Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2020

Author event: Gabrielle Carey in conversation with Jessica White about Only Happiness Here, In search of Elizabeth von Arnim

My copy of Gabrielle Carey’s new book arrived from Readings yesterday, so the timing of this author event is just perfect.

This is the blurb for the book, Only Happiness Here, In search of Elizabeth von Arnim:

‘When I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim, I found, for the first time, a writer who wrote about being happy.’

Elizabeth von Arnim is one of the early twentieth century’s most famous – and almost forgotten – authors. She was ahead of her time in her understanding of women and their often thwarted pursuit of happiness. Born in Sydney in the mid-1800s, she went on to write many internationally bestselling novels, marry a Prussian Count and then an English Lord, develop close friendships with H.G. Wells and E.M. Forster, and raise five children.

Intrigued by von Arnim’s extraordinary life, Gabrielle Carey sets off on a literary and philosophical journey to learn about this bold and witty author. More than a biography, Only Happiness Here is also a personal investigation into our perennial obsession with finding joy

And this is the blurb for the event, hosted by The Avid Reader in Brisbane:

Gabrielle Carey narrates a riveting journey through the life and work of one of last century’s most successful – and almost forgotten – women novelists, Elizabeth von Arnim.
Jessica White is in-conversation with Gabrielle Carey discussing her biography Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim.
Elizabeth von Arnim is one of the early 20th century’s most famous – and forgotten –authors. Born in Sydney in the mid 1800s, she went on to write many internationally bestselling novels, marry a Prussian Count and then an English Lord, nurture close friendships with H.G. Wells and E.M. Forster and raise five children.
Her novels were ahead of their time in their representation of women and their pursuit of happiness. Intrigued by von Arnim’s extraordinary life and vibrant career, Gabrielle Carey sets off on a literary and philosophical journey to know more about this talented author.
From the Prime Minister’s Literary Award winner of Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, Only Happiness Here is part biography, part memoir and part reflection on human nature’s obsession with finding joy.
Gabrielle Carey is the author of novels, biography, autobiography, essays, articles and short stories. She teaches writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, where her infatuation with Randolph Stow is happily tolerated. Her most recent book was the memoir, The Waiting Room: A Memoir.


Madonna Daffy from UQP did the introduction, reminding us that many of Von Arnim’s books are still in print 100+ years after publication.  She also referred us to the  review by Marie Matteson at Readings.

Jessica began by telling us how much she laughed when she was reading this book.  She thinks that this is because Gabrielle and Von Arnim share the same droll sense of humour (evidence of which occurred throughout this event!)  She went on to say that the book is spliced with Gabrielle’s reflections on reading and her own life. So how did Gabrielle come across Von Arnim?

Gabrielle said that she discovered her when Ursula Dubosarsky lent her one of Von Arnim’s books and she has been under her spell ever since.   She had such an interesting life, but although this book is about happiness, it’s also true that she was sometimes miserable.  One of the people who made her miserable was her first husband,  and before that the pressure to get married made her miserable.  At that time and in that society, it wasn’t really an option not to be married, so she had to go along with a marriage arranged for her.  (At 23 she was just about an old maid, said Gabrielle). Of course at first he was charming at first, but all her books are about how marriage changes people.

Von Arnim, was, however, resilient.  She realised early on that the Count was not her soulmate, especially when he moved her into a Berlin apartment which — contrary to her expectations, given that he was an aristocrat — was cramped.  She was expected to conform to a very restricted society where everything was very regimented and the opposite to the freedom that she wanted.  To escape this sense of confinement, she took the dog for endless walks and she went cycling.

All this changed when they went to his long neglected schloss, and she refused to go back to Berlin.  She loved the garden, and she wrote a bestseller about it, Elizabeth and her German Garden, the first of over 20 books.  Jessica asked if Von Arnim was a ‘natural’ writer?  Gabrielle’s theory is that because women are not allowed to verbalise their feelings when they’re young, the only way they can express that is in writing.  Von Arnim didn’t have an unhappy childhood, but she was ‘apart’ from the rest of the family.

Jessica asked Gabrielle why she wrote the book the way she did, not as a bio, but as a biblio-memoir.  Gabrielle, who has some strong opinions about straightforward biographies being ‘boring inventories of a life’, said that that kind of bio had already been done.  She prefers biblio-memoir: she likes the blend of the relationship between the subject and the author writing it. She also thought that Won Arnim has a lot to offer at this moment in our own time. And she liked Von Arnim’s passion for gardening because her grand plans didn’t always work in the garden: gardening teaches you about disappointment, it’s a metaphor for life (and for writing, added Jess).

Only Happiness Here finishes with a set of rules for happiness, the first of which is freedom.  Jess thinks this is a set of rules for women writers too.   Von Arnim found it difficult to find a space for herself and her writing, and her husband kept intruding, and he was irritated by this as well. He had a fixed idea of women’s role and she was pushing back against that all the time.  Writers are impossible to live with, said Gabrielle, and he seemed needy to her.  Often writing doesn’t work well with marriage, she thinks.

Von Arnim was ahead of her time, with undertones in her novels about domestic violence.  Another theme is escaping to England, and Gabrielle told an anecdote about how she wanted to go there, he wouldn’t let her,, she ordered the carriage anyway, and he sent it away.  So she left the house in the middle of the night and walked ten miles to the railway station and then continued her journey.  Gabrielle thinks this is kind of rebelliousness is ‘Australian’, a characteristic which Von Arnim retained even though she left when she was only three.  Asked what makes Von Arnim ‘Australian’ Gabrielle suggested straightforwardness, determination to get what she wants, and being outside in the earth (in the garden).  Maybe it’s also because she has an Australian type of feminism which is distinctive, like Germaine Greer’s…

Von Arnim ended up having to rescue the Count financially: that’s ironic because he was supposed to be the boss but she paid the bills because he was hopeless with money.  Her next husband was also a dud, and so was the affair that she had with H G Wells. Her relationships were unsuccessful, but that didn’t stop her being happy because she believed that happiness was possible if she could create environments or conditions that enabled her natural buoyancy to happen.   Her attention was not on herself, it was on things outside herself. She did have periods of depression, but she had an incredible capacity to enjoy life, especially nature and gardens, and relationships when they were good.  Her intellectual capacity and energy levels were extraordinary.

In her research, Gabrielle said there were a  lot of Australian reviews of Von Arnim’s books because she was well-known here, despite avoiding publicity.

Brona from Brona’s Books asked a question about Katherine Mansfield, who was Von Arnim’s cousin.  Katherine Mansfield read Elizabeth and her Garden when she was eleven, and some say it was that which made her decide to be a writer.  Von Arnim was very supportive of Mansfield and promoted her work.  She was a generous mentor to a poor and unwell competitor and they had a warm and loving relationship.  Katherine Mansfield’s last letter before her untimely death was to Von Arnim.

The Count’s death was liberating for her.  Until then, she had kept secret her real name (Mary Annette Beauchamp) but once she was free of him, she was happy to be known by her pen name Elizabeth Von Arnim.  She became a very merry widow and built a splendid Swiss chalet which became a hub for an extensive network of friends including Bertrand Russell. Alas, she fell for Russell’s brother, and married him but it was disastrous.  It lasted about three years, then she ran away from him as well.

Von Arnim had a son and four daughters, one of whom was devoted to her and wrote an adoring bio, while another daughter wrote an alternative version which was destroyed.  The first daughter wrote that her other children found her demanding and difficult and that they felt they had never met her expectations.

If you’re interested in Von Arnim, Gabrielle recommends starting with The Enchanted April, which is about a holiday in Portofino.  It features a woman escaping, and was made into two beautiful films.  But Gabrielle’s favourite is Vera, which is different to all the others: it’s serious, it’s about domestic violence — psychological tyranny, not physical violence.


You can buy Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim from Fishpond (click the link), or your favourite indie bookshop.

Shortlisted for multiple awards including the National Biography Award and the 2020 Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance, Jessica White’s recent book of creative non-fiction is Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice.  It’s available from from Fishpond (click the link) or direct from UWAP.


Responses

  1. Coincidentally, I purchased a copy of this book today. I’m really looking forward to reading it. I enjoyed The Enchanted April and I have a copy of Vera on loan from a friend.

    Like

    • I seem to remember reading something by her a long time ago, an audio book while I was at the gym if I remember it correctly, but I didn’t journal it for some reason. I think that was Vera because it certainly wasn’t funny at all.

      Like

  2. Oh I planned to attend this, because I am a big von Arnim fan. I have another biography of Elizabeth von Arnim which was only published a few years ago, so I was surprised when I read a year ago that Gabrielle Carey was writing one. I have read several von Arnim books – and have Vera on my TBR.

    If you haven’t read it, you would, as a dog lover, love All the dogs of my life which is one of her non-fiction works. I love her cheekiness. My first of hers was Elizabeth and her German garden, back in the 1980s. I’d recommend it as a starter because it provides such insight into her intelligence and humour.

    I also really liked Mr Skeffington which I think was her last novel. Enchanted April is probably her best known because of the film.

    Like

    • I’d reserve one or other of them at the library, but now that libraries have opened for click and collect, I am inundated with books so I’d better not, at least until I’ve read most of them!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. She sounds such an interesting woman. I have an unread copy of Enchanted April on my shelf. I enjoyed your write up of this book. 🤠🐧⚘

    Like

    • Thanks, Pam, we had to shuffle dinner around to do it because Queensland *sigh* *still* doesn’t have daylight savings time, so (our time) the talk went from 7.30 to 8.30pm. But it was worth it:)

      Like

  4. I love von Arnim, and this sounds marvellous. Mr. Skeffington is a huge favourite!

    Like

    • It is available as an eBook or for Kindle:)

      Liked by 1 person

    • I love that someone else loves Mr Skeffington! Not many people know or mention it. I wish I’d read it since I started blogging.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. What a fabulous summing up Lisa! It was certainly one of the better zoom meetings I’ve attended lately. I really must finish a couple of books this weekend, so I can start some more. Vera is on my wishlist & I’d like to reread Enchanted April…..

    Like

    • That’s the trouble, eh, every thing leads to another book, and another, and another…

      Liked by 1 person


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: