VERA: A Brief Analysis

He rushed her off her feet, led her “down the garden path,” and tried to keep her under lock and key like the books he had purchased but never read.

She trusted him with sweet acquiescence, an almost holy thing based on mutual grief and a need to be taken care of by a father figure once more, thus allowing herself to be swept along to the altar by his prearranged schedule as stage manager of wedding, honeymoon, life itself.

He tried to own her, body and mind and soul, with no independent thought in a life contrived for appearances’ sake, hours regulated by a gong – a cross school boy being rude, with power to control while professing undying love for his “doll” wife.

And therein lay the crux of the matter: there was only one way of looking at a thing – his way. He forced her to assume the role of the pretty and irresponsible little woman in order to flatter him, reminiscent of Torvald and Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora does escape in the end by running away, just as Vera had by jumping out of her sitting room window. Can Vera’s successor, Lucy, even recognize the similarities in their situations?

Last week, I promised to write about Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera, fully expecting the novel to be full of garden references as her other three books I had read this spring. However, this one has so few that I had to read it a second time and take notes. Here is what I found:

Garden at Cornwall cottage

Fringes of trees hid the cottage from a dusty road. The gate faced the sea glittering in sunlight. The little garden featured a huge mass of fuchsia bushes. A seat, probably a bench as two people could sit on it, stood under a mulberry tree where several early scenes take place in the fresh air of August and September.

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Garden references in London

River at Hampton Court and Palace gardens are mentioned in terse conversation with no descriptions given.

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Garden at The Willows

Flooding from heavy rains turned the entrance roads to oozing black mud. Fringes of willows stand in the middle of meadows, seen from the muddy road. A variety of handsome shrubs encircled the house, down to a flowing river in the distance:

  1. Laurustinus and laurels (bays?) surrounded the house.
  2. Lawns with the sweet April smell of cut grass swept down from the house to a river flowing in the distance.
  3. A huge birthday bouquet of yellow Kingcups graced the dining table, and then was moved to the library.
  4. Wildflowers grew along the river sliding past the garden.
  5. A flagstone terrace lay between the river and the library side of the house.
  6. The scene in Vera’s painting evoked Tuscany, a walled garden with an open door leading to a distant vista, suggesting escape.

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Descriptions of room interiors give color to the story, balancing the dearth of garden scenes. Other than the soft glow of a rare fire in the library and only once in the sitting room, the only interior light comes from bald electric lights so bright that one wishes one had worn a hat!

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Stock Photo – 86374329




Elizabeth von Arnim in Pictures

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The author of Her German Garden

and The Solitary Summer preferred

to be outdoors with her “babies” and a book.


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The April, May, and June babies

in the rose garden around the sun dial.


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Reading under fragrance blossoms.


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Bringing in armfuls of lilacs.


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Tea under an acacia tree.


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Rose bills arrive at breakfast.


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Picnic in the woods.


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Elizabeth’s German Garden

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Chateau Zehdenicker

The house already was old. It had been a convent on the high road between Sweden and Brandenburg before the Thirty Years’ War between the Catholics and the Protestants. Gustave Adolphus used to gallop past with his Swedes, scattering the nuns to the countryside to find alternatives to their life of silence.

By the 1700s, Chateau Zehdenscher was the ancestral home of Prussian aristocrat Henning August, Graf von Arnim-Schlagenthin who married Mary Annette (or Antoinette) Beauchamp, whom we know as Australian-born British novelist Elizabeth von Arnim. They had met in Rome when Elizabeth and her family were touring Italy. Eventually the von Arnims moved to the family estate in Nassenheide, Pomerania (now in Poland following post-WWI border realignments).

The Schloss at Nassenheide, Pomerania

“Dandelions carpeted the three lawns . . . long since blossomed out into meadows filled with every sort of pretty weed,” Elizabeth wrote in Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Much of what she described here are repeated in The Solitary Summer, the sequel which I happened to read first. She lists blue hepaticas and white anemones, violets and celandines in sheets, followed by stray periwinkles and Solomon’s Seal. Masses of lilacs were her favorite, drenching house and garden with their honeyed fragrance. Silvery-pink peonies flowered under the south front windows. Marie van Houtte roses surrounded the sun dial beyond.

“My days seemed to melt away in a dream of pink and purple peace.”

Every morning she made rounds of the garden, like a doctor in hospital, “admiring what the dear little things have achieve in the twenty-four hours.” Her “three babies” in sunbonnets and pinafores and black stockings, along with their nurse, and of course the gardener and his assistant, were the only people she allowed in the garden with her. “But, then, neither are we ever out of it,” she added.

Elizabeth preferred to spend her days outside with a book, with only the housekeeper and her handmaid in the house. She indulged in what her imperious husband deemed her fantaisie dereflee regarding meals – that is, food simple enough to be brought outside on a tray. She never dug in the garden herself but bossed the gardener who planted flowers in rows like soldiers lined up for review, German style, not the graceful grouping of English style gardens. Nor did she cook or sew up hems of her sheets. She had maids who did that work.

Nevertheless, as wife of the Count, she attended to such distasteful duties as visiting neighborhood haus fraus and inspecting their methods of cooking, housekeeping, and childrearing. Sometimes unwanted callers invaded her solitude with nothing safe to talk about beyond babies “past, present, and to come.” It’s during these tedious events that she longs for the stillness of an eternal Sunday afternoon like a benediction.

One Sunday, the garden was so quiet that she was sure she could hear “English church bells ringing the afternoon service. But the church is three miles off, has no bells, and no afternoon service. Once a fortnight, we go to morning prayer service at eleven and sit up in a sort of private box with a room behind, whither we can retire unobserved when the sermon is too long or our flesh too weak, and hear ourselves being prayed for by the blackrobed parson.”

The third photo is of the interior of the Church in Boeck (1902) ('Once a fortnight we go to the morning prayer at eleven and sit up in a sort of private box with a room behind, whither wee can retire unobserved when the sermon is too long or our flesh too weak(...) The parson in his gloomy pulpit, surrounded by a framework of dusty carved angels...')

September, she wrote, was a month of quiet days, mellow afternoons with tea in the garden, the children blackberrying in the hedges. “The Man of Wrath shoots partridges across the distant stubble; and the summer seems as though it would dream on forever.” On days like that, it was hard to think of chilly evenings with wood fires in the library. “Ah, the dear room” where she rummages through her books and makes plans for the garden is neutral ground where she and the Count meet for an hour in the evenings before he retires to his own rooms.

It looks, I am afraid, rather too gay for an ideal library; and its coloring, white and yellow, is so cheerful as to be almost frivolous. There are white bookcases all round the walls, and there is a great fireplace, and four windows, facing full south, opening on to my most cherished bit of garden, the bit round the sun-dial; so that with so much colour and such a big fire and such floods of sunshine it has everything but a sober air, in spite of the venerable volumes filling the shelves.”

This fictionalized memoir has a dark side, in fact, two. Elizabeth details her struggles not only to create an English style garden on the estate but also her attempts to “fit into” German high-class Junker society. Pronounced junng-ker, the Junkers were members of the Prussian landed aristocracy, exercising substantial political power under the German Empire. They owned great estates of arable land maintained and worked by peasants with few rights.

This is the class that Elizabeth had married into. The workers that Elizabeth’s husband “hired” turned out to be immigrant laborers he bought each spring from gang masters in cross-border movements. They all were Russians and Poles whom he kept under armed guard to keep them from running away.

Then, in 1900, the real Man of Wrath met his fate. “Sept. 2, a windy sunny day and all the marigolds in flower. He was going shooting rabbits after lunch. Instead, he ended up in prison.” Typically short-tempered and overbearing, he was blew up at a subordinate in his bank. In retaliation, the subordinate denounced him for forging documents. Whether true or no, the fraud case collapsed, but not before he had spent several months in prison.

Elizabeth, however, returned to London in 1908 with her children and continued to write and publish under the pseudonym “Elizabeth, Author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden.” Two years later, the Man of Wrath himself died, deeply in debt.

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NEXT WEEK:  Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

A Solitary Summer

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Can you imagine a whole summer to yourself? With no responsibilities to worry you? To while away the hours, dreaming in your garden where gentle hands of blessing rest on your head, so that your soul may have time to grow?

Elizabeth von Arnim managed to create one for herself, to her husband’s amused doubt, beginning the evening of May Day. That spring day had taken hold of her, body and soul. A quiet now settled on the gardens below her verandah steps, a soothing whisper — until the Einquartierung of soldiers and horses, the annual September military maneuvers.

In The Solitary  Summer von Arnim wrote and dedicated to “the man of wrath with some apologies and much love,” she describes that summer as alone but far from lonely. She is immersed in her gardens and the gardens immerse her character and personality. The prose reads almost like an Elizabeth Lawrence journal as an amalmagation of ambience rather than a recording of specific events. Hired gardeners continued to do all the work.

Further, von Arnim immersed herself in books to be read either outdoors or indoors, depending upon what she calls their idiosyncrasies.

“They will not show me their full beauties unless the place and time in which they are read suits them . . . In the afternoon I potter in the garden with Goethe . . . on a special seat, never departed from when he accompanies me . . . In the evening, when everything is tired and quiet, I sit with Walt Whitman by the rose beds and listen to what that lonely and beautiful spirit has to tell me of night, sleep, death, and the stars.”

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A summer garden in the wee hours of the morning, before daybreak, is “something very precious, and private, and close to my soul; a feeling as though I had taken the world by surprise . . .” I have been in my own garden of English borders in late moonlight when I couldn’t sleep. No windows of houses were illuminated at that hour. The world lay in mysterious holiness.

Von Arnim’s own garden philosophy is that the gardens should be beautiful in both front and back.  After dressing up the front with glass balls on pedestals planted in flowered carpet bedding, then prevalent in home landscaping, the garden should not dwindle off to mere utilitarian purposes. Instead, “it ought to increase in loveliness the farther one gets into it.” Her own gardens extended to a boundary of silver birch and an “azalea plantation” down to the very end. Beyond these, placid meadows stretched to a distant wood.

Her clear picture of June reads like poetry: “A Jackmanni clematis clings with soft young fingers to anything it thinks likely to help it up to the goal of its ambition, the roof . . . Down there in the rose beds [around the sundial] . . . there is only one full-blown rose as yet, a Marie van Houtte, one of the loveliest of the tea roses, perfect in shape and scent and colour, and in my garden always the first rose to flower.”

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I quite agree with von Arnim that “nobody, except the ultra-organized,  denies the absolute supremacy of the rose. She is safe on her throne, and the only question to decide is which are the flowers that one loves next best.” Then von Arnim decides that sweet peas are her favorite — but only after gong around the garden to consider all the other possibilities: Madonna lilies, Japanese irises, carnation, violets, “frail and delicate poppies,” larkspur, nasturtiums, marigolds, pansies, then “metallic blue delphinium beside a towering white lupine . . .”

August that solitary summer clothed the hills with golden lupines, not waxy but velvety, “and as for the perfume, it surely is the perfume of paradise,” she concluded. The following month, von Arnim’s solitary summer of  holy calm erupted into a perpetual running to and fro of military quartering among the country villages. She writes of fleeing to the “fartherest recesses of my garden and begin to muse . . . on Man, on Nature, and on Human Life” in order to avoid being forced to play tennis with various quartered officers.

“I think I should quarter myself to the woods and billet myself under a pile of pine branches.” And she does, with her young children.

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“I know how still it is down there in my fir wood, where the insects hum undisturbed in the warm, quiet air, . . . how the hawks circle over it, . . . how the larks sing above it . . . Yet they are beautiful young men; . . . even charming — how is it, then, that I so passionately prefer larks?”


NEXT WEEK: Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Marie Annette Beauchamp


Sunshine and Wisteria

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We used to have an enchanting independent bookshop called Sunshine & Wisteria. It was located down a long brick-paved hallway inside a suburban mall, with plants hanging beside the opened doors of boutiques. The owner of the bookshop stocked only the best literature, both classic and current, from biographies to memoirs, archeology to histories, religious topics to garden journals. She even maintained a reading nook in her front window, complete with a table set for morning coffee.

Now, the whole place is a Walgreen’s.

The idea for the name of the bookshop came from the wisteria and sunshine featured in the just released 1991 film version of Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April but, to avoid copyright infringement, she had to reverse the two words. Thus, Sunshine & Wisteria, spelled with an “e” instead of von Arnim’s “a” in wisteria.

Wistaria and sunshine . . . both in profusion. The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums . . . and the nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour . . .

Almost too much! But this is Italy, after all, not England and not von Arnim’s native Germany. The mountain village of San Salvatore is located in the province of Siena, a real place in Tuscany, not drawn from the writer’s imagination.

Nor are the descriptions of fauna and flora imaginary. Elizabeth von Arnim was another of those other literary gardeners I wrote about during February and March of this year (2019). She knew plant material so thoroughly that nothing need be made up, only described in precise detail. Surely she had been — or even lived — in Tuscany.

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The periwinkles looked exactly as if they were being poured down each side of the steps — and flowers that grow only in borders in England, proud flowers keeping themselves to themselves over there, such as the irises and the lavender, were being jostled by small, shining common things like dandelions and daisies and the white bells of the wild onion . . . Such a jumble of spring and summer was not to be believed in, except by those who dwelt in those gardens.

Further, she writes, all these blossoms crowded into one month here, whereas in England they spread over six. Penuriously, she adds.

Even primroses were found one day in a cold corner up in the hills . . . [and] the rivulete of periwinkles that flowed down them when first she arrived were gone, and now there were these bushes, incredily rosetted. Pink, white, red, striped . . . but there is no smell in a camellia . . .

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That evening was the evening of the full moon. The garden was an enchanted place where all the flowers seemed white. The lilies, the daphnes, the orange-blossom, the white stocks, the white pinks, the white roses — you could see these plainly as in the day-time; but the colored flowers existed only as fragrance . . . [This is] the place where Shelley had lived his last months just on a hundred years before.

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That last week the syringa came out at San Salvatore, and all the acacias flowered. No one had noticed how many acacias there were till one day the garden was full of a new scent, and there were the delicate trees, the lovely successors to the wistaria, having hung all over among their trembling leaves with blossom . . . Indeed, the whole garden dressed itself gradually toward the end in white pinks and white banksia roses, and the syringa and the Jessamine, and at last the crowning fragrance of the acacias.

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Castello Brown on the cliffs of Portofino overlooking the sea inspired the castle in Villa San Salvatore featured in The Enchanted April, set on the Ligurian coast of Italy. Elizabeth von Arnim drew upon this place for the “small mediaeval Italian Castle” she mentions in the London Times advertisement that sets the progression of the story:

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times

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Since it had been years since I’d first read The Enchanted April, I first had assumed the book was titled Wisteria and Sunshine when the little bookshop first opened. Earlier this week, on the last day April, I began re-reading this delightful book, never realizing the author was one of those literary gardeners who wrote Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Both the book and the 1991 film with the marvelous late Joan Plowright enchants me still.

  Countess Elizabeth von Arnim

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NEXT WEEK: The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim



First Day of May

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When the white Southern magnolia grandiflora

And the sweet bay magnolia virginiana open,

When April’s enchanting wisteria sinesis dangles

Like long clusters of purple grapes

And the muscadine scuppernong begins to bud—

It’s Daddy’s birthday.


When the yellow magnolia fuscata

Begins to bear banana-scented blossoms

That two little sisters pluck

And hide in their pockets

To present to him at supper—

It’s Daddy birthday.


He insists on those Latin names

He tells me I should know by now.

Yet he never says ficus carica,

Only Mission or Turkey figs.

When their tiny buds begin to swell—

It’s Daddy’s birthday.


~ Jo Shafer

Jerusalem Botanical Gardens

Not at all what I expected, the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens is not a biblical garden in that sense at all. Rather, this 30-acre botanical garden displays more than six thousand plant species brought to Israel from all over the world. The complex serves as an education and research center demonstrating flora of various global regions, not of Israel alone. Myriads of leaves, flowers, seeds, bark, and pods reflect the progression of the seasons.

Plans for the first National Botanic Garden of Israel were drawn up in the 1920s by botanist Alexander Eig, then chairman of the Botany Department of the Hebrew University. Planting began in 1931 on a plot of land purchased on Mount Scopus in 1926. Sadly, the Israeli  War of Independence cut off access to Mount Scopus and the university campus from the rest of Israel. Consequently, a new botanical garden was created near the Jewish National and University Library at the new campus located in Givat Ram, in Western Jerusalem.

Alexander Eig planting the first tree in the National Botanic Garden of Israel – Mount Scopus 1931

Now a joint project of the university with the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jewish National Fund, the garden areas are arranged geographically; namely, South Africa, Europe, North America, Australia, Asia and the Mediterranean basin, Japan, and China.

The Flower Train allows visitors to get on and off at selected points along the route of a 30-minute tour of all the garden sections.

The 500-meter long “Bible Path” is planted with most of the 70 species that scientists have identified as some of the 400 types of plants mentioned in the Bible.

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Orchids flourish in the Florence Dworsky Tropical Conservatory built in 1985 at the behest of an orchid enthusiast. In addition, the conservatory houses an impressive collection of other plants native to the tropical rain forests on both sides of the equator.  The conservatory has recreated a microcosm of rain forest conditions; that is, the absence of seasons, twelve daylight hours all year round, high temperatures between 65-85 degrees, and constant rainfall.

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The conservatory houses more than tropical plants. It also serves as a teaching center for sustainable gardening in a world of cultural and biodiversity through a project called Plants Grow People. Lior Gottesman (below) is cofounder of the Social and Environmental Hub. [Photo by Abigrail Klein Leichman]

Lior Gottesman, cofounder of the Social and Environmental Hub of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, in the tropical conservatory. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

She coordinates 21 social-environmental programs, each running separately, at the gardens by a variety of Jerusalem nonprofits. Here, Arab Jerusalem students learn about sustainable gardening at a workshop.

Arab Jerusalem teens learning about sustainable gardening at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. Photo: courtesy

Elderly Holocaust survivors can find spiritual and emotional healing.

A seniors and Holocaust survivors program at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. Photo: courtesy

Kindergartners really dig their program!

The Social and Environmental Hub’s Sustainable Gardens in Kindergartens program is a hit. Photo: courtesy


If you are interested in researching Biblical Plants, take a look at Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Plants by F. Nigel Hepper. First published March 1993, the book is available at books or wherever books are sold.

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