Elizabeth von Arnim
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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 the psychological thriller Vera is arguably 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.
Marriage to “The Man of Wrath”
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.
Count von Arnim was a domineering husband. Their social milieu was one of 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 and her German Garden
Mary chafed against her roles as a wife, mother, and countess. She produced 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.”
Her first novel was Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898)
Out with the Count, in with the literati
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.
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.
Vera (1922) 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 Earl Russell.
Following closely upon its heels was The Enchanted April (1922). One of von Arnim’s most commercially successful works, it was charming and lighthearted, almost the opposite of Vera from the perspective of mood. 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. The film was much altered from the book.
Poster from the 1944 film adaptation of Mr. Skeffington
Unlucky in love
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.
Last years in the U.S.
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.
- Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898)
- The Solitary Summer (1899)
- The Benefactress (1901)
- The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen (1904)
- Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905)
- The Pastor’s Wife (1914)
- In the Mountains (1920)
- Vera (1922)
- The Enchanted April (1922)
- Mr. Skeffington (1940)
Biographies about Elizabeth von Arnim
- Elizabeth of the German Garden by Jennifer Walker (2013)
- All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim
Read and listen
- Elizabeth von Arnim’s books on Project Gutenberg
- Audio recordings of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books on Librivox
- Elizabeth von Arnim page on Amazon.com
Film Adaptations of Elizabeth von Arnim’s works
Articles, news, etc.
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