Escape to the Country: Elizabeth von Arnim in the time of Covid-19

By Isobel Maddison

The Elizabeth von Arnim rose
An Elizabeth von Arnim rose

As the global pandemic continues to rage in various parts of the world, many are being gradually released from lockdown into an uncertain future. Work resumes tentatively, children are sometimes able to return to school and cities gradually re-emerge as altered spaces. Partially open, parks teem with those craving the restorative properties of the outdoors, while the streets are increasingly populated by cautious people doing their best to adapt to the ‘new normal’, as it’s become known. Collectively, we take a deep breath and move forward into the world again with greater care and growing concern for our own safety and that of others, because 2020 has so far been a chastening experience for the majority. The idea of a simpler life has also, of necessity, become a reality for many while the desire for a safe refuge has also, perhaps, rarely been so pronounced. But, we ask, where is safety to be found?

In such a turbulent time many have turned to reading as an answer to this question, even if books tend to raise uncomfortable ideas and challenge our cosy assumptions. Nevertheless, Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer (1898) has been especially resonant during lockdown, pointing us to the joys of the natural world as reparation for the busyness and social whirl of city life, building on established Romantic tropes (von Arnim’s ‘Wordsworthian gospel’ as Hugh Walpole put it) and drawing a distinction between the experience of crushing loneliness and the value of soul-expanding solitude. But as we emerge from lockdown, perhaps von Arnim’s ‘escape narratives’ offer a different vision which allow for travel and which take us, imaginatively, to a variety of locations, a personal favourite being the detailed descriptions of Castello Brown and its glorious garden in Portofino, the setting for The Enchanted April (1922). Others include the French landscape in The Jasmine Farm (1934), the spectacular scenery of Switzerland in In the Mountains (1920) and the (still-existing) walking tour carefully laid out in The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904), including a map. 

Escape is not always overseas or simple for Elizabeth von Arnim, however, and rarely is it only geographical. Her ‘escape narratives’ trace the release from psychological servitude as well as spatial constraints, as in The Enchanted April, and similarly in The Pastor’s Wife (1914), one of her finest novels. The desire for a safe refuge away from conditions of restraint underpins the progress of both books, though each is strikingly different in tone (if you read them you’ll see what I mean). In fact, I suggest reading a few of the less well-known novels with an eye to spotting the frequency and significance of escape in her writing where laugh-out-loud humour and seriousness inevitably intertwine, and where refuge is rarely presented as a safe, uncomplicated destination.    

It is with these ideas in mind, prompted by the current pandemic, that I’ve been thinking about how frequently in von Arnim’s fiction escape to an English country cottage is proposed as a promised refuge. Forgive me for a moment as I slip into an unlikely contemporary comparator, but estate agents in the UK are currently reporting the movement of people away from the city to more isolated villages, and especially to cottages with gardens, where the risk of meeting the epidemiological ‘speck’ (as Dickens has it in his 19th century London novels) is again thought to be reduced. The UK controversy around travelling to a ‘second home’ (invariably rural) has rumbled on throughout the pandemic as the idea of flight to relative safety has become ever more shaded with party politics and public disapproval. These are, then, longstanding ideas that have gained greater currency as the lockdown has progressed, and they linger as we’re steadily released back into society with, seemingly, a greater longing for the wild. 

It’s fair to say that, untroubled by epidemics, escaping to the country for refuge is as Arminesque in its conception as it now appears to be in lockdown, and post-lockdown, 2020. Take, for example, von Arnim’s novel Father (1931) where an overworked, unmarried daughter, Jennifer, has spent years tending to her writer father, the ‘great Richard Dodge’. Trapped by familial duty in London, her mother having died early, we find father considers Jennifer an ‘obedient hand-maid waiting on his thoughts […] typing and re-typing, over and over again with dogged patience,’ believing ‘she knew only such words as he dictated to her.’ When father unexpectedly takes a very young wife, Jennifer is quick to see her escape route: ‘Through and beyond father she saw doors flying open, walls falling flat, and herself running unhindered […] along Gower Street, away through London […] into great sunlit spaces.’ In an appealing anticipation of release we can probably all identify with at present, we follow Jennifer’s successful escape and progress into the Sussex countryside to a dilapidated rented cottage and untended garden where she finds brief, though not uncomplicated, contentment.

Von Arnim’s The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905) follows a similar path when, topically, a German Princess who has grown tired of her lavish, restricted life escapes to the simplicity of an English cottage in a novel von Arnim adapted for the stage with the help of J.M. Barrie, and which, incidentally, became a West End hit in 1910. And in another novel, Lady Midhurst and her daughter finally find contentment in their enforced country life towards the end of, and at, the Jasmine Farm, though it’s important to remember that this is also Lady Midhurst’s French second home.     

In von Arnim’s fiction this retreat from modernity and the movement towards a simpler life in the country may seem Romantic and nostalgic, but it is also political. From 1919 von Arnim was briefly a Fabian Socialist and friend to high-profile Fabians including H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. During this period von Arnim became attracted to the non-revolutionary principles of equality embraced by this socialist movement. She was drawn to the idea of ‘the simple life’, a version of which many of us have lived, of necessity, in the months of lockdown, a situation the early twentieth century Fabians would have applauded, since living sufficiently, rather than excessively, was central to their ideas. The values of self-education, reading, vegetarianism (for those so inclined), healthy exercise, cycling, community and the sharing of produce and labour would have gained Fabian approval during lockdown, even if the underlying structures and the policies of government are yet to be reformed as they would have wished. 

Another Elizabeth von Arnim rose

We should also remember the reality in von Arnim’s time was that literary Fabians, like Dorothy Richardson, may have chosen to spend time in draughty, leaky cottages (frequently in Cornwall), but this was largely because of economic hardship. Others were able to also keep a comfortable house or flat in town. Country cottages nevertheless became symbols of ‘the simple life’, a social and ethical marker of a life lived frugally, healthily and well. Cottages became the subject of Fabian tracts like Cottage Plans and Common Sense (1902) and the undated Cottages: And How to Get Them:these were distributed to working people to raise awareness of socialist plans for a re-arranged future. Cottages were an integral part of the Fabian discussion around land reform and a desire for a more equal distribution of property and wealth. The inclusion of cottage plans in von Arnim’s novel Love (1925) are not incidental, therefore; they represent socialist thinking and philanthropic work aimed at easing social inequality. In Love, we are told, the cottages are to have ‘lavatory basins in each bedroom’ to mirror Ruskin’s vision of perfected cottage life, even if Stephen, who leads the project at Chickover Manor, is satirised by von Arnim for his worthiness and endless conversations about plumbing.  

The ending of von Arnim’s Introduction to Sally (1926) is similarly overlaid with Fabian concerns and thoughts of housing. Systematically policed into silence throughout this uncomfortable novel, working-class Sally is a one-dimensional figure who remains ‘passive as a parcel’ spurred into action by others, unaware that she has herself become a destination, pursued as she is across the South East of England by representatives of all social strata including Lady Laura who has, in the spirit of Fabianism, already plunged head long into socialism. It is only when Sally becomes subject to the attentions of an elderly Duke that she finds the refuge she has longed for from the beginning of the novel. The Duke offers Sally his estate, Crippenham, but, in full-blown Fabian style, Sally spurns any life but the simple one and refuses to live ‘anywhere except in the four-roomed cottage in the corner of the  garden’, built by the Duke ‘as a playhouse’ for his children. Simultaneously, von Arnim situates Sally in the simple rural idyll favoured by the Fabians, to a life of domestic ‘play’ and to perpetual childhood in a meaningful reversal of Nora Helmer’s escape from the infantilising marital home of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, one of George Bernard Shaw’s favourite plays. 

As we gently ease out of lockdown and think, perhaps, of alternative ways to live together collaboratively while also keeping 2 metres apart, the idea of escaping to the country has its own specific appeal, as it always has had for some, including Elizabeth von Arnim. Even before she was aware of Fabian socialism, for instance, her daughter Liebet recalls her mother walking around the vast estate in Nassenheide, Pomerania (the setting for Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898)) ‘discoursing on the superior good fortune of those who live in cottages’. How ‘happy…[we] would be’, Liebet remembers, if we ‘had a tiny cottage, say on the Thursee in the Stolzenburger forest, or at Horst on the Baltic, or in the peace and silence of one of the numerous lovely clearings’ we knew among ‘the beeches and pine-trees’. As so often, von Arnim’s preference here is for simplicity and solitude, however grand her surroundings, and this is a lesson she’s keen to share early with her children.  

Von Arnim’s life was nevertheless one of privilege. This colours her perceptions and the social worlds she painstakingly creates and sometimes satirises in her fiction. Her dalliance with Fabian Socialism and belief in simpler ways of life were in contrast to the glamourous existence that sometimes accompanied her literary celebrity. Her life was not, of course, without its dark periods and she experienced the grinding loss so few of us escape, but she was also able to travel widely and lived in several fine houses including an impressive Swiss chalet at Montana sur Sierre and a house at Mougins in the South of France, where there was a glorious rose garden. What is perhaps less well-known is the time she spent, following the death of her author cousin Katherine Mansfield, in a rented cottage in the New Forest, near Wood Green, by the river Avon in England. Mansfield’s life-long companion, Ida Baker, joined her there and, by all accounts, von Arnim spent many contented days walking in the forest, reading, writing and living simply, while she likely came to terms with the far-too-early death of Mansfield. So beautiful was the setting, Ida Baker decided to stay in the area for the rest of her life.       

That von Arnim found solace in nature and sometimes chose a simpler existence is clear in the value she places on this in her fiction, while her escape narratives have taken on fresh significance as we ease out of lockdown. Elizabeth von Arnim has always been a wise, amusing and witty companion; we could surely do no better than take her thinking and novels with us as we move steadily into an uncertain future.       

10 thoughts on “Escape to the Country: Elizabeth von Arnim in the time of Covid-19

  1. This is a beautiful essay. Thank you for this wonderful introduction to von Armin’s writing along with the titles. Can’t wait to start reading!

  2. Great piece Isobel. The benefits of the simple life has featured in a number of conversations I have had recently, with the obvious implications for reducing the demands on our planet. Let’s hope that we can resist the calls, already sounding, to reboot the great machines of consumption. As you say Von Arnim’s perceptions and experiences were coloured by her ‘privilege’, as have mine. Staying here in Jamaica, there is a constant reminder that the simplicity I envisage has a great deal more convenience and health than many experience. I have another hope then; that we will be able to, with not a great deal of redistribution of wealth and some creativity and innovative thinking, re-build out societies around principles which value sustainability over unthinking economic growth.

    1. Thanks Huw. I agree it will be a missed opportunity if we fall back into old ways of living & consuming after this period of relative simplicity —which has still remained one of privilege for many.

      Very much hoping this time of reflection will lead to a fairer distribution in our societies and a greater awareness of our wastefulness & wider ecological questions. .Von Arnim, along with fellow Fabians Wells, Shaw, Virginia & Leonard Woolf, Bertrand Russell, Sidney & Beatrice Webb etc would have certainly regarded this reconsidered & re-arranged future as one aspect of the socialist project. Perhaps little has changed.

      Best wishes,

  3. Isobel, I’ve just started reading Father, and on a walk round the fields near here I was thinking about the walk Jen took on her escape to the countryside, which led me to think about walks and escapes in other von Arnim novels. Arriving home I went to the website, and here it all is, and more, in your posting!
    Thank you!

  4. Hello Diana,

    Thanks for the comments. I hope you’re enjoying your walking & it’s less arduous than Jen’s trek to Sussex. Let us know your thoughts about EvA’s other escape narratives if you have time. It’s good to hear from you. Very best wishes, Isobel

  5. Thank you Isobel–what a pleasure it was to be conducted on this elegant amble through von Arnim’s works. Escape is a constant theme in von Arnim’s books but your focus on the trope of the countryside as a place of refuge seems particularly apropos these days! I appreciated your notes on von Arnim’s engagement with Fabian socialism here too, as I’d been looking forward to hearing more about von Arnim’s friendship with Fabians Thomas and Annie Cobden-Sanderson at the society’s lecture event planned for earlier this month (which was unfortunately cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis). Does von Arnim write explicitly in letters or elsewhere about her own ‘take’ on Fabian issues, or are we mainly left to extrapolate her views from her fiction and friendships?

  6. Thanks Jennifer. Good to have your comments.

    I haven’t yet found anything by EvA directly commenting on the Fabians but biography gives a date of her involvement & we know she went to some lectures by B Russell ( her sometime brother-in-law) & she knew Shaw & Wells. But she is unlike Dorothy Richardson ( Fabian) who called the group Lycurgans in ‘Pilgrimage’ & comments extensively on Fabian philosophy etc plus she uses Shaw’s own name (& a fictional one for Wells). EvA’s novels are often engaged with Fabian ideas & strands of socialist thought (sometimes satirised) & she was the anonymous editor of Thomas Cobden-Sanderson’s journals, after his death. I too would have loved to hear more about this connection. Fingers crossed for next year when we might hear Jennifer W speak on this…..

    Very best, Isobel

  7. It has been wonderful to read these reflections prompted by Isobel’s lovely piece and find that others as well as myself have found von Arnim’s words and thoughts so relevant to our times. As Jennifer Shepherd mentions above, we were due to explore the hundredth anniversary of a special gathering of the friends of ‘Elizabeth’ in the summer of 1920 at the society’s lecture event planned for June this year. Elizabeth’s gathering (held at her ultimate ‘escape’ venue, her Chalet Soleil in Randogne, Switzerland) included both Thomas and Anne Cobden Sanderson. The former, an old friend of ‘Elizabeth’, was a founder member of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Doves Press; his wife had been an active sufragette. We can infer much about ‘Elizabeth’s views from her choice of companions (writers and scholars) that summer and also identify with their need to escape into magical mountain scenery following the traumas of WW1 and the flu pandemic of 1918/19. Elizabeth’s Chalet Soleil offered security, peace and solace as well as fun and laughter, something acknowledged by one of her (very well known) guests, Augustine Birrell. His note of thanks, addressed to ‘Elizabeth of the Chalet Soleil’, refers to this time as the ‘Enchanted Days of August 1920’.

  8. Here we are, nearly five months on with winter coming on (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), and I find my thoughts returning to my reading of Father in the summer. At the time there was a dearth of reasonably priced copies of Father on the internet, but I’m delighted to find that the new British Library edition has now appeared.
    Good wishes to you all

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