Reading is good for you. At this time when many of us are ‘sheltering’ or ‘self-isolating’ at home, we are suddenly encouraged to rediscover books as trusty companions to help us through long evenings and weekends.
Armchair travelling has never been more topical, and Patrick Dransfield in Hong Kong has turned to The Enchanted April for a welcome escape. Elizabeth von Arnim, we may say, knew a lot about both the pleasures and difficulties of escape and self-isolation. After fleeing from the stifling social obligations forced upon her as a Prussian Countess in Berlin to the remote estate of Nassenheide (invitingly called ‘wet heath’) in an unfashionable corner of Pomerania near the Baltic Sea, she explored the joys of her new life in two of her most famous books, Elizabeth and Her German Garden and its sequel, The Solitary Summer (1899).
The Solitary Summer is a diary, a collection of rambling meditations on spending an entire summer with no other company than Elizabeth’s immediate family. Originally conceived as a spiritual experiment (“So that my soul may have time to grow”) in the manner of Thoreau, the book soon turns into a delightful exploration of what happens when nothing really happens: Elizabeth drives through the country, she reads, plays with her children, spars with her husband, avoids a regiment of billeted soldiers, until in the end she laughingly declares that her soul has grown “not a bit”.
The tonic quality of The Solitary Summer has, of course, not gone unnoticed. In 2012, bibliotherapy blogger and author Lucy Horner, recommended The Solitary Summer on her website, Tolstoy Therapy. Indeed, the light mood, exquisite nature writing, polished vignettes of family life, Elizabeth’s amusing meditations on her own domestic shortcomings, and her unabashed pleasure at turning her nose at the world – these are all welcome reminders of the importance of making light in dark times and accepting solitude as a condition of self-knowledge and a practice of self-care. In that sense, The Solitary Summer is undoubtedly therapeutic reading.
Yet it seems to me, there is more to The Solitary Summer and to reading in general. In order for a book to develop its full potential, we need to engage in ‘deep reading’ to reach that enchanted state when words become radiant, when we lose ourselves in the text, when a book starts ‘speaking to us’, when we lose our own voice and for a little while think and speak in the tongue of the author we are reading.
Von Arnim’s description of the lupins in The Solitary Summer has that effect on me. Her lupins burn so brightly in my memory that the lupins of my childhood in East Germany are now forever infused with the ones Elizabeth sees on August 5, “all spread out as far as eye can reach in perfect beauty of colour and scent and bathed in the mild August sunshine”. – Only mine are standing still in the hot, brooding August afternoons of my memories. It matters not, without von Arnim, I would have lost those lupins a long time ago. I can now conjure them at will, transport myself across the seas and the seasons into a different century and a country that no longer exists.
Books can help us create memories because they can make us ‘see’ in the way Joseph Conrad famously wrote in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus:
“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
Often, this “glimpse of the truth” can feel like an epiphany, a moment of recognition. Quite simply, one of the most rewarding points of reading is to find that others may see and feel things like us. Reading is one of the best antidotes against loneliness, that overwhelming sense of being entirely unlike any other human being we know, the crushing insight that we are all alone with our problems, our fears and our desires. In The Solitary Summer Elizabeth longs for friends, but has learned to hold back in uncongenial company: “I generally succeed in keeping quiet,” she writes, “but sometimes even now, after years of study in the art of holding my tongue, some stray fragment of what I feel does occasionally come out, and then I am at once pulled up and brought to my senses by the well-known cold stare of utter incomprehension”. Instead, Elizabeth seeks solace in books, who are her declared friends:
“A few are feeble, and get shunted off into the drawing-room; but the others stay with me winter and summer, and soon lose the gloss of their new coats, and put on the comfortable look of old friends in every-day clothes, under the frequent touch of affection. They are such special friends that I can hardly pass them without a nod and a smile at the well-known covers, each of which has some pleasant association of time and place to make it still more dear.”
Reading, to Elizabeth, is conversation, exchange, comfort and company. Elizabeth’s depiction of reading as a conversation among friends obviously resonated with her readers, many of whom recognised themselves in their favourite heroine and responded enthusiastically with fan letters offering friendship and company.
Upon closer inspection, however, those moments of recognition are complex, and reading isn’t always a conversation between equals. Elizabeth may find a kindred spirit in Thoreau, whose philosophy speaks to her desire for greater simplicity, but she is conscious of the fact that reading remains an act of appropriation:
“… [Thoreau] is delightful, and we spend the happiest hours together, he making statements, and I either agreeing heartily, or just laughing and reserving my opinion till I shall have more ripely considered the thing. He, of course, does not like me as much as I like him, because … my philosophy has not yet reached the acute stage that will enable me to see a door-mat in its true character as a hinderer of the development of souls …. During his life, I imagine he would have refused to notice anything so fatiguing as an ordinary German woman, and never would have deigned discourse to me on the themes he loved best; but now his spirit belongs to me, and all he thought, and believed, and felt, and he talks as much and as intimately to me here in my solitude as ever he did to his dearest friends years ago in Concord.”
For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why Elizabeth’s archness grated so much on me, until I finally realised that somewhere in this scene I recognised my own struggle as a young female academic trying to write back to the overbearing male academic establishment I had encountered as an undergraduate in Berlin. However, unlike von Arnim, I couldn’t just laugh at those academic alpha-males and shut the book on them. While I recognised myself in her defiance, I was clearly not a second Elizabeth. My own path involved a ferocious engagement with feminist theory, resulting in a rather grim PhD. Moments of recognition can offer solace, but – perhaps equally importantly – by acknowledging their limits, they can help us spell out our own stance, so that we may feel more at home within ourselves.
It is often claimed that reading fosters empathy. I am not sure this is always the case. Readers are not by definition better humans, alas. But it does seem to me that through deep reading we practice not only the suspension of disbelief, but also the suspension of judgment. We spend many hours in the company of characters whose thoughts and feelings we get to know intimately. They are not always easy to like or even easy to relate to. Yet if we want to finish the book, we need to reserve “our opinion until [we] have more ripely considered the thing”. Careful consideration is a precious good. It requires time, effort and even love.
One of the most fascinating things is that no two readers will read a book alike. For me, The Solitary Summer is a book of lupins and undulating rye fields, but also of a simmering feminist anger, which would boil over in von Arnim’s next book of the series, the fantastically comical and absurd The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen.
Perhaps the next best thing to talking with a book is talking about a book – how do you read the The Solitary Summer? What draws you in? What do you ‘see’ or recognise in this and other books by von Arnim? Perhaps you have a favourite passage? Or perhaps you would recommend another von Arnim novel for lockdown reading? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.