?
Other Opinions:
Verity’s Virago Venture



  1. LOVED this book, and loved what she had to say about books and reading.

  2. 'What a blessing it is to love books' -- What a beautiful passage. You've found another treasure! She sounds like a wonderful spirit.

  3. I loved The Enchanted April and so this will be a great one for the summer season.

  4. I loved The Enchanted April and within that first paragraph you wrote at the beginning of your post, you could hear her distinct voice that I love. I want this one, in fact I want all her books!

  5. I love the sound of this. I've been wanting to read THE ENCHANTED APRIL forever and this sounds like a wonderful companion!

  6. I just finished "Mr. Skeffington", which I found overly arch and so creepily prefeminist that I wanted a bath after it. So now I feel very leery of anything Von Arnim wrote...but maybe I will give this a try. (I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Mr Skeffington if you read it!)

  7. Oh, this sounds lovely! I always did so like The Enchanted April, and never read another von Arnim (except for an aborted attempt at a book she wrote about her family dogs). I'm adding this one to my TBR!

  8. This sounds like something I'd love. And I really like this: "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." That's something we seem to be lacking in the modern Western world -- the concept of needing idleness and solitude to allow ones soul to grow.

  9. Hm. Having a husband and three small children with her seems to me the very definition of "not alone." Her life must have been very different from mine.

  10. Yes, I totally agree with "what a blessing it is to love books." They are always there for you, and are endlessly interesting, and challenge your mind and your emotions. That's one reason I hate to give away my books - I feel as if they are some of my best friends!

  11. Oh, this book sounds just beautiful! I loved the quotes you provided and I can definitely see that this is something I would love! It sounds like a really quiet and introspective read and one that examines life from close up. I also really love the refreshing attitude of the protagonist. This one sounds very exciting to me, and I am adding it to my list. I also am adding Enchanted April.

    On another note, I am about halfway through Maise Dobbs for my book club, and am finding it really interesting. I actually am liking the backstory of Maise's education and time in the war a bit better than the mystery. I am going to be coming back to your review when I have finished.

    Also, you made mention of The Group on one of your comments to my blog. Just wanted to let you know that after reading your review of that book I went and grabbed myself a copy and am looking forward to it!!

  12. This sounds like a great summer read. You've definitely piqued my interest!

  13. I love the quote where she "ache[s] with envy" while watching the men working in the garden. I think it well illustrates the ridiculousness of "gendered" occupations. Something as simple as gardening was denied to women (certain women anyway). This is an activity that is considered "female" today, and yet was restricted to men in many instances not so very long ago.

    This sounds like a great read.

  14. I have this book languishing on my bookshelf. I really must read it soon. Great review (as usual)!

  15. Enjoyed reading your review! Is Elizabeth von Arnim German? (the 'von' in her name seems to suggest that :)) The idea behind the book - of going away from everything and being alone and observing things around and learning and enjoying it, is so fascinating! I liked very much von Arnim's comment on Thoreau - "He, of course, does not like me as much as I like him" :) I will add Elizabeth von Arnim to the list of authors I need to read.

  16. This sounds lovely. I love the comparison between herself and Thoreau, and how she's glad she came from book lovers, not hat fanciers! I recently was looking over my books, thinking, they've only done me good and how many people could I say that of? This book unfortunately isn't available at my library, but it's lovely to read such long quotes from it.

  17. Your reviews always make me want to read the book, and while, on the face of it, I have very little interest in a book about a garden this sounds quite fascinating. And I love the quote about loving books as opposed to hats :)

  18. I love books that are somewhat autobiographical - it makes them feel more real or something. Wonderful review.

  19. I have German Garden but some reason just haven't felt the urge to pick it up. The quotes you shared and the comments you made on Elizabeth's voice have finally convinced me that I shouldn't hesitate.

  20. I´m not really a garden person but her descriptions do sound beautiful. I can imagine lying on the grass in the sun and reading this :)

  21. I really loved Enchanted April, so I would love to read more Von Armin. This sounds lovely! And I love watching my flowers come in bloom :) (I don't have very many.)

  22. this sounds really good nymeth.
    'She takes note of the small joys in life, and she does so in a way that makes you notice them too'...I like that!

  23. Great review, Ana! I love when authors can cross genres the way that this one seems able to do! And I think there is a lot to be said for taking joy in a garden. When you put in the work, and see the results (and then get to eat them!) there is a lot of joy.

  24. I MUST read this now!! As you know I loved Enchanted April. I think this might be The Summer of Von Arnim.

  25. This sounds like something I would like very much. Amazing review! I love the idea of shutting down and having lots of time for peace and reflection

  26. Why can't MY summer be like that?!? *sigh*

  27. Verity: Wasn't that passage wonderful? I need to read more of her work.

    Marieke: She does!

    Joan Hunter Dunn: I hope you enjoy this one just as much :)

    Vivienne: I want them too!

    Marie: They're both wonderful reads :)

    Mumsy: I wonder if it was wishful thinking on my part to read her acquiescent comments as ironic. She'd say things like "Oh, I'm merely a silly woman and surely my husband knows best", but then she'd go on to disregard whatever he wanted her to do, and there she was sitting at a desk writing her book - which made me think that she didn't actually accept that she was intellectual inferior. My perception was also coloured by my reading of The Enchanted April, which is a very curious mix of conventionality and, well, not. I'm now curious about Mr Skeffington, but also dreading it!

    Jeane: I think I'll avoid the dog book, then :P

    Stephanie: I know. I don't know what I'd do without my alone time!

    Amanda: I'm afraid it's class privilege at work :\ As every nineteenth-century upper class woman, she had a nurse for the children and several maids.

    Jill: Whenever someone asks me why I'm such a book pack-rat, I'll tell them that :P

    Zibilee: I'm glad to hear you're enjoying Maisie Dobbs and I really look forward to your final thoughts! I wish I'd liked it more. And hooray for The Group :)

    Amy: I'm glad to hear it!

    Trisha: That's an excellent point about how the notions of what's "manly" and "womanly" keep changing. That alone should tell people something!

  28. Oh, this sounds wonderful! I loved both Enchanted April and Elizabeth and her German Garden. I am going to have to get a copy of this for sure! Love the quotes you included.

  29. Funny...reading that intro I immediately thought, "This is the female version of Walden." And then she references Thoreau! Beautifully written, and something I think we all can related to.

  30. Amanda: Thank you! I hope you'll enjoy it.

    Vishy: She was actually Australian! And a cousin of Katherine Mansfield. The "von" surname comes from her husband, who was a German count. I loved what she said about Thoreau too. It made me think of all the imaginary ties I have with the authors I love :P

    Carolyn: I'm thankful not to be a hat fancier instead too - not that there's anything wrong with hats :P I'm not sure how you feel about e-books, but Gutenberg has a free version of this one if you're interested!

    Fence: Isn't that a lovely quote? :D

    Kathy: Hmmm... I think I'm too invested in stories for it to make a difference to me. It comes down to the Neil Gaiman quote on my sidebar :P

    Beth: You shouldn't! And I shouldn't go for much longer without reading Elizabeth and Her German Garden.

    Bina: I'm actually not one either, but she almost made me wish I were :P

    Rebecca, I hope you enjoy this just as much as The Enchanted April!

    Naida: I loved that she did that too :)

    Aarti: My father is really into gardening and he always tells me that. But I've never had one of my own! I do have basil in a pot this year... it's a start, right? :P

    Daphne: A Summer of Von Arnim sounds absolutely lovely :D

    bookmagic: Thank you! I love that idea as well.

    Heidenkind: I know :(

    Stefanie: Then I'm sure you'll love this as well!

    Elisabeth: Can you believe I've yet to read more than excerpts of Walden? Must amend that sometime.

  31. I love the beautiful passage you quote. That sounds like the kind of summer I'm looking forward to, at least for a week somewhere all by myself, enjoying the scenery and quiet, with my books.

    I read Enchanted April and totally enjoyed it. I'll look for this one. Great review! :)

  32. Matt: Thank you! I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. And wouldn't a summer like this be lovely?


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