By Jennifer Shepherd
“[My books] 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. . .”
That’s ‘Elizabeth’, the first-person narrator of a series of book that launched the career of the writer we now know as Elizabeth von Arnim. She’s speaking here about books and her love of reading in the second book of the series–Solitary Summer—but it’s a theme that pops up often in von Arnim’s work. ‘Elizabeth’ captures so well the affectionate feeling that I have about my own books, stacked in the study, in prime position on the bedstand, overflowing from bookcases. Kindles are handy (what would ‘Elizabeth’ have made of Kindles, do you think? More on that below) especially on holidays when you’re limited to hand-luggage, but I must admit I still enjoy the bookiness of books as physical objects and it would be a sad room indeed without the cheering presence of these ‘friends’.
The irony of all this is that ‘Elizabeth’ herself is one of the old friends on my bookshelf and the Elizabeth novels are precisely those books that I myself pass with a nod and a smile, so well-known are their covers. But to be clear, not all Elizabeths are created equal in my eyes. I am particularly fond of my first Elizabeth book, which was, incidentally, the first in the series: Elizabeth and Her German Garden.
I spotted it in the stacks of a dusty second-hand bookshop on the corner of College Drive Avenue and Preston in my hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was the mid-90s and I was a freshly-minted undergraduate student of English literature, heady with newly-won independence and high on IDEAS. I’d taken my first sips of that potent cocktail called critical theory–Bakhtin and Foucault and Bhabha were invoked with the reverence of a true believer–but it was women’s lit and gynocrit that captured my imagination most at this time, which will help to explain why my eye was drawn in that basement bookstore to this particular book. For the reputation of the Virago Press had infiltrated even the Canadian prairies by the mid-1990s and I knew that the distinctive green spine and the apple-with-a-bite-out-of-it colophon marked this book out as one worth reading. It would be something by a woman. Or about women. Or for women. It would reveal to me that secret history I longed to discover, a women’s tradition of writing. And what’s more it was numbered, as part of the Virago Modern Classics series—this, to me, was sophistication by numbers, with the promise of mastery to the reader who read them all!
But it was the graphic on the front that really sold me. Let’s face it—I wouldn’t have recognized Théo van Rysselberghe’s ‘Family in The Orchard’ (1890), for my grasp of art history was the kind cobbled together from touring old churches in Italy on a backpacking excursion one summer and eyeing up cheap Monet posters on the wall of a fellow student’s apartment (which, along with Alessi bottle openers, seemed to me to be the very sine qua non of undergraduate good taste). But I knew what French impressionism looked like, and guessed this must be at least a kissing cousin of the movement—and it seemed to me that this pointillist vignette of women working and wandering under the shade of a tree spoke everything that was fresh and bright and sophisticated and feminine. This was life en plein air, rendered with the kind of spontaneity and verve so characteristic of Elizabeth’s breezy narrative. These were my thoughts when I first read the Virago edition twenty-five odd years ago and, in retrospect, I still think van Rysselberghe’s painting is a fairly effective visual shorthand for the book’s content. Don’t get me wrong—the narrative of Elizabeth and her German Garden is not all sunshine and light. I confess, there are elements of the book that make me deeply uncomfortable when I read it today, not-the-least being the tone of unapologetic and unquestioned class and ethnic privilege to be found in places within its pages. But I’ve come to realise that reading women’s literary history is a bit like watching an episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’–you never know what delightful surprises and unsavoury discoveries you’ll find when you go digging. Virago provided me with my first unforgettable taste of Elizabeth and her German Garden and seeing the illustration on its cover now immediately takes me back to those early days of discovery and my initiation into what felt like the serious study of literature.
I recently wrote to the founder of the Virago Press, Carmen Callil, to see if she could tell me a bit about the process involved with choosing book-covers in those early days of the press’s history. She reminisced about her own discovery of von Arnim’s work—she first heard of von Arnim through the writer’s sister-in-law Dora Russell, whose work The Tamarisk Tree had been an early Virago publication. Russell had recommended von Arnim’s novel Vera for publication initially, and Callil went on to publish it along with Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther before the Virago edition of Elizabeth and Her German Garden appeared in 1985. When it came to choosing the cover, Callil notes that it didn’t take long: ‘I was very fond of the paintings of Théo von Rijsselberghe and can’t think it would have taken me more than a minute to choose this one for this book’ (personal correspondence, June 2020).
Virago went on to reprint the novel with two further designs in the years that followed. (Figures 2 and 3)
Neither really captures the charm, for me, of the first design, though admittedly, the second edition does highlight two key elements of the Elizabeth narrative that are missing from the first: namely, the themes of solitude and reading.
The third edition seems to have focused in on just one design element of the second—garden statuary—and made it the focus of the whole piece. It is visually appealing but the mood has definitely changed–this is a brooding, sturm und drang garden and doesn’t really capture, for me, the effervescent charm of “Elizabeth’s” voice.
Like them or not, there is little question that Virago’s book covers were precedent-setting, creating an association between Elizabeth and the Impressionist movement that has played out on the cover of many subsequent editions of the text since the mid-90s.
Here, for example, is the illustration used to advertise Elizabeth and her German Garden when it featured as the BBC ‘Book at Bedtime’ in November 2019:
The illustration of Benediction Classics’ hardcover version (figure 5), published in Feb 2018, returned to the figure of the solitary woman, dressed in white and walking in a garden—she’s carrying a parasol rather than a book, but one feels that the woman and the garden get an equal billing on this cover, which does, to my mind, reflect the balance of the narrative’s focus.
The proliferation of e-books over the years has resulted in a number of new editions of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, among them the version published by Girlebooks. (Figure 6)
Disappointingly, the garden has been relegated to the background in this cover, but there’s no doubt that the (now) familiar link between Elizabeth and her German Garden and Impressionist painting is very much in evidence here.
It’s worth noting that the Virago cover and the look-alikes it inspired are a far cry from what Elizabeth von Arnim had in mind when she initially published her book with MacMillan & Company in 1898. We know from her letters to Henry Macmillan that von Arnim had strong opinions on the book’s design, indicating her preference for plain green cloth bindings and simple lettering.
We know that Macmillan was often happy to comply with his authors’ wishes with regards to cover design–and no doubt it helped that the MacMillan house style tended towards a relatively simple and unfussy aesthetic. But von Arnim clearly recognized the importance of covers in selling a book, as Isobel Maddison notes:
[T]he covers [were] cleverly chosen to recall the bindings of Alfred Austin’s successful book, The Garden That I Love (1894). Content with the final result, von Arnim asked for the same bindings for The Solitary Summer (1899) in order to create the impression of a serial—an astute move on the part of a young and inexperienced novelist’ (Elizabeth von Arnim: Beyond the German Garden 15)
As a point of comparison, here’s a picture of the first edition of Austin’s book:
Nearly a century and a quarter later, it’s interesting to imagine what von Arnim would have made of recent developments in the publishing industry. Micropublishing and e-publishing claim to offer great benefits to consumers by cutting costs and widening readers’ access to texts, but they haven’t always been seen as positive developments when it comes to book cover design.
In fact, the advent of the e-book could well mark the death of the book cover: as one commentator asked, if e-books don’t exist as physical objects, can they even have a cover? (https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2012/01/3-secrets-to-e-book-cover-design-success/). Others worry that the rise of the e-book has, at very least, had a fatal effect on ‘good taste’ in book covers: Tumblr blog Kindle Cover Disasters and articles like ‘50 Hilariously Bad Kindle Covers’ (The Telegraph, 11 May, 2017) suggest the degree to which electronic publishing has come to be associated with a decline in the artistic quality and integrity of book cover illustration. To cut costs, many e-publishers now rely on inexpensive generic stock photos for cover illustrations, a move which can often have comic results.
I like to think that von Arnim, with her wicked sense of humour, would appreciate the incongruity of the covers for two recent e-book editions of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, discovered during one of my frequent internet trawls for new editions of Elizabeth books. (Figures 9 and 10)
I’ve often thought that a good book cover has a seductive quality for the consumer, but these covers take this notion to a whole new level. For kitsch value alone these editions are priceless, but they will never rate highly among my personal Elizabeths.
A quick search of your own on the internet will throw up countless other examples of publishers’ respective ‘takes’ on Elizabeth and her German Garden since it was first published in 1898. In fact, I suspect that the early twentieth-century American reprint editions of Elizabeth are so copious as to require a blog post of their own. But for me, the quintessential Elizabeth is also my first Elizabeth: with its Théo van Rysselberghe cover illustration and green spine, Virago’s 1985 edition is my ‘special friend’, conjuring up those ‘pleasant association of time and place to make it still more dear’.
So, I’ve shown you my Elizabeth; now you show me yours. What does your Elizabeth look like? And if you haven’t ever read Elizabeth and her German Garden, which of these covers would be most likely to catch your eye?