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.