On Radio 4 one evening I caught a few minutes of A Book at Bedtime and it was so simple, poetic and charming, I immediately stopped listening and instead put the book on my reading list. It was Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim. It’s an autobiographical book about one English women’s experiences in the 1890s of living in Germany and escaping the boredom of marriage and convention through finding a deep joy from developing her own place – her garden.
It’s descriptions are so vivid and it is so wittily written that you feel you are sitting in the calming garden with Elizabeth, escaping the busyness of everyday life, and then suffering the interminable house guests with her, willing them to leave so that you can get back outside. The characterisations are brilliant and the landscapes so well drawn that I can still picture the sleigh ride through the forests in the depths of winter to a frozen coast, with a motley crew of hangers on in tow. Or the conversations with German society women who refuse to believe that Elizabeth chooses to live out of town and to spend so much of her time in solitude.
It’s a book about nature and home and place, as much as it is about defying conformity and insisting on doing what you need to do to be happy. It’s rare to find such a complete experience in such a compact book, that you are left feeling afterwards like you’ve just had a really long walk in the countryside, or a really relaxing massage. It should be prescribed reading for anyone needing to find some inner calm.