Saturday 14 November 2020

Only Happiness Here | Gabrielle Carey #AWW


Gabrielle Carey, with this book about Elizabeth von Armin, had the honour of being the very first author event by zoom, that I participated in during this Covid year. Also in attendance was Lisa from ANZLitLovers, who had alerted me to the event in the first place. It was lovely to be able to wave hello to someone I knew before proceedings started proper. For a thorough account of the author talk, please read Lisa's post here.

I had not read Only Happiness Here prior to the event, but it was high on my list for AusReading Month possibilities. By the end of the discussion, though, with Jessica White, it had moved up to be next on the pile! As had my desire to read Elizabeth and Her German Garden

Only Happiness Here refers to the sign that Elizabeth von Armin had over the door of her Swiss chalet. As Carey states in her book, Elizabeth may have been one of the 'earliest proponents of positive psychology.' It was this approach to happiness that attracted Carey. Enough so for her to reread all twenty-one of von Armin's books before embarking on a trip to the British Library to read her letters and diaries as well.

This is very firmly in the camp of biblio-memoir or bio-memoir. Carey is very much a part of the story, as she rereads the books and interprets what she finds there. It is also her personal search for happiness and peace of mind, as she delves into von Armin's life, looking for clues or signs on how to be happy. 
My quest was about how to understand Elizabeth's temperament and her way of seeing things, how she maintained such buoyancy, such apparent relish of daily living.

She eventually hits upon nine Principles of Happiness According to Elizabeth von Armin - freedom, privacy, detachment, nature & gardens, physical exercise, a kindred spirit, sunlight, leisure and finally, creativity. 

Carey developed each principle into a chapter or section that interspersed von Armin's writing with known facts about her life. Of which, there are not as many as a biographer would usually like. This was all part of von Armin's desire to remain very private, and happy. Towards the end of her life, she burned a large number of her 'notes and diaries in what she referred to as "the holocaust"'. Which, naturally, leads the rest of us to surmising stuff about how she felt and thought via the actions and words of her characters. 

So the first fact many of you may not know about Elizabeth is that she was born in Australia. In the prestigious suburb of Kirribilli in Sydney, to be precise, on the 31st August, 1866. She was christened Mary Annette Beauchamp, and known as May by her family and friends. Her home for the first three years of her life was most likely Beulah House (converted into an apartment block in 1908 and now only remembered by the name of nearby Beulah St and wharf). I've said it before, but Australians are hopeless at commemorating the birth places and homes of our well-known authors.

Her father, Henry Heron Beauchamp, came from an artistic, well-to-do family in London. He emigrated to Australia in 1850 to set up a business as a shipping merchant. His business thrived and in 1855 he married Elizabeth Weiss Lassetter (known as Louey). All six of the Beauchamp children were born in Sydney.

One of Henry's brothers, Arthur, moved with his young family to New Zealand in 1869. His son Harold is the father of Katherine Mansfield, making May and Katherine first cousins once removed. Katherine's last letter, before her untimely death, was to her cousin May.

In 1870, Henry and his Lassetter brother-in-law, decided to move their families back to the Continent. Enjoying three years in Switzerland together, before settling in London.

As May got older, she kept her Australian heritage very quiet. Any odd accent or 'twang' that people noticed in her voice, she would put down to 'Irish connections'.

Being a 'colonial' in class-conscious England was not much fun and could often be a hindrance to making one's way into good society. Curiously, this slur of the 'convict stain' still loomed large in the imagination of many of the Brits that I got to know in the year I lived in London (1991). I imagine that the 'good-natured' ribbing I received was a watered down version of attitudes a hundred years prior.

Carey wonders if May's 'awareness of her Australianness (was) just another one of Elizabeth's deep secrets?'

She married Count Henning August von Armin-Schlagenthin on the 6th February, 1891, effectively becoming a Prussian Countess overnight. She had three daughters in quick succession - Eva (1891), Elisabeth (1893) and Beatrix (1894), after which, the Count was apparently banished from her bedroom...until 1899 when Felicitas was born, then Henning-Bernd in 1902.

At the beginning of 1898, she sent her first manuscript, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, off to the publishers. It was published in September of that year under the pen-name, Elizabeth. After an initial celebratory remark in her diary, the following days were scrawled angrily with 'rows with H'. May never provided any detail about these rows, which leaves the reader to look for clues in her novels.
If happiness was something she often enjoyed privately, depression was also something she believed should be borne individually....Elizabeth believed that sharing misery only increased the gloom and risked infecting others

We know some of the basic facts about the less happy times in Elizabeth's life - the Count's arrest for embezzlement, the death of Felicitas as a teenager, her fear of ageing, the loss of their family home in Pomerania and Henning's sudden death in 1910 - but not how May felt about them. Once again, the only clues are in her books when her characters go through similar experiences.

Despite times of depression and sadness, May continued to find joy and solace in nature, especially gardens and appreciating beauty.

The rest of her books where published with the tag 'by the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden' causing a lifetime of supposition and speculation in literary circles, although her friends, like E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells and Bertrand Russell, were well aware of her writing.

I finished Carey's book with a very strong desire to get to know May better. I will try to source her two more recent biographies, but in the meantime, I will start at the beginning of EvA's oeuvre with Elizabeth and Her German Garden, which will have the happy coincidence of counting for an #AusReadingMonth title as well as the #NovNov challenge.

Did Carey also find happiness in the end?

Like the rest of us, and like May, the answer is yes and no.
The trick, it seems, is to focus on the happy.
Not long after, the lockdown was announced and during the weeks of working from home, I took to having lunch under the frangipani tree. Oftentimes, following my salad and cheese and seeded bread, I stretched out on the picnic blanket, and as the world turned in turmoil, I lay in the dappled sunlight pretending I was Elizabeth von Armin.

Elizabeth von Arnim Monument in Buk, Poland



  1. I must read for me. I have been fascinated by her ever since I read Elizabeth and Her German Garden, which I think is a wonderful book. Thank you for the tip.

    1. I've just finished EAHGG this past week - it was utterly delightful! Looking forward to reading more of her work (& rereading Enchanted April) one day soon too.

  2. This isn’t someone I’m familiar with, thank you for the introduction

    1. Elizabeth is a real treat to read, I hope you enjoy her too.

  3. I really enjoyed your post. I’ll have to read this bio of Elizabeth. In 2013 I came upon Elizabeth von Armin’s Enchanted April. I liked it so much that I read several more of her books, in succession. I read: The Solitary Summer, Elizabeth and her German garden, In the Mountains and the Pastor’s Wife. This was at the end of 2013 and then I moved to other authors. I still have a couple to read from Elizabeth, I have The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen and The Benefactress. All the ones I read were quite fun to read.

    1. I can see how, EvA could become an author you would want to read as many of her books as possible! She has a joyous style, a bit cheeky, a bit sly and with a huge amount of beauty and nature thrown in for good measure.
      I've just finished Elizabeth and Her German Garden with a great deal of delight :-)

  4. Do you think we should claim her as Australian? If an Englishwoman moved to Australia and set her books in Australia, we would claim her, eg Jane Harper. Although we also claim Evie Wyld which to me is just plain ridiculous, though unlike von Armin (apparently) she is not too afraid to at least say the word Australia. My opinion is that von Armin chose to be not-Australian. Bill
    (love the idea of the bio-memoir though)

    1. I do find it hard to see her as Australian, I must say.

    2. It is a very tenuous link, I agree, but I'm not sure where she would claim as home either. She never really felt like she belonged anywhere, except in a garden. She lived in Switzerland, London, Berlin, Prussia, Switzerland again, England, south of France and finally the US.
      My main thing is that whenever I travel overseas, plaques stating that so-and-so was born here, lived here, died here are everywhere, celebrating local writers and artists. Even the Sydney Writers Walk around Circular Quay has some rather dubious connections with the likes of James A Michiner, Charles Darwin and Anthony Trollope, simply because they visited once or wrote a passage in a book about Australia once, but no EvA.

  5. I love Elizabeth von Arnim and have read several of her books. Elizabeth and her German Garden was my first, b back in the very early 1980s. I'm really sorry that all that I've read were read before blogging so she doesn't appear on my blog.

    I have another biography of her that was published just a few years ago. I'd like to read Carey's as I like that style of biography, but I should read the one I actually have!

    1. I'm certainly to keen to read a more straight down the line bio, with more references to letters and diaries (the ones EvA didn't destroy before she died) and memories of family and friends. Certainly her affair with HG Wells and friendships with Bertram Russell and E M Forster are intriguing. I think she may have been quite a difficult personality to live with, but they often are the ones most fun to read about!

  6. I am keeping a short list of my favorite all time books and her Enchanted April is on it. I also read her Elizabeth and her German Garden, and I followed the link you gave which shows a painting of the home where she was born. Fascinating. The question of how we decide which country claims an author is complex; it seems that country of birth is a deciding factor.

    1. Obviously their time in Sydney was a productive and happy time. Her father made his fortune, he experienced love and marriage, friendship and babies. They lived in one of the more exclusive areas of Sydney.
      I'm really not sure we could say that EvA was an Australian through and through though (whatever that means anyway!)
      She seemed to embrace her Continental literary lifestyle, something she could not have done to that degree in Australia at the time (or any time really). Seeing Australia as a cultural back-water to be escaped at all costs, is actually a very Australian thing to do!!


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