The Benefactress by the author of “Elizabeth and her German Garden” (1901)

This month one of our reading groups is reading Elizabeth von Arnim novels. I might as well lay my cards on the table and say that she is one of my favourite novelists! I was delighted when we received a donation of many first and early editions of her novels, giving me an excuse for a von Arnim themed reading group.

This is looking like a very good year for von Arnim: there are three books about her out this year. My book Comedy and the Feminine Middlebrow Novel: Elizabeth von Arnim and Elizabeth Taylor, then Isobel Maddison’s Elizabeth von Arnim: Beyond the German Garden, and finally Jennifer Walker’s Elizabeth of the German Garden: A Literary Journey. I hope these books encourage many more people to read von Arnim and to appreciate what an exceptional writer she was.

Though we now know her as ‘Elizabeth von Arnim’, in her lifetime she never published under this name. After her first, anonymous, success Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898) her novels were credited ‘by the author of “Elizabeth and her German Garden”‘.  Her real name was Mary Annette Beauchamp, and after her marriage, Mary von Arnim.

In publishing anonymously Elizabeth (as I think we’re going to call her) was not terribly unusual. Her husband, the German aristocrat Graf Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin (ha! no wonder she went with ‘Elizabeth’) did not approve of his wife writing novels, so to save public embarassment Elizabeth followed in the 19th century aristocratic tradition of publishing anonymously.

However, it does then become a little odd. Elizabeth and her German Garden, though clearly autobiographical, was still a novel, but Mary von Arnim became so identified with it that it became her literary brand; reviewers referred to her as Elizabeth, and more oddly she began to go by this name in her personal life too. By around 1910 she was signing her letters ‘Elizabeth von Arnim’.

Elizabeth was a hugely popular writer, and unlike many who appear on this blog, is not forgotten today. Thanks to Virago Press, who started reprinting her back in the 1980s, she still has a loyal following.

If you know her work well, are you a late Elizabeth fan, or an early? For the conclusion I have come to after reading The Benefactress – not one of the novels Virago chose to reprint – is that her early work is just too charming for me.

The Benefactress is the story of Anna Estcourt. Aged twenty-five, ‘she was an exceedingly pretty girl, who ought to have been enjoying herself’, but instead ‘she wasted her time in that foolish pondering over the puzzles of existence, over those unanswerable whys and wheretofores, which is as a rule restricted, among women, to the elderly and plain.’ (1)

This is classic von Arnim territory: a female heroine who thinks, and reads, and a narrative that wittily explores the problems and possibilities of freedom for women. Anna is sadly dependent as the book begins – she is from a good family, but has no money, so her purpose in life is to get married. Alas  ‘she was of an independent nature; and an independent nature, where there is no money, is a great nuisance to its possessor’ (2).

Anna’s elder brother Peter has married money – the impatient and practical Susie Dobbs of Birmingham – who is most anxious to get Anna off her hands. Von Arnim can be very cutting about ‘new money’. The little portrait of the marriage of Peter and Susie seems sympathetic: ‘it was hard on Susie that he should become a philosopher at her expense’, but really von Arnim’s sympathy is clearly with Peter. Susie is a stereotypical person who has come from trade, with ‘natural shrewdness and common sense’ but no ‘appreciation of abstract wisdom’ (7) Anna pities her as a ‘forlorn little woman, taken out of her proper sphere, and left to shiver all alone’ (11).

Von Arnim’s first novel Elizabeth and her German Garden was highly autobiographical, being based on her time living at her husband’s country estate in Pomerania (von Arnim much preferred to live here, rather than in Berlin), and many of her early novels have German settings or connections. In The Benefactress Anna and Peter have a German mother, and through her Anna has a German uncle who will set her free.

Uncle Joachim, who does not remotely approve of independence for women, nevertheless leaves Anna a ‘small estate near Stralsund’ in Germany. Anna is to go and live there, and hopefully acquire a good German husband. Anna, of course, has other plans and decides that she must share her good fortune with other women who are suffering dependence as she did.

Thus Anna becomes ‘the benefactress’. Anna reckons that twelve dejected ladies could be made happy at Straslund with her:

Instead of going to see poor people, and giving them money in the ordinary way, it would be so much better to let women of the better classes, who have no money, and who are dependent and miserable, come and live with me and share mine, and have everything that I have … wouldn’t it be beautiful to make twelve people, who have lost all hope and all courage, happy for the rest of their days? (105-6)

Crucially, Anna decides to help ‘ladies’ – middle and upper class women like her who cannot respectably go out and find work, but instead remain trapped, bored and dependent on their families. It’s a subject close to von Arnim’s heart and one that she returns to again and again (Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905) and The Enchanted April (1922) for example).

This is a comedy, so of course things do not go according to plan. Just like the ladies in The Enchanted April, the mere three ladies Anna finds to come and live with her do not get on at all! And, in common with The Enchanted April, class incompatibilities are the root of the problem. Anna makes endless faux pas through her failure to understand the intricacies of the German class system. Also of great disappoint to Anna is the fact that none of her ladies have any interest in literature. As Fraulein Kuhrauber declares ‘I read only useful books’.

Von Arnim’s books are interesting for the way that they constantly explore how women’s lives are constrained by society – femininity is always wittily exposed as a performance rather than anything innate – within the form of a  romantic comedy. Anna gets married at the end of this novel, and it is satisfyingly done. Cleverly, the reader gets to enjoy both the critique of the romance plot and the romance plot itself!

However, I enjoy von Arnim’s later novels, from The Pastor’s Wife (1914) onwards. This is when von Arnim’s edge, it my opinion, gets satisfyingly sharp.

Beverley Nichols wrote in 1926: ‘When one meets her, inevitably she suggests Dresden China, with her tiny voice, tiny hands, tiny face, tiny manners. And then suddenly, with a shock, you realize that the Dresden China is hollow, and is filled with gunpowder.’ See the full Nichols post here.

23 thoughts on “The Benefactress by the author of “Elizabeth and her German Garden” (1901)

  1. I’ve just started on Elizabeth and Her German Garden and I think I’m the last in my family to read her work. I found it a surprise as I was expecting a novel in the traditional sense. But her humour and powers of observation quickly won me over. I look forward to reading more of her novels. Also pleased that there are books being published about her. From the little I know of her, she was a fascinating character, capable of incredible rudeness and charm in equal measures.

    • I do hope you keep reading – I think she gets funnier as she goes on. Yes, I think both her charm and her rudeness were legendary! In one of my earlier posts there was an account by Beverley Nichols of meeting her. (I’ll add a link.) I think she was rather terrifying.

  2. I’m currently halfway through Mr Skeffington (which I only just found out was written by Arnim) and am loving it – I have read very negative reviews of the book but I can’t really see why so far…..

    • Oh, that’s interesting; I will have a look for these negative reviews. I can’t really see why either! I thought Mr Skeffington was a particularly interesting book. It’s her last and she really struggled with the writing of it – you can see the horrors of the second world war intruding into her usual romantic comedy form, and as such it is rather unstable. But still a good novel, I would say. Lots of black humour and very funny.

  3. I’m about to read my first EvA this month (Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther) but I feel like I almost know her already via anecdotes from W Somerset Maugham’s essays and mentions of her in other people’s biographies… but by the sounds of it I know later, sharper EvA rather than earlier, charming EvA. I’m rather looking forward to seeing the contrast!

  4. I’ve been reading EVA for a few years now since discovering Enchanted April. I read The Benefactress a few months ago & enjoyed it but not as much as the German Garden & Vera. I have several others on the tbr shelf & I’m looking forward to reading them. Also looking forward to more EVA reviews here.

  5. Just a quick note on ‘Elizabeth’! The name will always be a problem, but actually I think she quite deliberately created this ‘persona’ when she wrote. ‘Elizabeth’ was never identical with Mary Arnim, as I try to explain in the course of my book. Also, I hear on good authority from the present family, that the Count von Arnim, far from disapproving of his wife’s writing, was actually rather proud of her achievement (but he didn’t live long enough to see the best…).

      • Great to hear this Erica! Interesting to read your comments on her early novel, The Benefactress, and comparison with the later The Enchanted April. Some similarities had struck me too, but it is worth noting that, in the latter (much more sophisticated) novel, the four women end up becoming good friends despite differences in their education, age and class. Sign of the times in the 1920s?

  6. Yes, good point. In The Benefactress the inability of Anna and Susie to get along is portrayed as based in class differences, and then the inability of the German women to get along is portrayed as characteristic of their hierarchical Germanness. It would be rather depressing to the think that von Arnim couldn’t imagine different people finding common ground, so I’m glad The Enchanted April is different.

  7. Hi, It’s great to hear you are having a von Arnim reading group, Erika. There should be more of those! I’ve just received a review copy of your new biography, Jennifer(Hello, by the way, I don’t think we have met), and will start tonight. Very excited! I have always wondered how fragile and difficult the bonds between women are particularly the early novels. Even in some of the later novels where the leading men are either absent or not very strong, they remain the driving force for what is happening to the female characters…

    • Hi Juliane! I’m really pleased you’ve received a copy of the biography! I’m most interested in your comment re. the ‘absentee’ male characters in the novels; I’ve always thought of them as remaining ‘off-stage’ for long periods, and then often they eventually appear, and altering events or the outcome. I do hope you’ll like the book.

  8. I’ve just done a quick check on Google Trends. Elizabeth von Arnim is having a good 2013. There’s been a rise in interest since June 30th, which fits in nicely with blogs and book releases related to her. Let’s keep up the momentum folks! Any takers for an illustrated book – water colours of course – on her garden as described in the novel?

    • This is excellent news! Can’t second you on the illustrated garden book though – I just couldn’t get that interested in the garden. Others may disagree…

    • There’s a lovely 1906 Macmillan edition of Elizabeth and her German Garden, with 16 illustrations (not all of the garden itself) by Simon Harmon Vedder… It’d be an interesting project to produce an accurately illustrated book based on the flowers so carefully named in the book – but how about an actual garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower show – ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’?

      • What a great idea! It could follow the garden through the seasons as described in the book. I wonder if we could get Maggie Smith to read excerpts from the novel seated in the garden?

  9. I think that would be wonderful – endless possibilities, especially involving the roses and the sundial, and maybe the 3 ‘babies’. All we need is a garden designer who’d want to take on such a project, and a bit of funding! The lovely Kate Greenaway illustrations to The April Baby’s Book of Tunes could also help.

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