A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
At last the world has a decent scholarly study of (some of) the novels of Elizabeth von Arnim. She has legions of fans, but no biography remains in print, and it is only recently that discussions of her works has begun to be deemed academically acceptable. Isobel Maddison has filled the breach with Beyond The German Garden, a very thorough study of key moments in von Arnim’s development as a writer, with proper attention to her historical context. An even better book would have studied of all of von Arnim’s fiction, in its historical and social context, packed with commentary from a German perspective as well as all her reviews, but that is probably too big a project.
What we get in Beyond the German Garden is a good solid in-depth discussion of a reasonable selection of von Arnim’s novels, on the German novels (ie the pre-First World War ones, including one I’d never heard of, Leaven of Malice), on the rarely mentioned Christine (1917), on the usual magnificent suspects Vera and Love, and, a pleasant surprise, on Expiation, which I’ve read, but not read about before. One chapter is devoted to the connections between the fiction of von Arnim and her second cousin Katherine Mansfield, and the last, a bit unexpectedly, tackles the film versions of Enchanted April and Mr Skeffington. Many of the other works are mentioned in less detail, so most of von Arnim’s fiction gets an airing. Sadly for von Arnim enthusiasts, this isn’t enough, since most of her oeuvre has been starved of critical opinion until very recently.
The arrangement of the book is little odd: it reads like a PhD thesis in the way it jumps from topic to topic, as if someone had told Maddison that she needed to demonstrate awareness of the power of reviews here, and do a bit on Mansfield there. (But, unlike the average PhD thesis, the writing is of a very high standard.) There seems no logical reason for the choice of the topics for the chapters: the resulting book is neither a comprehensive nor a complete account, nor a linear progression of themed arguments. All the chapters are good, but they give the effect of having been written at different times (with a few continuity errors) at different stages in the research.
Maddison may have made her choices of what she could study in depth based on what material she could get hold of, and how best to use the underexplored von Arnim archives in the USA. By choosing some of the more important works to analyse, she gives her book good backbone. She pays careful attention to context, perhaps too much care, because she is in danger of repeating herself with not one but three helpful discussions about the history of middlebrow. Rehearsing the arguments about the Brows and the build-up of critical opinion in the 1920s and 1930s against novels that entertained instead of instructed is definitely relevant, but we don’t need it three times over in different chapters.
For the von Arnim scholar this book will be essential reading, as nearly one third of it consists of the Finding Aid to von Arnim’s papers (the Countess Russell Papers) at the Huntington Library, California plus a vast bibliography and an excellent index. That resource alone is a seriously useful slice of literary correspondence from the early twentieth century, including von Arnim’s diaries, manuscripts and letters. For the ordinary reader, quite happy with a von Arnim on holiday or on a family-free afternoon, Beyond the German Garden is a very absorbing read that will send you right back to Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels.
Isobel Maddison, Elizabeth von Arnim. Beyond the German Garden (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2013), 978-1-4094-1167-3
Kate has podcasted about von Arnim’s The Caravaners on www.reallylikethisbook.com, which is probably her favourite von Arnim novel. She has never been able to finish Vera because it’s too scary.