Elizabeth and Her German Garden

The first book by Katherine Mansfield’s cousin Mary, the one that gave her the name “Elizabeth” forever, is like a sandwich at tea time, crusts cut off the bread, proper, yet lacking. There are some good bits, such as when she first begins, glorying in her solitude for six weeks as she fixes up the house by overseeing those who are actually doing the work, and spending all of her time reading alone in the garden. She affectionately nicknames her husband Man of Wrath and after thoughtfully capturing baby owls for him to train, he is shocked at the idea, Elizabeth remembers that phrase “Two paradises ’twere in one to live in Paradise alone.” But no, she has 3 babies and a husband, and scores of people who insist on visiting. When conversation at a dinner party in a neighboring town veers towards Elizabeth being “abandoned” in her house, she insists that she enjoys it and is quite happy “buried” in her home. She almost mentions that she was surrounded by books but “reading is an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time.” So she pretends with them that she is not happy. The rest is a diary of her garden, what blooms, what is planted, and then the last half taken up by a Christmas visit of a friend, Irais, and a stranger brought in because she is a friend-of-a-friend, Minora. Unfortunately, Minora is an Englishwoman intent on writing a book, and she whips out her notebook to record the many amusing things Elizabeth and Irais say. There’s a brief interlude where the Man of Wrath lectures about why women are inferior, and then the women leave after a month. It’s a curious artifact, pub’d in 1898.

Vera

This is the book that Katherine Mansfield praised her cousin “Elizabeth” for writing in 1921. It’s supposedly based on extremely accurate descriptions of Elizabeth’s second husband, Earl Russell (Bertrand’s brother). In a letter to Dorothy Brett, KM gushes, “Read her last book if you can get hold of it. Its called Vera & published by Macmillan. Its amazingly good!” In a letter to KM’s sister (also named Vera), she goes further: “Have you read her new book ‘Vera’? It has had rather a mixed reception, but I think its by far the most brilliant book she has ever written. I can quite understand people turning against it, though. There are few men who have not a touch of Wemyss.”

It is a dark portrayal of the courtship and marriage of Lucy Entwhistle to Everard Wemyss. Lucy’s father has died mere hours before Wemyss stumbles into her courtyard, acutely affected by his own grief at his wife’s recent suicide. Their love is born out of these twin tragedies and Lucy begins a secret relationship with him that his gradually discovered by her aunt. The child (Lucy) loses her head and simply adores him, a man double her age.

On Wemyss’s idiocy and bland letters:

While she was with him he overpowered her into a torpor, into a shutting of her eyes and her thoughts, into just giving herself up, after the shocks and agonies of the week, to the blessedness of a soothed and caressed semi-consciousness; and it was only when his first letters began to come, such simple, adoring letters, taking the situation just as it was, just as life and death between them had offered it, untroubled by questioning, undimmed by doubt, with no looking backward but with a touching, thankful acceptance of the present, that she gradually settled down into that placidity which was at once the relief and the astonishment of her aunt. And his letters were so easy to understand. They were so restfully empty of the difficult thoughts and subtle, half-said things her father used to write and all his friends. His very handwriting was the round, slow handwriting of a boy. Lucy had loved him before; but now she fell in love with him, and it was because of his letters.

Hilarious advice her aunt receives from a widow who had “survived marriage”… the widow “whose wisdom was more ripe than comforting” says “one” in reply to the aunt’s question about what could be better than Wemyss’s two houses. Later, she asks the widow what could be better than a devoted husband, and the terse widow says “none.”

When Lucy is married, Wemyss immediately changes into a maniac who must control her every move and never be separated from her for a minute. He’s called his country home “The Willows” because houses should be named after whatever most insistently catches the eye. Lucy suggests that it ought to have been called “The Cows” in that case. She finds that all his books are under lock and key, the key dangling from his wrist, hindering free reading. She describes the library:

The other end was filled with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the books, in neat rows and uniform editions, were packed so tightly in the shelves that no one but an unusually determined reader would have the energy to wrench one out. Reading was evidently not encouraged, for not only were the books shut in behind glass doors, but the doors were kept locked and the key hung on Wemyss’s watch chain.

In the end we’re left wondering how long Lucy will last in this house of horrors.  Elizabeth herself fled to America to obtain a divorce.