A Happy New Year to all von Arnim readers! We hope you had a good start to the year. May it be filled with books and moments of happiness.
We are kicking off the new year with an interview with Gabrielle Carey, whose book Only Happiness Here – In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim was published late last year.
Gabrielle is an award-winning writer, biographer and essayist and has taught Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney for many years. She is the author of several books, including Moving among Strangers – Randolph Stow and My Family and the Australian classic Puberty Blues (together with Kathy Lette).
Gabrielle, you have written about your relationship with writers like James Joyce, Randolph Stow and Ivan Southall. However, Only Happiness is your first book focussing on a female writer. What do thinking and writing about another woman writer mean to you?
Actually, there is a story behind that. I think it was 2015 that the Guardian issued a kind of challenge to people to read only women or more women for that year. It was only then that I realised how many more men I read than women and started consciously balancing out my reading material. So the simple answer is that I hadn’t written about a woman writer before because I was too busy being obsessed with mighty men.
The struggle to become a writer is so very different for a woman than it is for a man for all the obvious reasons but also for some not so obvious reasons. It was fascinating for me to realise that even for someone so prodigiously talented as Elizabeth – whose work actually managed to return a healthy income and who had the gift of humour and wit as well as a gift for happiness – still struggled to write amid all the other demands. She has also led me to other obscured or partly-forgotten women writers such as Rose Macauley, whose Towers of Trebizond is a comic masterpiece as well as being a deeply moving ode to the brevity of love and life.
In one way or another all of von Arnim’s books are about women’s (not always successful) pursuit of happiness. Which of von Arnim’s novels have you found most fruitful when thinking about happiness?
Well, when I’m trying to convert people to Arnim, I usually recommend The Enchanted April. One of my very favourite lines is the one about how ‘she had finally found her celestial legs’. But every one of her novels, I found, has some wry insight into how people discover or avoid happiness. (Because I do believe people often go out of their way to avoid happiness.) The other one I recommend is Elizabeth and her German Garden because I do find the moments of rapture really convincing. But even Fräulein Schmidt is good to consult about principles of happiness – despite the fact that her situation, apparently, is quite miserable. She has lost the love of her life, lost faith in love, has few friends, no entertainments and is horribly poor, with not much of a future ahead of her. And yet she still experiences moments of genuine joy.
For a bestselling writer, alarmingly few of von Arnim’s novels have happy endings. What can we take away from her darker novels, such as Vera and The Pastor’s Wife, when thinking about happiness?
On the most basic level we can take away the fact that it is a mistake to depend on a male partner and marriage to provide a lifelong source of happiness. But beyond that I think is a deep mistrust of romantic love. In her first novel proper, The Benefactress, (I tend not to count the first two as novels) she pretty much fails at writing convincing love scenes. In her diary she reflected on her attempts: ‘Dislike love, loathe scenes.’ I think there may be more to that than a funny, throwaway line. And perhaps she dislikes love because she recognises how much of romance is an invention and resents the way men and women both contribute to an imaginary ‘forever’ love – which over the years has become an article of faith despite real life so often contradicting that faith. Perhaps von Arnim is playing the role of the apostate. She is no longer a believer. The interesting thing for me is that she doesn’t believe in love, but she does believe in happiness. (As women, of course, we have always been taught that one cannot exist without the other.)
Most of your books involve your family history or are based on personal experience. What is the attraction of life writing? And is there a connection between life writing and personal happiness?
I write about my own life and other people’s lives simply because at heart I am a documentarian, and I have no imagination of the fictional variety. I also find real life fascinating. I don’t feel the need for fantasy worlds. So I suppose the attraction is simply that it is something that I can do – my skills in other areas are limited. Perhaps life writing is a method of seeking out personal happiness. I don’t know.
In Falling Out of Love with Ivan Southall you meditate on the writing process and your disillusionment when returning to Southall’s young adult books as a mature writer. Has your perspective on von Arnim changed over the course of researching and writing your book?
I would say my perspective on von Arnim has enlarged over the course of researching and writing the book. It is clear that she also suffered a lot. (A number readers have responded to the book by saying ‘But she wasn’t very happy.’ This came as a surprise to me – I never imagined that people would take the title literally.) The more I got to know her through her diaries and letters, the more admired her even though I’m quite aware that she could also be a prickly character. She was, for example, incredibly naturally generous – a quality that is rare – always sharing her material as well as her spiritual wealth. Her secret, I think, was understanding the importance of reserving enough of her naturally happy temperament for herself – of not sharing absolutely everything. In fact, I think she makes a strong connection between secrets and happiness. (This is why I will be particularly interested to read the forthcoming In Defense of Secrets by Anne Dufourmantelle.)
Do you have any further plans for von Arnim?
At this stage I don’t although there is so much more to be said about her. If I were to get the opportunity to go to the Huntington Library where her archives are held, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to resist writing another instalment. We will see what Destiny has in store!
Thank you very much for the interview, Gabrielle.