One of the great worries of conservatives in the late Victorian era was a phenomenon known as ‘The Girl of the Day’, in reference to troublesome young women like Gwendolen Harleth, heroine of Daniel Deronda’s George Eliot. Losses, independent and restless, they constitute a type subversively reluctant to play the role of wife and mother “of angel in the house”. It’s a description that perfectly fits the subject of The Countess of KirribilliJoyce Morgan’s gripping biography of Elizabeth von Arnim, author of the once wildly popular novel Elizabeth and her German garden.
Born Mary Beauchamp to a wealthy family in the suburbs of Sydney (hence Morgan’s title), she came to Britain aged three in 1869. Australia left its mark on her: well that she never returned Down Under, she retained the frank and resourceful characteristics of that continent’s frontier culture, even after a distinguished upbringing at Hampstead, vacations in Europe and the study of the organ had attempted to shape into something tame and docile.
She wanted a little adventure, and she got it when her musical accomplishments caught the eye of a Prussian Junker and Liszt pupil, Count Henning von Arnim. After marrying him and changing her name, she found herself castellan of his dismal and dilapidated Schloss near the dreary Baltic coast. Her efforts to tame the place and make its grounds pleasant formed the basis of Elizabeth and her German Garden, her first and most directly autobiographical novel. Published anonymously in diary form, its wry and satirical observation of human frailties and petty domestic misadventures make it the forerunner of Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver and a slew of imitative “lady” books appealing to other ladies.
His relationship with von Arnim was stormy – in the novel he is only referred to as “the Man of Wrath” – and although they were temperamentally compatible with each other, the couple eventually parted ways. . EM Forster had an uncomfortable summer as guardian of their five children. “I think she’s mean and selfish,” he wrote to Virginia Woolf about his employer. “But she has a wonderful way of making someone wish they were nice to her.”
Back in London, she had a sexually torrid affair with HG Wells during which two beds were broken, before embarking on an ill-advised second marriage to Bertrand Russell’s debauched older brother Frank. That relationship didn’t blossom either, and Frank would be furious to see his wife exploit a husband again as fictional material of an unflattering nature. But Elizabeth is uninhibited: writing comes easily to her – she calls it “the greatest pleasure in the world” – and gives her an independence that allows her to travel (she enjoys caravanning) and maintain homes in Switzerland and on the Riviera.
Her first-hand experience of life in Germany left her with “an utterly barbaric desire to kill at least one German before she dies”, and helped her to immediately see through Hitler’s claims: in his favor , one could say that she was without illusions and without candid fear. Still, there was a sharp edge to his personality. Hugh Walpole, another of her children’s guardians, summed her up as “amused, cynical, wry, loving, cheerful, fierce, cold, fiery – but never gentle”.
Later in her life she fell well in America and her last novel Mr Skeffington, an almost brutally honest and remorseful tale in its presentation of an aging beauty losing her power over men, would be made into a film starring Bette Davis and Claude Rains. After his death in 1941, however, his novels fell out of fashion until they were republished in the 1980s by Virago. A 1991 film of one of her less abrasive books, The Enchanted April, also renewed interest in her talent.
Joyce Morgan has done a well-crafted job of chronicling the life of Elizabeth von Arnim, whose achievement as a prolific writer of intermediate fiction is clearly creditable. But the biography leaves a bitter taste: the problem being that one cannot become attached to a rather ruthless and egocentric woman, lacking in vulnerability and sympathy. When she broke up with HG Wells, he told her “You didn’t really love her” – and that seems to say it all.
The Countess of Kirribilli is published by Allen and Unwin at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books