Like Woody Allen, I am two with Nature, and usually plants die if I so much as look in their general direction, so a book called Elizabeth and her German Garden wouldn’t normally be a priority. But then Claire wrote this amazing review which made me add it to my wish-list, and recently it was mentioned on Downtown Abbey, so how could I resist?

And I’m glad I didn’t resist because it became one the best books of 2011. It also helped that the audiobook was read by one of my favorite narrators, Nadia May.

There’s not really a plot (unless you count the change of seasons), but at about 200 pages, it’s the right size to leave you wanting for more. It’s basically the (heavily autobiographical but still fictional) diary of a city woman falling in love with her country house and garden.

The title and the fact it was written at the end of the 19th century might indicate a florid and poetic prose, full of romantic descriptions of idyllic sunrises and dew on leaves, so Elizabeth’s witty and sarcastic voice was a happy surprise.

Elizabeth was raised in England but married a Prussian aristocrat and now lives in Germany with him and their three little girls (whom she calls the April, May and June babies). She has always lived in the city but quickly falls in love with her husband’s country estate, which has been left more or less abandoned for 25 years. They decided to renovate it, so she goes there ahead of them to oversee the works.

It is during the six weeks she’s alone that Elizabeth discovers the wonders of her German Garden. She spends most of her time outside, eating light meals, reading and gradually bringing her garden back to life. One of the best scenes happens during that time before babies and husband arrive: as a gentlewoman it’s not appropriate for her to get her hands dirty, so she decides to do some clandestine gardening:

In the first ecstasy of having a garden all my own, and in my burning impatience to make the waste places blossom like a rose, I did one warm Sunday in last year’s April during the servants’ dinner hour, doubly secure from the gardener by the day and the dinner, slink out with a spade and a rake and feverishly dig a little piece of ground and break it up and sow surreptitious ipomaea, and run back very hot and guilty into the house, and get into a chair and behind a book and look languid just in time to save my reputation. And why not? It is not graceful, and it makes one hot; but it is a blessed sort of work, and if Eve had had a spade in Paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business of the apple.

Another good one:

May 7th–There were days last winter when I danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden in spite of my years and children. But I did it behind a bush, having due regard for the decencies.

She talks about her husband (whom we know only as The Man Of Wrath, but fear not, he’s actually kind of sweet), her children, visitors and neighbors, and she has witty (and often waspish) comments about them all. I’m going out on a limb here and bet that Jane Austen would love her.

I don’t know much about gardening, but I do know about being passionate about something, so this book and I connected in an unexpected way. I especially enjoyed Elizabeth’s passages about the happiness of being alone and not lonely. I’m usually very social and have to network a lot for work, but it’s still such a joy to have moments by myself. Like Elizabeth, I’m usually at a loss for words to explain this to people who don’t function without others around.

The passion for being forever with one’s fellows, and the fear of being left for a few hours alone, is to me wholly incomprehensible. I can entertain myself quite well for weeks together, hardly aware, except for the pervading peace, that I have been alone at all.

I’m planning to read more of her this year – I know Nadia May also narrated Enchanted April. Any others I should try?


Download Elizabeth and her German Garden for free on Project Gutenberg.

Other thoughts: So Many Books, Musings, Small World Reads, Iris on Books, Old English Rose Reads, SassyMonkey Reads, A Garden Carried in the Pocket, Luvvie’s Musings (yours?)