Elizabeth von Arnim, a woman of mystery and myths, was an enigmatic woman mostly of her own creation. Her extraordinary life-story reads like a fancifully constructed novel. It is hard to believe so much happened to a woman who was born in the then backwater colonial Sydney, in the late nineteenth century.
The Countess of Kirribilli
I recently read a biography about Elizabeth called ‘The Countess of Kirribilli‘. I found the book for sale for $6 at the local post office! It captured my attention because I am interested in women from history. Most of my posts on this site whispering encouragement.com are about women from history. Here was an interesting Australian woman of history who I had never heard of.
Elizabeth von Arnim was born Mary, or ‘May’ Beauchamp, and lived her early years at a mansion named Beulah on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour. Such a position now would be worth millions for its waterfront vista of the expansive and beautiful Sydney Harbour. It boasts a view of the iconic white-sailed Sydney Opera House.
A one-way trip to Europe
Her father was a successful businessman and her mother a poor Tasmanian girl who got lucky and was adopted by wealthy relatives. Mary, who became later known as Elizabeth, was the youngest of six children and the second daughter. The Beauchamp family also had many cousins of the Lasseter family. When Mary’s uncle Fred Lasseter proposed a year-long family trip to Europe, Mary’s father Henry jumped at the chance. He wanted to experience some culture and so the whole Lasseter and Beauchamp tribe left the colonies on an adventure across the oceans to Europe..
They did not plan to never return to their Sydney lives and waterfront mansions. But unexpectedly, Mary and her family mostly lived their lives abroad in Europe and London, never returning to their colonial roots. After years of restless but luxurious living with her family in Europe, young Mary married a much older German aristocrat, Count Henning August von Anim-Schlagenthin.
An estate in Pomerania
This is interesting enough, but the other detail is unusual. They lived in Pomerania. Now I didn’t know this was even a place. I like most of you, probably associate the word with a fluffy dog breed. But yes, they come from there and yes, Pomerania is a countryside area of Germany.
Their house was very grand and was an estate with woods and a lake. An idyllic place to live if you didn’t have a demonic husband and baby after baby. Mary was in an unhappy, controlled marriage with her count. She had four daughters in quick succession before finally giving birth to the much-anticipated son. This was difficulty for the slight built Mary, who many referred to as dainty. The marriage did not improve even after the heir was born, because of financial problems and the Count’s many affairs.
Mary who became Elizabeth loved to write
In 1898, just before the turn of the century, Mary wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called Elizabeth and her German Garden. Writing helped her cope with life with her bombastic husband and the stress of so many young children. She published the novel anonymously. When the books attracted attention, readers wondered about the identity of Elizabeth.
Newspapers postulated it could be the charming young countess but Mary never verified it. She continued to write for the rest of her life, later adopting the name of Elizabeth von Arnim. Her wit and humour captivated an audience. To give her time to write she relied on staff and tutors for her children. One of the tutors was young E.M Forster who later became famous for his own novels, Passage to India and Room with a View.
Australia’s answer to Bridgerton’s secretive Lady Whistledown
The Sydney Morning Herald wrote an opinion piece on Mary or Elizabeth as she became known, dubbing her Australia’s Lady Whistledown. “Long before Bridgerton was a TV hit an Australian-born author hid her identity to write about taboo topics, as the world’s press worked to unmask her.”
Mary’s life became stranger and stranger, the stuff of fiction. Fortunately for Mary her count husband died suddenly. She was free and so in 1911 she bought a chalet in Switzerland. She loved the country, preferring it to Germany. She expanded the chalet and entertained literary and society friends. She had a mini chalet built to give herself the privacy to write.
An affair with H.G Wells
From 1910 to 1913 she was the mistress of H.G Wells, the famous science fiction writer. He maintained his marriage with his very understanding wife Jane, who was a friend of Mary’s. Mary became interchangeable to Elizabeth, the name she continued of use for the rest of her life.
Her books became best sellers especially in America. Elizabeth married again to an older man, Frank, the 2nd Earl of Russell. He too was controlling and difficult. Try to avoid this type if you can. Look for the early signs. Elizabeth had other affairs with younger men in literary circles. They offered distraction and provided fodder for her writing. Much of it is biographical in nature. But don’t many authors take from the life they live? I know I do.
A War and Personal Tragedy
Elizabeth sent her youngest daughters to expensive boarding schools in Europe. They became trapped behind German lines when World War One broke out. Her youngest daughter died at 16 of pneumonia, without seeing her mother. Elizabeth took her two older girls to London for safety, but their German accents led to internment. She managed to send them to America, using personal contacts, where they settled and married in America.
Escape from Marriage
Elizabeth fled her second abusive marriage after three years. She travelled, had affairs, wrote and lived a luxurious glamorous lifestyle. But despite all this, as always throughout her life, money and fame did not make her happy. This is so often the case. Why do so many wish for money and fame when so rarely does it bring happiness?
Elizabeth’s books however, did happily blossom and attract readers and received great reviews. The wit and humour in her novels is based on the satire of marriage and love. Her 1921 novel, Vera draws on her disastrous second marriage and is a dark and brooding love story. The Enchanted April sets a different tone and showcases Italy’s Portofino as a resort. It is a lighter read than her previous novels, despite being written at a dark time of the author’s life. It has been made into Broadway shows. Her last novel Mr Skeffington was made into a film with Bette Davis and was nominated for an Academy Award.
But then Elizabeth is forgotten?
Elizabeth von Arnim lived alone in her later years in the south of France. She died there in 1941. Despite her fame and best-selling books, she seemed to slip beyond the public radar, and is as unknown today as she was anonymous in her early writing days.
But Elizabeth was an interesting woman. She achieved a lot, wrote much on women’s matters and the difficulty of matrimony and defied the restrictions of the times in which she lived.
Joni Scott is an Australian author with three published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.