Elizabeth von Arnim and Literary Traditions

By Nick Turner

Reading is naturally a very different activity for different people. For me, if reading is exploration and building a sense of community, as we discover shared thoughts with authors (as Juliane discussed in the last blog), then for me the process is one of constant links and new avenues. There is good and bad in this – I’m the kind of reader that always wants to know about the rest of the author’s works, who they resemble, and so on. It can be rather overwhelming at times, but ‘greedy reading’ is fun.

I discovered the name Elizabeth von Arnim many years ago, more than I want to remember, when I began reading the work of Rosamunde Pilcher. Her novel The Shell Seekers was an odd or even embarrassing choice for a 16-year-old boy, perhaps! I’d like to share the following passage from it:

“What are you reading?” She picked up the book. “Elizabeth and her German Garden. Sophie, you must have read that a hundred times.”

“At least. But I always go back to it. It comforts me. Soothes me. It reminds me of a world that once existed and will exist again when the war is finished.”

Penelope opened it at random and read aloud. “What a happy woman I am, living in a garden, with books, babies, birds and flowers and plenty of leisure to enjoy them.”

This was my introduction to Elizabeth. Perhaps the quotation isn’t a very representative one: it does suggest that the author is rather sentimental, and at the time, it didn’t make me want to find out more, although I was a much less greedy and inquisitive reader back then. But the book does suggest, in making von Arnim the favourite writer of the bohemian artist’s wife Sophie, that Pilcher valued von Arnim. The Shell Seekers, while being very much a middlebrow novel, does contain other literary references: Ernest Hemingway, George Eliot, and Louis MacNeice all feature. It’s significant that von Arnim is in their company.

I didn’t actually read Elizabeth until many years later. By this point I had already read, re-read and fallen in love with Barbara Pym’s work, and I not only remembered Pym-like moments in Pilcher, but also saw the origins of Pym in von Arnim. For me there was something more here than just ‘women’s fiction’ or even ‘middlebrow’ writing, and it turned out that Pym had read and loved von Arnim.

The idea of a female tradition in literature began in the 1970s with Ellen Moers’ Literary Women, and was developed in Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of their Own and Gilbert & Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic. According to Showalter, von Arnim would belong to the ‘feminist’: in the feminist phase, the central theme of works by female writers was criticism of the role of women in society and of their oppression. But more specific light was thrown on the question of von Arnim’s resemblance to her forebears and successors by Lenckos & Miller (2003) in All This Reading: The Literary World of Barbara Pym. The authors suggest that Pym “is the only link in the chain that reaches from the earlier portrayers of the unattached — Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera Brittain, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark […] and Elizabeth Taylor — to the late twentieth-century chroniclers of solitary lives and fates”, among whom they identify Anne Tyler and Anita Brookner (both, the latter in particular, favourites of mine). The assertion is true, but there is another equally important link that unites many of them: comedy. If we compare von Arnim to Virginia Woolf and her modernist and avant-garde successors, from Dorothy Richardson and May Sinclair through Rosamund Lehmann to Doris Lessing and Ali Smith, they all seem to write against realism and its often concomitant comedy. The latter is the path von Arnim trod.

Elizabeth wrote into a very specific form and tradition: the domestic, comic novel written by women, and she seemed, on the surface, to resist modernism at a time of extraordinary literary innovation; she was funny and light; she was ‘middlebrow’, and even old-fashioned. Elizabeth was, I think, very much a nineteenth-century writer: it was the century she was born in and when she began writing. She has often been compared to Jane Austen: this may be most the case in Enchanted April, and she certainly shares her forebear’s wit, intelligence and focus on love and the domestic world as a setting. But she is much wilder and bolder than Austen. The passion and rebellion of Charlotte and Emily Brontë pervade books like The Pastor’s Wife, or Vera in its searing portrayal of an imprisoned wife.

But equally important influences for me are Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. The gaiety of Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther is Dickensian; the unfortunately child-like women have taken rather a leaf out of Dickens’ works, and their author inherited his sense of the bizarre. The wonderful nonsense with tea in Vera, a never-ending cycle of trays going back and forth, is almost like something from Carroll. Moving further back, the intense, solitary identification of a lone figure with the natural world makes von Arnim a late Romantic in many works. This combination of wit, irony, energy, nonsense, passion and Romanticism is exceptional. Von Arnim, so well read in the works of the nineteenth century, used them to feed a style, voice and content that was unique but embraced them all. But what about the influence Elizabeth von Arnim may have had on later writers?

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has become a classic, and its similarity to Vera, written fourteen years earlier, is striking in terms of plot, with a sinister leading male character, a house dominated by the presence of a dead wife, and the lingering image of her falling from a window. But in terms of style, voice and comic realist subject matter, E.M. Delafield is a more interesting link.

Delafield wrote many novels, but it is her Diary of a Provincial Lady and its sequels that have enshrined her name in literary history. In these novels a middle-class, often financially struggling writer vents her irritation with family and society. This midway point between protest and compliance, for the Lady never wants to actually alter the status quo, and keeps her thoughts to her diary, is a stance that I’m sure Elizabeth would have approved of, and in fact she kept a copy of The Diary in her collection when she moved to the south of France. Von Arnim does in fact appear rather wonderfully in Delafield’s work:

‘Notice, and am gratified by, large clump of crocuses near the front gate. Should like to make whimsical and charming reference to these and try to fancy myself as ‘Elizabeth of the German Garden’, but am interrupted by Cook, saying that the Fish is here, but he’s only bought cod and haddock, and the haddock doesn’t smell any too fresh, so what about cod? Have often noticed that Life is like that.’

Rose Macaulay, another novelist of the interwar years, shows similarities to Elizabeth in voice and subject matter. I’m thinking here of the importance of movement in her work in the titles of novels like Crewe Train, and the plot of The World my Wilderness, where a child living in France is brought back, with a sense of wonder, to an ‘alien’ Britain after World War Two. The fey qualities of the child heroines, the narrative voice, the wit, the eccentricity, and the use of satire link the two writers.

Like Macaulay, du Maurier and von Arnim, Angela Thirkell has been safely established as a lending library middlebrow writer, although she was of a very different sort: conservative, resistant to change, and celebrating the world of the moneyed gentry in the 1930s and 1940s at a time when Rose Macaulay was writing of Europe and du Maurier was ‘gothicizing’ it. I love this extract from near the beginning of Thirkell’s novel Pomfret Towers:

Mrs Barton was well known as the author of several learned historical novels about the more obscure bastards of Popes and Cardinals, with a wealth of documentation that overawed reviewers. Owing to living so much in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, she sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was.

Did Angela Thirkell read von Arnim? I have found no actual evidence of this, but I asked a Thirkell expert: she thought it was ‘likely’. This is my feeling about Macaulay, too. Thirkell’s words reminded me of something, and I eventually remembered it was this, near the start of Enchanted April: “The way Frederick made his living was one of the standing distresses of her life. He wrote immensely popular memoirs, regularly, every year, of the mistresses of kings.”

And now to Barbara Pym, possibly my favourite writer of all time. There is really too much to say here, but a quotation from Pym’s ‘Finding a Voice’ should help:

Barbara Pym

I particularly enjoyed the works of ‘Elizabeth’ … Such novels as The Enchanted April and The Pastor’s Wife were a revelation in their wit and delicate irony, and the dry, unsentimental treatment of the relationship between men and women which touched some echoing chord in me at the time. I was learning; these novels seemed more appropriate to use as models than [Huxley’s] Crome Yellow – perhaps even the kind of thing I might try to write myself.

In an early work, ‘Gervase and Flora’, Pym used the name Ingeborg for a character: it is of course the name of the main character in The Pastor’s Wife. But this is a detail. Pym went on to write very much in the vein of Elizabeth, showing a shared humour, voice, interest in eccentricity and a way of seeing the world that is very hard to pinpoint and describe. If you are reading this, and you have never read Pym, the fact that you’re on this page almost certainly means you will love her work.  If the best writers do have their own voice, those of von Arnim and Pym make them literary mother and daughter. For example, the comic character of Mrs Fisher in Enchanted April becomes Mrs Williton in Pym’s No Fond Return of Love, among many examples of similar humour or irony; I increasingly believe that if it were not for Elizabeth, we would not have had the comic voice of Pym. But beyond this, the isolation within marriage that von Arnim portrays so mercilessly is carried into the dead Connie in Pym’s Jane and Prudence: her husband Fabian Driver’s smugness is reminiscent of Dremmel in The Pastor’s Wife.

Von Arnim was so distinctive that the writers above read her and learned from her, and her popularity combined with her wit and intelligence helped cement a particular type of women’s fiction; she also anticipates Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Rhys and Anita Brookner’s studies of exile. But that is for another day. There is always more. I encourage to read Pym, re-read von Arnim, and discover the shared joys for yourselves.

Life often is like that.

3 thoughts on “Elizabeth von Arnim and Literary Traditions

  1. Nick, I so enjoyed reading this piece. It was a good reminder to me of my own ‘way in’ to reading the works of von Arnim, back in the early 90s with the release of Mike Newell’s 1991 film version of _The Enchanted April_. I was intrigued by the characters, the narrative and the entire mise-en-scene and wanted to know more, so I immediately dug up von Arnim’s work and started reading.

    Thanks for sharing some of your own reading history with us. I confess, I love to hear the personal voice in people’s research because, as both you and Julianne noted, we do not just read for critical appreciation but also because of how it makes us feel. The first time I encountered this approach to research writing was reading Janice Radway’s _A Feeling for Books: The Book of the Month Club, Literary Taste and Middleclass Desire_. Have you read it? It was at least two decades ago now (I was a young post-graduate student) but I was absolutely bowled over by the power of the confessional academic voice and I’ve never lost my taste for it–so I was particularly taken by your piece here.

    By the bye, a couple of friends and I have all been chatting about what we’ve been reading in these lock-down days and while most of them have been finishing off the Mantel trilogy, I find myself returning to books that bring comfort: namely, my Barbara Pym collection! 😉 Thanks for a lively and engaging set of thoughts on von Arnim’s influences and legacy.

  2. Nick, thank you so much for this: it’s like a series of pages in Juliane’s atlas of maps!
    Jennifer, I agree, books that bring comfort are all-important. I’ve been revisiting Dorothy Sayers, and now I’ve got some P.D. James which is taking me to North Norfolk, one of Nick’s favourite places if memory serves!
    I’m about to check the shelves for *The Shell Seekers*: that cover is very familiar, and the others I will chase up on abebooks or similar.

  3. Thank you so much, Nick.

    I thoroughly enjoyed following the path of connections you trace in this lovely piece. It reminds me of Bonnie Kime Scott’s web at the beginning of her book on female modernism. The comedic angle adds a deeper sense of some literary associations & relationships.

    My first reading of von Arnim’s novels (specifically the very early ones) set away thoughts of Mansfield’s first collection of short stories & intensified some of the satiric qualities we often miss in her writing. It’s very interesting to see how similar, & perhaps unlikely cross-currents, between authors can be drawn out & reconsidered.

    Thank you,


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