The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CLASSIC DISPLACED WRITING: Joy in the place — Elizabeth von Arnim

The novelist Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) wrote many enchanting books, all of which were autobiographical to some extent, linked to persons or places she knew.

But does that necessarily mean that Elizabeth — born Mary Annette, nicknamed May, she called herself “Elizabeth” upon becoming a professional writer — led an enchanted life?

Yes and no. By all accounts, she was an enchanting person herself, constantly delighting other people with her sharp wit.

She also kept enchanting company: E.M. Forster was tutor to her children, Katherine Mansfield was her adopted cousin, and H.G. Wells was one of her lovers.

Displaced almost from birth (she was born in Kirribilli Point, Australia, and then moved to England at the age of three), she made a life-long habit of flitting from one enchanting locale to the next.

Having spent her formative years in London, she moved to Pomerania in Prussia (Germany) for her first marriage, where she raised five children.

Upon the death of her husband in 1910, she made her home in the Valais, Switzerland, living in a glamorous house, Chalet Soleil, which she’d built from her riches as an author.

With the failure of her second marriage, Elizabeth zigzagged between homes in the United States and Europe.

She died in Charleston, South Carolina.

A full measure of sorrows

But a peripatetic life isn’t always a charmed one, as many of us expats and former expats can attest. As her life progressed, Elizabeth experienced a full measure of sorrows.

Her first marriage — to a domineering Prussian count — wasn’t particularly happy. She nicknamed him the Man of Wrath, and they separated several years before his death.

Her second marriage, to Frank Russell, elder brother of Bertrand, was even more miserable (he proved to be a despotic egoist).

Her only true love she met when she was 54 — and he was nearly 30 years younger. (They never married.)

She also suffered the grievous deaths of a daughter and a brother.

By the time she died, Elizabeth was estranged from most of her children, crippled with arthritis, and almost forgotten by her adoring public.

Her only devoted companion was her dog, Billy.

Escape artist par excellence

But despite these tribulations, Elizabeth remained throughout her life, in the words of gardening writer Deborah Kellaway,

a steadfast hedonist, firmly suppressing sorrows. … Her journals and letters repeatedly record moments of happiness, usually associated with sunny days.

As Elizabeth once wrote in a letter to one of her daughters,

“What I really am by nature is an escapist.”

Thus what we can learn from Elizabeth’s life — and from her many autobiographical books — is the art of escaping into happier worlds.

As Kellaway explains:

[The heroines of her novels] escape from richness into the simple life, or from conventional home life into foreign travel; they escape from houses into caravans.

The most famous example, of course, is Elizabeth’s 1922 novel, The Enchanted April — from which we’ve taken our theme of enchantment on the blog this month.

As everyone knows who has read that book — or, more likely, seen the 1992 film or the 2003 Broadway play — four women who share only their unhappiness and a love of wisteria flee 1920s London and converge in Portofino, Italy, on a magical medieval villa overlooking the Mediterranean.

Simple pleasures are the best?

But while Italian castles can certainly be a tonic — if offered one, I’d be off like a shot — what most people don’t know is that Elizabeth was equally fond of much simpler escapes. In the first two books that made her reputation as a writer, the heroine escapes her marital, motherly and household duties by venturing into a German garden, set in a wide landscape.

Here is the most lyrical passage from the second of these, The Solitary Summer (1899):

Yesterday morning I got up at three o’clock and stole through the echoing passages and strange dark rooms, undid with trembling hands the bolts of the door to the verandah, and passed out into a wonderful, unknown world. I stood for a few minutes motionless on the steps, almost frightened by the awful purity of nature when all the sin and ugliness is shut up and asleep, and there is nothing but the beauty left. It was quite light, yet a bright moon hung in the cloudless, grey-blue sky; the flowers were all awake, saturating the air with scent; and a nightingale sat on a hornbeam quite close to me, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun. …

It was wonderfully quiet, and the nightingale on the hornbeam had everything to itself as I sat motionless watching that glow in the east burning redder; wonderfully quiet, and so wonderfully beautiful because one associates daylight with people, and voices and bustle, and hurrying to and fro, and the dreariness of working to feed our bodies, and feeding our bodies that we may be able to work to feed them again; but here was the world wide awake and yet only for me, all the fresh pure air only for me, all the fragrance breathed only by me, not a living soul hearing the nightingale but me, the sun in a few moments coming up to warm only me…

A lovely garden at just the right time of day — as I know from my own experience of enduring many city summers*, that’s all it sometimes takes to escape into happiness.

*On that note, I’d like to recommend a walk on the High Line in early morning or late afternoon, to anyone living in or traveling to New York City this month…

QUESTION: What does it take for you to escape the dog days of summer into happiness: a trip to Italy, a walk in the garden — or something else?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, on our new weekly newsletter, The Displaced Dispatch.

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5 responses to “CLASSIC DISPLACED WRITING: Joy in the place — Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. Yumiko Shimada August 2, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Reading your post made me want to rent the DVD of Enchanted April. I can’t go to Italy this summer so I’ll be happy with a good book, in a cool room. It’s too hot to read in the garden with the mosquitos waiting for you, in Tokyo !

  2. ML Awanohara August 3, 2011 at 12:01 am

    How well I remember my summers in Tokyo — and at your mention of the mosquitoes (ka), I can almost smell the Tiger Balm I used to dab on my bites. My Japanese colleagues were fond of remarking that the ka must like my foreign blood, as I was always itching and moaning about how vicious they were.

    Yes, summers in that part of the world are an endurance test, far worse than here in NYC. I don’t miss Tokyo’s extreme mushiatsui conditions, but I do miss obon. I found something cheerful, and revitalizing, about the drums and the sight of people dancing for the festival of the dead, maybe because I felt like the living dead by the time it took place…

    Did you know I bought a copy of The Enchanted April for Susumu’s mother? I think I also recommended the film to her and your mum. I thought it was the kind of story they would like — an escape to an idyllic European setting and in the case of S’s mum, an escape from her husband! 🙂

  3. Kate Allison August 4, 2011 at 7:32 am

    In response to your question, ML – I went to Lime Rock race circuit in northwestern Connecticut the other day, where Paul Newman used to race his cars. It may sound odd, going to a race circuit to escape, but this is the most beautiful little track…trees to picnic under, fabulous scenery. Oh, and of course, lots of cars to look at – almost forgot about that. It sure beats the chaos of Silverstone.

    • ML Awanohara August 4, 2011 at 10:50 am

      Hmmmm… The Lime Rock race circuit is a rather curious choice, though the more I think about it, the more I can relate to the “car” part of the equation. Though I love gardens and picnics, they are often spoiled by bugs. Yumiko’s mention of mosquitoes reminded me. And how about at your picnic — any ants or wasps? But modes of transportation, that can really transport me! I imagine going places in those cars, those planes (I was at the airport recently to see my niece off, and felt a frisson of excitement watching planes take off), those trains… Yes, I do have the makings of a train spotter, in case you were wondering!

      • Kate Allison August 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm

        There were ants, yes, but it was such a perfect summer day, the scenery was breathtaking, and the last time I went to the British Grand Prix there was so much rain that tractors were pulling Land Rovers out of the muddy fields that were car parks there. This was a wonderful comparison!

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