The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1899)
“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 anyone calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick . . . Wouldn’t a whole lovely summer, quite alone, be delightful?” That is what the narrator of The Solitary Summer wants, she being the fictional alter ego of the author Elizabeth von Arnim (who at the time of publication was known only as the anonymous “author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden.”
The Solitary Summer (1899) followed quickly on the heels of Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898). It’s very much a companion volume to the first, which was hugely successful. These dual semi-autobiographical novels tell of a woman’s desire to create her own identity and physical space, apart from children and a domineering husband referred to as the “Man of Wrath.” Told with great wit, these quiet goings-on take place on a rambling countyside estate very much like the one that author’s family lived on. It’s always a delight to find an original review from the time of a book’s publication, such as the one that follows:
From the original review of The Solitary Summer in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 1899: One of the very best books of the present publishing season is The Solitary Summer, by the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden.
It reminds one strongly of My Summer in a Garden, but only in its good-natured despair over what every garden lover knows is the inevitable. Charles Dudley Warner’s battle with weeds was no worse than this author’s, who discovers that all her expensive bulbs and seeds have turned out to be nettles.
Too familiar with Americans?
The identity of the genteel gardener is purposely veiled. She pretends to be German born and carefully avoids any reference to America, but there is internal evidence that she is American. No Englishwoman or German ever spoke of “the thermometer being in the nineties.”
Secondly she knows far too much about American authors to pass herself off for a foreigner. German housewives do not wander about their gardens with Throreau in hand, nor are they familiar with Oliver Wendell Holmes and Hawthorne. Few of them know Carlyle, and American women have been foremost worshippers at his shrine.
“The Man of Wrath”
Moreover, designating her husband as “The Man of Wrath” is suspiciously reminiscent of the “Solitary” in Marm ‘Lisa. But to have done with guessing, the book is delightful, whoever may be responsible for it. It is not wholly about gardening. A chapter on Slumming in the German village is as good reading as any.
The author tells of the pride with which feather beds are accumulated, of the peculiar relations of betrothed couples, of the obstinacy and fatal stupidity of mothers concerning their children. It is a pathetic picture, yet there is more over which to laugh than to cry in it. We can imagine the writer joking, but with tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat.
A hausfrau who cherishes solitude
As might have been expected from what has already been said of the book, it is rich in appreciative sketches of landscape somewhat different from any with which Americans are familiar. The idea on which the essays are strung is that of a German housewife, evidently of independent fortune, who decides to spend the summer as a solitary, that is to say, with her husband’s permission she refuses to invite friends to their country home for the whole summer.
She has her children, her servants and the tutor, in addition to the Man of Wrath, who predicts the failure of her plan. The children would effectually prevent anyone from being lonely. They won’t speak either French or English, despite their mother’s insistence, and their methods of evasion are undoubtedly transcripts from actual conversations for no one could have invented them.
Their mother’s fright and precautions when she found that they had been spending their play time on the edge of a slimy pond will be appreciated by everyone who has had the care of healthy, obstreperous youngsters. There is something for everyone who wants a book written in good English, bubbling over with fun and yet full of poetical ideas and no little of shrewd philosophy.
You might also like this books predecessor,
Elizabeth and Her German Garden
*Elizabeth von Arnim identified herself only as “Elizabeth” or “The author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden” as her nom de plume on many of her earlier books.
More about The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Review on Things Mean a Lot
- Review on Book Snob
- Thoughts on Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer on Tolstoy Therapy
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