(1866 – 1941)
Elizabeth von Arnim (August, 31 1866 – February 9, 1941), born Mary Annette Beauchamp, was an Australian-born British novelist. She married a German aristocrat and her best-known works are set in Germany. After her first husband’s death, she had a three-year affair with the writer H. G. Wells, then later married Frank Russell, elder brother of the Nobel prize-winning writer and philosopher Bertrand Russell. She was a cousin of the New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield. Her first marriage made her Countess von Arnim-Schlagenthin and her second Elizabeth Russell, Countess Russell. Though known in early life as May, publication of her first book introduced her to readers as Elizabeth, which she eventually became to her friends and finally even to her family. She is now known invariably as Elizabeth von Arnim. She used the pen name Alice Cholmondeley only for the novel Christine, published in 1917.
The author, nicknamed May by her family, was born at her family’s holiday home in Kirribilli Point in Sydney, Australia. She had four brothers and a sister. When she was three years old, the family moved to England, where they lived in London, but also spent several years in Switzerland. On February 21, 1891, Mary Annette (Elizabeth) married the widowed German aristocrat Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, whom she had met on a tour of Italy with her father two years earlier. They lived in Berlin initially and in 1896 moved to what was then Nassenheide, Pomerania (now Rzędziny in Poland), where the von Arnims had their family estate. The couple had four daughters and a son. Their tutors at Nassenheide included E. M. Forster, who worked there for several months in the spring and summer of 1905. From April to July 1907 the writer Hugh Walpole was their tutor.
In 1907, Count von Arnim was imprisoned for fraud, and in 1908 Elizabeth moved to London with the children. The couple did not consider this a formal separation, although the marriage had been unhappy. In 1910, financial problems meant the Nassenheide estate had to be sold; and later that year Count von Arnim died. In 1911, Elizabeth moved to Randogne, Switzerland. From 1910 until 1913, she was a mistress of the novelist H. G. Wells. Von Armin married Frank Russell, 2nd Earl Russell and elder brother of Bertrand Russell, in 1916. The marriage ended in acrimony, with the couple separating in 1919, although they never divorced. In 1920, after a one-year stay with two of her daughters in the U.S., Elizabeth returned to the European continent and spent most of the rest of her life in Switzerland and France, finally moving back to the U.S. shortly before the onset of WWII.
Von Arnim would later refer to her domineering first husband by the Biblical title the “Man of Wrath” and writing became a refuge from what turned out to be an incompatible marriage. She created her pen name “Elizabeth” and launched her career as a writer with her semi-autobiographical, brooding, yet satirical Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898). Detailing the protagonist Elizabeth’s struggles to create a garden on the estate and her attempts to integrate into German aristocratic Junker society, it was such a success that it was reprinted twenty times by May 1899, a year after its publication. A bitter-sweet memoir and companion to it was The Solitary Summer (1899). Von Arnim initially signed her books as “by the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden”; later simply as “by Elizabeth”.
Other works, such as The Benefactress (1902), The Adventures of Elizabeth on Rügen (1904), Vera (1921), and Love (1925), were also semi-autobiographical. Some of her books express her criticism of the domineering Junkertum and include witty observations of life in provincial Germany, e.g., The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905) and Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907). Although she never wrote a traditional autobiography, All the Dogs of My Life, a 1936 account of her love for her pets, contains many glimpses of her glittering social circle. Von Arnim’s 1921 novel Vera, a dark tragi-comedy drawing on her disastrous marriage to Earl Russell, was her most critically acclaimed work, described by John Middleton Murry as “Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen”. By contrast, her 1922 work, The Enchanted April, inspired by a month-long holiday to the Italian Riviera, is perhaps the lightest and most ebullient of her novels; it has repeatedly been adapted for the stage and screen and is probably the most widely read of all her work. Her 1940 novel Mr. Skeffington, finally, was made into an Academy Award-nominated feature film by Warner Bros. in 1944, starring Bette Davis and Claude Rains.
- Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898)
- The Solitary Summer (1899)
- The Benefactress (1901)
- The Ordeal of Elizabeth (1901)
– Uncompleted draft; published posthumously.
- The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen (1904)
- Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905)
- Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907)
- The Caravaners (1909)
- The Pastor’s Wife (1914)
- Christine (1917)
– Written under the pseudonym Alice Cholmondeley.
- Christopher and Columbus (1919)
- In the Mountains (1920)
- Vera (1921)
- The Enchanted April (1922)
- Love (1925)
- Introduction to Sally (1926)
- Expiation (1929)
- Father (1931)
- The Jasmine Farm (1934)
- Mr. Skeffington (1940)
- The April Baby’s Book of Tunes (1900)
- All the Dogs of My Life (1936)
Online editions of Elizabeth von Arnim’s works:
A Selection of Quotes
Elizabeth and Her German Garden
“September 15th. – This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under acacias instead of too shady beeches; of wood fires in the library in chilly evenings.”
“The passion for being for ever with one’s fellows, and the fear of being left for a few hours alone, is to me wholly incomprehensible. I can entertain myself quite well for weeks together, hardly aware, except for the pervading peace, that I have been alone at all.”
“Submission to what people call their “lot” is simply ignoble. If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don’t listen to the shriek of your relations…don’t be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbours in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.”
“Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs, – useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them.”
“Not the least of my many blessings is that we have only one neighbour. If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books, and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?”
“But while admiring my neighbour, I don’t think I shall ever try to follow in her steps, my talents not being of the energetic and organising variety, but rather of that order which makes their owner almost lamentably prone to take up a volume of poetry and wander out to where the kingcups grow, and, sitting on a willow trunk beside a little stream, forget the very existence of everything but green pastures and still waters, and the glad blowing of the wind across the joyous fields.”
“What is the use of your bothering about fists and whips and muscles and all the dreadful things invented for the confusion of obstreperous wives? You know you are a civilised husband, and a civilised husband is a creature who has ceased to be a man.
“And a civilised wife?” he asked, bringing his horse close up beside me and putting his arm round my waist, “has she ceased to be a woman?”
“I should think so indeed,–she is a goddess, and can never be worshipped and adored enough.”
“I laughed on the way home, and I laughed again for sheer satisfaction when we reached the garden and drove between the quiet trees to the pretty old house; for when I went into the library, with its four windows open to the moonlight and the scent, and looked round at the familiar bookshelves, and could hear no sounds but sounds of peace, and knew that here I might read or dream or idle exactly as I chose with never a creature to disturb me, how grateful I felt to the kindly Fate that has brought me here and given me a heart to understand my own blessedness, and rescued me from a life like that I had just seen – a life spent with the odours of other people’s dinners in one’s nostrils, and the noise of their wrangling servants in one’s ears, and parties and tattle for all amusement.”
The Solitary Summer
“What a blessing it is to love books.”
“I’m so glad I didn’t die on the various occasions I have earnestly wished I might, for I would have missed a lot of lovely weather.”
“Thoreau has been my companion for some days past, it having struck me as more appropriate to bring him out to a pond than to read him, as was hitherto my habit, on Sunday mornings in the garden. He is a person who loves the open air, and will refuse to give you much pleasure if you try to read him amid the pomp and circumstance of upholstery; but out in the sun, and especially by this pond, he is delightful, and we spend the happiest hours together, he making statements, and I either agreeing heartily, or just laughing and reserving my opinion till I shall have more ripely considered the thing.”
“Nor would I willingly miss the early darkness and the pleasant firelight tea and the long evenings among my books.”
“In the evening, when everything is tired and quiet, I sit with Walt Whitman by the rose beds and listen to what that lonely and beautiful spirit has to tell me of night, sleep, death, and the stars. This dusky, silent hour is his; and this is the time when I can best hear the beatings of that most tender and generous heart.”
“Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, ‘I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will go into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the hearth and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace.”
“In the centre of my library there is a wooden pillar propping up the ceiling, and preventing it, so I am told, from tumbling about our ears; and round this pillar, from floor to ceiling, I have had shleves fixed, and on these shelves are all the books that I have read again and again, and hope to read many times more – all the books, that is, that I love quite the best. In the bookcases round the walls are many that I love, but here in the centre of the room and easiest to get at, are those I love the best – the very elect among my favourites.”
“The Man of Wrath says all women love churchyards. He is fond of sweeping assertions, and is sometimes curiously feminine in his tendency to infer a general principle from a particular instance.”
“A man once made it a reproach that I should be so happy, and told me everybody has crosses, and that we live in a vale of woe. I mentioned moles as my principal cross, and pointed to the huge black mounds with which they had decorated the tennis–court, but I could not agree to the vale of woe, and could not be shaken in my belief that the world is a dear and lovely place, with everything in it to make us happy so long as we walk humbly and diet ourselves. He pointed out that sorrow and sickness were sure to come, and seemed quite angry with me when I suggested that they too could be borne perhaps with cheerfulness. ‘And have not even such things their sunny side?’ I exclaimed. ‘When I am steeped to the lips in diseases and doctors, I shall at least have something to talk about that interests my women friends, and need not sit as I do now wondering what I shall say next and wishing they would go.’ He replied that all around me lay misery, sin, and suffering, and that every person not absolutely blinded by selfishness must be aware of it and must realise the seriousness and tragedy of existence. I asked him whether my being miserable and discontented would help any one or make him less wretched; and he said that we all had to take up our burdens. I assured him I would not shrink from mine, though I felt secretly ashamed of it when I remembered that it was only moles, and he went away with a grave face and a shaking head, back to his wife and his eleven children. I heard soon afterwards that a twelfth baby had been born and his wife had died, and in dying had turned her face with a quite unaccountable impatience away from him and to the wall; and the rumour of his piety reached even into my garden, and how he had said, as he closed her eyes, ‘It is the Will of God.’ He was a missionary.”
The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen
“[Walking] is the perfect way of moving if you want to see into the life of things. It is the one way of freedom. If you go to a place on anything but your own feet you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.”
“There is nothing so absolutely bracing for the soul as the frequent turning of one’s back on duties.”
“‘Put out? My dear Gertrud, I have been thinking of very serious things. You cannot expect me to frolic along paths of thought that lead to mighty and unpleasant truths. Why should I always smile? I am not a Cheshire cat.’
‘I trust the gracious one will come in now and enter her bed,’ said Gertrud decidedly, who had never heard of Cheshire cats, and was sure that the mention of them indicated a brain in need of repose.”
“Oh the gloriousness of freedom and silence, of being alone with my own soul!”
How good it is to look sometimes across great spaces, to lift one’s eyes from narrowness, to feel the large silence that rests on lonely hills!
“The guide–book warmly recommends the seashore when the wind is in the east (which it was) as the quickest and firmest route from Göhren to Thiessow; but I chose rather to take the road over the plain because there was a poem in the guide–book about the way along the shore, and the guide–book said it described it extremely well, and I was sure that if that were so I would do better to go the other way. This is the poem – the translation is exact, the original being unrhymed, and the punctuation is the poet’s –
Dipping gulls –
Morning grey –
I read it, marvelled, and went the other way.”
The Enchanted April
“It is true she liked him most when he wasn’t there, but then she usually liked everybody most when they weren’t there.”
“Upon my word,” thought Mrs. Fisher, “the way one pretty face can turn a delightful man into an idiot is past all patience.”
“Steadfast as the points of the compass to Mrs. Arbuthnot were the great four facts of life: God, Husband, Home, Duty. She had gone to sleep on these facts years ago, after a period of much misery, her head resting on them as on a pillow; and she had a great dread of being awakened out of so simple and untroublesome a condition.”
“In the eighties, when she chiefly flourished, husbands were taken seriously, as the only real obstacles to sin. Beds too, if they had to be mentioned, were approached with caution; and a decent reserve prevented them and husbands ever being spoken of in the same breath.”
“That evening was the evening of the full moon. The garden was an enchanted place where all the flowers seemed white. The lilies, the daphnes, the orange–blossom, the white stocks, the white pinks, the white roses – you could see these as plainly as in the daytime; but the coloured flowers existed only as fragrance.”
“Fortunately, though she was hungry, she didn’t mind missing a meal. Life was full of meals. They took up an enormous proportion of one’s time.”
In the Mountains
“But it is impossible, I find, to tidy books without ending by sitting on the floor in the middle of a great untidiness and reading.”
Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther
“My step–mother looked at me at least once on each of these miserable days, and said: ‘Rose–Marie, you look very odd. I hope you are not going to have anything expensive. Measles are in Jena, and also the whooping–cough.’
‘Which of them is the cheapest?’ I inquired.
‘Both are beyond our means,’ said my step–mother severely.”
The Pastor’s Wife
“Her family held strongly that for daughters to read in the daytime was to be idle. Well, if it was, thought Ingeborg lifting her head, that head that drooped so apologetically at home, with the defiance that distance encourages, then being idle was a blessed thing and the sooner one got away to where one could be it, uninterruptedly, the better.”
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