Gabrielle Carey, Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (#BookReview)

I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim (nee Mary Annette Beauchamp, 1866-1941) back in the 1990s when Virago republished her first novel, Elizabeth and her German garden. Published in 1898, this novel, writes Gabrielle Carey, was an immediate hit, turning her, almost overnight, into one of England’s favourite authors. It was certainly a revelation to me.

I went on to read several of her books, including her pseudo-autobiography All the dogs of my life, over the next decade. I was completely charmed by her wit and humour together with her insights into love and marriage, and their impact, in particular, on women’s lives. Anyone who’s a Jane Austen fan couldn’t fail, I’m sure, to see von Arnim’s ancestry. I wrote one of my early Monday musings posts on her.

Book cover

What, a Monday Musings on Australian literature on Elizabeth von Arnim? It was cheeky I know – and I admitted it at the time. Yes, she was born in Australia, but yes, she left here, never to return, when she was three. However, I just wanted to write about her. And so, it seems did Gabrielle Carey, who opens her hybrid memoir-biography with

When I first discovered Elizabeth von Arnim, I found, for the first time, a writer who wrote about being happy. So much of my reading life – which essentially means so much of my actual daily life – had been spent reading miserable literature because, let’s face it, most literature is miserable.

Carey isn’t clear about when she discovered von Arnim in relation to when she started working on this book, but says that once she discovered von Arnim, she became something of a “von Arnim evangelist”. She was “incensed” that von Arnim had been so completely forgotten. I could relate to this, because I felt the same. Unfortunately, my evangelising didn’t go far because no-one in my reading group had heard of her when I recommended that we do one of her novels as our “classic” this year. More on that, then.

If you are among those you don’t know this writer, you might be surprised to hear that several biographies have been written about her, including three in the last decade. I have two of them, Jennifer Walker’s more traditional literary biography, Elizabeth of the German garden: A literary journey, published in 2013, and Gabrielle Carey’s. The third is Joyce Morgan’s The countess from Kirribilli, published in 2021. Just this should tell you something about the fascination with which this woman is held, this woman who published 21 books, whose first cousin was Katherine Mansfield, and who knew EM Forster, had an affair with HG Wells and married (among others) Bertrand Russell’s brother. She had a life – and then some!

OK, so I’ve written quite a bit about Elizabeth von Arnim, but not much about Gabrielle Carey’s book. Only happiness here is the third sort-of literary biography that Carey has written, the other two being Moving among strangers (my review) about Randolph Stow and her family’s connection with him, and Falling out of love with Ivan Southall about her losing faith in this childhood writing idol. Carey, it seems, likes to explore her subject matter through the prism of her own life and experience (a bit like Von Arnim did with her fiction). This is not to everyone’s taste, but when done well, like, for example, Jessica White’s Hearing Maud (my review), it can be both engaging and effective.

I loved White’s book for the way she explored Maud Praed (daughter of novelist Rosa Praed) through their joint experiences of deafness, neatly marrying information with activism. Carey’s book has a very different driver, one I foreshadowed in the opening quote from her book. A few pages on, Carey makes her goal clear:

What did Elizabeth von Arnim understand about happiness that no other writer I’ve ever come across did? And is it something I too might be able to learn?

She wanted to know “the secret to her enviable ability to enjoy life” because it was clear from her novels and journals that she did, despite the many trials she faced. Indeed, the book’s title is the sign von Armin put over the door of her Swiss chalet. Carey argues that von Arnim “was, perhaps unknowingly, one of the earliest proponents of positive psychology”. Carey was so serious about her goal that amongst the end-matter in her book is a page titled “Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles of Happiness”. There are nine, but if you want this bit of therapy you are going to have to read the book yourself! However, to whet your appetite, the first one is “Freedom”.

Carey tells her story – I mean, von Arnim’s story – chronologically, regularly interspersing her own reflections and experiences in relation to von Arnim’s. An early example occurs when she writes about von Arnim’s first marriage to the much older Count von Arnim, and her novel inspired by this, The pastor’s wife (albeit the Count was not a pastor!) In this novel, von Arnim writes that “Ingeborg in her bewilderment let these things happen to her”. Carey immediately follows this with:

How well I understand this experience of letting things happen. All my life I had let things happen to me, often without my consent.

And she then spends nearly two pages exemplifying this from her life. Mostly this approach of Carey’s was interesting, even illuminating, but there were times when it felt a little too self-absorbed. However, this didn’t overly detract from what is a thoughtful introduction to von Arnim and her work. In under 250 pages, Carey manages to tell us something about almost every one of Von Arnim’s books – how each one fit into her life, what aspects of her life it drew from, and how it was received at the time. In that same number of pages, she conveys the richness of von Arnim’s long and event-filled life. I’m impressed by how succinct and yet engaging the book is, and am not surprised that it was shortlisted for the 2021 Nib Literary Award. I should add here that while the book is not foot-noted – its not being a formal “literary biography” – there are two and a half pages of sources at the end.

So, what did I, as a reader of von Arnim, get from this book, besides a useful introduction to her complete oeuvre? Well, firstly, I got a deeper understanding of how much of her oeuvre drew from her own life, and from that I got to better understand her attitude to marriage and to the relationship between men and women, and to her exploration of, as Carey puts it, “the clash between the concept of the ideal and the real”. I also got to understand more about her times, its literary milieu, and her place within it – and to see how we can never really foretell which writers will survive and which won’t. When von Arnim died, obituary writers were sure she’d not be forgotten. They also believed she’d be far more remembered than her shorter-lived cousin, the above-named Katherine Mansfield. But …

… as Carey sums up, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however, rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”, because, wrote English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy”. These, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. We are talking, of course, of Modernism, which, as Carey puts baldly, “didn’t believe in happiness”, a value that has carried through to today.

I will leave this here, because I want to return to it in a separate post. Meanwhile, I’d argue that while von Arnim’s books might be witty, they are not simplistic. They come from an astute and observant mind that was able to comment both on the times and on universalities in human nature. They may not have Modernism’s bleakness, but they aren’t light fluff either. Carey’s simple-sounding quest has, I think, touched on something significant.

Brona (This Reading Life) enjoyed this book, which she ascribes to the bibliomemoir genre.

Gabrielle Carey
Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim
St Lucia: UQP, 2020
ISBN: 9780712262975

36 thoughts on “Gabrielle Carey, Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (#BookReview)

  1. As stated in an earlier Comment, I’ve read only The Enchanted April – and seen the absolutely delightful movie of it – but that book alone is enough to make me believe Carey’s title. And I LOVE your quote that ends “let’s face it, most literature is miserable”. 😀

    • It’s a lovely book and movie, I agree, M-R, and yet are in my reading group knew those either. The film came out when I was living in the USA so I saw it there. It was 1991 when most of us had young children. They must have been heads down here while I was living the high life with mine in California!

      I will explore the misery a little more soon!

  2. I first came across her in the early 1980s when I bought an old book because it was beautiful and had the word ‘garden’ in the title. But it was a complete mystery as there was no author’s name, pre- computers it was ages before I discovered that it was written by Elizabeth von Arnim. I now have all of her books in old editions, but none as lovely as the suede bound 1914 edition. I love her writing.

    • Thanks Pining. I actually thought I’d come across her in the 80s, and I’m still a little unsure about that because I did read the German Garden before I saw and read Enchanted April which I now see came out – the film – in 1991. those mid-1980s to mid-1990s are a bit of a blur. Regardless of these details, I love her writing too though to date have only read 6 or 7 of her novels.

  3. I only knew about half the strange facts you’ve shared about her life and those alone made her seem completely fascinating. So many connections! German Garden was the first of hers that I read (and then I bought it for a few different friends, with a child or a garden or a husband or all of those things, to varying degrees of satisfaction in response. Not everyone gets her sense of humour, I s’pose. Heheh She became one of my MustReadEverything Authors, but I have never read a biography, but of course your posts leaves me eager to do so now!

    • NO, you are right, Buried. Hers is the sort of humour that not everyone gets, but it’s right up my alley. It’s the sort of humour – an eye for the absurd, the irony, I think that Sometimes has me being the only one (or one of a few) chuckling in the cinema.

      I gave Garden to a few people in those first years after I read it too – but clearly not to my reading group friends! (Not all of them were in the group then but a handful were.)

  4. ‘Bibliomemoir’. Well, that’s a handy term, we’ve needed one to describe this kind of book. I remember Nathan Hobby musing on his blog about the different ways of writing literary bios, which are of course my favourite kind of biography. (I have this one on my TBR, too, I bought it after hearing Carey talk about it during one the lockdown festivals online.)

  5. Very interesting indeed. You are right, of course, most literature really is miserable. Like you, I enjoy humour that not everyone ‘gets’. My son and I can laugh hysterically in the cinema (probably why we prefer home theatre these days) while others look bemused.
    Great review. Love this: “However, I just wanted to write about her.”

  6. I’ve only read The Enchanted April, which has a scene that still makes me laugh uncontrollably whenever I think of it. I must try to find more of her books. It sounds as if Gabrielle Carey has done her subject justice.

  7. I haven’t read the English upper class author von Arnim at all.In fact if it wasn’t for you I probably wouldn’t even know her name. I enjoy literary biographies though, and of course I thought Jess White’s Hearing Maud was terrific, but it had a unifying theme, deafness, whereas this one seems to be just the author being self indulgent.

    • There is an element of self-indulgence here Bill but there is also a theme to do with “happiness” which she doesn’t really defie but means an ability to be content with your lot. EvA was not happy all the time but she knew what you needed to not be ground down – freedom (agency), access to nature, a kindred spirit, etc. These are real, not fluffy.

      Upper class, yes, I guess, but her first husband, Count von Arnim, essentially went broke and she supported them from the fruits of her labour – her writing. I would not discount her. Watch out for my review of her book.

  8. Hm, I get a bit cross when the author intrudes too much into a bio of someone else (bibliomemoir is a good term for it) or indeed a nature book, so this is probably not for me, although I’m a bit EvonA fan and have read quite a few of her works. Thank you for letting us know about it, though!

    • That doesn’t worry meat all Liz. Indeed I usually like it a lot – It can bring a freshness and open honesty to a work. Anyhow, I’m glad you’re a bit of a fan. Likewise, of course!.

      You might like the Jennifer Walker biography which I think is a more straight one.

  9. I have only read three or so Von Arnim books but loved each one. I have not thought of reading a bio of her before though because I was worried she’d turn out to be some horrid ogre and I’d be so disappointed. But it sounds like she might have been a lovely person after all. Off to check whether my library has this bio. Thanks for your wonderful review!

    • Oh Stefanie, I love that you loved her books too. I must say though that EvA, while not an ogre, had her failings. She was, for example, a fun mother but not an attentive one. She was a writer and that took precedence.

  10. Before I heard of Elizabeth von Armin, I had heard of the 19th Century German writer Bettina von Armin, nee Elizabeth Brentano. Gordon Craig mentions her in his book The End of Prussia, and I think that she makes an appearance in Burkhardt’s letters. It took me a while to sort out the Von Armins. I suppose I should read some of their work for clarification.

  11. While I enjoyed Hearing Maud, I’ve tried several nonfiction books written in a similar style and did not like them. Some authors push too hard to convince readers that they are so similar to the other, more famous person they’re writing about and I get some look-at-me vibes instead genuine research and discovery, like White writes.

    • Yes, I know what you mean, Melanie. Thanks It’s a juggling act, one that I don’t think has been as successfully pulled off here as elsewhere, like Jessica’s, but it still offers enough to be worthwhile (I think).

  12. As you know, I’ve only just discovered EvA – she was my Big Lockdown Discovery (BLD). I read Joyce Morgan’s rather more conventional biography, but I’ve only read ‘The Pastor’s Wife’. I have a collection of her books, and I’m looking forward to reading more. I’m rather wary of authors intruding into the biographies of their subjects – especially if they start describing what they ate for lunch- but I felt that Carey did it with such a light touch that I could put aside my qualms.

    • Interesting Janine … I felt Carey’s touch was less light than some I’ve read but I still enjoyed the read. I want to read The pastor’s wife .. and the others I haven’t read. She’s so good .. I’m always thrilled when people discover her and love her as a result.

      I wish I had a BLD!

  13. Funnily enough, Elizabeth and her German Garden is the only von Arnim I haven’t been able to get along with. It’s been a while since I read it, and various details have slipped from my mind over the years, but I do recall the protagonist being somewhat condescending and unsympathetic to those around her – possibly some of the workers on her husband’s property IIRC? Von Arnim can be very witty, and her descriptions of the gardens are really beautiful, but my memories of this novel are tainted by her less desirable traits…

    • It’s 30 years or so since I read it Jacqui but you may have a point. She was, I recollect, frustrated by their unwillingness to go with her ideas of a more natural garden. Was there a gender thing too where they didn’t like taking orders from a woman? I’d have to read it again. I think she probably could be imperious but I don’t think her life was easy either as her husband kept pressing her to produce an heir. She had four girls and did eventually produce the required boy. I don’t think we know this … just that she had, at that time, three girls.

      • I don’t know…it’s a while since I read it, but you may well be right about the gender dynamic playing a part. It’s a plausible factor, for sure…

        • My memory was gender played a big role but also Germanic culture, its precision – you know, neat, tidy, ordered gardens verses her more natural preference. Must read it again!

  14. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on Joyce Morgan’s bio. It was my favourite of the two and one I will keep close as I (hopefully) read my way through von Armin’s backlist.

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