Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Raising Elizabeth Von Arnim From The Dead

She was a British writer who died in 1941, and I want to resurrect her.  I don't mean bring her work back into vogue.  BBC/Miramax did a good enough job with Enchanted April, and almost all the books she wrote are available on Kindle, free.  Even though I adore her writing, it is not as a writer that I want to bring her back, but as a gardener.  As my gardener.

She has one of those belle epoque biographies:  married two counts--one German, one English;  had a passel of children who were tutored by E.M. Forster;  built her own villa in Switzerland;  took a lover 30 years her junior who eventually married and named his daughter after her.  And she loved gardens and had many big ones which feature prominently in her autobiographical novels.

To be in a novel, even a garden has to have a problem.  And Elizabeth's garden problem was not slugs or Japanese beetles,  but gardeners.  These gardeners were afflicted by all-too-human vicissitudes.  One went mad and had to be carted off to the asylum;  another was in love with the cook and ran away with her when she became frightened by a ghost in the pantry;  and others had their own ideas, which were mainly that flowers should be planted in orderly rows rather than massed helter-skelter in a Romantic way.

Those gardeners were a trial to Elizabeth.  She stood on the stone terrace, her mind full of ideas, her body girdled by corsets and her life by conventions, watching as the gardener and his assistants trundled their wheelbarrows back and forth and got things wrong, wrong, wrong.  "Ah, what I would not give to be a man!" she says (I'm quoting from memory here).  "I should seize a spade and dig the holes just where I wanted them!  Put the fertilizer where it would do the most good!  Prune the lilacs as they should be pruned!"

To which, having just last week cleaned the shed of hen poop for the 2013 garden, I say:  Come back, Elizabeth!  Leave your snow-covered European grave and manifest yourself in my piece of balmy Vermont!  It's not for writing that I want you--you did well enough at that in your eighty-some years the first time around.  But here is dirt.  Here is compost.  Here, especially this year, is mud!  There are lilacs and apple trees and an ornamental plum to be pruned--here are the pruners!  Irises, lupines and rhubarb need to be divided--here is the digging fork!  Leave your corset and your class distinctions in the grave.  You'll love this place--everybody gardens here, even the far-descendants of earls.

And while you're out there slogging away, enjoying a freedom that neither noble husbands, nor money, nor all your talent could ever give you, I'll be indoors, writing.

6 comments :

  1. Can we share her? Obviously, I'd have less to keep up once she got it going.

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  2. Sure. After she's done here, she can waft ethereally to your place.

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  3. Is she good with vegetable gardens? I need some help.

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  4. John, she only writes about flowers, and in a literary rather than agricultural way. Re: vegetable gardening, I can't tell you how much I love "Square-Foot Gardening," by Mel Bartholomew, http://www.squarefootgardening.org.

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  5. Thanks for the reference. I've got it book-marked and plan to use it as I try to improve my garden's output.

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  6. If that's your concern, then I can think of nothing better than this method, also known as "intensive." Won't bore you with the incredible yields of my small space, except to say that the credit goes to the method rather than to my effort or talents.

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