Elizabeth von Arnim: Beyond the German Garden by Isobel Maddison (Ashgate 2013)
Type ‘Victorian Literature’ into Google, noted Simon J. James in his keynote lecture for ‘Beyond the Garden Party’, and you’ll find almost eight-million search results for sites hosting scholarly journals and university-affiliated projects. Try the same thing with ‘Edwardian Literature’ and you’ll get just over a million hits, the first of which is a Facebook page. It has six ‘Likes’.
The perception of Edwardian literature – particularly Edwardian fiction – as a literary backwater seems always to have been with us. As early as 1923 Virginia Woolf was pinpointing the Edwardian era as ‘the fatal age’ in literature, naming and shaming ‘Mr Wells, Mr Galsworthy, and Mr Arnold’ as ‘the culprits’ of this literary demise. Such dismissals have proved surprisingly difficult to shake off, no more so than in the case of female Edwardian novelists (who, tellingly, Woolf’s ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ didn’t even bother to cite). In the past twenty years there have been a handful of cultural histories, such as Jane Eldridge Miller’s pioneering Rebel Women: Feminism, Modernism and the Edwardian Novel (Virago, 1994) and Talia Schaffer’s excellent The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (University of Virginia Press, 2000), alongside occasional journal articles on authors such as Violet Hunt, Ada Leverson, and Edith Nesbit. While biographies of individual female Edwardian novelists abound, full-length studies of their literary output are frustratingly few and far between.
Into this context arrives Isobel Maddison’s Elizabeth Von Arnim: Beyond the German Garden (Ashgate, 2013), which provides a welcome reappraisal of a criminally-neglected author. ‘Elizabeth Von Arnim’ was the pseudonym of Mary [May] Annette Beauchamp, a prolific novelist born Australia in 1861 (Katherine Mansfield was a first cousin). The Beauchamps relocated to England when May was ten, where she spent her teenage years studying at Queen’s College School and the Royal College of Music. While on a trip to Rome with her father in 1889 May met Graf Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, whom she married two years later. The couple settled in Nassenheide, a large house on the Von Arnim estate in Germany, and it was from here that ‘Elizabeth Von Arnim’ wrote and published her first novel Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898). Elizabeth records the episodic impressions of a woman whose garden provides a physical and psychological retreat from stultifying domestic life. It was a huge critical success. Von Arnim went on enjoy a forty-year career as a writer, moving in progressive literary circles that included Max Beerbohm, Vernon Lee, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. Von Arnim’s publication list for the ‘long Edwardian’ period boasts an impressive roll-call of novels (Von Arnim called them ‘artful necklaces’) that includes Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898), The Solitary Summer (1899), The April Baby’s Book of Tunes (1900), The Benefactress (1901), The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904), The Princess Pricilla’s Fortnight (1905), Fraülein Scmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907), The Leaven of Malice (1908; see comments below), The Caravaners (1909), and The Pastor’s Wife (1914). Von Arnim continued to publish throughout the 1920s and 1930s; her final novel Mr Skeffington (1940) appeared the year before her death.
Maddison’s book surveys all four decades of Von Arnim’s literary career, but there is much here to interest the Edwardianist. Von Arnim’s work, Maddison reveals, engaged with many of the political concerns of the period, and she was by no means the writer ‘incapable of philosophical thought or political ideas’ summarised by her fellow novelist (and sometime lover) H. G. Wells. In her discussion of Von Arnim’s politics Maddison thankfully skips over the well-worn path of feminism and fiction – Von Arnim is often lumped together with such disparate writers as Sarah Grand and Olive Schreiner under the label ‘New Woman novelist’ – in order to focus on Von Arnim’s treatment of both socialist concerns and Anglo-German relations. Maddison uncovers the influence of Fabian thinking upon Von Arnim’s fiction, particularly in her representations of marriage – what Wells called ‘the old proprietary family’ – as strained and dissatisfying. Maddison also reads Von Arnim’s early German novels as examples of British anti-invasion literature, identifying suggestive links in novels such as Christine (1917) between Von Arnim’s anti-German portrayals and those of her acquaintances at the War Propaganda Bureau.
Maddison’s discussion of Christine is but one example of instances in which politicised interpretations sit neatly alongside scrupulous biographical readings. In Maddison’s hands Christine is at once both anti-German propaganda and an exploration of the writer’s struggles with her troubled daughter Felicitas. Biographical readings also take centre stage in Maddison’s investigation of Von Arnim’s influence upon Katherine Mansfield. Maddison details the close relationship these cousins shared (Mansfield described herself and Von Arnim as ‘worms of the same family’), and reveals the literary debt Mansfield’s work owes to Von Arnim. She demonstrates how several of the stories in Mansfield’s collection In a German Pension (1911) draw upon themes and tropes from Von Arnim’s work, such as Mansfield’s treatment of vegetarianism in the short stories ‘The Luft Bad’ and ‘Vegetable Lady’, which bear striking resemblances to those in Fraülein Scmidt and Mr Anstruther. To find Mansfield aping Von Arnim, Maddison notes, destabilises Mansfield’s categorisation as a wholly ‘highbrow’ writer working independently of ‘middlebrow’ forms. At the same time, of course, it invites us to re-think Von Arnim’s own literary status.
‘Highbrow’ and ‘middlebrow’ are terms that recur throughout this study. While Maddison is careful not to assign the label ‘middlebrow’ to Von Arnim’s novels herself, she draws attention usefully to the ways in which Von Arnim’s work can be considered in light of this label. Though the term ‘middlebrow’ wasn’t coined until 1927, debates about literary categorisation have relevance for Edwardian fiction: partly because terms like ‘lowbrow’ (first Oxford English Dictionary appearance: 1906) and ‘highbrow’ (1908) were being bandied about during our period, but also because these discussions continue to inform the status of Edwardian fiction today. Maddison situates Von Arnim’s work within a nexus of debates about standards and categories of literature, revealing the extent to which Von Arnim has been – and continues to be – a victim of these labellings. At times her repeated use of terms like ‘middlebrow’ and ‘highbrow’ seems unwittingly to reinforce the very assumptions that she’s seeking to challenge, though given her stated intention to reclaim Von Arnim as a novelist worthy of critical attention this is perhaps understandable. On other occasions, Maddison overplays her hand in presenting Von Arnim as unusual amongst so-called ‘middlebrow’ writers in drawing upon the avant-garde in her novels. This is particularly surprising given Maddison’s reliance upon Nicola Humble’s ground-breaking The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s-1950s: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism (Oxford University Press, 2001), which emphasises that a defining feature of the ‘middlebrow’ is its ability to appropriate and play with ‘highbrow’ content and forms in a variety of sophisticated ways. Nevertheless, in situating Von Arnim’s work, and her subsequent literary neglect, within debates about literary classification Maddison reiterates the need for a reappraisal of the literary canon – especially in relation to the baffling status of Edwardian fiction today.
Subsequent chapters of this study detail Von Arnim’s fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, and discuss film adaptations of The Enchanted April (1922) and Mr Skiffington. The book provides a useful biographical preface and a particularly helpful appendix, compiled by Gayle M. Richardson, lists the contents of Von Arnim’s archive at The Huntington Library. Maddison concludes with the hope that her study will inspire more work on Von Arnim. One can only agree; though we might add that the fiction of Von Arnim’s half-forgotten contemporaries also deserves fresh attention.
Sarah Shaw, May 2013