Monday musings on Australian literature: Elizabeth von Arnim

Cover of "All the Dogs of My Life"

All the Dogs of My Life (Courtesy: Vintage Books, via Amazon)

This week’s Monday musings is a bit cheeky since Elizabeth von Arnim (or Mary Annette Beauchamp, her birth-name) was born in Sydney in 1866 but her parents left Australia in 1871 for Switzerland and then England. Von Arnim spent the rest of her life abroad. So, why am I writing about her? She didn’t grow up in Australia and doesn’t write about it either. Well, it’s because I love her writing and thought I could use the Australian birth justification to write about her now rather than later. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want to!

Before I talk about her writing, it’s worth mentioning that she has a famous relation: her first cousin was Katherine Mansfield (born Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888). But this isn’t the only name-dropping that can be done. The writer E.M. Forster tutored her children at one stage, she had a three-year relationship with H.G. Wells, and she married (but soon regretted it) Bertrand Russell‘s older brother. In other words, she had an interesting life.

I have read a few of her 20 or so books:

And, I have Vera (1921), which some see as her best, on my TBR pile.

So, why do I like her? Well, not only is her main theme, at least from the books I’ve read to date, women’s lack of power in a male-dominated world but, like Jane Austen, she approaches this with wit and irony and with a clear eye for human failings in general. In other words, she empathised with women’s lot but wasn’t blind to their faults and foibles (as individuals, as women and as representatives of humanity). Just read Mr Skeffington, and you will see what I mean.

To give you a sense of her writing, here are the opening paras of her “memoir” All the dogs of my life:

I would like, to begin with, to say that though parents, husbands, children, lovers and friends are all very well, they are not dogs. In my day and turn having been each of the above – except that instead of husbands I was wives – I know what I am talking about, and am well acquainted with the ups and downs, the daily ups and downs, the sometimes almost hourly ones in the thinskinned, which seem inevitably to accompany human loves.

Dogs are free from these fluctuations. Once they love, they love steadily, unchangingly, till their last breath.

That is how I like to be loved.

Therefore I will write of dogs.

How can you not be captivated by such a wry writer? The book continues in this teasing tone. She insists it is not her autobiography (“as this isn’t an autobiography, I needn’t go into that” is a refrain), but a story of her dogs, and regularly tells us so. But of course, through the story of her dogs, we get a pretty good impression of her life. She may not give us all the details, but we certainly learn about many of her “ups and downs”. This book, though, was not my introduction to von Arnim: that goes to the delightful Elizabeth and her German garden.

In a recent post, Max of Pechorin’s journal wrote that “the line between novel and memoir can be a tricky one”. I immediately thought of Elizabeth and her German garden, which I first read back in the mid 1980s. This is, I believe, a novel (in diary form) but it is also rather close to her life. She did, like the Elizabeth of the book, marry a German (count) and she did call him, as she does in the book, “The Man of wrath”. Furthermore, she did have several children. In fact her second book, The solitary summer, is dedicated “To the man of wrath, with some apologies and much love”.  Anyhow, here is the Elizabeth in the novel:

The people about are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceedingly eccentric, for the news has travelled that I spend the day out of doors with a book, and that no mortal eye has ever yet seen me sew or cook. But why cook when you can get someone to cook for you?

OK, so she is well-to-do … but still, I love her priorities! Here she is in her (aforementioned) memoir, speaking of herself and one of her dogs:

Fortunately we liked the same things. She only wanted to be outdoors in the sun, and so did I …

And so, while some of the facts may differ (though I don’t know which ones), the basic “truth” of her life – her likes, dislikes and, more to the point, her attitudes and personality, come through both books.

Elizabeth von Arnim was a woman who tackled life head on. Her first husband died, she had affairs and a failed marriage; she lived in England, Europe and the USA; and she met some of the significant thinkers and writers of her time.  But, through it all, she never lost sight of “women’s lot” and the psychological ramifications of their powerlessness. Here she is in Elizabeth and her German garden on migrant workers:

From us they get a mark and a half to two marks a day, and as many potatoes as they can eat. The women get less, not because they work less but because they are women and must not be encouraged.

There is also, in the same book, an extended – and infuriating – discussion between Elizabeth, the Man of Wrath, and two others on German women having the same (lack of) rights as children and idiots. But politics was not her main game, I think. Rather, she was interested in women’s lives, in their wish and need to make self-determined, meaningful lives for themselves. So, I might just finish with another little excerpt from All the dogs of my life:

What on earth did I, of all people, want with a lot of husbands? I asked myself in wonder. Besides, by readily sticking to poached eggs for dinner I was getting abreast of my expenses, and the bills of Saturdays held no more terrors for me.

Ha! What indeed (at least in those inequitable days)!

10 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. As you know, I didn’t have the greatest success with The Enchanted April. The first part was excellent but then when it came it Italy….Of course, I am tempted by Mr Skeffington because of the film connection. I hadn’t heard of All the Dogs of My Life though. How amusing that she should write about the dogs of her life while the men either don’t merit a book, are forgettable, or she’s guided by diplomacy.

    • Thanks Guy, yes I think the beginning of The enchanted April is probably the best part of it. I am keen to read Vera, but she’s also written some other works that sound interesting too, some particularly for the times she was writing about. A few of her books are available as etexts. I had heard of the film Mr Skeffington, but haven’t seen it. What is it like? All the dogs of my life is – amusing, wry and of course, because it’s about dogs, a little poignant as well. BUT, do look out Elizabeth and her German garden if you haven’t read it. She’s quite a unique voice I think.

  2. I haven’t read anything by von Arnim yet, although I know she is well loved by many book bloggers. I have Elizabeth and her German garden on the TR shelf, and enjoyed the wry voice of the extracts so must get to it soon.

  3. I haven’t read anything by this author, but the movie starring Bette Davis and Claude Rains is one of those wonderful classics I can watch over and over again. I’ll have to check the library for titles by Elizabeth Von Arnim. I’d say I’m in for a treat.

  4. I love von Arnim! I’ve read Enchanted April and Elizabeth and her German Garden. I’ve got Solitary Summer on my Kindle, waiting. Her voice is so light and charming even when the topic is serious. do you know if there is a proper biography of her?

    • Yes, Stef, you have it – the light touch to the serious topic. She does that so well. As far as I know there isn’t a proper biography of her. There’s an idea for someone! I’ve downloaded a few of her books on my kindle, including some of the ones I’ve read because I didn’t have my own copies of those and want to dip in again. I had fun flipping through Elizabeth… when I was writing this post.

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