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.Other Opinions:
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?
Verity’s Virago Venture