Elizabeth Von Arnim’s Early Novels In The Light Of Eco-Criticism
The novels of E. von Arnim (1866-1941), a famous British novelist, are now enjoying great popularity. She is renowned for her books that celebrate different types of novels: garden novels, travelogues, epistolary novels, diary novels. Her works represent an enchanting half-forgotten world of late Edwardian Britain with memorable characters acting in stunning settings in different parts of Europe. In this article we try to approach the novels
Keywords: Ecocriticismeco-writingElizabeth von ArnimgardenH D Thoreaunovel
The works of the British novelist Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) have been a matter of discussion for various literary critics for quite a long period of time. Researchers and literary critics in different countries of the world have been disputing the phenomenon of
To begin with, we are going to study in details the notions fundamental for our research, such as eco-critisism, eco-writing and romantic ecology, then, we are to follow the interconnection between poets-romanticists and the representatives of transcendentalism. The research is based on the works of researchers and philosophers: Adamson (2018), Bavidge (2018), Kirkpatrick (2016), Ryan (2019), Sharma (2016), Thoreau (1862), Williams (2017).
Eco-criticism emerged as a trend in the 1970s and there have been three waves in the development of eco-criticism (it totally depended on different genres), nevertheless, there is no definition of this term revealing all the aspects of this notion that one can find in dictionaries. Eco-criticism comprises the studies of contemporary eco-writing and re-thinking of the works of previous centuries, primarily, the Romanticism poetry. Eco-writing is the term generally applied to prosaic and poetic works in which the author highlights the idea of interconnection and interdependence of everything that happens in the natural world and the author admits the intrinsic value not only of the man but of the natural world as well. The term “romantic ecology” goes back to the origin of contemporary eco-criticism because in the works of the Lake School representatives we can observe the ideas of reverence towards the wild nature.
Subsequently, the idea of the necessity of harmonious co-existence of the man and the nature was elaborated in the works of H. D. Thoreau, the famous American poet, thinker and naturalist, one of the leading representatives of transcendentalism. He argued against the misuse of nature and he strove to prove by the example of his own life the possibility of harmonious co-existence with the flora and fauna. Nowadays we can witness the growing influence of ecocriticism for there are many papers and books on it in different fields of literature. Williams (2017) gives a detailed overview on Victorian ecocriticism, Adamson (2019) introduces the concept of “environmental justice discourse that recognizes the interdependency of people and places” (p. 1), Ryan (2019) accentuates the British and American writers (starting from William Wordsworth and up to Annie Dillard) “as voices for/of vulnerable places and non-human beings” (p. 2). The papers delve into different aspects of ecocriticism while their major goal is to prove that (if one may quote Dr. V. Sharma) “ecocriticism serves this precise purpose that studies the literature and the environment where the scholars of vary realms discuss, analyze and formulate texts on environmental and concerns and challenges on the subject of nature” (Sharma, 2016, p. 60).
In our article we adhere to the principle stated by Jenny Bavidge in her article
an ecocritic will ask what sort of images are used to describe nature in a poem or novel, or think about the kind of attitudes towards or ideas about the environment they might find in literary work, or they might look back into history to see what the literature of the past had to say about nature” (Bavidge, 2018, p. 45).
We shall now examine the afore-mentioned works of Elizabeth von Arnim in the light of eco-criticism. The first pages of the novel
The writer builds her literary work on philosophical ideas and trends of H. D. Thoreau who in his famed essay
Purpose of the Study
Henry David Thoreau dwells upon the importance of nature and long walks (combined with contemplations and meditations on what one has seen or witnessed) for any person, because all this contributes to spiritual perfection and awakening. The thinker dwells upon the origin of the verb
Thus Thoreau (1862) constantly reminds the readers of their responsibility before the environment providing some vivid examples:
We are accustomed to say in New England that few and fewer pigeons visit us every year. Our forests furnish no masts for them. So, it would seem, few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste, – sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill, and there is scarcely a twig left for them to perch on (Thoreau, 1862).
The destruction of the environment is equated with impoverishment and destruction of the mind, while any communication with nature can restore the disrupted balance:
There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you (Thoreau, 1862).
We believe that here we can find some echoes of the Renaissance ideas, in particular, the works of Leon Battista Alberti who paid special attention to such features of a
So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bank-side in autumn (Thoreau, 1862).
Leslie de Charms, daughter of Elizabeth von Arnim, states that Elizabeth was well versed in H. D. Thoreau’s works and frequently read them in different periods of her life:
Probably Pepys, Montaigne, Lamb, Gibbon – to mention but a few permanently kept on the pillar shelves – were in the same fireside category, while Thoreau, Goethe, Keats, Spenser, Wordsworth and Shakespeare were some of her companions out of doors. She was particularly fond of Thoreau at this time (de Charms, 1958, p. 67).
Further on, we can see that her own ideas resonate with the ideas expressed by H. D. Thoreau, in her books we may follow the key motif that is the necessity of unity with nature. For Elizabeth von Arnim watching the surrounding nature, being in the midst of it, admiring the beauty of forests, fields and flowers helps any keen observer feel the presence of God:
My garden is surrounded by cornfields and meadows, and beyond are great stretches of sandy heath and pine forests, and where the forests leave off the bare heath begins again; but the forests are beautiful in their lofty, pink-stemmed vastness, far overhead the crowns of softest gray-green, and underfoot a bright green whortleberry carpet, and everywhere the breathless silence; and the bare heaths are beautiful too, for one can see across them into eternity almost, and to go out onto them with one’s face toward the setting sun is like going into the very presence of God (von Arnim, 1898, p. 5-6).
Close attention to details, punctilious recitation of all kinds of flowers and plants growing in the forest or in the garden takes us back to the text of the novel as a document that recorded for us a certain natural area at a certain period of time. One can find detailed information on the surrounding landscape of her husband’s estate in Nassenheide, with its gardens, fields and forests, and these descriptions are of great value for they represent the natural area at the turn of the century, the area that was later disfigured during the First and the Second World Wars.
It is worth noting that going for a walk to a forest (or rather an escape to a forest) is one of recurring episodes in some of her early novels. It reflects her personal experience, for when she relates her first years of marriage in her autobiography
We [she and her dog, Cornelia] frisked across the unreproachful fields, laughing and talking – I swear she laughed and talked, – to the cover of the nearest wood. <…>The March wind, blowing my skirt all anyhow, and causing Cornelia’s ears to stream out behind her, didn’t care a fig that I was a fleeting
The cited excerpt demonstrates efficiently that the writer regards the interaction between the man and the nature as a kind of communication that frees from any conventions and the forest acts as a friend that gives shelter and shares its mysteries giving an attentive observer an opportunity to notice all the changes in the landscape that happen in spring. The beauty of the forest has a positive impact upon the man, and the consummate goal of any walk is to achieve the state of happiness. The same motif can be seen in the text of the novel
The garden is the place I go to for refuge and shelter, not the house. <…> It is there that that all my sins and silliness are forgiven, there that I feel protected and at home, and every flower and a weed is a friend and every tree a lover (von Arnim, 1898, p. 38-39).
The garden is a part of nature though it is mastered by the man and is cultivated; it is juxtaposed to the house and to the city (which represent the civilization where a person is not free). Plants and trees “accept” people as they are, with all their weaknesses and drawbacks, in any emotional state, and owing to this the man displays the inner world, the best qualities and achieves the calmness of the mind, whereas the city impoverishes his life and deprives him of the opportunity to be a part of the nature.
Flowers, bushes and trees play a significant role in the novels
This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under the acacias instead of the too shady beeches; of wood-fires in the library in the chilly evenings.<…>It is hard to believe that in three months we shall probably be snowed up and certainly be cold. There is a feeling about this month that reminds me of March and the early days of April, when spring is still hesitating on the threshold and the garden holds its breath in expectation. There is the same mildness in the air, and the sky and grass have the same look as then; but the leaves tell a different tale, and the reddening creeper on the house is rapidly approaching its last and loveliest glory (von Arnim, 1898, p. 73-74).
In the excerpt we can see a unique example of unity between the man and the nature, when the pace of life is subject to the life of nature: when people feel the minute changes and enjoy whatever the garden offers, thus the tea-parties are under the acacias and not under the beeches, and the extract shows that a person must be a keen observer of the garden who reflects on what he sees. The periphrasis used in the last sentence (
It is remarkable that Elizabeth shares with the readers the reasons why she chooses species of roses for her garden, and what the motives that guided her were. Planning the garden for the following year and buying new species of roses is what occupies her mind on a bright September day. The author resorts to irony in order to explain why she does not like the low-growing roses and what improvements have to be made: “one has to kneel down to be able to see them well in the dwarf forms – not but what I entirely approve kneeling before such perfect beauty, only it dirties one’s clothes” (von Armin, 1898, p. 74).
Elizabeth von Arnim enumerates the species of roses that meet her requirements which leads to a reasonable question: when studying the text of the novel from the point of view of eco-writing and eco-criticism, is it possible to consider this text as a unique document, a testimony of the rose species that were really popular more than one hundred years ago, at the end of the 19 century? At the beginning of the novel the main character plants eleven flower-beds with roses and as an amateur gardener she is bound to make some mistakes and to learn from experience. There are twenty-two species of roses that are given in the book, they are: Marie van Houtte, Viscountess Folkestone, Laurette Messimy, Souvenir de la Malmaison, Adam, Devoniensis, the Persian Yellows, Bicolors, Duke of Teck, Chestnut Scarlet, Préfet de Limburg, Jules Finger, the Bride, Madame Lambard, Madame de Watteville, Comtesse Riza du Parc, Rubens, Madame Joseph Schwartz, the Hon. Edith Gifford, Madame George Bruants, Safrano tea roses, Bouquet d’Or.
The species of roses enumerated in the novel are of great interest not only from the point of view of horticulture development in Europe at the turn of the century (von Arnim gives the most popular species of roses at that period, the oldest date back to 1838, the latest date back to 1893). Many of them can be seen in catalogues and gardens of Europe nowadays, but some of them are getting less and less widespread, and the text of the novel preserves the name of the Hon. Edith Gifford rose that has been irretrievably lost. Thus we may say that studying the plants and flowers mentioned in the novels is critical for promoting the knowledge about the environment and the natural world of the past.
The blossoming roses are the pinnacle of the summer season for Elizabeth despite the mistakes she made while growing some of them. The plants endure all hardships and experiments of the inexperienced gardener and the author resorts to an allusion at the famous quotation form Alexander Pope:
It was no doubt because I was so ignorant that I rushed in where Teutonic angels fear to tread, and made my teas face a northern winter; but they did face it under fir branches and leaves, and not one has suffered, and they are looking to-day as happy and as determined to enjoy themselves as any roses, I am sure, in Europe (von Arnim, 1898, p. 25-26).
The original quotation is slightly changed but is easily recognizable and it gives the whole situation an ironic hint at the naivety of the gardener, and the epithet “Teutonic” speaks volumes of her audacity and readiness to experiment with roses. Here we can also notice a juxtaposition of two techniques in gardening – the English one (represented by the efforts of the protagonist) and the German one (= the Teutonic).
In the novel
A century ago a man lived here who loved his garden. <…> We have to thank him for the surprising beauty of the garden in May and early June, for he it was who planted the great groups of it, and the banks of it, and massed it between the pines and firs. Wherever a lilac bush could go a lilac bush went; and not common sorts, white, and purple, and pink, and mauve, and he might have planted it with special care and discrimination, for it grows here as nothing else will, and keeps his memory, in my heart at least, for ever gratefully green (von Arnim, 1993, p. 55-56).
It must be stated that the love for the garden of the previous owner of the house, his ability to choose the proper plants, cultivate them and create a harmonious garden becomes the only criterion for his generosity and goodness: “How could he be anything but good since he loved his garden – that divine filter that filters all the grossness out of us, and leaves us, each time we have been in it, clearer and purer, and more harmless?”(von Arnim, 1993, p. 56-57). The key point is that people should not damage the environment or violate the harmony, on the contrary, their interaction can be mutually reinforcing. If they improve and study the natural world on any level, they approach the biblical harmonious Eden and they become Adam and Eve. Again if we remember the statements made by H. D. Thoreau in his essay, in such cases they become blessed hence the communication with nature was mutually beneficial.
The garden design does not imply creating artificial zones where the nature gives way to the art. The carefully-planned English garden is contrasted with her garden where the rules of horticulture are not observed, an overgrown garden is the place where people are not afraid of making a wrong step and where they are close to nature:
I spent a very happy afternoon in that little English paradise, but I came away quite joyfully, and with many a loving thought of my own dear ragged garden, and all the corners in it where the anemones twinkle in the spring like stars, and where there is so much nature and so little art. <…> Nature herself is untidy, and in a garden she ought to come first, and Art with her brooms and clipping-shears follow humbly behind (von Arnim, 1993, p. 150).
Fiction is a very powerful impetus for re-evaluating the past and tackling the problems of the present. As many researchers have already stated, “the central and principal task of literature is the formation of readers’ value-based attitude to life” (Kolobova et al., 2018, p. 1277). Thus the analysis of Elizabeth von Arnim’s early novels clearly demonstrates the recognition that any literary work of the previous epoch can be regarded as a source of information on the natural world, the environment and types of interaction between the man and the nature in the given historical period. When studying the novels we have traced the influence of H. D. Thoreau and his ideas on von Arnim’s works.
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