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
249pp.
ISBN: 9780712262975

Gabrielle Carey, Moving among strangers (#BookReview)

Gabrielle Carey, Moving among strangersEmma’s guest Monday Musings post last week on Randolph Stow provided the impetus for me to finally retrieve Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family from my TBR pile. I’ve been wanting to read it for the longest time, but … well, those of you with big TBRs will understand.

Moving among strangers, whose title comes from a line in Stow’s novel The girl green as elderflower, is an unusual book. It’s partly a biography of Stow, and partly a memoir of Carey and her family, but Carey wouldn’t call it either. She says in her prologue:

… this book is not a biography. Neither is it a work of literary analysis or scholarly enquiry. It is more like a ‘mostly private letter’, to use Stow’s phrase, written out of curiosity, and tenderness towards a man whom I have come to think of as an almost-relative, a dear friend of my mother’s, and the ideal literary mentor.

It all started when, as her mother was dying in 2009, Carey wrote to Stow in England letting him know of her mother’s condition. It was his response, which came four days after her mother’s death, which set Carey off. She’d known there’d been a connection, of course, but she didn’t know much about it. Stow wrote that Joan’s letters from London, when he was a schoolboy and undergraduate, “were like a window on the world”. Why, Carey wondered, did her mother correspond “with a young man, an adolescent, thirteen years her junior, who wasn’t even a relation?” This question is never properly answered in the book, not because there’s something salacious to discover (in case you were wondering), but because some connections made in life don’t have explanations beyond the fact that they occur. If that makes sense.

So, as the book progresses, Carey follows a Stow trail, “like a groupie”. She interrogates his novels and other writings, and reactions to them. She reads the letters Stow wrote to members of her and his family. And she visits the places in England where Stow had lived and meets some of the people who knew him there. One of the main strands in her story concerns Stow’s unease with Australia – with his feeling rejected by Australia and/or his rejecting Australia. There is no answer to this question either, but Carey’s exploration of the issue is enlightening (particularly given all those other Australian intellectuals who left in the 1960s – some well known like Germaine Greer and Clive James, others less so like Jill Ker Conway and Ray Mathew. Each story is different but there is probably a thread that links them too?)

There are many angles, in fact, from which I could write on this engaging but slippery book. There’s Carey’s sharing of her own history – the loss of her mother, her tricky relationship with her sister, the death by suicide of her father, and so on. There’s the form of the work and how it fits into what seems to be a new breed of biography-memoirs that is popping up. And of course, there’s Stow, himself. He comes across as an elusive character, and that’s probably because he was. When she, having made connection with him, enthusiastically tries to engage him, by correspondence, in a literary discussion about his and her mutual interest in James Joyce, he shuts her down, albeit politely, explaining that he was “old and ailing” which, in fact, he was. He died the next year.

This doesn’t deter her – for which we should be grateful because although the book is not, as she forewarns us, a biography, we do, nonetheless gain insight into Stow. She paints a picture, in the end, of a man at odds with the country in which he was born though exactly why is hard to say. Did he reject Australia – with its “depressing tolerance, even worship, of the second-rate” (his words) – or did Australia reject him with its inability to understand his work. Australian critics, apparently, panned his novel Tourmaline, for example, rejecting its combination of “fable and poetry” with “realism”. A later critic, Carey says, notes that Tourmaline represented a change, a move away from “bush realism … towards something more experimental”. However, at the time, as is so often the case with innovative creators, this was not recognised and Stow’s “too truthful, too confrontational of conventional attitudes” novel was not appreciated in his own country. Stow felt the rejection.

But, Carey is wary of coming to conclusions, as she constantly reminds us. At one point, when she has questions and no answers, she tells us that given there’s no one alive to tell her “the real story”, she “can only imagine”, but a page or two later, she says

But I could be wrong. Being wrong, I realised, is how I’ve spent most of my life: misinterpreting, misunderstanding, misjudging, miscommunication. Words slip and slide, as T.S Eliot said, or as Stow put it, ‘words can’t cope’.

A strange thing for a writer to say, perhaps? And yet, perhaps not. Perhaps, it’s something only a writer could say?

You are probably getting the gist now of this unusual book – and hopefully, realising what a delightful, engrossing and stimulating read it is. It is not a long book, and is therefore not comprehensive. If you want, for example, to read about the Stow book I know best, his first Miles Franklin winner, To the islands, you won’t find it here. What you will find though is an intelligent analysis of Stow the man and of his work. You will also gain, or, at least I did, some insights into literary Australia of the mid to late twentieth century – not a list of luminaries, or even a history, but a sense of the life and times, and of how one particular writer did (or didn’t) navigate it.

Near the end, Carey returns to a theme she introduced earlier in the book, that of twinning or duality of perspectives. She concludes that, in the Essex pub where she met people who had known Stow in the latter years of his life, she found “twin versions” of him, one “content in his lifestyle, in his aloneness, who was self-sufficient and independent” and one “who was uncomfortable in his own skin, internally and perpetually in conflict over his sexuality, his nationality and his identity.”

If you are interested in Stow, in Australian literary history more broadly, and/or in Carey herself, this is a book for you.

aww2017 badgeGabrielle Carey
Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family
St Lucia: UQP, 2013
232pp.
ISBN: 9780702249921