Eve with a Spade

Women, Gardens, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century, with a Focus on Works by Elizabeth von Arnim

Thesis (M.A.), 2001

97 Pages, Grade: 1

lic. phil. Iwona Eberle (Author)


Table of Contents


I. The Garden and Literature
The Garden as a Mirror
The Influence of Topoi on Actual and Literary Gardens
The Garden Image Between Wilderness and Cultivation
The Garden in Victorian Fiction
The Gardening Rage in the Nineteenth Century

II. Women and Gardens
Women’s Relationship to the Garden
Women Writing about Gardens
Gardening as a Career
The Garden as a Woman’s Realm

III. Elizabeth and her German Garden
Von Arnim and Her Garden Novels
Elizabeth’s Garden and the Literary Tradition
The Garden as Contrast to the House
The Garden as Ecstatic and Creative Space
The Garden as a Room of One’s Own
Self-Stylization of Elizabeth through the Garden
The Author and the Garden Motif


Primary Texts
Secondary Material

Appendix: Biography of Elizabeth von Arnim


In the nineteenth century, the garden was among the pre-eminent social issues in England. There had never been a larger number of gardens, and in literature, too, the characters’ preferred setting for their activities was the garden. Horticultural magazines instigated a nationwide enthusiasm for gardens. Moreover, Victorians saw in gardens a respectable form of entertainment and joined in Bacon, who claimed that gardening is “the purest of human pleasures” (qtd. in Charlesworth 141). In technical and imaginative garden literature, women in particular have shown no restraint in declaring their passion for the garden. The first-person narrator in Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer (1899), for instance, enthuses, “I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden” (30) and the same narrator affirms to literally ache with envy as I watch the men going about their pleasant work in the sunshine, turning up the luscious damp earth, raking, weeding, watering, planting, cutting the grass, pruning the trees – not a thing that they do from the first uncovering of the roses in the spring to the November bonfires but fills my soul with longing to be up and doing it too. (The Solitary Summer 14)

She is certain of the beneficial effect of gardening, not only on herself but on the whole of human race, culminating in her exclamation, “if Eve had had a spade in Paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business of the apple” (Elizabeth and Her German Garden 25f.). In that case, however, there would neither be gardens nor a creation account describing Eden, our primordial dwelling place.

In the past three decades, there has been a surge of scholarly interest in the garden, particularly in the subject of the garden in interaction with other fields of enquiry, namely, the garden and culture, the garden and literature, the garden and gender. The National Portrait Gallery, London, recently featured an exhibition on women and gardens, discussing women’s involvement in the broader context of social and political history, especially the laws regarding property ownership by married women, women’s careers relating to the garden, and garden writing by female authors. Nevertheless, the investigation of the garden has only just begun. The garden is examined less and less as a work of art, and considered more as a site of cultural debate where conflicts, identities and ideologies are articulated, negotiated and naturalized. Cultural studies have provided major input into the study of the garden. In literary criticism, there are many articles on garden imagery in single texts, but there have yet been only a few attempts to establish general principles of the relationship between the garden and literature.

The aim of my paper is threefold: an examination of the relationship between gardens and literature, between women and gardens, and of the function of the garden for the main character and narrator in three works by Elizabeth von Arnim.

Correspondingly, there will be three chapters, and while each chapter can stand on its own, the material is organized in such a way that three parts cast light on each other. The temporal frame will be the nineteenth century, with the subchapter on gardening as a career being extended to the first half of the twentieth century to include Vita Sackville-West.

In my study, I will accommodate and synthesize inputs from a number of seemingly disparate fields of inquiry: garden architecture, philosophy, history of gardens, imaginative prose literature, technical garden literature, poems, feminist studies, history of art, social history, environmental psychology, and literary theory. My policy will be to make use of whatever critical ideas seem appropriate, but my overall approach may be described as social historicist, intertextual, and feminist. In line with this combined approach, I will grant literary texts a high degree of referential stability, and draw conclusions with respect to the author’s expressive intentions.

In the first chapter, I will examine the relationship between the garden and its representation in literature, and I will discuss the topoi and literary traditions which have decisively influenced both gardening practice and the image of the garden in literature.
I will further investigate the common functions of the actual garden and the image of the garden in literature, and I will give an overview of the dominant types of gardens in European literature of the nineteenth century, as it constitutes a useful frame of reference for situating garden images. Next, I will analyse the dominant garden image in Victorian literature, and inquire into the socio-cultural causes of the gardening rage in the nineteenth century.

In the second chapter, I will focus on women’s changing role in the nineteenth century with regard to the garden and I will elucidate the background to women’s traditional association with the garden on an imaginative level. I will then discuss nineteenth-century gardening literature by women authors using Jane Loudon and Mrs. C. W. Earle as an example, and I will outline the new career prospects for women in horticulture, taking the example of Gertrude Jekyll and adding a review of the emerging gardening schools for ladies. Vita Sackville-West was a writer and star gardener, and at the end of this chapter, I will examine her garden’s function for her personally and sketch out the garden image in a few of her poems.

In the third chapter and main body of my analysis, I will focus on three novels by Elizabeth von Arnim, an Australian-born novelist who achieved huge success at the end of the nineteenth century with her first work Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898). The novel is cast in the form of a garden diary, featuring the first-person narrator Elizabeth recounting horticultural struggles and moments of ecstasy in her garden. Elizabeth’s personality is strongly foregrounded, for her thoughts and digressions while pondering her garden make up the majority of the novel. This applies also to the sequels of the first work, The Solitary Summer (1899) and The Pious Pilgrimage (1901). After establishing a context to the three novels by drawing on von Arnim’s biography and work, I will examine the relationship of the author’s empirical garden to the image of the garden in her three early works, and will inquire into the principles according to which the image is constructed. I am mainly interested in her manner of addressing the relevant topoi and literary traditions. After that, I will analyse the garden’s functions for the first-person narrator Elizabeth and study the ways in which the garden is used to stylize her. On a higher level, I will conclude by looking into the author’s concern with the garden as a subject of writing. That chapter can be seen as a knot where all the strings meet.

With regard to the third part of my study, I will focus on von Arnim rather than on Vita Sackville-West or any other writer concerned with gardens, because in von Arnim’s early works, the author makes a woman’s relationship to the garden the central theme. Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels enjoyed great popularity but were also highly acclaimed by critics of her time. Still, there is yet hardly any research on von Arnim’s works. Apart from a few entries in literary encyclopedias and forewords to re-editions, all of which are strongly autobiographical in approach, only three articles have been published, one of them concentrating on von Arnim’s library. With my paper, I would like to offer a contribution to the scholarly re-discovery of von Arnim’s works.

I. The Garden and Literature

The Garden as a Mirror

The garden is not only a site but a literary image with a long tradition. Both actual gardens and garden images act as wish-fulfilments, and since they answer our deepest human needs, the garden appears time and again in the literary canon.

As Mara Miller states, actual gardens usually have all qualities that are otherwise important for human beings, namely, fertility, beauty, and the giving of shelter (1998:276). Environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan further identify the emotional and cognitive values of complexity or diversity, coherence, mystery, and legibility (cf. 63). Generally speaking, gardens in literature have the same function on the plot level as actual gardens since they are representations of actual gardens. However, literary gardens are often more obviously shaped by wishes; they do not require compromises with practical exigencies. On the whole, they carry heavier symbolic freight. In fact, the literary garden image can be claimed to be the result of a double translation: the actual garden is a representation of nature revised by culture, and the linguistic representation of the actual garden constitutes a further conversion (cf. Gates 1998:189). This principle of double translation also applies if the corresponding literary garden image is not a representation of an empirical but of an imagined garden. Since the actual garden and the literary garden are determined by similar principles, it is worth examining the objectives of both together.

An important motivation for creating a garden consists in the possibility of manipulating the environment. Mark Francis claims that, “much of the meaning of garden [ sic ] for people can be traced to the concept of control. The garden is a place that people can directly shape and control in a world and environment largely outside their control” (qtd. in Kaplan/Kaplan 167). As a matter of fact, though, such control is not complete, as nature will invariably follow its own laws. Still, the concept of control is integral to the concept of the garden, which is evident in the very words for “garden” in the Indo-European languages: in English they are garden and yard, in German Garten, in French jardin, in Latin hortus, in Spanish huero, in Italian giardino, all deriving from Indo-European gher, “fence”, and ghort, “enclosure”, which comes from fencing in or enclosing (cf. Miller 1998:275). Just as importantly, control is exerted by granting and denying access to the site of the garden.

Horticultural creativity tends to be informed by aesthetic considerations, and many gardens are designed with the sole purpose of embodying beauty. It is no coincidence that beauty is a common feature of so many gardens. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have found that “[t]he aesthetic reaction is an indicator of an environment where effective human functioning can occur” (10). So, conversely, if human beings create for themselves a space that embodies their ideal habitat it is then hardly surprising that they aim at making it aesthetically pleasing.

Since many gardens integrate beauty and the ideal human habitat, it has been claimed that all gardens are recreations of Paradise (e.g. von Buttlar 7), but, certainly, not all garden designers and owners consciously aim at reconstructing Paradise. Rather, the motivation for creating a garden can spring from a multitude of considerations. Gardens have, for instance, been seen as an extension of the house, and have accordingly been divided into ‘rooms’, or they have been primarily created in order to provide food and medicinal herbs, or they have been designed as a stage for social activities. Apart from that, gardeners often have scant regard for the outcome of their horticultural efforts because what they appreciate most are intrinsic gains such as tranquillity and sensory pleasure of working in the garden. Indeed, many gardens are places of pleasure in some way or other, and this is what links them with the image of Paradise despite all evident differences.

Gardens often function as mirrors of individuals, of a social class, or of the state and the same can be claimed for literary garden images. Thomas Fuller believed, “Tot homines, quot horti” (qtd. in Hunt 1996: 62), a motto expressing the conviction that gardens reflect their owner’s character and values. Similarly, the Victorian poet laureate Alfred Austin maintained, “A garden that one makes oneself becomes … interwoven with one’s tastes, preferences, and character, …. Show me your garden, provided it be your own, and I will tell you what you are like” (The Garden that I Love (1894), 112). Whole conceptions of a state, too, have been projected onto the garden, which then becomes, in Louis Marin’s terminology, a vehicle of spectacle and imaginary representation (cf. Bann 833). The type of state is not only represented but literally naturalized by the garden. Versailles, created in the seventeenth century, illustrates this point. It is a garden which represents absolutism and is a monument to power. Each single plant and each path only make sense in the context of the overall design and refer to the central will which has imposed itself on the natural space: all axes and avenues meet in front of the king’s bedchamber. Charles Burroughs claims that gardens, like towns, are “privileged matri[ces] of symbolization[,] through which patterns of belief, authority and social structure are realized (not merely reflected)” (qtd. in Hunt 1996:56). The French Baroque garden has a utopian aspect because its layout constitutes a symbolic demand for such a perfect ordering of political space.

The ideals which determine garden design have been closely linked with issues of what constitutes the good life, what human beings’ relationship to nature ought to be and how the ideal state should be organised, and for precisely these reasons the French formal garden was rejected in England. The geometrical ordering of nature was not only viewed as positive dominion over nature but also as a crippling subjugation of it; although Hampton Court and other parks of the period were modelled on Versailles, there was also deep hostility towards absolutism and its symbols, of which the French Baroque garden was one. Joseph Addison, the English essayist and statesman, unfavourably contrasted the formal park of Hampton Court to what he described as a garden of freedom, a garden in which each flower could grow without impediments (cf. Bauer 20). The landscape garden of the eighteenth century became thus a symbol for freedom, because nature as free from man came to be seen as freedom for man (cf. Assunto 1988:86). Both ‘town’ and ‘garden’ as symbols of democratic freedom have a long tradition in England. As early as 1659, the English writer and public official John Evelyn remarked that the irregularity of English cities may be understood as a sign of freedom, as the population was not forced to construct cities according to the will of a ruler (cf. Bauer 20). In 1806, the famous garden architect Repton explicitly compared the garden as a work of art to the British constitution (cf. Bauer 20). The landscape garden also mirrors a new conception of the relationship to nature, characterized by admiration and partnership.

The underlying reason for the new ideals in garden design was the fact that the garden no longer so much represented Paradise, as it came to stand for nature in general. And nature, which was deemed essentially good, came to be seen as the guide for moral behaviour. In his “Essay on Criticism”, Alexander Pope states this maxim:

First follow Nature, and your judgement frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang’d, and universal light

Those rules of old discover’d, not devis’d,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodiz’d;
Nature, like Liberty, is but restrain’d
By the same Laws which first herself ordain’d.[1] (ll. 68-71, 88-91)

The English landscape garden of the eighteenth century aimed to represent nature, but this did not imply an absence of human manipulation. On the contrary, all the natural features of Stowe, such as the river, the lake, the mounds, or the grotto, are carefully planned. The mindful garden designer tried to work with the ‘genius of the place’[2] to enhance particular natural features. Nature in the landscape garden was highly idealized.

A frequent function of the garden is that of compensation or even of utopian contrast. Apart from presenting the positive qualities of the surrounding landscape in concentrated form, gardens often offer a compensating contrast to it: in hot and arid climates, they tend to highlight water; in sunny ones, shade (cf. Miller 1998:277). While some literary gardens are also set up as contrast to the surrounding landscape, they generally share the main function of providing idyllic nature imagery, that is, counterbalancing what is felt to be at odds in society. Idyllic nature imagery, amongst which the garden can be counted, projects the social ideals of an age onto nature in a utopian contrast to social reality and is a way of looking beyond that which exists in order to discover that which could be. It thus entails ways of conceptualising and even propagating social change (cf. Brown 1991:130). On the level of the individual, the garden is frequently an alternative to a world of unpleasant social relations. Both actual and literary gardens often offer realms of peace and quiet, which restore the individual to wholeness by excluding social interaction. Hunt sees an intimate connection between gardens and utopias, stating that “utopias have frequently involved the special and resonant spaces of gardens, just as gardens have often been utopian in impulse, design, and meaning” (1992:114).

Another term applied to gardens has been that of heterotopia. Foucault distinguishes between utopias and heterotopias and in his understanding, utopias are fantasies of a perfect society, or, conversely, of the dark side of society (cf. 30), while heterotopias are actual places or rites which a culture establishes for specific purposes. (cf. 40). The garden is a typical heterotopia in so far as it combines several incompatible spaces into one place. The garden of the Persians, by way of illustration, was a holy place and comprised four quarters in its rectangular shape to stand for the four parts of the world as well as a sacral space with a fountain in the middle to represent the navel of the world (cf. Foucault 42). The botanical garden, gathering in one place the full botanical plenitude lost to men and women on their expulsion from Eden, is another heterotopia in Foucault’s sense.[3] An important characteristic of the heterotopia is the fact that one cannot enter it at liberty. Entry is either forced – as in the case of prison – or demands certain rites and cleansings. This implies, however, that only certain gardens can be called heterotopias in Foucault’s sense. Gardens which do not have an obvious symbolic function and which are freely accessible cannot be termed heterotopias. If Foucault’s distinction is taken a step further, gardens in literature can then be identified either as representations of actual heterotopic gardens, or as representations of actual gardens without obvious symbolic dimension, or as utopias, if the gardens are images without a direct reference to the empirical world. I share Gates’ opinion that each garden is a representation and that the garden as a literary image is the result of a double translation (1998:189).

The Influence of Topoi on Actual and Literary Gardens

Literature has decisively influenced both actual gardening practice and the further literary treatment of gardens. In Western culture, Adam in Genesis of the Bible was reputedly the first gardener and God the first creator of a garden:

And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed./And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil./And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads/… And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden[4] to dress it and keep it. (Genesis 2:8-15).

About Eve, nothing is said with regard to the garden, but it may be assumed that as the “help meet” of Adam (Genesis 2:8) she tended the garden as well. It is Eve’s disobedience which is ultimately responsible for the first couple’s expulsion from Paradise and for the profound changes in the conditions of human life – pain, toil, and mortality (cf. Genesis 3:16-19). Sue Bennett surmises that this account might make the garden “a difficult symbol for women” (10). With its trees and river, the Garden of Eden corresponds to the classical ‘locus amoenus’, the lovely or pleasant place (cf. Curtius 202).

In the case of the Old Testament there is a direct reason for the garden as image of wish-fulfilment. The religions which inherited the traditions of the Old Testament, namely, Christianity and Islam, evolved in the desert and this implies that where water existed, a garden could grow, and the trees that water brought to life provided both nourishment and restful shade. The garden thus presented an oasis that stood in stark contrast to the wilderness outside. The Bible repeatedly highlights the life-giving properties of water and praises the garden, for example in Isaiah 58:11, where a man is blessed with the prediction that he will be “like a watered garden”. With its associations of innocence, bliss and harmony, the biblical image of Paradise has continued to inspire works of art throughout the ages and indeed, most literary garden images make some reference to it.

The ideas about the features of Paradise have, however, not been constant over the centuries. They have been subject to cultural change, and this has been reflected both in gardening practice and the literary representation of the garden. In Paradise Lost (1667), Milton projects the vision of a luscious garden whose flowers are “not nice Art/In Beds and curious knots” (IV.241f.) but rather “Nature boon/Powrd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plaine” (IV.242f.). In fact, his Eden can be regarded as a prototypical landscape garden which influenced many later garden architects (cf. Hunt 1975:79). John Dryden, on the other hand, remarks in his State of Innocence (1674) that Paradise ought to be conceived of as a formal garden with a rigid geometrical outline (cf. II.iii and IV.ii).

Many gardens refer to Paradise, but, as Hunt claims, the elegiac quality of the very idea of the garden is never far from the surface (cf. 1987:134). Creators of and visitors to gardens must be aware that a garden is no substitute for the garden and that each garden since the first one must fade. The nineteenth-century clergyman and garden book author Dean Hole expresses this awareness in A Book about Roses (1869):

these our gardens – scenes though they be of brightest beauty to our eyes, and sources of our purest joys – do not satisfy, are not meant to satisfy our heart’s desire. Perishable as we ourselves, for the grass withereth, the flower fadeth, they are, moreover, like all our handiwork, deformed by fault and flaw. (138)

Viewed from this perspective, each garden is a fallacious representation of an ideal which it will never be able to re-attain.

While the Eden myth, as the paradise topos has been called (cf. e.g. Finney 109), celebrates the felicitous state of existence before the Fall, pastoral, the second and secular topos which has decisively influenced garden images, extols the felicitous mode of being outside the city. Commonly, Theocritus is seen as the originator of the pastoral tradition. In his Idyll s, which he wrote in the third century BC, and in pastoral the shepherd as a rule exemplifies natural man whose soul is pure and who lives in harmony with nature. However, it was primarily through Virgil’s Bucolica, or Eclogues that pastoral found its way into the western literary tradition. Virgil set his pastoral voices in the remote paradise of Arcadia, which is a kind of paradise of poetry, a retreat for shepherd singers and their companions. Poetry thrives in this garden-like setting or directly springs from it. An important theme in pastoral is love; pastoral abounds with amorous declarations, made from herdsmen to nymphs, from shepherdesses to shepherds. The preferred setting for these amorous activities is the ‘locus amoenus’, a lovely or pleasant place, with water, trees, birds, and flowers. In pastoral, both the manner of living and the landscape are images of wish-fulfilment. After all, the benevolent landscape of pastoral ideally complements men and women; like a garden it is tailor-made for human needs.

Just as important for pastoral as Arcadia or the ‘locus amoenus’ is the myth of the Golden Age. The notion of a perfect era in the past enters the pastoral tradition through Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, which invokes the return of the Golden Age when the peaceful king Saturn will reign anew, men will live together in harmony, and guilt and evil will vanish from the earth. Later, the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses adds to this image the elements of everlasting spring, rivers flowing with nectar and honey, the lion lying down the lamb, the oak secreting honey, and the modesty of human needs in this initial period of human history. In the Golden Age, existence itself is pastoral and is characterized by simplicity, innocence, and happiness. Frequently, the motif of the Golden Age functions as an ethical model and the vehicle of critical comment on the author’s contemporary society. This holds true of pastoral in general, of many descriptions of Paradise and of most idyllic nature imagery. Regardless of whether the ideal state of existence is located in the past or projected onto the future, as is often the case with utopia, it always sheds light on what the author or the narrator in the text judges to be desirable and, by means of contrast, on what she or he disapproves of in contemporary society.

For the development of gardening art, descriptions of Elysium were also determinative (cf. Finney 55). In Greek and Roman mythology, “Elysium”, or “the Elysian Fields”, was the term for the tranquil fields on the borders of the Underworld, where the good remain after death in perfect happiness. At the end of the seventeenth century, John Evelyn, who coined the epithet “hortulan saint” to allude to the morally uplifting effects of gardening on men (qtd. in Hunt 2000:178), entitled a horticultural treatise Elysium Britannicum. [5] A large number of gardens and parks laid out in the eighteenth century, such as Stowe, included an area called ‘Elysian Fields’ and Julie’s Elysium in Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloise (1761) bears witness to the broader European popularity of this trend (cf. Finney 55).

Another important literary influence on garden art and on the garden image in literature was the beatus ille tradition. The main text to give rise to the ‘happy man’ topos is Horace’s second Epode, in which a usurer considers becoming a farmer:

Beatus ille qui procul negotiis,
ut prisca gens mortalium,
paterna rura bobus exercet suis…

Happy the man who, far away from business cares,
like the pristine race of mortals, works his
ancestral acres with his steers… (qtd. in Finney 50)

These first lines of the epode announce the theme in capsule form and delineate the substance of the subsequent tradition. In the beatus ille tradition, the garden as idealized farm is contrasted to and removed from the warfare, politics, and materialism of the outside world (cf. Finney 50). The harmony and virtue of the idealized farm exclude any passions. Horace’s second Epode, like other texts in the same tradition, lauds traditional, fulfilled marital love and domestic stability. In seventeenth-century England, the beatus ille tradition enjoyed a renaissance and was taken up by writers such as Marvell and Milton. The prime poetic examples of pastoral are Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579) and Sidney’s The Countesse of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1590). The topos also became highly popular in Germany, which, like England, was plagued in this period by extended civil and religious wars. In both Germany and England, the glorification of the rural retreat was strongly influenced by the seventeenth century’s reception of Stoic philosophy (cf. Finney 51). Stoicism advocated the rejection of ambition and desire, freedom from emotions, mental tranquility, and a rigorous ethical code. Crucial elements of stoicism appear in the idealized garden images of both nineteenth-century German and English fiction. In the first period of the gardening vogue, at the end of the seventeenth century, classical literary texts such as Horace’s Epodes were determinative for the new art. By the eighteenth century, the refashioning of classical models had been taken to its limits. Pastoral had largely become mock-pastoral, and views that pastoral was “easy” and therefore vulgar began to gain currency (cf. Finney 10). However, the decline of pastoral did not quell pastoral longing, nor should it be taken to indicate that pastoral longing had ceased to exist. On the contrary, as we will see, there was a revival of pastoral in the second half of the nineteenth century, in a modified form.

Although actual gardens and literary gardens have drawn on the same topoi, images of the garden often correspond neither to the garden type which contemporary garden theorists advocate in their treatises nor to the gardens prevalent in contemporary social reality. Firstly, there is a general absence of explicit references in imaginative literature to contemporary garden theorists. For instance, although John Loudon was the most prolific and influential garden writer of the nineteenth century, he is not cited by any novelist of the time, and no novelist appears to have employed his famous coinage ‘gardenesque’ (cf. Waters 4). Nonetheless, at least some Victorian novelists must have been familiar with the notion of a ‘gardenesque’ layout, since a number of fictional gardens are clearly constructed in this way.[6] Secondly, the prevalence of a certain type of garden in social reality does not offer conclusions about its prevalence in imaginative literature. Thus, if formal gardens are the current fashion, this does not imply that they are the most frequent type of garden in imaginative literature. Besides, certain garden aspects, such as fragrance, seem to have continually held a strong appeal for writers; they have been evoked in literature regardless of whether they were prized features of the actual gardens of the period. Notwithstanding, it is certainly the case that most novels are products of their epoch, and it is self-evident that in keeping with the ‘spirit of the time’ and the current fashion the most favoured garden type may find its way into literature. Moreover, if gardening is among the dominant fashionable issues at a particular period this undoubtedly influences the extent to which it receives space in imaginative literature and may even give rise to a new literary genre.

The Garden Image Between Wilderness and Cultivation

Just as actual gardens tend either more to wildness or to formality, so every garden image can be seen to exist along a continuum between nature and art/culture. Most garden images emphasize either wildness or control, but balanced images occur as well. Generally speaking, the choice in favour of a more wild or a more formal garden depends on the natural environment of the garden described in the text and on the social conditions to which the author is reacting. For instance, since the city often symbolizes human control and culture, a garden within the city often represents nature and is associated with passion. A garden in the wilderness or untouched nature, by contrast, frequently epitomizes control and is associated with human self-restraint and self-cultivation. In both these cases, the garden image embodies an alternative set of values which is either judged positively or negatively. With regard to the wild garden, this moral evaluation is determined by whether nature is conceptualized as good or evil, since the wild garden tends to be equated with nature.[7] If the wild or formal garden is shown in positive terms, it frequently expresses a utopian ideal. Generally speaking, the garden image frequently epitomizes central concerns of a particular person or society and may be indicative of the slant of the whole work.

In European literature of the nineteenth century, we can distinguish three main garden types that represent different attitudes towards organic and human nature. Apart from casting light on nineteenth century English, French, and German literature, this garden paradigm, which has been established by Gail Finney in The Counterfeit Idyll, serves as a useful frame of reference for describing literary garden images. The first type, the garden as erotic enclave, is dominant in French fiction, while the second type, the garden as ethical construct in the ‘beatus ille’ tradition, is preeminent in German fiction. The third type, the garden as the mirror of Eden, appears mainly in English fiction. The typological differences are not coincidental but are directly related to the sociocultural differences that inform the three literary traditions. The garden images, which seem bound to their corresponding nations, have received major influence from Rousseau, Goethe, and Wordsworth.

The preeminent French garden type, the garden as erotic enclave, reflects the reception of Rousseau in the nineteenth century. As a pocket of nature, the garden is perceived as a place of freedom from restraint and conventions. Apart from that, the wild environment is associated with arousing hidden passions in the characters of the garden and weakening their will. Thus, the garden is the setting for adulterous encounters and, in general, is a place where characters yield to their sexual impulses. In Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830), for instance, the garden at Vergy is a kind of pastoral oasis which catalyzes Mme de Rênal’s affair with Julien. At Julien’s suggestion, Mme de Rênal hires workers to build a gravel path around the orchard. She completely forgets her husband’s existence and spends her days running round the orchard with her children, chasing butterflies. More than that, it is in the garden beneath the linden tree that Julien discloses to Mme de Rênal his intention to visit her in her room at night. The glorification of adultery signals a subversive impulse, because it threatens the stability of the family as a microcosm of the social order (cf. Finney 5). Characters who refuse to be integrated into society must perish, while those who renounce the erotic garden realm survive. Rousseau, for his part, on the one hand extols emotional naturalism, and on the other hand, he intimates that the fulfilment of passion destroys the innocent emotions. In French fiction in general, the garden appears as a place of love and suspension of daily cares, which shows its closeness to the pastoral topos of the ‘locus amoenus’.

In German fiction of the nineteenth century, the cultural pole of the continuum between nature and culture is emphasized: the garden is primarily a metaphor for education and self-cultivation. In contrast to French fiction of the period, the garden does not represent an illusory paradise that must be left behind but a symbolic solution – a paradise regained (cf. Finney 48). It represents the neo-classical ideal towards which the entire novel moves. Risach’s garden in Stifter’s Nachsommer, for instance, is orderly and highly artificial. It externalizes the ability of the will to impose its control on nature and ‘natural’ human passion (cf. Finney 89). The German garden image is clearly influenced by Goethe’s concept of self-cultivation, which is in turn indebted to early Enlightenment thought. Goethe felt that the seed of an individual’s personality is present at birth and contains the germ of all future developments. However, the ‘plant’ of the self requires constant clipping and pruning, implying the shedding worn-out beliefs, the curbing violent impulses and the strive to grow only in the desired direction. Thus, although development follows the natural inclinations that are present from the beginning, it is guided by the conscious control and will of the individual. While in French fiction of the nineteenth century the garden is mostly a female-dominated sphere of nature and passion, in contemporary German fiction it is associated with the patriarchal family, and is governed by the laws of classical humanism, moderation, and the exercise of the will (cf. Finney 90). The emphasis on harmony, simplicity, virtue, and the absence of passion shows that the garden in nineteenth-century German literature belongs to the beatus ille tradition and incorporates ideas of Stoicism. Both the French and the German garden image take over many of the functions of the pastoral mode in general, but their main qualities differ. While the French garden image accentuates the love theme of pastoral, the German garden image gives prominence to the innocent and harmonious life portrayed in pastoral.

In English fiction of the nineteenth century, the garden is for the most part a Wordsworthian image of Eden (cf. Finney 5). It is a place of innocent bliss, celebrating childhood or the values of childhood. In some instances, the garden is a substitute for a childhood Eden that the character never experienced. An example of this is the orchard at Thornfield, which provides Jane Eyre with a realm of naturalness, liberty, and purity. The Edenic garden image often not only stands for the individual’s childhood but the nation’s childhood, England in its pre-industrial state. Finney calls the latter association a “historicization of paradise” (Finney 104) since paradise is bracketed with a specific historical phase. The unfortunate ‘Fall’ of England is conceptualized as the lapse of the timeless rural space into dynamic urban industrialization (cf. Finney 5). Wordsworth invested the garden image with values that continued to be influential in much literature of the nineteenth century: rural traditions, familial and matrimonial harmony, moderation, duty, and industry. The English garden image of the nineteenth century shares features with the garden as erotic enclave and with the garden as ethical construct. Although the garden is a place of intense emotions, they remain within social bounds, and although the Eden realm is lost and treated with nostalgia, a trait similar to French fiction, it is sustainable through an internalization of the values that it embodies (cf. Finney 112).

While the French garden of love is dominated by the mature female beloved and the German garden of self-cultivation is ruled over by the patriarch, the English Eden is the domain of the child. All three garden images criticise the contemporary society; they represent a withdrawal into the private domain, they assert intangible values instead of material wealth, and they depict a world of freedom (cf. Finney 141). Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the idealism represented by the garden became increasingly difficult to sustain (cf. Finney 141). As a consequence, the garden was only rarely portrayed as an ideal place per se and if so, only owing to the experience of an individual character.

The Garden in Victorian Fiction

In the Victorian age, the garden is what Waters calls “the dominant bourgeois version of the locus amoenus and the aristocratic spatial model of gracious living” (cf. 223) and in Victorian literature, the garden has such an important role because it is felt to be a part of the domestic sphere; of the 40,000 novels that the Victorians published, the bulk were domestic novels. The characters in many novels devote a surprisingly large amount of time and attention to their gardens. This can partly be explained by the fact that Victorian authors tend to highlight the socially privileged, and many middle- and upper-class characters have so much leisure time that they can spend every day in the garden. The narrator in Alfred Austin’s The Garden that I Love exclaims, “Withal, not only could I spend all my days in it, but, as a fact, I do so“ (3), and Elizabeth, the first-person narrator in Elizabeth von Arnim’s first two works, says of her maid, “This girl is grieved at my habit of living almost in the garden” (Elizabeth and Her German Garden 5). The spacious gardens of the wealthy serve as theatres for animated scenes, while the gardens of the poor are seen from the outside and do not serve as settings (cf. Waters 225).

In all of Victorian literature, home was an important concept. It was deemed a shelter and a model for the social order. The ideal Victorian home has also been characterized as “an all-encompassing desexualized womb into which [the man of the house] could retreat” (Duncan Crow, qtd. in Waters 228). Often, the home is imagined as a walled garden reigned over by a domestic Queen, who is also a moral guide (cf. Waters 26). Home and garden were synonymous concepts, and the qualities of the ideal garden, that is, fertility, beauty, protection are those of the ideal home. The gardens that find approval show their owners’ commitment to the values of the home. Generally, the garden in Victorian fiction is the place of happy experiences and pleasing memories, especially where the garden of childhood is concerned. It is also the seat of innocence, bringing moral and personal benefits to those who care for it.

Victorian authors and their readers privilege certain specific qualities in literary gardens, mainly fragrance, agedness or the appearance of it, picturesqueness or the potential for pictorial representation, and the absence of regimentation in the arrangement of plant materials (cf. Waters 47). These preferences, however, do not mirror the most influential contemporary garden styles. The Victorian age was a period of diverse trends in gardening, and no single style was unanimously or consistently extolled. Still, it has been argued that if any one principle can be said to dominate Victorian garden theory, it is the view that the garden ought to be considered a work of art rather than an attempt to imitate nature (cf. Elliott 10). This view developed primarily as a reaction to the eighteenth-century garden, which was felt to be unimaginative, to disconnect house from garden, and to trick the visitor into believing that he or she was looking at a ‘natural’ landscape. Moreover, as John Loudon contended, gardens ought to display the taste and wealth of the owner, something which is more easily achieved with gardens that sport their status as works of art than with ‘natural’ gardens. Similarly, many garden theorists were convinced that, since the garden was one of the last refinements of culture, it was barbarous and foolish to give it the air of being as crude as nature (cf. Elliott 19). This meant that many gardens in the Victorian age were very colourful, and often highly formal.

Authors of the Victorian period, however, were not particularly interested in celebrating the fashionable contemporary garden practices; they found them imaginatively unappealing and had misgivings about the social values that these practices seemed to espouse, namely, upstart capitalism and the desire for progress (cf. Waters 36). It is interesting to note that in Victorian literature, the most frequently privileged qualities of a garden – fragrance and agedness – tend both to occur together and to be the qualities least seen in gardens composed after the more blatantly fashionable styles of the time.

In Victorian fiction, fragrance – or the lack of it – serves as a reliable indicator of a garden’s merit (cf. Waters 37). Generally, contemporary gardens displayed dazzling colours but were not fragrant. Authors perhaps regretted this fact and compensated for it in their fiction. There are, however, also more specific reasons for the preference for fragrant gardens. For one thing, fragrant flowers constitute an indispensable element of the Victorian cottage dream; typically, the peaceful cottage existence as it is imagined finds its culmination in the moment that the character smells the scent wafting from the cottage garden. Imaginative authors, moreover, invested scented gardens with the invigorating powers traditionally associated with the countryside itself (cf. Waters 39). Scent was also felt to accompany, or even produce, experiences of an exhilarating or mystical kind. In Tennysons’s The Princess (1847), the male intruders in the women’s college gardens, having left the court,

The terrace ranged along the Northern front,
And leaning there on balusters, high
Above the empurpled champaign, drank the gale
That blown about the foliage underneath,
And sated with the innumerable rose,
Beat balm upon our eyelids. (47)

In some instances of Victorian fiction, scent not only accompanies or initiates heady experiences but is felt to be “nature’s most direct way of hailing her human friends” (Waters 42). Moreover, fragrant gardens are connected with the past, either as an evocation or a recollection, and the garden of childhood in its literal sense is most easily recaptured through its scents or the recollection of its scents. Apart from that, the Victorians felt that house and garden must be connected (cf. Alfred Austin, The Garden that I Love (1896) 123) and the scent that wafts into the windows of the house is an ideal means of establishing such a connection (cf. Waters 44).

The authors of Victorian fiction privileged old gardens or gardens in an old-fashioned style. In this context, ‘old-fashioned’ can imply either ‘that which has endured throughout time’, which stresses historical continuity and tradition, or ‘that which has been lost’. Three historical styles are particularly common in Victorian fiction: the enclosed medieval garden, the modestly formal country-house garden dating from the seventeenth century, and the cottage garden of the early years of the nineteenth century (cf. Waters 49). The cottage garden expresses the desire to preserve pre-industrial England and its traditional values. Alfred Austin, William Robinson, and later Gertrude Jekyll, all worshipped Old England and paid homage to it by praising the simple designs of the cottage garden. Incidentally, though, English cottages of the early nineteenth century did not have gardens as imagined by novelists, poets, and designers, and the cottage garden plants which were praised were recent acquisitions (cf. Miller 1993:175).

The preference for age in the literary gardens of the period also extended to flowers. They symbolized qualities both traditionally and arbitrarily associated with them. They embodied moral values and were indices of social status. Tulips were once a symbol of wealth; later authors were free to debate their qualities. The narrator in Alfred Austin’s The Garden that I Love associates them with unpleasant “eighteenth century correctness” (17) while the narrator in von Arnim’s Elizabeth and Her German Garden finds them “the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace” (71). One of the key factors that determined the meaning of a flower was age. Typically, the “old favourites” were set against the newly imported, exotic hybridized plants, which were often flashy and usually expensive. On the one hand, the hybrids acquired positive connotations by their association with the rising middle classes; on the other hand, they were scorned by those whose conservative inclinations made them critical of capitalist upstarts and their status symbols. More importantly, many Victorian authors felt that the displacement of the old favourites by the new hybrids was the sign of a far-reaching change in society. The old system had had its core in the rural community, of which the cottage garden was a symbol, and as part of this symbol old-fashioned plants such as hollyhocks, sunflowers, pinks, pansies and lupins were potent reminders of a world that was quickly vanishing. Apart from that, the old-favourites received praise because they were felt to appeal to all the relevant senses and because their beauty was not of a transitory kind. For those who did not despise old-fashioned plants as ‘poor men’s flowers’ they embodied plenitude, variety, individuality, and homeliness, that is, exactly the values associated with pre-industrial England (cf. Waters 124).


[1] It is interesting to note the tendency in Western thought to identify the good with that which is ‘natural’ or ‘according to nature’. However, there has been little actual agreement about what is designated by that referent (cf. McGregor 34f.). Moreover, the association between nature and the good is not self-evident. Even though nature has been exalted for its awe-inspiring wildness and has stood for innocence, in contrast to the ‘perversion’ of culture, it has also been regarded as an inferior ontological state and has been devalued in favour of the achievements of civilization. In any case, it seems that alienation from nature is a sine qua non for the concept of a ‘good nature’ to evolve (cf. Grossklaus 8).

[2] The term stems from Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Burlington”.

[3] John Evelyn thought the botanical garden could “comprehend the principall and most useful plants, and… be as rich and noble [a] compendium of what the whole Globe of Earth has flourishing upon her bosome” (qtd. in Hunt 1987:128).

[4] Eden literally means ‘delight’. Paradeisos, which refers to the original Garden of Eden, originated from the Old Persian pairidaeza, which meant “walled enclosure, pleasure park, garden”. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word for “garden” was usually translated by the Greek paradeisos.

[5] A work remained unpublished; it has attracted recent critical attention.

[6] There was confusion over the implication of this term, but it was by and large taken to refer to a style in which plants are cultivated as individual specimens so as to make each worthy of careful inspection. Gardenesque planting appears, for example, in Disraeli’s Lothair (1870) (cf. Waters 4).

[7] Rousseau was one of the first advocates of a form of ‘wild’ gardening, which can be seen in his novel La Nouvelle Héloise (1781).

Excerpt out of 97 pages


Eve with a Spade
Women, Gardens, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century, with a Focus on Works by Elizabeth von Arnim
University of Zurich  (Englisches Seminar)
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garden, Elizabeth von Arnim, women, horticulture, 19th century, literature, topos, hortus conclusus, Victorian, Edwardian, Jane Loudon, Mrs. C. W. Earle, Gertrude Jekyll, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, The Solitary Summer, The Pious Pilgrimage, paradise, nature, fiction, Vita Sackville-West, image, idyll, utopia, Alfred Austin, pastoral, flowers, Eve, wilderness, plants, space, room, Mary Annette Beauchamp, Garten, Gartenliteratur, Gartenmagazine, Raum, Paradies, Natur, Idylle, Utopie, viktorianisch, edwardianisch, Blumen, Eva, Wildnis, Pflanzen, 19. Jahrhundert, Pommern
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lic. phil. Iwona Eberle (Author), 2001, Eve with a Spade, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/167846


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