In the diaries and letters that make up The Flower and the Nettle, Anne Morrow Lindbergh weaves together the varied strands of her life from 1936 to 1939, recording and reflecting on her experiences as wife, mother, writer, housekeeper, co-pilot, world traveler, society matron, and even artist’s model. Her position as wife of the world’s best-known pilot, daughter of American Ambassador and senator Dwight Morrow, and established writer in her own right, made her a welcome guest at embassies, palaces, and airport hangars throughout Europe and Asia. A part of the fascination of this book is the glimpses she gives of the people she met: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Lady Astor, George Bernard Shaw, Russian officers and French artisans, American diplomats and English gardeners. Yet many readers will find the real richness of the work elsewhere, in the author’s vivid descriptions of the many facets of her life and in her musings on the meaning of this existence that seemed at times so fragmentary.
In January, 1936, Charles and Anne Lindbergh moved to Europe with their three-year-old son Jon in an effort to escape the press harassment, public curiosity, and threats of violence that still plagued them four years after the kidnaping and murder of their first son. They spent two and a half years in Kent, England, where they lived at Long Barn, the country home of British statesman Harold Nicolson (the biographer of Dwight Morrow) and his wife, novelist Vita Sackville-West. In the summer of 1938 the Lindberghs purchased and moved to Illiec, a tiny island off the northern coast of Brittany, near the home of Dr. Alexis Carrel, who was collaborating with Lindbergh on a scientific study of tissue culture. The last months of 1939 found them in a Paris apartment near the Bois de Boulogne.
As Anne Lindbergh writes in her introduction, these were years of great personal happiness for her and her family, highlighted by the birth of a third son, Land, on Coronation Day in May, 1937. However, the “flower” of domestic contentment was accompanied by a “nettle,” the threat of war that grew more ominous from week to week. The diaries are thus public as well as private documents, providing insights into the attitudes of influential Americans and Europeans during a critical period in history.
In both the introduction and her letters and diaries Anne Lindbergh defends her husband and herself against charges that they were Nazi sympathizers. They were, she admits from the perspective of the 1970’s, “naïve” in their pacifism and in their desire to believe what the Germans professed their goals and motives to be. Visiting Germany in 1936, 1937, and 1938 at the request of United States intelligence officers, the Lindberghs were impressed by the enthusiasm and vigor of the young people, the apparent prosperity of the workers, and the rapid technological progress. Yet even at the time they recognized the darker side of the Nazi regime in the ubiquity of uniformed soldiers, the regimentation of German life, and the brutality they observed. Lindbergh repeatedly warned the English and French governments that the German Air Force was dangerously stronger than theirs, and he certainly recognized the possibility, even the probability, that his warnings would be used against him. Both Lindberghs were appalled by the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, and they abandoned their plans to spend the winter of 1938-1939 in Berlin after the bloody pogrom of November, 1938.
Although the political observations of the book have considerable historical interest, its real vitality comes from the character of the author. Through the flowing, unobtrusive prose of her diaries and her letters to close friends and relatives, she shows her intense awareness of her natural surroundings, her sensitivity to the people around her, her self-doubt, her courage, her humor, her acute judgment of others, and, above all, her dedication to her responsibility to her family, her work, and herself. She reveals herself page by page through her accounts of the wide variety of activities that make up her life: conversing with young Jon about lions, school, or dead stumps; arranging flowers as a gesture of welcome for guests; writing and rewriting Listen! The Wind, her account of her flight across the South Atlantic; rearranging furniture at Long Barn; trying to appease the children’s nurse, who could not tolerate the primitive living conditions on Illiec; sitting impatiently through dozens of sessions with French sculptor Despiau as he modeled her head; chatting with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor about the problems of living constantly...