Elizabeth von Arnim

elizabeth von arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim (August 31, 1866 – February 9, 1941) was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Sydney, Australia. A prolific writer, she was best known for The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and her German Garden, though Vera has arguably been considered her masterwork.

When she was young, her parents moved their family to London, and it was there and in Switzerland that she enjoyed a privileged upbringing and education. A rather shy child in the midst of a brood of siblings, she early on became an avid reader, and also showed precocious musical ability.

On a trip to Italy with her father in 1889 at age 23, she met the Prussian nobleman Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin. Her interest in him was tepid, but was eventually worn down by his persistence. After their marriage in 1891 she became the Countess von Arnim. The couple moved to Berlin and later to the Count’s rundown estate in Pomerania. During this time, they had four daughters and a son.

From the start, Elizabeth crossed paths with many literary notables. She was a cousin of Katherine Mansfield; E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole tutored her children.

Count von Arnim was a domineering husband. Their social milieu insisted on rigid rules about a woman’s role in the family and society. Countess von Arnim later dubbed her husband “The Man of Wrath.” Apparently motherhood didn’t suit her much better. She developed an affinity for nature and gardens, and writing became a refuge for her — an escape from her stultifying marriage and duties.

Elizabeth’s identity was, perhaps unwillingly as a wife, mother, and countess. Yet she managed to produce the semi-autobiographical debut novel, Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898) using “Elizabeth” without a surname. Thus, Mary became Elizabeth, her literary persona, and from that point, she gradually became known to her friends and even her family by that name. It was an instant success, reprinted twenty times in its first year. This book’s success was followed with a regular output of  quietly (and sometimes subversively) feminist novels and memoirs; she continued publishing them simply as “Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth and her German Garden

Elizabeth endured Count von Arnim until his death in 1910, upon which she moved back to Switzerland. Her literary output earned her a number of prominent admirers, not the least of which was H.G. Wells, with whom she had a three-year affair. Shortly after it ended, she embarked on a whirlwind courtship with John Francis Stanley Russell, an Earl, and they wed rather in haste. When the couple moved back to England in 1914, Elizabeth was already regretting the marriage, and escaped to the United States.

Vera (1921) isn’t Elizabeth’s best known work, but is considered her finest novel from a literary standpoint. Like some of her other works, it is semi-autobiographical and draws upon her ill-fated marriage with Russell.

Following closely upon its heels was The Enchanted April (1922). One of von Arnim’s most commercially successful works, it was made into a Broadway play in 1925, a poorly received film in 1935, and a much more successful feature film (1992), long after her death. It continued to be staged, year after year, especially in summer repertory theaters. Mr. Skeffington was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Bette Davis and Claude Rains, and released in 1944, after Elizabeth’s death.

Mr. Skeffington movie poster 1944

Poster from the 1944 film adaptation of Mr. Skeffington

Elizabeth von Arnim exercised poor judgment in husbands and unreliable younger lovers. It made for a complicated and messy personal life. Still, it did supply much material for her prolific writings (she wrote under an additional pen name, Alice Cholmondeley). She was a restless spirit, and moved frequently across Europe and the United States, continuing to write wherever she went, and amassing many friendships along the way. Though in the end she seemed to prefer places rather than people, and perhaps even dogs to her own children, she was a warm, humorous, and independent woman.

At the outset of World War II, Elizabeth von Arnim moved back to the U.S. permanently. On February 9, 1941 she succumbed to complications from influenza and died at the Riverside Infirmary in Charleston, S.C.

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Quotes by Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim“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.” (from a letter to a friend)

“Books have their idiosyncrasies as well as people, and will not show me their full beauties unless the place and time in which they are read suits them.”  (The Solitary Summer, 1899)

“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.”  (Elizabeth and Her German Garden, 1898)

“If one believed in angels one would feel that they must love us best when we are asleep and cannot hurt each other; and what a mercy it is that once in every twenty-four hours we are too utterly weary to go on being unkind.”  (The Solitary Summer, 1899)

“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.”  (Elizabeth and Her German Garden, 1898)

Elizabeth von Arnim“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.”   (Elizabeth and Her German Garden, 1898)

“A garden, I have discovered, is by no means a fruitful topic, and it is amazing how few persons really love theirs — they all pretend they do, but you can hear by the very tone of their voice what a lukewarm affection it is.”  (Elizabeth and Her German Garden, 1898)

“I don’t believe there was ever anybody who loved being happy as much as I did. What I mean is that I was so acutely conscious of being happy, so appreciative of it; that I wasn’t ever bored, and was always and continuously grateful for the whole delicious loveliness of the world.”  (In the Mountains, 1920)

“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.”  (Elizabeth and Her German Garden, 1898)

“There is nothing so absolutely bracing for the soul as the frequent turning of one’s back on duties.”  (The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, 1904)

“There’s no safety in love. You risk the whole of life. But the great thing is to risk -to believe, and to risk everything for your belief.”  (In the Mountains, 1920)

“… The way one pretty face can turn a delightful man into an idiot is past all patience.”  (The Enchanted April, 1922)

“[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.”  (The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, 1904)

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