I gave myself a stern talking-to before I started reading this book. After all, the subtitle is ‘In search of Elizabeth von Arnim’. I have often grumbled here about biography-as-search books, especially once the biographer starts talking about their own clothes and lunches. “You know you’re going to be reading a biography-as-search book here, when it’s in the title” I told myself. “So NO grumbling about researcher-emoting, food or clothes”.
I didn’t need to be so hard on myself. This book does none of these things. Yes, the author is very much present but it’s more a biography-as-memoir if I need to think of a hyphenated term for it. She engages at an intellectual and emotional level with the writings and life of Elizabeth von Arnim (the two were very closely associated), relating them to her own life. You learn about Elizabeth von Arnim, but you learn about Gabrielle Carey as well.
Gabrielle Carey. Gabrielle Carey? Where did I know that name from? I was part-way through when I remembered that Gabrielle Carey was one of the co-authors of Puberty Blues, the 1979 coming-of-age novel co-written with Kathy Lette (in fact, she mentions this). She has since written about her parents and the writers Randolph Stow and Ivan Southall.
Carey’s fascination started with Elizabeth von Arnim’s own writings:
My quest to learn more about Elizabeth von Arnim was born of an intense admiration of her writing, especially her light touch when satirising the men who were continually trying to thwart her irrepressible spirit. I was also fascinated by her ability to love, laugh and mother five children, while also managing to write a comic novel, on average, every year. somehow she could do all that and still find time to enjoy picnics and read poetry in the sun. The truth was that I wanted to be her: talented, accomplished, funny and also, fairly regularly, rapturously happyp.4
What attracted her was that von Arnim wrote about being happy – hence the title, which was the motto inscribed over the door of Elizabeth’s Swiss Chalet. At a time in her own life when she was not happy, Carey decided to re-read every one of von Arnim’s twenty-one books again:
The first time round I had read them for enjoyment and entertainment- because they made me laugh. This time I would read them with a question: what did Elizabeth von Arnim understand about happiness that no other writer I’ve ever come across did? And is it something I too might be able to learn?p.7
So, the book is a search for Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles for Happiness, which she nicely presents as a single page certificate at the end of the book. She finds nine: freedom, privacy, detachment, nature and gardens, physical exercise, a kindred spirit, sunlight, leisure and creativity. Each of these is discussed in turn throughout the book, appearing as a subheading in a book without chapters. This is not just a one-way distillation of wisdom from on high. Carey brings her own life to the search, particularly with the concept of ‘privacy’ which recent events prior to embarking on the book had brought to the front of her own consciousness.
Carey is not the first to write about von Arnim, and nor has she been the last, because Joyce Morgan’s The Countess from Kirrabilli (see my review here) has appeared even more recently. I had read Morgan’s book prior to this one, which probably took over some of the biographical heavy lifting for me. I’m not sure what it would have been like to read this book first, and then the Morgan biography.
Out of the two biographies, Carey gives a better feel for von Arnim’s writing, I think. Both writers quote from from von Arnim’s letters, but it was Carey’s book that propelled me to purchase an e-book of her collected works- and I’m loving it. Carey’s tone mirrors that of von Arnim’s: there’s a chuckle in her voice and an intimacy with the reader. I didn’t really get the sense from Morgan’s biography that von Arnim’s books were comedies, albeit dealing with some rather grim topics. Morgan has more about her relationships with her several daughters, while Carey focuses on her relationship with her estranged daughter Felicitas, making more overt the connection between the real life Elizabeth/Felicitas relationship, and the book Christine, written by von Arnim but published under a pseudonym.
It’s odd that I often, without meaning to, find myself reading books that address similar themes. I was reminded while reading this book, of Dale Kent’s The Most I Could Be (my review here). Both books share a clear-eyed assertion of sexual autonomy and an almost defiant ownership of decisions that others have criticized. And as for Carey’s wish to be Elizabeth von Arnim? Well, in her closing words, as she returns to her home in COVID lockdown after her research, she takes her lunch (hah! there’s food!) outside into the garden:
…as the world turned in turmoil, I lay in the dappled sunlight pretending I was Elizabeth von Arnim. And even though I was far from Elizabeth’s enchanted places- the Swiss Alps, the bay of Portofino, the south of France- I discovered that my own ordinary, unsophisticated suburban garden could also be a genuine place of enchantmentp.242
A garden, sunlight, leisure, freedom, privacy. Five out of von Arnim’s nine principles. That sounds pretty much like happiness to me.
My rating: 8.5/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.