A Literary Journey: A Biography of Elizabeth von Arnim
I’ve now read two of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels: The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and her German Garden; and I loved them both. This meticulous new biography by Jennifer Walker focuses on the surprisingly elusive woman behind the books, whose life was as remarkable as one of her own fictions.
Even the name by which we now know her is incorrect: she never called herself ‘Elizabeth von Arnim’. Born Mary Annette Beauchamp, she became the Countess von Arnim on her first marriage to a Prussian nobleman, and then Countess Russell on her second marriage to an English aristocrat. ‘Elizabeth’, without a surname, was a literary persona established in her debut novel (the German Garden); it eventually became a convenient smokescreen in real life, so that even friends and family adopted it as her name. But ‘von Arnim’ became something of a thorn in her side. From the outbreak of the First World War until the midst of the Second, Mary struggled to mitigate the social awkwardness she and her children faced, living in Anglophone countries with a distinctively German surname. It seems ironic that an author whose books have such a tantalisingly autobiographical feel to them should have ended up obscured by a fictional persona.
The biography is a feast of original sources, drawing on Mary’s novels and diaries, her letters to and from her family and friends, and previous biographies written by herself and her eldest daughter. The result is an immensely detailed and thorough portrait of this extraordinary woman. Born in Australia in 1866, she moved to England with her family at a young age and enjoyed a privileged upbringing in London and Switzerland. Musically gifted and well-educated, she showed little interest in marriage until a trip to Italy brought her into contact with the Count von Arnim, whose dogged pursuit of her – and proposal atop the Duomo in Florence – is the stuff of romantic novels. But Mary’s life wasn’t destined to be a romance. She soon found that, as the Countess von Arnim, she had to tackle an autocratic husband and a social circle in Prussia which had extremely conservative notions about a wife’s duties to her family. Longing for fresh air, for nature and gardens, for love and for the freedom to write, Mary was destined to be an outsider in this world which cherished manners and protocol and correctness. For the rest of her life she would be happiest when she was away from the tiring obligations of high society: when she had the freedom to see her small circle of trusted friends and to enjoy her own little portion of nature, wherever that might be at the time.
Throughout Mary’s life runs the warp and weft of many other remarkable lives: her frail, brilliant cousin Katherine Mansfield; her children’s summer tutor, E.M. Forster; her philandering friend H.G. Wells; and her brother-in-law Bertrand Russell; not to mention the plethora of acquaintances in early 20th-century literary society. But it is always places rather than people which seem to have touched Mary’s heart most deeply. During her first marriage her spiritual home was her lovingly-tended garden at Nassenheide, while in middle-age she found solace at her sprawling Swiss chalet in Montana near Sierre, and in her later years she retreated to a cottage in Mougins in the South of France. Her diaries, like her books, testify to the sheer joy she felt in nature, and also emphasise her spirit, warmth and humour, which leap off the page.
Walker evidently adores her subject and is keen to promote her early support for women’s rights (both politically and within marriage), as well as her prescient understanding of the storm gathering over Europe in the 1930s. Yet, for all that, she’s prepared to show us Mary’s flaws as well (although these are treated indulgently: Mary is, quite understandably, the heroine of her own biography). We see her unsuitable taste in grand, domineering husbands; her equally unsuitable taste in handsome, unreliable young men; her constant restlessness; and her strange relationship with her children, who seem to have received less maternal warmth than their mother’s books enjoyed. Mary certainly seems to have got on better with dogs than people in the long run. But to read Walker’s book is to read an engaging, accessible and passionate account of a woman who deserves to be better remembered and who lived, if not a simple happy life, then at least a rich, full and ultimately satisfying one.
As a newcomer to ‘Elizabeth’, I found the book very enjoyable: Walker’s enthusiasm is infectious and I mean to seek out more of Mary’s novels. I did feel that sometimes the very thorough journey through Mary’s life – sometimes on a week-by-week basis – led to some repetition, although I’ve definitely ended up with a very strong sense of her character and lifestyle. Occasionally there are unsupported assertions about what people would have felt or thought, but that is my inner pedantic historian coming through: fresh, lively books like this get overly weighed down by too many endnotes, and Walker evidently knows her material so well that I believe she is working on the basis of proof rather than imagination.
One final thing felt a little odd to me, and that was the constant emphasis on Mary’s books being written like musical compositions. Mary was clearly a passionate musician, but I saw no firm evidence that she wrote with the intention of structuring her books like symphonies, or her descriptive passages like orchestral interludes. However, I am notoriously unmusical, while Walker evidently is very musical, so this probably just reflects my own lack of insight in this particular area. It’s a minor point. A lot of work has evidently gone into this biography and the result is, quite honestly, a book of admirable clarity and thoroughness. I applaud Walker for championing Mary and for her accomplishment – rather like the end of The Wizard of Oz – in whisking aside the curtain labelled ‘Elizabeth’ to give us a glimpse of the woman who really wielded the pen.
If you’ve read and enjoyed ‘Elizabeth’s’ books, then I would firmly recommend this as a very interesting counterbalance to the fiction. It would probably be a good idea to have read at least one or two of the novels before coming to this, if only because then you can more easily see the links between life and literature (I was surprised to find exactly how much Mary drew on her personal experiences in her fiction). Walker writes with great affection and verve and the book is always readable despite its size. Indeed, it faithfully reflects the curious mixture of hope, resignation, optimism and poignancy with which Mary lived. It’s best conveyed in a quote from her diary of 1929. It seems appropriate that she herself should have the last word:
How happy I’ve been! Inside so happy. All my unhappiness, of which I’ve had quite my share, came from people. Alone on a fine day bliss was my portion. Queer little fish.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review