Lauren Groff is the author of the new novel, Arcadia.
The darkest period of my life, so far, arrived the summer I was pregnant with my eldest son. The future was growing in me with all of its terrifying unpredictability, and I found myself anxious, unable to work and woefully at sea.
Books, I hoped, would help. Staring into darkness, I wanted to read about happiness; I wanted novels that were full of joy. I asked my friends for suggestions but heard in return only a drawn-out buzz of bafflement. In truth, books about joy are hard to find because happiness is nearly impossible to write about. Narrative thrives on conflict.
And so, late one sleepless night when I stumbled on Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, I felt as if someone had thrust open a curtain and revealed a window where I had assumed only the existence of a wall.
Von Arnim lived her life among writers: The short story author Katherine Mansfield was her cousin; she employed novelists E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole as tutors for her children, and she was the mistress of H.G. Wells. Her milieu was literary, but her first book is urgent and personal: Elizabeth and Her German Garden feels as if it rose out of von Arnim's deep internal discomfort with the way she was supposed to fit into her world.
Still, what a fizzy drink this novel is.
Framed as a series of semi-autobiographical diary entries, the book holds only the slenderest claim to novelhood in any conventional sense — it has very little plot. There are few characters: the narrator, a countess named Elizabeth on her isolated German estate, her three tiny daughters who speak a funny patois of German and English, her chauvinistic husband whom she calls "The Man of Wrath," various buffoonish servants, and some visitors whom Elizabeth gently but thoroughly satirizes.
There is also Elizabeth's great passion, the garden, which we see in its shifting seasonal abundance from cowslips and kingcups to wild strawberries and rockets and azaleas to snowy fir trees.
Under the surface, however, are the narrative's great, hidden depths: Elizabeth's disappointment in the socially circumscribed roles of women, and her husband's overt misogyny (he commends the Russian peasants who come to work in Germany for beating their wives, because it teaches the women their place in the world). But she resists what is expected of her as a countess and wife by throwing her energies into her garden. Her happiness, when it comes, arrives as an act of will. Her delight feels hard-won, and it is dearer for her struggle.
I wrote this essay from my winter garden, where my own babies whacked one another with brown sunflower stalks. I credit Elizabeth for showing me that an act of focused attention can lift a person out of a long, dark spell. And when the blues skulk near these days, I reach for my wry countess. It is impossible to resist a little glow of happiness from living, even for a few pages, in her rapturous company.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Andrew Otis.
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