THE COUNTESS FROM KIRRIBILLI
By Joyce Morgan
Allen & Unwin 2021
ISBN: 978 01 76087 517 6
RRP: $32.99 (PB)
Reviewed by Anne Henderson
She authored some twenty novels, a memoir entitled All The Dogs of My Life and a children’s book called The April Baby’s Book of Tunes. As to her name – take your pick from Mary (May) Beauchamp, Countess (Mary) von Arnim-Schlagenthin, a mysterious “Elizabeth” (no surname), Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth Russell, Countess Russell or Alice Cholmondeley, a pen name she used for her 1917 novel Christine. In time, the literary world would accept her as simply Elizabeth von Arnim.
The cover of Joyce Morgan’s recently released new biography of Von Arnim, The Countess From Kirribilli, tells us the book will open up on “the mysterious and free-spirited literary sensation who beguiled the world”. Morgan’s title is easy on the ear and a drawcard for Sydney readers but what follows is mostly a long way from its southern hemisphere origins, as Elizabeth von Arnim’s life and art has very little, even nothing, of Australia in it.
Title aside, however, in this thoroughly researched trek through the real life of Elizabeth von Arnim, Morgan has scripted a work of non-fiction as absorbing and entertaining as any of the subject’s novels. When von Arnim’s most critically acclaimed work Vera – which sprang from the cruelty and darkness of her second marriage – to Frank Russell, older brother of Bertram Russell and the one with the title – provoked mixed reviews after publication in 1921, writer John Middleton Murray told her, “[M]y dear, when critics are faced with a Wuthering Heights written by Jane Austen, they don’t know what to say.”
Elizabeth von Arnim may have begun in the straitjacket of a middle class Anglo Victorian family but through her two marriages and life as a merry widow with various lovers, in between and beyond, along with her talent as a writer and social hostess, she clocked up an eclectic array of experiences that fed her art. Her fiction, a mixture of ascerbic, acute and humourous insights coming from her own life, challenged contemporary social norms and pierced conventional thinking on a host of subjects – relationships, social customs, patriarchy, the place of women, the pains of child bearing, Germanic consciousness, the complexities of older women and much more.
In a life lived around a variety of aliases, biographical accounts of Elizabeth von Arnim have long recorded inaccurate details about who she was and where she came from. Joyce Morgan sets the record straight. Von Arnim was born in Australia at Kirribilli Point and not in New Zealand where her cousin once removed – writer Kathleen Mansfield (nee Beauchamp) – had been born. Mansfield was the daughter of Elizabeth’s cousin Henry, son of her father’s brother Arthur Beauchamp. But while the Beauchamps in New Zealand remained there and prospered, Elizabeth’s merchant father Henry Beauchamp was a restless soul and when Elizabeth was aged three, in early 1870, Henry sold up and took his wife, two daughters and four sons abroad for a year in Europe with Frederick Lassetter and his family. Frederick Lassetter was one of Sydney’s wealthiest merchants and the brother of Elizabeth’s mother Louey. After their year travelling the continent, the Beauchamps settled in Henry’s native England and Henry made trips back to Sydney and New Zealand to settle his financial affairs. In time, Elizabeth von Arnim would have few, if any, recollections of her Australian beginnings.
Life for the Beauchamps in England followed the patterns of the successful middle class and whatever Henry’s occasional worries about his investments he continued to provide his family with comfort and connections. Aged 16, Elizabeth’s older sister Charlotte became engaged to George Waterlow, son of Sir Sydney and Lady Waterlow who had become close to Henry and Louey. London born Henry had extended family there and Elizabeth (then called May) grew up with good family connections and a broad formal education, eventually studying at the newly formed Royal College of Music. Her coming of age marked her out as a desirable match for the right young man.
It would not, however, be a well connected young man who won Henry Beauchamp’s youngest daughter’s hand. In early 1889, on a trip with her father to Rome to further her musical education and also, as Morgan suggests, in the hope that she would find a suitable husband, Elizabeth caught the eye of the much older widower Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin. They were married in London in February 1891. Having waved his daughter off to a life as a countess in Berlin, Henry could not have imagined how the world she was to join would in time launch her on a career as a best selling and globally recognised author. Life as the wife of an older and aristocratic husband, one used to dominating his domain, quickly brought on a succession of babies – alas all girls – until a fifth child would be born as son and heir.
Morgan’s account of Elizabeth’s years of child bearing and learning to live with her domineering husband while frank about its strains are somewhat summary. There are references to their arguments and even a record of his hitting her. There are hints that Elizabeth (Mary/May) is developing a sense that she wants to write. For all that, it is something of a surprise to discover that, suddenly, she has produced a book. With her escape from Berlin to a more relaxed country estate for her and the children, Henning seems to make visits rather than reside there. And with carers for the children, this has allowed the Countess the time she needs to write. Writing came naturally to her – it was nothing for her, over the years, to write 30 letters a day.
The book would be called Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Written in the style of a journal, with the diarist’s garden as her escape, the author ranges across her daily and seasonal experiences in a country house with staff, visitors and neighbours, making fun of the absurd and showing a critical eye at life’s anomalies. As Morgan records of von Arnim, “Her journals of the time provide an unvarnished basis for the book. [Her] books were invariably semi-autobiographical; she mined her life for the raw material from which she constructed situations, characters and incidents.” It was a style that she would claim came from her father in his journals – what she called the “Beauchamp waggishness” – when once explaining it to Bertrand Russell.
In Elizabeth and Her German Garden, published in 1898, the diarist is happiest outdoors, her husband is referred to as the Man of Wrath and the garden is her escape from inside where there are arguments, duty and fuss. The garden is a parallel universe of life, something of an arcadia. Henning disapproved of parts of the manuscript when given it to read. This undoubtedly was one of the reasons his wife did not reveal herself as its author when a publisher accepted it. It would lead to years of guesswork as the book became a best seller and was the source of Mary von Arnim’s identity as “Elizabeth”. She also insisted the book not be translated into German no doubt because its details might easily reveal who she was and the caricatures (insults?) she had created of those she knew.
Through the mystery and chatter of who might be the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, the unnamed real Elizabeth was gaining attention. She continued to write and produced The Solitary Summer the following year. In September 1902, in an article for The Pall Mall Magazine the identity of the mysterious Elizabeth was finally revealed. By this time, the countess was well on her way to an acclaimed literary career.
Elizabeth von Arnim’s middle class connections and aristocratic marriage cannot be dismissed in the management of her career. While, like so many women of her class and generation, she was aware her main purpose was to keep house for her husband and provide an heir, Henry Beauchamp’s daughter was a determined free spirit. She managed around her husband’s strictures in artful ways, even his brief time in prison over a financial scandal, with the help of servants and tutors for her children, one of whom was a young E M Forster. With the arrival of a son, she returned from London where she had given birth and, as Morgan writes, “placed him under the Christmas tree to present him to his excited sisters”. It might also have been a message to her dominant husband. “Otherwise,” continues Morgan, she showed only tepid interest in the newborn.”
Widowed in 1910 after Henning’s death, Elizabeth had by then long decamped from her country estate in Pomerania. Her life as a writer saw her move into English literary circles where she became one of HG Wells’ many lovers. She went on to endure the dark folly of marriage to Frank Russell which left her nonetheless with a title. She enjoyed time as the lover of the much younger publisher Alex Frere and escaped Europe for the US during the Second World War albeit after being forced to leave her daughter Trix in Germany where Trix would spend six months in a concentration camp towards the end of the war.
Elizabeth’s Chalet Soleil (set on 12 acres, with 16 bedrooms and four bathrooms as well as attic rooms for servants) in Switzerland for years hosted visitors and parties to the point where Elizabeth would leave the guests to their merriment while she worked in quiet below in a smaller chalet. Her social circle included a host of the most reputable society and literary names. All the while Elizabeth von Arnim would produce a new book every year or two, travelling England and the Continent and using her coterie of acquaintances as material for her output. Reviews continued to favour her. At a time when books made money, she lived a comfortable life.
There is a lot of detail in Morgan’s account of Elizabeth von Arnim’s experience packed life story. What is hard to gain is a feeling for her style of writing and the reason her books were so popular. Perhaps, unlike Jane Austen, the settings of her characters are not so universal and the wit not so easy to convey. What does come through in Morgan’s account is the mercurial personality of von Arnim. The writer and composer Beverley Nicholls summed up von Arnim saying, “When one meets her, inevitably she suggests Dresden China, with her tiny voice, tiny hands, tiny manners. And then suddenly, with a shock, you realise that the Dresden China is hollow and is filled with gunpowder.”
Katherine Mansfield, whose feelings for her cousin ran hot and cold, partly because they were so very different, wrote a withering description of Elizabeth to Ottoline Morrell: “I keep thinking of Elizabeth’s hands … Tiny and white covered with large pointed rings. Little pale parasites, creeping towards the thin bread and butter as it were the natural food.” On another occasion she described Elizabeth as “a bundle of artificialities”. And after Elizabeth had referred to Mansfield’s recently published piece “At the Bay” as a “pretty little story”, Katherine had picked up her pen and written another short story titled “A Cup of Tea” – a brilliant caricature of her wealthy cousin. For all that, Katherine Mansfield recognised her cousin’s success and capacity for hard work and they ended up friends. Elizabeth often had that effect. And as the details of her relationships – successful and not – are unravelled, something of the flair she must have had for caustic honesty and a sardonic eye comes through.
Perhaps the most telling illustration of von Arnim’s mixture of playfulness and genuine engagement was in her reactions to Virginia Woolfe’s A Room of One’s Own. Under the cover of a male pen name, Oliver Way, von Arnim wrote a review of A Room of One’s Own for the journal The Graphic. Morgan writes:
The review was scathing of the premise of the seminal feminist essay – that, in order to write, a woman needed £500 a year and a room of her own. Elizabeth [as Oliver Way] disagreed. “’Rooms don’t make writers. Streets full of rooms of their own won’t turn women into poets.”
But as the review went on, the idea that von Arnim was penning her own opinions is hard to accept. She seems instead to be parodying the bias of the dominant male. Offering, under the guise of a male persona, views that women should be content to give birth, that the only time Shakespeare was born he was a man, that women were like taxis and meant to carry passengers and that Cambridge women’s colleges should be termed “footstools of learning” since they were not big enough to be called “seats”, rather suggests that von Arnim was sending up the essay’s critics. Especially as she had always admired Woolfe’s writing and had written to her daughter that since the publication of A Room of One’s Own, there had been no book worth getting excited about.
Joyce Morgan’s The Countess of Kirribilli achieves its goal – it certainly unlocks many secrets of the von Arnim literary sensation. The woman Morgan reveals did not achieve her success simply by chance or advantage. Undoubtedly, she had a gift for story-telling but Elizabeth von Arnim was also a woman who grabbed at life’s opportunities and gave them her all – the sort of woman who when told she needed a break found “the idea of doing nothing for a few weeks appalled her”.
Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.