Elizabeth von Arnim

ElizabethFew celebrities acquire enough fame to be known by their first names alone, and it is more impressive still when that name is a common one. Yet Elizabeth von Arnim, an Australian-born British woman who married a German aristocrat, achieved this feat with her first book, a memoir of life on a lonely estate called Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898). She was thirty-two when this book was published; over the course of her varied life she wrote twenty more. One can still find them, in libraries with older editions, under the simple listing of “Elizabeth.”

Oddly enough, Elizabeth was not her name. She was christened Mary Annette Beauchamp in Sydney in 1866, and throughout her youth everyone called her May. Her family was large: she had five older siblings and an honorary sixth in the form of an adopted cousin. When she was five years old her parents moved the whole clan to England, the birthplace of her merchant father, and after settling in they divided their time between London and Switzerland, always May’s favorite country. In 1889, after a prolonged and happy childhood, twenty-three-year-old May went on a trip to Europe with her father. In Rome she met a German nobleman, Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, who was fifteen years older than she was. Despite their differences in age and character—the Count was imperious and short-tempered—May decided to marry him, and two years later she did so, moving at once to Germany. The end of her childhood was decisive and absolute.

Their marriage was not a happy one. May—who now took to calling herself Elizabeth—found the isolation of Germany, both cultural and geographical, nearly unbearable. The Count compounded her loneliness by insisting that they stay at Nassenheide, his remote country estate in Pomerania (located in modern-day Poland). Elizabeth had three daughters, but they did not give her the solace she needed to blot out her unhappiness. In Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898), which she wrote after seven years of marriage, she extols not her children but the gardens of the estate as her foremost comfort. The book is written in the form of a diary and has no plot to speak of; one can easily believe that it is Elizabeth’s real journal, lightly polished for publication. Chillingly, she refers to her husband exclusively as “the Man of Wrath,” a commentary on her marriage that is all the more unsettling for being almost the only reference she makes to her relationship with him. The book focuses predominantly on the annual pageant of her garden: she writes lyrically, though always with a wry undertone, of flowers, gardeners, the serenity she feels when surrounded by plants. Occasionally she describes eccentric German guests who descend on the estate. German GardenIn this book and its sequel, The Solitary Summer (1899), Elizabeth reacts to all these guests with the same fervent desire that they leave her alone. The character she gives herself is far from explicitly unhappy: she seems resolute, energetic, humorous. But there is a distance in her personality as well; the reader, though drawn in some ways into the intimate routine of her life, still sees her through a barrier. She refers to her daughters simply as “the April baby,” “the May baby,” and “the June baby.” Though they crop up every so often in the narrative, usually as the butt of gentle mockery, one often forgets that Elizabeth has children at all. Her reticence underlines her insistence on privacy. The two books made her famous, but Elizabeth gave little away in these engaging, cryptic memoirs.

The last decade of the von Arnim marriage was filled with incident: Elizabeth had two more children and hired several illustrious tutors, including Hugh Walpole and a young E. M. Forster. The Count’s debts mounted, and his character grew yet more unpleasant: he spent a brief period imprisoned for fraud. In 1908 Elizabeth and her children moved to England, without the Count, who finally died in 1910. By then Elizabeth had remade her life entirely: that year one of her plays, Priscilla Runs Away, achieved enormous success at the Haymarket Theatre in London. She was a popular and respected figure in English society, despite the fact that, once widowed, she built herself an estate—the significantly named Château Soleil (Castle Sunshine)—in Valeil, Switzerland. Undaunted, her admirers came to her. One was her cousin, the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield; another was H. G. Wells, who carried on an affair with Elizabeth for three years.

In 1914 Elizabeth fell in love with the second Earl Russell, Bertrand Russell’s brother. The couple retreated with her children from Switzerland to England after the outbreak of war, and in 1916 they married; Elizabeth now gained yet another name as the Countess Russell. But this second marriage turned sour almost immediately. Elizabeth hurried away to America, came back a year later to give the Earl a second chance, and abandoned him altogether in 1919. Even then her willingness to take risks survived. Now in her fifties, she dove into an affair with the future publisher Alexander Stuart Frere (known, in contrast to Elizabeth, by his surname alone), who was thirty years younger than she was. The affair inspired her novel Love (1925), a comic though resolutely honest portrayal of an unconventional relationship. For the next twenty years, she lived in London, at Château Soleil, and on a French estate, Le Mas des Roses (The House of Roses), near Cannes: her penchant for residences with extensive gardens persisted throughout her life. In 1939, again fleeing imminent war, she went to South Carolina, and there, two years later, she died, age seventy-four.

It is no surprise that several of Elizabeth’s novels focus on unhappy marriages. Years after describing “the Man of Wrath,” she wrote Vera (1921), an unrelenting study of a domineering, egotistical husband modeled on Earl Russell. Some critics consider Vera to be her masterpiece, but it lacks the humor and optimism of many of her other books, and her refusal to give either its heroine or its readers any relief, while all too probably stemming from her own experience, makes it a difficult novel to read.

Elizabeth’s most enjoyable book, and arguably her best, is The Enchanted April (1922), published the year after Vera. One cannot help thinking that she wrote it as an antidote to her previous novel’s unremitting gloom, for The Enchanted April is a glorious, unapologetic celebration of love and friendship, a clarion call to pursue happiness without hesitation or hypocrisy. While on some levels a fairy tale, complete with a castle in Italy called San Salvatore, the book is rooted in the mundane details of everyday life, and the story’s enchantment arises not from magical forces but from natural beauty and the personalities of the protagonists.

Lotty Wilkins, a woman as ordinary as her name, has trudged through a dreary marriage in London for five years. She is uncouth, inarticulate, and full of ridiculous ideas. When she sees an advertisement for a month-long vacation at an Italian castle, she bullies a total stranger, Rose Arbuthnot, into renting the castle with her, lies about her plans to her dense husband, and places an advertisement of her own for two more women to help with the rent. Rose, unlike Lotty, has buried her marital unhappiness in unceasing charitable work; she grimly cultivates goodness to forget the misery of her failed marriage. The final two women complete Elizabeth’s study in contrasts: the first is a young aristocrat named Lady Caroline Dester, known to her family (and to the reader) as Scrap, whose beauty is so extreme that it has deprived her of all solitude; the second is Mrs. Fisher, an elderly widow who pushes away loneliness by despising everyone not acquainted, as she is, with Tennyson, Carlyle, and other long-dead Victorian giants.

With these four women, Elizabeth introduces both the heroines of her fairy tale and the threats to its enchantment. Mrs. Fisher and Scrap want to be alone; in their minds—at least at first—the other women are merely intrusive irritants. Rose is affected by the change of scene, but she finds the reawakening of her feelings for her irreligious husband immensely painful. Only Lotty, the maladroit motivator for this bizarre gathering, yields at once to San Salvatore’s delights. Twenty-four years after writing Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth believed just as strongly in the power of botanical beauty to transform lives: Lotty takes one look at the abundant gardens of the Italian castle, and her unhappiness melts away. She becomes an insistent evangelist for love, willing to give up even her hard-won month of independence for the sake of a romantic reunion with her husband. Her rhapsodies would be insufferably sentimental if Elizabeth were not aware of this danger: as the omniscient narrator she dips into each character’s mind, and whenever the reader is recoiling from one of Lotty’s saccharine outbursts, Mrs. Fisher steps in with acid thoughts about her vulgarity. What saves the book from being cloying—and ultimately allows the reader to accept and believe in Lotty’s flood of love—is that the other characters’ emotions are presented with just as much fervor and frankness: Rose’s discomfort with Lotty’s openness and her annoyance at Mrs. Fisher’s presumptions are given their full due; Scrap’s exquisite appearance, described at length, is balanced by her tortured yearning for everyone to go away and stop staring at her.

What saves the novel, in other words, is Elizabeth’s own distance—the combination of passion and detachment that she used in all her best books and relied on to carry her through sadness and isolation. The mixture is most evident in the witty sophistication of her prose: complex sentences are followed by short, startlingly candid declarations; fulsome descriptions of San Salvatore alternate with hilariously acerbic comments from Mrs. Fisher or from the narrator herself. The contrast can also be seen within the story: eventually the two absent husbands arrive at the castle, drawn—in Lotty’s eyes—by the power of San Salvatore and their wives’ love. But while Lotty is rejoicing in her husband’s unexpected devotion to her, he is marveling at his wife’s unexpected business acumen: she has found a way to introduce him to Lady Caroline Dester! When Rose’s husband shows up, hot on Scrap’s trail and eager to continue his adulterous flirtation with her, Rose believes that he has answered her own shy invitation; she soars into an ecstasy that he plays along with out of sheer embarrassment. Elizabeth thus acknowledges the part that delusion plays in all happiness—but, typically for this unconventional writer, she endorses the delusions as much as the happiness itself. In The Enchanted April, a book about what ought to be as much as what is, fantasies become real in the face of the unmistakable joy they bring—and so San Salvatore offers a fairy-tale ending after all.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the novel, vividly conveying the drab melancholy in which the story starts:

It began in a Woman’s Club in London on a February afternoon—an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon—when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this: “To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.” That was its conception; yet, as in the case of many another, the conceiver was unaware of it at the moment.
So entirely unaware was Mrs. Wilkins that her April for that year had then and there been settled for her that she dropped the newspaper with a gesture that was both irritated and resigned, and went over to the window and stared drearily out at the dripping street.
Not for her were mediaeval castles, even those that are specially described as small. Not for her the shores in April of the Mediterranean, and the wistaria and sunshine. Such delights were only for the rich. Yet the advertisement had been addressed to persons who appreciate these things, so that it had been, anyhow, addressed too to her, for she certainly appreciated them; more than anybody knew; more than she had ever told. But she was poor. In the whole world she possessed of her very own only ninety pounds, saved from year to year, put by carefully pound by pound, out of her dress allowance. She had scraped this sum together at the suggestion of her husband as a shield and refuge against a rainy day. Her dress allowance, given her by her father, was £100 a year, so that Mrs. Wilkins’s clothes were what her husband, urging her to save, called modest and becoming, and her acquaintance to each other, when they spoke of her at all, which was seldom for she was very negligible, called a perfect sight.
Mr. Wilkins, a solicitor, encouraged thrift, except that branch of it which got into his food. He did not call that thrift, he called it bad housekeeping. But for the thrift which, like moth, penetrated into Mrs. Wilkins’s clothes and spoilt them, he had much praise. “You never know,” he said, “when there will be a rainy day, and you may be very glad to find you have a nest-egg. Indeed we both may.”
Looking out of the club window into Shaftesbury Avenue—hers was an economical club, but convenient for Hampstead, where she lived, and for Shoolbred’s, where she shopped—Mrs. Wilkins, having stood there some time very drearily, her mind’s eye on the Mediterranean in April, and the wistaria, and the enviable opportunities of the rich, while her bodily eye watched the really extremely horrible sooty rain falling steadily on the hurrying umbrellas and splashing omnibuses, suddenly wondered whether perhaps this was not the rainy day Mellersh—Mellersh was Mr. Wilkins—had so often encouraged her to prepare for, and whether to get out of such a climate and into the small mediaeval castle wasn’t perhaps what Providence had all along intended her to do with her savings. Part of her savings, of course; perhaps quite a small part. The castle, being mediaeval, might also be dilapidated, and dilapidations were surely cheap. She wouldn’t in the least mind a few of them, because you didn’t pay for dilapidations which were already there; on the contrary—by reducing the price you had to pay they really paid you. But what nonsense to think of it.

Nonsense, and yet she does think of it—and then seizes the opportunity, renting the castle in spite of her repressive husband and paltry savings. This is Elizabeth’s message, delivered effusively but with irresistible panache: to reach out for happiness with whatever tool comes to hand, no matter how unlikely it may be—an Italian castle, a young lover, or even a memoir about a German garden.

Learn more about Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels on Amazon and Goodreads.