Saturday, 31 August 2013

Elizabeth of the German Garden: Jennifer Walker

Elizabeth of the German Garden
by Jennifer Walker
Published by The Book Guild

I was struck, reading this biography, by the number of parallels between ‘Elizabeth’ von Arnim and her cousin Katherine Mansfield.  Both were writers, both lived in permanent exile, and both struggled with questions of identity and belonging. ‘Elizabeth’ was born in Australia to an English father and an Australian mother, christened Mary Beachamp, and brought to England at the age of three, but her father had a habit of wandering around Europe, so she saw quite a bit of Italy, France and Switzerland during her childhood.  Like Katherine Mansfield, Mary Beauchamp was a musical prodigy who played the piano and the organ to high professional standards.  She studied at the Royal College of Music and, on a visit to Italy,  played for Liszt’s daughter Cosima Wagner.

It was here that she met the German Graf (Count) Henning von Arnim who made love to her on top of the Duomo in Florence.  She married him without realising what her life as a member of the ‘Junker’ nobility in Germany would entail, and the level of rigid formality did not suit her temperament.  With her husband’s encouragement Mary left Berlin for their country estate, where she began to create a garden and a book, as well as another persona for herself. ‘Elizabeth’ was initially a fiction, but eventually she signed her letters with that name - even to her family.

The book, Elizabeth and her German Garden was an unexpected runaway success to the extent that all her subsequent books had the author-line ‘by Elizabeth of the German Garden’.  Henning von Arnim features in the book as the ‘Man of Wrath’ - which gives us a glimpse of the state of their marriage.  Before the days of contraception, many relationships were ruined by a woman’s fear of pregnancy and childbirth.  The ‘April, May and June’ babies feature in Elizabeth’s books, but Mary had five children altogether, a boy and four girls.  Two of them were born without the comfort of chloroform, because the Germans didn’t believe in alleviating the suffering of birth.  After her first two, difficult, confinements, Mary insisted on having her children in England, but each birth was accompanied by dread, anxiety and depression.  She told H.G. Wells later that she only had to think about sex to become pregnant and had had to insist that she and her husband were not in the same house to avoid conceiving again.

Between babies, Mary wrote compulsively.  This biography is excellent on the novels that ‘Elizabeth’ produced in regular succession. I sometimes got lost in the discourses on ‘Elizabeth’s’ unfamiliar novels, but they are fully justified in their aim to re-establish Elizabeth’s reputation as an important writer in the first part of the 20th century.  Most people know Enchanted April (inspired by a holiday in Portofino) and Elizabeth and her German Garden, but other novels were more controversial contributions to the literature of the period and have long been over-looked.

Henning von Arnim had debts and money troubles (he was arrested at one point) and soon his wife was the major earner of the family - not easy for a German Junker to accept.  It put a strain on Mary too. She became a workaholic who sometimes neglected her children. One of her daughters, the inaptly named Felicitas, felt uncared for - packed off to boarding school and denied the opportunity to study music as a punishment for bad behaviour.  She died at the age of 16, leaving Mary with a legacy of guilt.

Mary was so committed to her writing that she even took employment as a governess for six months - ‘feeling perhaps that her life lacked the immediate experience of lowly status and poverty’.  For another novel, The Caravaners, she went caravanning - a hilarious progression through the west country with members of her family and friends, begging beds in people’s houses whenever possible.

E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole came to tutor her children.  Mary, swapping lives between England and Germany, made friends with many members of the English literary scene, including H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell.  When her husband died, she became embroiled in a love affair with Wells, who was married and also involved with another woman at the time.  It was all very complicated.

Mary subsequently married Bertrand Russell’s brother, the Earl Russell, giving herself yet another identity.  She was now Mary Beauchamp, Elizabeth of the German Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim, and Countess Russell.  Author and mother, wife and lover, she had almost as many identities as her cousin Katherine.  Their relationship and the links between them, both personal and literary, are very well portrayed in this biography.  It also fills many of the gaps left by Karen Usborne’s previous biography.

Mary’s marriage to Francis, Lord Russell, was catastrophic.  She knew, even before she married him, that he was controlling and a bully, but she seemed unable to avoid her fate.  He locked her in the house, refused to give her a key to the gate and treated her to violent displays of temper.  Mary had hoped for a soul-mate, someone who would look after her, but found only a tyrant who wreaked havoc in her life and prevented her from writing.  As they both depended on her income (Earl Russell was addicted to Bridge and cocaine) it was essential for her to carry on earning.

It seems incredible now that a strong, independent woman should allow herself to be dominated and bullied in that way.  The marriage lasted only a few months before Mary went to New York to visit her daughter Liebet and began the gradual process of detaching herself. Earl Russell sued the removal firm who took away her possessions while he was in London, but Mary had carefully kept all the receipts and an inventory of the items she had brought from her first marriage. There was a hilarious cross-examination about the origins of a hammock. But it could be established in court that everything belonged to her.  Despite all this, Mary never sued for divorce and remained ‘Countess Russell’ until the end of her life.  Her experiences resulted in a dark novel called Vera, reviewed favourably by Katherine Mansfield.

Mary owned a chalet at Montana in Switzerland, the Chalet Soleil, where she spent many happy months writing and entertaining friends.  Katherine Mansfield became her neighbour towards the end of Katherine’s life and the two women were able to build a relationship which, though fraught with misunderstanding, was underpinned by real affection and respect. It was one of Katherine’s regrets that the cousins had ‘missed each other’ earlier in their lives.

Mary was having a love affair with a much younger man, Alexander Freres Reeves, the illegitimate son of one of her friends and the co-editor of Granta.  She employed him at first to catalogue her library in order to finance his university studies, but the relationship soon deepened.  It was scandalous at the time for a woman to have a much younger lover and ‘Elizabeth’ made it the subject of a controversial novel, Love.

Eventually Mary moved to the south of France, where she created another garden, and her love affair with Freres Reeves gradually burnt itself out as Mary aged.  She was by now over sixty and struggling to come to terms with her changing physical appearance. She had a face-lift and wore a curly red wig to conceal her thinning hair.  Like Katherine, she tried X-ray treatment, not for tuberculosis, but to reverse the signs of aging. The result was a small tumour beside one eye.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Mary, worrying about the fate of one of her daughters in Germany, went to America to live near another daughter, Liebet.  Mary died there in 1941, shortly after publishing her last book - Mr Skeffington - which controversially dealt with anti-semitism and was a big hit in America, where it was made into a film.

This is an excellent biography, giving much-needed consideration to ‘Elizabeth of the German Garden’s’ literary status and shedding light on aspects of Katherine Mansfield’s life too.  The wider Beauchamp family formed the context in which Katherine spent her early years.  Their views and their prejudices were important influences on the trajectory of her life as well as Elizabeth’s.  Also important is the extent to which Katherine may have been influenced by Elizabeth’s achievements. I personally believe that The Adventures of Elizabeth in RĂ¼gen might have been the book that paved the way for the Katherine’s In a German Pension stories.  Jennifer Walker’s book is a very welcome addition to the field of Mansfield studies, as well as an absorbing read about a fascinating woman.

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