This was a buddy read with Themis Athena.
The Solitary Summer is a follow up to Elizabeth and Her German Garden; they don't have to be read in any order, but Solitary Summer takes place in the same garden, about three years later.
I went into this book naively assuming that the "Solitary" in the title mean Elizabeth at home, alone, in her garden, for the entire summer. While I made allowances for servants, I figured she'd sent Man of Wrath and her three children off somewhere for the summer, either together or separately.
Shows what I know; the Solitary in the title means nothing of the sort. It simply means Elizabeth and her husband agree that for one summer, May through August, there will be no guests descending on the house, expecting Elizabeth to perform hostess duties. 100 years ago, I suppose that would feel like a kind of solitude, but personally, if I were being subjected to the daily demands of husband and three daughters, I'd have long before whipped out my Sharpie pen and blacked out the entry for 'solitude' in all my dictionaries and been done with the concept.
Moving on from my luxurious pre-conceived notions, the book is ostensibly about Elizabeth spending the summer in her garden, free from hostessing duties, and therefore free to loll about in her garden all day, book in hand, alternately reading and soaking in the paradise surrounding anyone in a garden, wood, and field. When she's not feeding her family, or handing out food to the servants, or entertaining her daughters. The solitary moments do happen, in May and most of June, but after a spate of gales whip through, the tone of the book alters perceptibly; less garden, more musings on philosophy, reading, morality, class and village life.
In my opinion, even though I picked this up in eager anticipation of the garden-geek-fest, it's the second half that should not be missed. Elizabeth is a rare breed; she's able to stand apart from herself, to see herself and events around her with objectivity, brutal honesty, and wry wit. She does not rationalise, she does not excuse or defend, she simply observes: this is they way things/I should be, this is the way things/I are(am). It's refreshing to hear this kind of voice, and if it doesn't make you think one way or the other, ... well, never mind. But the issues she addresses in her musings are at least as relevant today as they were 100 years ago, with the exception of enforced quartering of troops and servant housing.
From what little I know so far about Elizabeth von Arnim's background, her husband isn't what anyone today would call a gem; she calls him Man of Wrath for heaven's sake, and I doubt she's using the term ironically. But there are moments of accord between the two, as well as many scenes of shared humour and witty banter that lead me to suspect their relationship was far more complex than history will likely remember it being, and I'm eager to find out more about them both to see if my suspicions stand up to available facts.
Either way, I like her. I suspect, were we contemporaries and life brought us into each other's orbit, we'd be friends - or at least appreciate each other's love of nature, sarcasm, and our disdain for too many guests.
[...] And how dreadful to meet a gardener and a wheelbarrow at every turn—which is precisely what happens to one in the perfect garden. My gardener, whose deafness is more than compensated for by the keenness of his eyesight, very soon remarked the scowl that distorted my features whenever I met one of his assistants in my favourite walks, and I never meet them now. I think he must keep them chained up to the cucumber-frames, so completely have they disappeared, and he only lets them loose when he knows I am driving, or at meals, or in bed. But is it not irritating to be sitting under your favourite tree, pencil in hand, and eyes turned skywards expectant of the spark from heaven that never falls, and then to have a man appear suddenly round the corner who immediately begins quite close to you to tear up the earth with his fangs? No one will ever know the number of what I believe are technically known as winged words that I have missed bringing down through interruptions of this kind. Indeed, as I look through these pages I see I must have missed them all, for I can find nothing anywhere with even a rudimentary approach to wings.
I just love her wry honesty about herself, and the image of the under-gardeners chained to the cucumber frames makes me laugh.
Sometimes when I am in a critical mood and need all my faith to keep me patient, I shake my head at the unshornness of the garden as gravely as the missionary shook his head at me. The bushes stretch across the paths, and, catching at me as I go by, remind me that they have not been pruned; the teeming plant life rejoices on the lawns free from all interference from men and hoes; the pinks are closely nibbled off at the beginning of each summer by selfish hares intent on their own gratification; most of the beds bear the marks of nocturnal foxes; and the squirrels spend their days wantonly biting off and flinging down the tender young shoots of the firs. Then there is the boy who drives the donkey and water-cart round the garden, and who has an altogether reprehensible habit of whisking round corners and slicing off bits of the lawn as he whisks. "But you can't alter these things, my good soul," I say to myself. "If you want to get rid of the hares and foxes, you must consent to have wire-netting, which is odious, right round your garden. And you are always saying you like weeds, so why grumble at your lawns? And it doesn't hurt you much if the squirrels do break bits off your firs—the firs must have had that happening to them years and years before you were born, yet they still flourish. As for boys, they certainly are revolting creatures. Can't you catch this one when he isn't looking and pop him in his own water-barrel and put the lid on?"
This perfectly sums up MT's feeling about drivers who cut corners when they turn. I believe, given the chance and amnesty, he'd do just this to the offenders.
I sat by the window in my room till late, looking out at the moonlight in the quiet garden, with a feeling as though I were stuffed with sawdust—a very awful feeling—and thinking ruefully of the day that had begun so brightly and ended so dismally. What a miserable thing not to be able to be frank and say simply, "My good young man, you and I never saw each other before, probably won't see each other again, and have no interests in common. I mean you to be comfortable in my house, but I want to be comfortable too. Let us, therefore, keep out of each other's way while you are obliged to be here. Do as you like, go where you like, and order what you like, but don't expect me to waste my time sitting by your side and making small-talk. I too have to get to heaven, and have no time to lose. You won't see me again. Good-bye."
Thank god society has progressed at least this much; that we can in all propriety say much the same message to our guests and more often than not, have them welcome and agree with such liberating sentiments.
Review to follow.
I've read through July to this point. So far, it's the most consistently introspective section, and deals more with social questions concerning the differences in social classes, poverty, and morality.
The points that made me pause (for one reason or another):
"The idea of the June baby striding across the firmament and hurling the stars about as carelessly as though they were tennis-balls was so magnificent that it sent shivers of awe through me as I read.
"But if you break all your dolls," added April, turning severely to June, and eyeing the distorted remains in her hand, "I don't think lieber Gott will let you in at all. When you're big and have tiny Junes—real live Junes—I think you'll break them too, and lieber Gott doesn't love mummies what breaks their babies."
"But I must break my dolls," cried June, stung into indignation by what she evidently regarded as celestial injustice; "lieber Gott made me that way, so I can't help doing it, can I, mummy?"
On these occasions I keep my eyes fixed on my book, and put on an air of deep abstraction; and indeed, it is the only way of keeping out of theological disputes in which I am invariably worsted."
In Elizabeth's place, I too would feign deep abstraction if faced with this kind of logic.
"[...] something inside me had kept on saying aggressively all the morning, "Elizabeth, don't you know you are due in the village? Why don't you go then? When are you going? Don't you know you ought to go? Don't you feel you must? Elizabeth, pull yourself together and go" Strange effect of a grey sky and a cool wind! For I protest that if it had been warm and sunny my conscience would not have bothered about me at all. We had a short fight over it, in which I got all the knocks, as was evident by the immediate swelling of the bump alluded to above, and then I gave in, and by two o'clock in the afternoon was lifting the latch of the first door and asking the woman who lived behind it what she had given the family for dinner. "
Her conscience seems to have been reincarnated into my conscience, for this is exactly the voice I hear in my own head.
"It is sin" he said shortly.
"Then the forgiveness is sure."
"Not if they do not seek it."
I was silent, for I wished to reply that I believed they would be forgiven in spite of themselves, that probably they were forgiven whether they sought it or not, and that you cannot limit things divine; but who can argue with a parson? These people do not seek forgiveness because it never enters their heads that they need it. The parson tells them so, it is true, but they regard him as a person bound by his profession to say that sort of thing, and are sharp enough to see that the consequences of their sin, foretold by him with such awful eloquence, never by any chance come off."
Truer words have never been spoken.
"Oh, the doctor—" said the mother with a shrug, "he's no use."
"You must do what he tells you, or he cannot help you."
"That last medicine he sent me all but killed me," she said, washing vigorously. "I'll never take any more of his, nor shall any child of mine."
"What medicine was it?"
She wiped her hand on her apron, and reaching across to the cupboard took out a little bottle. "I was in bed two days after it," she said, handing it to me—"as though I were dead, not knowing what was going on round me." The bottle had contained opium, and there were explicit directions written on it as to the number of drops to be taken and the length of the intervals between the taking.
"Did you do exactly what is written here?" I asked.
"I took it all at once. There wasn't much of it, and I was feeling bad."
"But then of course it nearly killed you. I wonder it didn't quite. What good is it our taking all the trouble we do to send that long distance for the doctor if you don't do as he orders?"
"I'll take no more of his medicine. If it had been any good and able to cure me, the more I took the quicker I ought to have been cured."
"A man once made it a reproach that I should be so happy, and told me everybody has crosses, and that we live in a vale of woe. I mentioned moles as my principal cross, and pointed to the huge black mounds with which they had decorated the tennis-court, but I could not agree to the vale of woe, and could not be shaken in my belief that the world is a dear and lovely place, with everything in it to make us happy so long as we walk humbly and diet ourselves. He pointed out that sorrow and sickness were sure to come, and seemed quite angry with me when I suggested that they too could be borne perhaps with cheerfulness. 'And have not even such things their sunny side?' I exclaimed. 'When I am steeped to the lips in diseases and doctors, I shall at least have something to talk about that interests my women friends, and need not sit as I do now wondering what I shall say next and wishing they would go.' He replied that all around me lay misery, sin, and suffering, and that every person not absolutely blinded by selfishness must be aware of it and must realise the seriousness and tragedy of existence. I asked him whether my being miserable and discontented would help any one or make him less wretched; and he said that we all had to take up our burdens. I assured him I would not shrink from mine, though I felt secretly ashamed of it when I remembered that it was only moles, and he went away with a grave face and a shaking head, back to his wife and his eleven children. I heard soon afterwards that a twelfth baby had been born and his wife had died, and in dying had turned her face with a quite unaccountable impatience away from him and to the wall; and the rumour of his piety reached even into my garden, and how he had said, as he closed her eyes, 'It is the Will of God.' He was a missionary."
Quintessential Elizabeth. And yet, her own cross amounted to vastly more than mole hills, too, in fact.