Born at Kirribilli Point, Australia in 1866 to British parents and the little-known cousin of New Zealand poet, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth von Arnim published her first semi-autobiographical book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, after her then-husband, Baron von Arnim, was imprisoned for fraud and debts. Despite claiming to have no taste for work, indeed, informing us that “There is nothing so absolutely bracing for the soul as the frequent turning of one’s back on duties,” (Elizabeth and her German Garden), from 1898 onwards, she had a reasonably prolific output of more than 20 books, often based heavily on her own life and experiences. Her irreverence towards the private nature of her relationship with her husband, or indeed to appropriate behaviour in general, as well as her disregard for the odd beliefs and biases about love and the sexes that pervaded her era, can be seen from the thick satire ubiquitous in her work.
“But there are no men here,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “so how can it be improper? Have you noticed,” she inquired of Mrs. Fisher, who endeavoured to pretend she did not hear, “How difficult it is to be improper without men?” (The Enchanted April, 1910)
With her first book becoming rapidly popular, Elizabeth was soon associating with the literary names of the time, becoming mistress to H.G. Wells for some years and including E.M. Forster among her children’s tutors. Throughout her life, though, Elizabeth’s cheerfully acknowledged misanthropy, so often alluded to in her work – “It is true she liked him most when he wasn’t there, but then she usually liked everybody most when they weren’t there.” (The Enchanted April) – allowed to be quite capable of contenting herself alone, and indeed she demonstrated her taste for independence with her frequent relocations throughout Europe. To travel so willingly and so much as a single mother was already notable, but showed the strength of her personality even more so when she moved to the United States after separating from her second husband, the second Earl Russell -who was known colloquially as ‘the Wicked Earl’ due to being tried for bigamy and who she never officially divorced.
Elizabeth’s writing is filled with her original and somewhat cynical opinions on society and the various absurdities she observed within it, delivered with what became a signature style of wit – a kind of flippant satire that makes her characters feel intimately relatable, like a cheerful old friend. After all, who can disagree when Elizabeth warns of the danger of extended family?
“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)
Even in death, Elizabeth entertains us, requesting an epitaph that read parva sed apta (‘small but apt’ in Latin), referencing her rather short stature. Sadly, however, in spite of her impelling honesty and famous friends, Arnim, who preferred to style herself simply as ‘Elizabeth’, though her birth name was in fact Mary Annette, has been largely forgotten by the reading public today.
Famous Works (freely available via Project Gutenberg):