Review: Gemma Betroson Elizabeth von Arnim

The Many Lives of Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) is perhaps Australia’s greatest literary export. Born in Kirribilli, she was extraordinarily successful in her lifetime, and was regularly compared to Jane Austen for her talent and wit. Yet, with the exception of those in on the secret, von Arnim’s novels have been almost entirely forgotten. Despite recent editions by the British Library, Oxford University Press, and Persephone Books (which specialises in neglected literature by and about women), it can still be difficult to track down copies of some of her twenty-one works. Accounts of her life, meanwhile, tend to focus on her marriages and affairs, and those of her circles whose fame proved more durable, including her cousin, Katherine Mansfield, and E.M. Forster, whom she employed to tutor her children.

Even her name presents a challenge, which is probably why Joyce Morgan does not include it in the title or subtitle of her biography of the author. Baptised Mary Annette Beauchamp, and called ‘May’ by her family, her first marriage, to a German count, saw her become the Gräfin von Arnim-Schlagenthin, while her second marriage made her Countess Russell. It was partly because of these titles that von Arnim became an expert at dissimulation, or as Morgan calls it ‘dissembling’: anonymity was critical. Her first novel, Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898), bore the pseudonym ‘Elizabeth’, launching decades of international speculation about the author’s identity. The book was so successful that her following novels were published as ‘By the Author of Elizabeth and her German Garden’ and later, ‘By Elizabeth’. ‘Elizabeth von Arnim’ was a name that appeared on her books only long after her death.

Australia is not given to celebrating its female novelists at the best of times – witness the neglect of Christina Stead and Elizabeth Harrower – so it is not entirely surprising that there has been little effort to claim von Arnim as Australian. Where the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography has an article on the author by Nicola Beauman (founder of Persephone Books), the Australian Dictionary of Biography currently has no dedicated entry on von Arnim, although her Times obituary is reproduced in a link. In some ways this makes sense: contemporaries such as Patrick White, May Gibbs, and Ethel Turner were born in England but are generally considered Australian authors because they lived in Australia for most of their working lives. Von Arnim’s family moved from Sydney to London when she was three, and she seemed never to have contemplated a return, even when the Second World War prompted her to leave Europe. ‘Alas, I cannot claim to be an Australian,’ she once explained. ‘I was born in Australia because my mother happened to be there at the time, & was brought home to England’.

Yet as Morgan points out, where statues of von Arnim can be found near the site of the German home where she wrote her first novels, there are no such reminders in Sydney, even on the Circular Quay Writers’ Walk, which includes authors with less obvious connections to the city. Morgan’s very thorough reconstruction of the Australian family history of her subject, both in the book’s early chapters and a lengthy appendix, was presumably conceived to strengthen the case for von Arnim’s recognition as an Australian author. But, as with Gabrielle Carey’s 2020 hybrid memoir-biography, Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim, Morgan instead makes a compelling case for why the author and her work should be revisited regardless.

Elizabeth von Arnim’s ex libris bore the motto Chanterai ma chanson (‘I will sing my song’). Hers was a singular life – albeit one propelled by the advantages of wealth and title – and she mined it freely for her novels. These were typically centred around the locations she lived in or visited, including Nassenheide (her German home), the Swiss chalet she purchased off the back of her literary success, and Castello Brown in Italy, which provided the setting for her much-loved 1922 novel, The Enchanted April. Elizabeth von Arnim was brilliant at place. Her evocative descriptions of gardens and homes might have branded her as a writer of female domesticity but for the unsettling subtext of an impossibly sloping garden or a country house whose windows are too large. Whether in Jena or New York, London or Portofino, von Arnim’s settings almost always tell the reader about the insufferable constraints placed upon the women who inhabit them.

Elizabeth von Arnim was also brilliant at men, or rather at skewering their behaviour, usually with the help of outlandish names. Married men, in particular, are targeted as they ignore their wives, whine about their misfortunes, or want fish for breakfast. They also lie, cheat, bully, and diminish. Von Arnim made frequent and barely disguised use of the men in her life. The husband of Elizabeth and her German Garden, based closely on her own, is referred to as ‘the Man of Wrath’, a bald-faced hint that, for all of its delights, Elizabeth was only superficially a book about gardens. Subsequent lovers, including H.G. Wells and publisher Alexander Frere (thirty years her junior), also became fodder for her fiction. So did her second husband, Frank Russell, brother of the more famous Bertrand and a human bulldozer who pursued von Arnim in various forms for perceived damages long after their separation.

Von Arnim tended to hide such unpleasantness under the guise of humour, at which she was unequivocally brilliant (P.G. Wodehouse must surely have been inspired by her novels). Clergy, relatives, dogs, and toddlers all come with laugh-out-loud descriptions, while her skill at satire rests upon ruthlessly close observation filtered through playful, often inventive language or placed in biting juxtaposition. But underneath – whether taking aim at dismissive doctors or overbearing fathers or the bizarre niceties of the Prussian Junker class – bristles a bitterness that goes beyond the waspishness of say, Muriel Spark, as von Arnim exposes the societal structures used to limit the autonomy and opportunity of her female characters. Words like ‘acerbic’, ‘sulphuric’, and ‘acid’ recur throughout her novels, possibly reflecting how often she heard them applied to herself. Her caustic pronouncements could take new acquaintances by surprise. As writer Beverley Nichols recalled, ‘When one meets her, inevitably she suggests Dresden China, with her tiny voice, tiny hands, tiny manners. And then suddenly, with a shock, you realise that the Dresden China […] is filled with gunpowder.’

Steeped in languages, poetry, literature, and music, her intellect may have cowed unwitting conversationalists, but it also equipped her with a brilliance on the page that still feels fresh and original today. ‘Writing is the best fun in the world,’ she once wrote. She struggled from time to time, especially with endings (which often feel contrived) or when she strayed too far from the plotlines of her own life but, as Morgan notes, she was never short of words. ‘My way of working,’ she explained, ‘is to spill freely & then break my back spooning it all up again.’ All that back-breaking rendered the struggle almost imperceptible: her books possess an ease that belies their formidable craft.

Above all, von Arnim was brilliant at women, divulging the concealed details of their lives with a frankness that demanded readers think twice before judging. The mental and bodily shock of childbirth and its aftermath is depicted with rare candour in The Pastor’s Wife (1914), a book that doubtless opened the way for works like Enid Bagnold’s The Squire (1938). Vera (1921) not only drew back the curtains on domestic abuse but removed them altogether with its gradual, chilling revelation of the verbal and physical rage crammed within the entitled man-child Lucy meets and too hastily marries. Expiation (1929) addressed the then-daring topic of a married woman with a long-standing secret affair, while Mr Skeffington (1940) is, at its heart, a novel about menopause (though the word itself is never mentioned) and the invisibility that comes with age.

Von Arnim’s work is most striking for the way she created space for women to be open, and even angry about their disappointments in life. Fanny, in Mr Skeffington feels the ‘acid regrets’ of lost beauty, her diminished appearance after a severe illness haunting her as much as the ghostly reappearance of her unfaithful husband. Others, such as Elizabeth of the German Garden and Rose-Marie of Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907), rail at being called ‘eccentric’ for pursuing interests and lives of their own choosing. That many – though not all – of von Arnim’s women find ways to be happy, regardless of the despair they experience, explains much of the author’s enduring appeal. Von Arnim’s apparent gift for happiness was the focus of Gabrielle Carey’s Only Happiness Here, a perceptive search through von Arnim’s life and novels for lessons in how to be happy, complete with a nine-point checklist. Von Arnim’s entrance into a literary self-help market traditionally dominated by Jane Austen should have placed publishers on alert.

Why, then, was Elizabeth von Arnim so quickly and thoroughly forgotten? Many reasons have been put forward: her novels were too feminine, too light-hearted, too pastoral, too conventional, too comic, too middlebrow, or, in the face of modernism, all of the above. I wonder if the answer instead lies in the honesty with which she writes about women, the double standards to which they are habitually subjected, and the men whose unthinking or appalling behaviour so often shapes their life trajectories. Von Arnim said the unsayable with a wit so acidic that only the wilfully unobservant could miss the outrage beneath. The honeyed charm that seemed to characterise so much of her prose could not disguise its bitter aftertaste, an aftertaste that perhaps sat uneasily with readers yearning for a return to structure and predictability after the turmoil of the Second World War, and one at odds with a world unprepared to acknowledge women’s anger with it. 

Joyce Morgan’s biography of von Arnim hints at a similar conclusion concerning her subject’s posthumous abandonment:  

Elizabeth’s books fell out of favour and out of print after her death. In a world recovering from the second world war [sic], it was a time of Angry Young Men. The name ‘Elizabeth’ came to conjure an image of Britain’s monarch, rather than a once bestselling novelist.

Unfortunately the point is not developed, an approach characteristic of a biography that often seems reticent to situate its subject within the relevant literary and historical contexts. Morgan has undertaken extensive international research to produce a chronological narrative packed with anecdotes, correspondence, novel summaries, and photos (a family tree and a few maps to help navigate von Arnim’s peripatetic life would also have been welcome). But, as with the journalist’s previous biography, of twentieth-century Australian artist Martin Sharp, The Countess from Kirribilli tends to privilege accumulation of fact over interpretation. The critical distance needed to sift through the considerable content unearthed is missing, and by the time we get to a dog-by-dog account of von Arnim’s later years – recalling her 1936 pseudo-biography, All the Dogs of My Life – it can feel rather hard-going. Readers, for the most part, are left to draw their own conclusions.

As a result, von Arnim remains enigmatic. The many contradictions that can be found across her life and writing – on feminism, class, motherhood, or race for example – are never fully unpacked, nor the complexities of von Arnim’s own character. Her cosmopolitan restlessness, her concern for her appearance and weight, her sometimes alarming behaviour (notably towards her children), and the pervasive tension between her need for company and longing for solitude are likewise documented, but not explored in a way that might have pierced the aura of mystery that von Arnim sought for so long to maintain.

After several decades of neglect (and it is easy to forget today that the novels of Jane Austen were once similarly overlooked) von Arnim’s work is being rediscovered. Morgan’s two-page overview of von Arnim’s afterlife reminds us that her work has been rediscovered before: Carmen Callil, the Australian founder of London-based feminist press Virago, republished several of her works in the 1980s, while the success of Mike Newell’s 1991 film adaptation of The Enchanted April promised further interest, notably in the United States. This time, however, momentum appears to be sustained. An episode of Downton Abbey that featured Elizabeth and her German Garden set the literary internet abuzz and introduced von Arnim to new audiences globally. The International Elizabeth von Arnim Society, established in 2015, runs a lively blog and promotes the growing body of academic work on the author. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic saw an increase in sales as readers sought out von Arnim’s books for the literary escapism (and perhaps gardening inspiration) they offered; a fitting turn of events for an author who, on so many occasions, was herself lured by escape.

It seems sadly appropriate that on the back cover of Morgan’s biography her subject’s name is misspelt – three times no less – as ‘Elizabeth von Armin’, a blunder now transferred with the publisher’s summary to bookseller websites and library catalogues around the world. Allen & Unwin have rectified the error on their own website, but it reinforces just how far there is to go when a publisher of the country of von Arnim’s birth spells her name incorrectly. The reasons Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels have been neglected are the very reasons they should be remembered, in Australia and worldwide. Morgan’s biography represents a timely contribution to a conversation just getting under way.

Published August 22, 2022
Part of Emerging Critics 2021: Essays by the 2021 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Gemma Betros, Sarah-Jane Burton, Dan Dixon, Ursula Robinson-Shaw, Isabella Trimboli. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2021 essays →
Gemma Betros

Gemma Betros is an historian and writer based in Queensland. She studied History and...

Essays by Gemma Betros →