Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
Elizabeth von Arnim has proved to be a fascinating subject for biographer Joyce Morgan. A woman who deliberately created a mystique around her literary identity, the Countess was born Mary Beauchamp in Sydney in 1866, but lived most of her life in England, Germany, Switzerland, France and the USA.
She wrote prolifically, beginning with her Elizabeth and her German Garden published in 1896 whilst she was living at the family estate Nassenheide, and penned during her first marriage to Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagethin. The interesting thing about the work, apart from her insistence on anonymous authorship, is that it not only extolled the virtues of nature but was also a satirical observation of German people and society.
Thereafter many of her works were acerbic in their wit and merciless in their portrayal of negative aspects of the lives of women of the time – childbirth, motherhood, domestic abuse. Interestingly too, she also wrote the romantic rosy-hued The Enchanted April in 1922, a novel which has been twice made into a film. She drew upon her experiences and the many types who populated her social world to create the stories and characters for her more than twenty published works.
Following the death of Henning, Elizabeth married Second Earl Frank Russell, brother of the now more famous Bertram. The marriage was tumultuous and finally ended in separation in 1919. Most relationships for Elizabeth appear to have been fraught, whether it was with her children, friends or lovers, but her writing continued unabated despite upheavals, moves and two world wars. Her connections with Germany and England provided their own difficulties.
While her work is not widely known or read today, she received much positive critical acclaim at the time and over the last thirty odd years, British publisher Virago has been reprinting her novels, deemed by many commentators to be ‘feminist’.
Joyce Morgan’s biography of Elizabeth con Arnim is an absorbing read. The author paints not only a portrait of a woman of many contrasts and contradictions, but also a view of the time. The doings of the aristocracies of both Germany and England continue to garner public interest and of course Countess Russell, as she became, was a source of great curiosity from the press of the time.
Much of what was written had to be based upon speculation and a bit of detective work, because the Countess determinedly managed her own image, ducking interviews and media photographs, feeding her story to the public as it suited.
The author has given us a rich and detailed account of this enigmatic literary figure, one who really wanted to be left alone to write just as much as she wanted to be part of the upper-class glitterati in London. Elizabeth’s circle included many well-known figures including HG Wells, Bertrand Russell, Katherine Mansfield, E.M. Forster, Somerset Maughan and publisher Alexander Stuart Frere. What a breath-taking entourage and what a time to be alive!
This book is a treat for those interested in literary figures but also for students of European history of the early twentieth century. Thoroughly researched, written in an approachable style and full of interesting, deftly delivered information – the minutiae and the grand, The Countess of Kirribilli is a welcome addition to our store of knowledge about the writers, society and ideas to emerge in this volatile time.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Joyce for such an interesting conversation.