My second book for All Virago/All August (or as Jane/Fleur Fisher has so wonderfully called it, Very Virago/All August!) and so far I am sticking to the reading plan! “The Solitary Summer” is the third von Arnim I’ve read, and is kind of a follow-up to “Elizabeth and her German Garden”. Of course I read “Mr. Skeffington” recently, which I loved, and so TSS sounded ideal for this month, as it’s a very summery book and the weather has been scorching!

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The narrator is once again Elizabeth of the German garden, still living with her husband The Man of Wrath and the April, May and June babies. At the start of the book (and summer) she announces

Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said “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 any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain and in the forests… I shall be perpetually happy because there will be no one to worry me.”

This is met with scorn by the Man of Wrath, who is convinced she will be bored or rained off in no time, but Elizabeth proves him wrong and we are treated to a wonderful little volume of her life and thoughts as the summer progresses.

“I believe a week of steady drizzle in the summer is enough to make the stoutest heart depressed. It is to be borne in winter by the simple expedient of turning your face to the fire; but when you have no fire, and very long days, your cheerfulness slowly slips away, and the dreariness prevailing out of doors comes in and broods in the blank corners of your heart.”

However, as might be expected the summer is certainly not solitary and Elizabeth is not left alone. She visits the local peasants, taking an interest in them and trying to improve their lot but being frustrated by their resistance. We meet the babies’ teacher and the three of them also cause much amusement and heartache for their mother. And Elizabeth is irritated by having soldiers billeted with them at the end of summer, and the necessity of trying to make polite conversation.

“…experience has taught me that whenever anything is on the tip of my tongue the best thing to do is to keep it there. I wonder why a woman always wants to interfere.”

Although superficially light, I’m finding hidden depths in von Arnim’s work. This is not just an airy-fairy description of flowers and gardens (though there are some beautiful passages, particularly the sequence where she visits the garden in the very early morning). There is much pondering on the point of life, the things we put ourselves through and how swiftly and cruelly death can strike: some of the parts dealing with the local people and their stubborn superstitions is quite chilling, and we feel how much Elizabeth wants them to see sense although they will not, to the detriment mainly of their children.

She is also wonderfully down to earth to, and quite stoic about things:

“A long hard winter lived through from beginning to end without shirking, is one of the most salutary experiences in the world. There is no nonsense about it; you could not indulge in vapours and the finer sentiments in the midst of its deadly earnest if you tried.”

And this book also deals with the need we have for solitude. Although humans are a naturally gregarious species, we’ve all felt the need for privacy, our own space, time on our own – and this is particularly pertinent for someone like von Arnim, who was obviously a person who needed to be always writing and needed the seclusion to do this.So many women over the years, bearing the burden of nurturing and caring within a family, have had to fight for that right to ‘a room of one’s own’ and this book will certainly strike a chord with them.

I am really coming to love von Arnim’s very unique voice, her way of telling a story and the beauty of the landscape she inhabits and describes so memorably. Highly recommended – and now I need to track down more of her work!

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