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.