Elizabeth von Arnim: The forgotten feminist who’s flowering again

Downton Abbey has given Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels a boost.

In Downton Abbey, Molesley, Mathew Crawley's valet, gave Elizabeth von Arnim's first novel, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, to saintly servant Anna (who is at that point mourning an absent Bates), in the hopes that an intimate tête-à-tête about the book will be conducive to romance. Anna hurriedly suggests a book group.

Published in 1898, Elizabeth and Her German Garden was a loosely autobiographical account of Von Arnim's life on her husband's Pomeranian estate, Nassenheide, and was unusual in the way that the sympathetic female narrator either cheerfully disregarded or, more often than not, gently mocked her husband and family. The book was a wild success and by 1899 it had run through 21 editions. She went on to publish more than 20 successful novels and yet, despite all this, her work now exists more or less under the radar.

However, all this may be about to change as in recent months she has been the subject of a discreet resurgence. It started with Virago's republication of Civil to Strangers and Other Writings, which contains the transcript of an interview, given by Barbara Pym to the BBC in 1978, in which she cites Von Arnim as an influence on her own disjunctively ironic style, calling novels The Enchanted April and The Pastor's Wife "a revelation in their wit and... dry, unsentimental treatment of the relationship between men and women." Von Arnim's second appearance of the summer was also thanks to Virago. This Enchanted April was republished as one of a quintet of designer hardbacks with a Liberty fabric cover made by Angie Lewin. Then in Radio 4's Open Book she was voted the most neglected female writer by its listeners. And last but not least, a few weeks ago she even got that fleeting reference on Downton Abbey.

Who was this writer then, so famous in her day and yet only quietly coming into our sights again now? Elizabeth Von Arnim was a member of the literary glitterati: her cousin was Katherine Mansfield; her children were tutored by E M Forster and Hugh Walpole; she was a lover of H G Wells and, perhaps as a consequence of the latter, disliked by Rebecca West (who was also a mistress of Wells). Born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Australia in 1866, daughter of an English merchant, she moved to England as a toddler and in due course studied at the Royal College of Music where she won a prize for organ playing. While sightseeing in Italy, she met Count von Arnim whom she married, and rendered as "The Man of Wrath" in her three memoir-cum-novels (Elizabeth and Her German Garden, The Solitary Summer and The Benefactress).

Von Arnim published a total of 21 novels before her death aged 74 in 1941, the bewildering variety of which makes them difficult to encapsulate. They range from the ebulliently escapist The Enchanted April (best imagined as a combination of Noël Coward, E M Forster and Frances Hodgson Burnett), to the sinister thriller Vera (a novel described by Virago Modern Classics editor, Donna Coonan, as bearing comparison to Du Maurier's Rebecca), to the witty and wistful histoire d'une femme The Pastor's Wife.

If one theme could be found to link all her work it is that of plants and flowers. Where Woolf said every woman needed a room of her own, Von Arnim would have said every woman needed a garden.

Oh, and for any eager Downton Abbey fans wondering why Julian Fellowes chose to single out Elizabeth and Her German Garden, I asked him and it was down to the book's huge popularity at the turn of the century – no secret significance to the plot, I'm afraid!

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower