Arnim, Mary Annette [May] von [née Mary Annette Beauchamp; known as Elizabeth von Arnim; other married name Mary Annette Russell, Countess Russell] (1866–1941), novelist
by Nicola Beauman

Arnim, Mary Annette [May] von [née Mary Annette Beauchamp; known as Elizabeth von Arnim; other married name Mary Annette Russell, Countess Russell] (1866–1941), novelist, was born on 31 August 1866, at Kiribili Point, Sydney, Australia, the daughter of Henry Herron Beauchamp (1825–1907), a trade and shipping merchant, and the beautiful and vivacious Elizabeth (Louey) Weiss Lassetter (1836–1919). Her English grandfather had preferred Romantic poetry to the family's long-established silversmith business and his seven sons had left for Australia to earn their living. May's maternal grandfather was a Baptist minister in Launceston, Tasmania. A New Zealand cousin, Kathleen Beauchamp (later Middleton Murry), would write under the name Katherine Mansfield. In 1871 the Beauchamps left Australia. They settled variously in Hampstead, London (Henry Beauchamp's childhood home), in Switzerland, and from 1874 to 1881 in Southgate, north London, where May went to Blythwood House School; it was a bustling, happy childhood although, as the youngest of four brothers, a sister, and an adopted cousin, she was often ignored and hence bookish. After a move to East Lodge, Uxbridge Road, Acton, Middlesex, in 1881, she attended Queen's College School, Horn Lane, Acton, as well as having organ lessons at the Royal College of Music, where she won a prize.

In 1889 her father took May abroad. In Rome she met Graf Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin (1851–1910), a recent widower, whose maternal grandfather was a nephew of Frederick the Great. Much taller than May (‘she was small in stature, with a very white face and a wimple of ash-gold hair’; Kunitz and Haycraft), the ‘Man of Wrath’, as she later immortalized him, was stout and dominant; nevertheless she ‘resolved to meet the challenge of sharing this unhappy man's life in a strange land’ (de Charms, 35). They married in London at St Stephen's, Kensington, on 21 February 1891 and went to live in Berlin; four years later they had three daughters, but relations between them were frosty and she began to take refuge in writing. After moving to Nassenheide, the house on the vast von Arnim estate, and in between managing a large and hectic household, Elizabeth (as she began calling herself) anonymously published Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898), a mixture of satire and pastoral idyll that became a best-seller.

In 1899 Elizabeth produced a fourth daughter and wrote another book and in 1902 gave birth to a son. The following years were divided between Pomerania, Berlin, and extended visits to England. Her husband's debts were also troublesome at this time; he was imprisoned for fraud, and The Benefactress (1902) partly deals with this. She also wrote, according to Hugh Walpole, ‘some of the wittiest novels in the English language’ (Usborne, 311), of which six were published between 1899 and 1910. Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) uses the topics of pastoralism, feminist protest, and life in provincial Germany but has a darker tone than previous books.

In 1908 Elizabeth left Nassenheide, settling first in Devon, then in London. The Caravaners (1909) describes a damp holiday with, among others, E. M. Forster (a Cambridge friend of Elizabeth's nephew Sydney Waterlow), who had briefly been tutor at Nassenheide. The house was sold in 1910; in August her husband died. Elizabeth decided to live in Switzerland (scene of her happiest times as a child), building the Château Soleil near Randogne-sur-Sierre, Valais. In London her play Priscilla Runs Away (1910, unpublished) had a successful run at the Haymarket Theatre; she was now ‘very much in the public eye … Friends and admirers crowded around’ (de Charms, 142), the chief of which was : their affair lasted for three years. Fourteen more books appeared between 1914 and her death, for example The Pastor's Wife (1914), funny and hard-hitting about the trials of married life.

Elizabeth now fell ‘deeply in love—for the first time in her life, perhaps’ (de Charms, 152) with , who may have been her lover some years before. In September 1914 the ‘Arnold’ family managed to escape to England and Elizabeth again became an English subject. On 11 February 1916 she became Countess Russell. Realizing almost at once that her marriage was ‘an act of consummate folly’ (de Charms, 181), she fled to America for a year, was reconciled with Russell on her return, but left him finally in March 1919. Meanwhile she had published Christine (1917) under the name Alice Cholmondeley. Purporting to be letters home from a girl in Berlin, it was viewed by some as anti-German propaganda; but it was meant partly as homage to Elizabeth's seventeen-year-old daughter who died in Germany in 1916. Vera (1921), Elizabeth von Arnim's masterpiece, is a ferocious and at times macabre indictment of Russell. The Enchanted April (1922) describes four Englishwomen seeking freedom from male tyranny at Portofino in Italy; it was filmed in 1991. Love (1925) was about her affair with , a future publisher thirty years her junior. Father (1931), The Jasmine Farm (1934), and Mr Skeffington (1940) were American Book of the Month Club choices; in these her customary exuberance and wit reflected deeper and darker themes. She now lived in London, Switzerland, and in France at her villa, Le Mas des Roses at Mougins, near Cannes; and, as Elizabeth, published the autobiographical All the Dogs of my Life (1936).

In 1939 Elizabeth went to the United States, where she died of influenza at the Riverside Infirmary, Charleston, South Carolina, on 9 February 1941. She was cremated at Lincoln Fort cemetery in Washington and in 1947 her ashes were mingled with her brother Sydney's in the churchyard of St Margaret's, Tylers Green, Penn, Buckinghamshire.

NICOLA BEAUMAN

Sources  

K. Usborne, ‘Elizabeth’: the author of ‘Elizabeth and her German garden’ (1986) · L. de Charms, Elizabeth of the German garden: a biography (1958) · Elizabeth [E. von Arnim], All the dogs of my life (1936) · S. J. Kunitz and H. Haycraft, eds., Twentieth century authors: a biographical dictionary of modern literature (1942) · A. Alpers, The life of Katherine Mansfield (1980) · m. cert.

Archives  

Hunt. L., journals, letters, and literary MSS |  BL, corresp. with Macmillan, Add. MSS 54949–54950


Likenesses  

portrait, repro. in Usborne, ‘Elizabeth’, following p. 182


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Mary Annette von Arnim (1866–1941): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/35883