'Betwixt and Between': Reading von Arnim Writing Elizabeth

Juliane Römhild

La Trobe University, Australia

When Elizabeth von Arnim, as she came to be known, published Elizabeth and her German Garden in 1898, she was hardly prepared for the eleven reprints that her debut novel would see in the first year alone. It was the first bestseller of a very successful and productive writing career that would span four decades. In Elizabeth and her German Garden a young and rather unconventional Prussian Countess keeps a diary about her life on a remote country estate near the Baltic Sea. Each entry spreads into a rambling essay on gardening, her family, unwelcome domestic obligations, outlandish German traditions and the beauty of the rugged East Prussian landscape. Besides writing about bulbs and babies, Elizabeth, von Arnim’s delightful alter ego, talks about books and the joys of a library of one’s own. In 1899, the market-savvy von Arnim published a sequel, called The Solitary Summer. In this book she elaborates, among other things, on the pleasures of reading, her favourite authors and the companionship found in books when neighbours, friends and family are less than congenial company. Like its predecessor The Solitary Summer was a great success. To state that Elizabeth von Arnim wrote a middlebrow bestseller before the term was even coined would be less than original. Although commonly assumed to originate in the inter-war years, Susan Bernstein has explored the gendered Victorian concept of literary “browing” and Jennifer Shepherd has identified von Arnim as an early proponent of a middlebrow culture beginning to develop long before the phenomenon was labelled as such. In this essay I will examine Elizabeth’s reading practice in the light of the complex affiliations between Aestheticism, middle-class commodity culture, New Woman feminism and a budding middlebrow literary culture. Moreover, by tracing Elizabeth’s aesthetic, literary and feminist allegiances through her reading, it will become possible to arrive at conclusions about von Arnim’s own understanding of authorship and her relationship with an implied community of readers.

In her study on The Forgotten Female Aesthetes, in which von Arnim is included, Talia Schaffer reminds us that during a period teeming with social and literary possibilities, categorical blinkers may result in missing the subtler aspects of literary interconnections:

Though today we may see the late-Victorian period as consisting of separate clumps of aesthetes, naturalists, New Women, decadents, canonical authors, popular novelists, and so forth, it is vital to remember that during this period these writers enjoyed multiple, flexible, social, and professional networks. (Schaffer, 16)

This was certainly true for von Arnim, who, after the death of her husband, spread her wings as a celebrated society hostess, entertaining friendships (and affairs) with writers and artists as diverse as H.G. Wells, Violet Paget, Katherine Mansfield, Bertrand Russell, George Santayana, Ethel Smyth and Hugh Walpole. So, instead of deepening the intricate and embattled faultlines of the high- and the middlebrow, I suggest an examination of Elizabeth’s reading habits as part of a multifaceted, polyvalent intellectual self-constitution. Navigating the meridian shallows of literary ambition on the one hand, and a public opinion that in 1898 still considers reading “an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time” (Elizabeth and Her German Garden, 38) [1] on the other, Elizabeth reads and writes “betwixt and between”. Reminiscent of Woolf’s famous castigation of the middlebrow reader, Elizabeth seems to “amble and saunter” now on this side, now on the other side of the hedges in her garden. She constantly criss-crosses the imaginary boundaries between the high- and the middlebrow “in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself” (Woolf, "Middlebrow", 199), mixing both in a rather pleasurable and, what is more, for her author financially profitable manner.

Reading is a most important factor in Elizabeth’s continuous endeavour to maintain her slightly eccentric sense of self, which is constantly under threat of being muted by convention. In a bold move she has occupied the library of her Pomeranian castle and declared it her own. The valour of her gleeful self-presentation as the rightful owner of the study becomes more apparent when considering the semantics of domestic space. Victoria Rosner has examined the key-function of the library as the traditional male refuge from the family and the demands of the outside world. It is the space where patriarchal power flaunts its cultural hegemony and sense of historical entitlement in the shape of filled bookshelves. In von Arnim's later novel Vera the petty patriarch Everard Wemyss will lock not only his books in glass cases, but also himself in his library in moments of distress. Elizabeth has occupied this coveted space and sent her husband, the Man of Wrath, to “a series of very smoky dens in the south-east corner of the house” (EGG, 86). She has also refurnished the room according to her own tastes. Abhorring Wilhelminian stuffiness, she has replaced the traditionally dark and heavy furniture and banned the thick blinds and leather. White and yellow are the predominant colours. The atmosphere in Elizabeth’s library is so fresh and gay that she should not be surprised if her venerable volumes “skipped down from their places, and, picking up their leaves, began to dance” (EGG, 87). As a physical representation of Elizabeth’s personality, this is a reading room which begs to differ. Counting Walter Pater among her treasured literary possessions, Elizabeth’s description of the stylish decoration of her library, complete with flowers on the desk, indicates a preoccupation with interior design strongly influenced by Aesthetic tastes. No other room in the house is depicted in such detail; it is the centre of her home. Upon her return from a trip to England she says, “I ran through all the rooms, eager to take possession of them again, and feeling as though I had been away for ever. When I got to the library I came to a standstill … ‘Oh, how good it is to be home again!’ I sighed in my satisfaction” (EGG, 85f.). The study is her spiritual sanctuary, shelter and repose from a society which does not easily accept her:

I went into the library, with its four windows open to the moonlight and the scent, and looked round at the familiar bookshelves, and could hear no sounds but sounds of peace, and knew that here I might read or dream or idle exactly as I chose with never a creature to disturb me, how grateful I felt to the kindly Fate that has brought me here and given me a heart to understand my own blessedness. (EGG:39f.)

A photo of von Arnim’s library, which was included in the illustrated editions of The Solitary Summer, shows low and open shelves along the walls and underneath the windows. Unlike Everard Wemyss’ locked bookcases, Elizabeth’s volumes are organised on the principle of convenience and easy accessibility. Taste is tempered with functionality and beauty seasoned by personal preference, leading to balance between comfort and cultivation in the service of the owner of this library. Elizabeth’s organisation of her books in The Solitary Summer serves as a first indicator of her general approach towards literature and its creators. Elizabeth’s most beloved volumes are put up around a column lined with bookshelves in the middle of the room. “What a medley of books there is round my pillar!” (The Solitary Summer, 34) [2] she exclaims: Heinrich Heine resides next to Jane Austen, Ruskin, Lubbock, Izaak Walton, Walter Pater, Matthew Arnold, Thoreau, Marcus Aurelius, Gibbon, Boswell, Pepys – to name just a few of a rather impressive list of writers covering fields as diverse as archaeology, history, zoology, art criticism and the classics. She claims to own not one but several editions of Goethe.

Elizabeth does not present herself as the stereotypical lending-library addict. She is a studious, almost encyclopaedic reader. Indeed, her reading list holds up to biographical scrutiny. Far from being a mere wish list, it turns out to be a rather precise account of von Arnim’s own reading. The University Library of Toulon, France, holds a small of part of von Arnim’s private library, which permits tentative conclusions about von Arnim’s own voracious reading habits. [3] While we may safely assume that, like Elizabeth, she did own several editions of Goethe and was familiar with the literary classics of her day, the collection confirms her wide-ranging interests. Up to the acquisition note of the year 1900, the collection contains, among other books, the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in a translation by Alice Zimmern, the controversial Ecce Homo by J.R. Seeley and two different editions of Herbert Spencer’s weighty The Data of Ethics as well as Ruskin’s Praeteria and Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy as a present from her sister Charlotte. Seeley’s Goethe and biographies of Coleridge, Shelley, Charles Lamb and others indicate intellectual and literary interests far beyond the educational requirements of well-bred young ladies, which is noteworthy since von Arnim’s formal education had been sketchy at best.

Endowed with considerable cultural capital by her respectable degree of erudition, Elizabeth can afford to be self-confident and even irreverent in her literary judgment. As it turns out, her admiration for the canonical dead white male is rather unreliable. Elizabeth creates her own private canon, basing it, in a paradoxical move, not on the concept of objective qualitative criteria but on her own subjective experience. Allowing for personal growth, it is open to changes of taste. Her books are moved accordingly to and from the column. In fact, the greatest thunderer of the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle, has not stood the test of time after Elizabeth’s youthful enthusiasm has faded:

When my hair was very long, and my skirts very short, … I sat in the paternal groves with Sartor Resartus, and felt full of wisdom and Weltschmerz; and even after I married, when we lived in town, and the noise of his thunderings was almost drowned by the rattle of droschkies over the stones in the street below, he still shone forth a bright, particular star. (SS, 31f.)

Over the years her ears have apparently grown more sensitive and now she feels ‘completely deafened’ (SS, 32) by Carlyle’s vehement rhetoric. Von Arnim’s stress on personal development, and possibly self-improvement, ties in with contemporary Aesthetic appreciation of “personality”, which Shepherd discusses as a forerunner of the middleclass – and middlebrow – concept of self-cultivation (The Art of Modern Living, 132f.), so central to the modernist narrative of progress. Indeed, von Arnim’s diary novels come alive only through the capricious and enchanting personality of their first person narrator. Elizabeth’s vignettes of gardening and family life do not hold much excitement in themselves; the scattered diary entries do not build up into a regular a plotline and her withdrawn existence offers no greater thrills than the blossoming of the lilacs. Elizabeth’s narrative is carried by its protagonist’s unique view on the world alone. Her dislike of Carlyle may not be terribly original; her style, however, is: 

I feel constrained to inquire sternly who I am that I should talk in this unbecoming manner of Carlyle? To which I reply that I am … devoid of the least real desire to criticise anybody, and merely anxious to get out of the way of geniuses when they make too much noise. All I want is to read quietly the books that I at present prefer. Carlyle is shut up now and therefore silent on his comfortable shelf; yet who knows but what in my old age, when I begin to feel really young, I may not once again find comfort in him? (SS:33f.)

Without batting an eye, Carlyle is dismissed as a comforting, not enlightening read, suitable for either the youthful or senile reader. Carlyle’s passionate rhetoric is dismissed as over-emotional and unreasonable. Such rather unmanly if not effeminate characteristics are not easily forgiven by von Arnim, either in literature or in life, particularly in conjunction with the quality most alien to her writing: pathos. Carlyle is dismissed as, quite literally, pathetic.[4] Elizabeth’s advocacy of self-restraint and moderation is a recurrent theme with regard to reading. Implicitly drawing on the common Victorian association of reading material with food and dangerously unregulated female desires, Elizabeth ironically notes that she would love to read all day long with only a biscuit in her pocket for physical nourishment. She regrets having to interrupt her reading for the contemptible German convention of a warm lunch “where the soul is stifled by asparagus and cutlets and revengeful sweet things” (SS, 26). In her ironic attempt at distancing herself from the proverbial female devourer of the “strawberry ices of literature [that] glow on every railway bookstall” (Ridding qtd. in Flint, 52), Elizabeth not only rises above the “dangerous ‘craving for sensation’ … linked to rampant consumerism” (Bernstein, 217), but in her contempt for the sacred ritual of the family dinner she also waves good-bye to Patmore’s Angel in the House (of which von Arnim owned a copy) and any notions of a feminine renunciation of judgment, or of intellectual subordination.
By now it should have become apparent how controlled and carefully crafted von Arnim’s seemingly careless narrative about her bookish countess really is. Her attention to detail is reflected in her careful choice of Elizabeth’s books. Despite the strong autobiographical character of the novels, Elizabeth’s reading list is as carefully modeled as her character. It is notable that works of lesser literary merit are conspicuously absent from Elizabeth’s library. We may presume that von Arnim really shelved her Chapman edition of Carlyle’s works (a wedding present from her husband) in a remote corner of the library; however, Elizabeth’s purported literary tastes are by no means a representative reflection of von Arnim’s own reading. While Elizabeth may flirtatiously reveal her fondness for children’s and gardening books, von Arnim judiciously omitted from Elizabeth’s reading list some of the popular novels found in her own library, such as E.F. Benson’s The Capsina, Gilbert Paker’s romantic novel The Battle of the Strong, or The Untold Half by “Alien,” who also signed for works with such intriguing titles as A Daughter of the King or In Golden Shackles. Some of her books bear the labels of Mudie’s Lending Library. The difference between author and protagonist becomes even more apparent when one considers that von Arnim herself seems to have preferred demanding philosophical and scientific works not in the original but in introductions tailored to the educated but not necessarily academically-minded reader.[5] Ingesting the classics in translation and scientific and philosophical works in popularised form was one of the criteria commonly assumed to separate the ambitious middlebrow reader from the classically educated elite. As if her wide-ranging interests were not impressive enough in themselves, von Arnim makes sure that, in keeping with Elizabeth’s idealised and slightly removed persona, her protagonist’s literary tastes remain impeccably highbrow and learned in their confinement to originals and highly acclaimed fictional classics, displaying a thorough disregard for the more sensational literary fare of her day.            

It is up to the reader to interpret von Arnim’s restrictive literary politics as a sign of insecurity in the budding novelist. Elizabeth’s character is marked by an appealing mixture of irreverence and defiance about her passion for books supposedly beyond her intellectual reach. With false demureness Elizabeth claims to have of the philosopher Herbert Spencer “only as much of him as I hope I understand and am afraid I do not” – giving an ironic twist to the observation that middlebrow readers are “people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like” (Punch qtd. in OED). Despite von Arnim’s careful efforts to construct Elizabeth’s apparently effortless literary self-assurance, her protagonist’s attitude is reminiscent of Humble’s description of the middlebrow reader who “laid claim to the highbrow by assuming an easy familiarity with its key texts and attitudes, while simultaneously caricaturing intellectuals as self-indulgent and naïve” (Humble, 29). After a morning spent reading Thoreau at a secluded spot, Elizabeth describes her return to the house:

Back we go together through the rye, he carefully tucked under one arm, while with the other I brandish a bunch of grass to keep off the flies that appear directly we emerge into the sunshine. ‘Oh, my dear Thoreau,’ I murmur sometimes, overcome by the fierce heat of the little path at noonday and the persistence of the flies, ‘did you have flies at Walden to exasperate you? And what became of your philosophy then?’ (SS:25)

While this passage does perhaps not indicate a middlebrow “anti-intellectualism” (Shepherd, 192) exactly, it does speak of a grounded, common-sense approach antithetical to the single-mindedness of Thoreau’s philosophy. Von Arnim could be credited with having created the paradoxical figure of a middlebrow reader of highbrow literature.

In her illuminating article on American book ownership in the twenties, Megan Benton points out how American critics and book lovers, in their attempts at distinguishing their true love for books from the ornamental treatment of literature by the cultural aspirant, fell back onto strategies which, in the end, made it impossible to tell them apart from their less cultured nemesis, the middlebrow reader. One of their key arguments was to claim close personal familiarity with their favourite works (Benton, 290). Elevating books from expensive status symbol to personal friends, they thus accidentally undermined the awe-inspiring cultural prestige of literature by promoting their cultural superiority through mass-marketing’s default strategy of emotionalising the product. Elizabeth turns out to be an early example of this twisted logic. Books are her declared friends in a social environment that proves to be less inspiring than could be wished for. She mockingly worries about their well-being on the shelf: “Here is Jane Austen leaning against Heine – what would she have said to that, I wonder?” (SS, 34). Shepherd examines von Arnim’s rhetorical personification of books in the context of author branding and literary marketing, suggesting that von Arnim’s own readers would be encouraged to enter into a similar dialogical relationship with the brand “Elizabeth”. Moreover, Humble points out the prominent intertextuality of many middlebrow novels (47), in which reading depicted as a “life-enhancing, joyous experience, and one that serves to bind the woman reader into a community of other readers through an almost cultish involvement with favourite books” (9). Indeed, the contact with this imagined community of readers seems to be one of the main motivations for Elizabeth’s writing. As her personal relationships seem to be largely unsatisfying, her diary entries are reminiscent of letters to an anonymous readership of potentially kindred spirits that Elizabeth misses among her acquaintances. Yet, as always with Elizabeth, her wistful yearnings are undercut by irony:

I wish we were not so easily affected by each other’s looks. Sometimes, during the course of a long correspondence with a friend, he grows to be inexpressibly dear to me; I see how beautiful his soul is, how fine his intellect, how generous his heart, and how he already possesses in great perfection those qualities of kindness, and patience, and simplicity, after which I have been so long and so vainly striving. … Then I meet him again, and all illusions go. He is what I had always found him when we were together, good and amiable; but some trick of manner, some feature or attitude that I do not quite like, makes me forget, and be totally unable to remember, what I know from his letters to be true of him. (SS, 52)

A Wildean disdain for human imperfection seems to inform this passage, that could also be interpreted as a typically middlebrow sense of self-deprecatory humour in the spirit of the Provincial Lady, much in keeping with the middlebrow imagination in which “the biggest social sin … is that of taking oneself too seriously” (Humble, 48). And sure enough, the Man of Wrath murmurs in response to Elizabeth’s lament something about “women and nonsense” (SS, 53). 

Elizabeth’s purported friendship with books and readers alike is notable in yet another respect. Unlike the classic bibliophile, she does not seem concerned with rare editions or expensive binding. Her books “soon lose the gloss of their new coats, and put on the comfortable look of old friends in every-day clothes, under the frequent touch of affection. They are such special friends that I can hardly pass them without a nod and a smile at the well-known covers” (SS, 36). Supported by mental nobility, which in Elizabeth’s case is conveniently bred and not bought, von Arnim’s protagonist can afford the understated elegance of the truly aristocratic spirit that need not boast costly laces, but will make itself known to the discerning eye by the sheer quality of cut and fabric. In the case of her own works von Arnim seems to have pursued a similar strategy. Her correspondence with her publisher Macmillan shows her as a self-confident business woman, very much concerned with the different aspects of book design and marketing. For her first book she asked for “cloth, perfectly plain, with nothing at all in the shape of a design, in pale grey green & white lettering” (von Arnim, 5 June 1898). Aware of the possible marketing bracket for her book, she wanted the design to be similar to Alfred Austin’s The Garden that I Love. Content with the result, she requested the same binding for The Solitary Summer in order to create the impression of a series. Andrew H. Miller has pointed out that Victorian authors had been increasingly aware of the changing status of books as commodities since the middle of the century (7f.). Book design had become important long before the home and garden journals of the interwar years explicitly recommended books for their ornamental qualities. As early as 1861, Mudie’s, already a major institution in the literary marketplace, cleverly exploited the decorative aspect of their traded goods. The walls of the “Great Hall” at their main branch in Oxford Street required

no ceramic decorations, for they are lined with books, which themselves glow with colour. Here, perchance, a couple of thousand volumes of Livingstone’s Travels glow with green; there stands a wall of light blue, representing the supply of some favourite novel; then again, a bright red hue running half across the room testifies to the enormous demand for some work of adventure. (Mudie’s Circulating Library qtd. in Roberts, 6)

Von Arnim’s marketing instincts did not let her down. Even two decades later Margery Doud advised readers in Books for the Home that “for those hot summer days … there are some thin little, cool little, unpretentious green books with which one may dream away a lazy afternoon” (qtd. in Benton, 283), which is exactly what a reviewer of Elizabeth and Her German Garden recommended doing with von Arnim’s green novel: “It is a book read lying somewhere under the trees, ‘with none to supervise.’” (World  17 May 1899).

Elizabeth’s success, of course, did not only have to do with the appealing colour scheme of her books. Flaunting the refined sensibilities of an aesthetic mind, Elizabeth debunks the potentially alienating arrogance of the aesthete in her joyful irreverence. At the same time, she lends her reading practices a sophisticated air by posing as the competent literary connoisseur. Books, she says, “have their idiosyncrasies as well as people, and will not show me their full beauties unless the place and time in which they are read suits them” (SS, 26). While Boswell is most enjoyable in the library itself with the windows shut, Keats should be read in the forest and Goethe requires an idyllic garden bench and a flowerbed where the fatigued reader can refresh her eyes and mind. Thoreau is taken at his word and Elizabeth enjoys reading him most at a lonely pond in the East Prussian wilderness. He will, she writes, “refuse to give you much pleasure if you try to read him amid the pomp and circumstance of upholstery; but out in the sun, and especially by this pond, he is delightful, and we spend the happiest hours together” (SS, 23). Elizabeth presents herself as an expert reader, posing as the lonely Romantic who befits her reading. And yet, once again, this aesthetic enthusiasm is multifaceted. By stressing the importance of the right setting for different books, literature’s own exclusive power to transport the reader into a different world is implicitly undermined. Elizabeth’s recommendations for the right reading atmosphere are forerunners of the much more shameless commodification of the book by home and garden journals some twenty years later: “’Who would not better enjoy the splendid measures of Milton … in the perfumed air from a great bowl of roses on a table nearby?’ one writer sighed, adding that, for best results, ‘Walt Whitman should be read when lilacs bloom’” (Benton, 281). Apart from the fact that Elizabeth prefers her Whitman “in the evening … by the rose beds” (SS, 29), the similarities in tone and sentiment are striking.

However, her reading habits cause friction with the literary peers to whom this enjoyable method of reception is applied. In a letter to her father von Arnim writes about her first impression of Thoreau ’s Walden: “I don’t object to the number of woodchucks in it, but I think there are too many ponds – about one third of it is of ponds. But the other parts I thought very charming …. He must have been complete and perfect” (von Arnim, 26 March 1897). It remains doubtful whether the object of her admiration would have appreciated the compliment of being “charming”. Even though Thoreau holds a special place in Solitary Summer, Elizabeth is by no means Thoreau’s implied reader. In Walden Thoreau elaborates on his ideal reader who will “read true books in a true spirit”. This, he explains,

is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole of life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. (101)

In his single-minded fervour Thoreau envisions the act of reading as an elitist and highly exclusive pursuit, in its devotional aspect reminiscent of worship and clearly devoid of any recreational aspects. Few may hope to attain this high-strung if lop-sided ideal and certainly not Elizabeth, who has never received any academic training. Moreover, Elizabeth seems by definition barred from Thoreau’s potential circle of devoted initiates for she is of the wrong gender. In Walden Thoreau devises a misogynist linguistic theory that explicitly favours the written word, which he identifies as his “father tongue”, over the “mother tongue” which is “commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers” (101). Sarah Ann Wilder sums up her irritation about Thoreau’s treatment of the female reader in a disgruntled question: “What prospect is there then … for any woman to become the esteemed ‘alert and heroic reader’” (168). Elizabeth is fully aware that she is not Thoreau’s target audience:

During his life, I imagine he would have refused to notice anything so fatiguing as an ordinary German woman, and never would have deigned discourse to me on the themes he loved best; but now his spirit belongs to me, and all he thought, and believed, and felt, and he talks as much as intimately to me here in my solitude as he ever he did to his dearest friends years ago in Concord. (SS,24)

Defying Thoreau’s presumed disdain for German woman readers, Elizabeth speaks as the unbidden newcomer to the rarefied atmosphere of a literary community far removed from her own Pomeranian circles. This seemingly inconspicuous passage, easily dismissed as light-hearted banter, is remarkable for several reasons. Elizabeth’s implicitly mercenary attitude reduces books, the venerable embodiments of learnedness, to rather helpless commodities, destined to display their beauties to whoever opens their pages. This commodification of the book allows Elizabeth to present herself as a discerning, self-confident consumer. Instead of worshipping at the temple of the written word, as Thoreau suggests, she enjoys his monologues like a performance. Her repeated use of audio-related metaphors – Thoreau “talks to her” – and his implied physical presence infuse the process of reading with an entertaining immediacy commonly attributed only to the first mass-medium: film. The “visceral immediacy” (Humble, 8) of her cinematic reading practice is best exemplified by her reception of Goethe. Elizabeth’s middlebrow response to some of the most complex works in German literature is primarily emotional, and arrived at in a setting not unlike that of a movie theatre:       

I read Goethe on a special seat, sheltered from the north winds … and shaded by the low-hanging branches of a great beech-tree from more than flickering sunshine. … here I shed invariably tears over Werther, however often I read it; here I wade through Wilhelm Meister, and sit in amazement before the complications of the Wahlverwandtschaften; here I am plunged in wonder and wretchedness by Faust; and here I sometimes walk up and down in the shade and apostrophise the tall firs at the bottom of the glade in the opening soliloquy of Iphigenia. (SS,29)

In the case of Thoreau this level of identification is not so easily achieved, and the performative immediacy in her response to books is possibly only through a radical reversal of the relationship between tradition and individual talent. Turning the tables, Elizabeth describes the process of reading as an inversed hierarchy with herself clearly in charge. Her happy hours in Thoreau’s company are passed by him “making statements, and I either agreeing heartily, or just laughing and reserving my opinion till I shall have more ripely considered the thing” (SS:23). She may not be his friend, but on the strength of her possession of his book Thoreau’s “spirit … and all he thought, and believed, and felt” now belong to her as well. This sweeping declaration of ownership seems to betray a sense of unease about her literary eavesdropping. One might detect a certain amount of aggression behind Elizabeth’s apparently childlike delight in hyperboles, indicating a continued insecurity about her status not only as a female reader, but more importantly, as a writer. Her thwarted love for Thoreau is manifest in her own style.

The structure of The Solitary Summer resembles Walden in the concentrated explorations of different aspects of a secluded country life. In her ecstatic description of the natural beauties of the Baltic coast and her praise of solitude, von Arnim’s writing is clearly informed by Thoreau. Her description of a picnic excursion to the coast of the Baltic in wintertime is in mood and personal perspective reminiscent of Thoreau:

It is a beautiful spot, endless forest stretching along the shore as far as the eye can reach; and after driving through it for miles you come suddenly, at the end of an avenue of arching trees, upon the glistening oily sea, with the orange-coloured sails of distant fishing-smacks shining in the sunlight. Whenever I have been there it has been windless weather, and the silence so profound that I could hear my pulses beating. The humming of insects and the sudden scream of a jay are the only sounds in summer, and in winter the stillness is the stillness of death. (SS, 179)

In language and syntactic structure her appreciation of unexpected natural beauty clearly resembles Thoreau’s description of Walden’s ponds in wintertime

When the ponds were firmly frozen, they afforded not only new and shorter routes to many points, but new views from their surfaces of the familiar landscape around them.  When I crossed Flint's Pond, after it was covered with snow … it was so unexpectedly wide and so strange that I could think of nothing but Baffin's Bay. The Lincoln hills rose up around me at the extremity of a snowy plain, in which I did not remember to have stood before; and the fishermen, at an indeterminable distance over the ice, moving slowly about with their wolfish dogs, passed for sealers, or Esquimaux. (271)

A detailed analysis of Thoreau’s influence on von Arnim’s early writing remains yet to be written. Nevertheless, as these passages show, her early diary novels are, among other things, the literary exploration of her own feminist and artistic position in an intellectual tradition suspicious of female writers.

Throughout her career von Arnim focussed on the fate of women as daughters, mothers, lovers and wives. Already in her debut novel she touches upon a number of these issues. Her early books are populated by stereotypical New Woman characters, who are regularly ridiculed for their lack of subtlety and humour, even though Elizabeth agrees with the feminist cause in principle. She is outraged about the appalling treatment of female seasonal workers, she does not wish for traditional marriages for her daughters, travels alone and curses the class restrictions preventing her from digging and weeding herself. Schaffer points out that the ultimate difference between aesthetes and New Women lay in the latter’s ultimate willingness to give politics precedence over art, or, as Heilmann put it, “New Woman fiction mobilized personal experience for political purposes” (72). Even though von Arnim was a close friend and admirer of the feminist Maud Ritchie and we may assume that she was up to date with New Woman literature (the Toulon collection contains two novels by Elizabeth Robins), Elizabeth engages with the feminist issues of her day reluctantly, almost unwillingly, and regularly tries to escape their proponents. She admits, “I have no heroism,” and shrinks from identifying with a cause that the world has a habit “of associating … with the ridiculousness of cropped hair and extremities clothed in bloomers” (Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, 107). Von Arnim’s attitude towards the New Woman phenomenon is complex and contradictory, but on the whole Elizabeth has probably more in common with an aesthetic “witty mondaine” (Schaffer, 25). Von Arnim’s ultimate reluctance to renounce artistic affiliations or aesthetic preferences to suit political messages is interpreted by Shepherd as one of the markers of middlebrow feminism. She describes Elizabeth as a consumer of debate around the New Woman ("Marketing Middlebrow Feminism", 116). Insisting on feminist principles without, however, going to extremes, “von Arnim implicitly argued for a moderate feminism that was neither duped by patriarchy nor taken in be feminist fanaticism and faddishness” (113). The pragmatism displayed with regard to feminism extends to von Arnim’s literary production as well and results in an appropriation, rather than rejection, of literary models.

Unlike Thoreau, Elizabeth almost completely abstains from generalisations and reformist imperatives, mostly restricting her musings to the ironic descriptions of personal experience. Elizabeth does not speak with the authoritative voice of Thoreau and, one of the key differences, does not enter into an explicit discussion of the purpose and philosophical implications of the writing process itself. Following the imperative Thoreau sets down in his Journal, “Give me simple, cheap and homely themes” (1082), Elizabeth restricts herself to the domestic sphere and seems to practice what Thoreau had propounded: “the theme is nothing, the life is everything. All that interests the reader is the depth and intensity of the life excited” (Journal, 1082). Thoreau’s spiritual quest celebrates the minute, the everyday and infuses it with artistic possibilities: “The art of life! Was there ever anything memorable written upon it. By what discipline to secure the most life, with what care to watch our thoughts. To observe what transpires, not in the street, but in the mind and heart of me!” (Journal, 261). Walden is the chronicle of an experiment in self-development and was possibly the inspiration for Elizabeth’s own more modest project of a summer without guests, which is documented in The Solitary Summer. In the opening passages she explains that she seeks solitude so that she might “get down to the very dregs of life” (SS, 3) and her soul might have a chance to grow. The book can be read as a philosophically less ambitious enactment of Thoreau’s ideas.

Moreover, the exploration of the “art of life” reverberates clearly in the Aesthetic program of transforming life into art. Shepherd explores the wider cultural implications of the Aesthetic pursuit of personal refinement as it was simplified into something of less cultural clout: the self-help book favoured by the aspiring middle-classes for guidance and advice on the difficult art of how to live. It may seem like a long stretch to translate the impressive didactic impetus of Walden into a handbook for self-improvement and the whimsical musings of Elizabeth into a manual for frustrated housewives, but Shepherd explains:

What is most significant about this new discourse of personality was its hybridity. While a higher discursive strand – aestheticism – was responsible for the idea that daily living was worthy of minute aesthetic attention, the lower strand – utilitarian and commercial books – provided readers with the sense that such an art of living was achievable through careful cultivation and self-regulation. Furthermore, far from being antithetical, whimsy and self-discipline were seen to be two side [sic] of the cultivatory coin that formed the dominant currency in a modern middlebrow cultural formation at the fin de siècle. (The Art of Modern Living, 134f.)

The diary turns out to be the ideal genre for such an undertaking, not only as the literary form that blends art and life most ambiguously, but also because it offers a first hand account of the successful application of the maxims it propagates.

Elizabeth, of course, does not fix her hopes on a utilitarian do-it-yourself-publication in order to find fulfilment. Her exclamation “How glad I am I need not hurry. What a waste of life, just getting and spending” (SS, 37) resonates with Thoreau’s disdain for a rationalised approach to life: “I do not remember any page which will tell me how to spend this afternoon. I do not so much wish to know how to economise time as how to spend it, by what means to grow rich, that the day may not have been in vain” (Journal, 261f.). Their concept of a diary is far removed from the “cultural Fordism” that Shepherd (The Art of Modern Living, 64) detects in the middlebrow use of the diary as a profitable organiser of time and a life-structuring device. Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s appropriation of Thoreau bears traits of the middlebrow in a different respect: her heartfelt appreciation of flowers, sunsets and undulating rye fields remains conveniently compatible with the comforts of civilisation, and she debunks Thoreau’s lofty austerity:

But my philosophy has not yet reached the acute stage that will enable me to see a door-mat in its true character as a hinderer of the development of souls, and I like to wipe my shoes. … Meanwhile we know that though he went to the woods, Thoreau came back again, and lived for the rest of his days like other people. (SS, 23f.)

The spirit of the diaries is inviting, not intimidating, and von Arnim implicitly encourages the reader to take her own book as a less demanding spiritual resource for a refreshed appreciation of nature, children and books. The ironic admission of her own philosophical inadequacies encourages the reader to identify with her, supporting a middlebrow reading practice that “generates feelings that are reparative rather than paranoid, interactive rather than competitive, open-ended rather than controlling” (Newfield, 912). Moreover, Elizabeth’s doubly escapist move of hiding in a remote corner of the garden with a book is vindicated by the promise of self-improvement, implicitly inviting the reader to do likewise by buying her novel.

The adoring fan letters von Arnim received show how eagerly this invitation was accepted. Glowing reviews, overwhelming sales and the wave of imitations her books inspired indicate how quickly Elizabeth achieved literary cult status. How deep and long-lasting was the resonance that Elizabeth created becomes clear in an ironic tribute paid to her by another famous diarist some thirty years later. In her Diary of a Provincial Lady, E. M. Delafield’s protagonist notes

February 28th. – Notice, and am gratified by, appearance of large clump of crocuses near the front gate. Should like to make whimsical and charming reference to these, and try to fancy myself as “Elizabeth of the German Garden”, but am interrupted by Cook, saying that the Fish is here, but he’s only brought cod and haddock, and the haddock doesn’t smell any too fresh, so what about cod? Have often noticed that life is like that. (2007:37)

Throughout von Arnim’s lifetime Elizabeth remained a household name among middlebrow readers, but not only them. The garden stories of Elizabeth and von Arnim’s later novels garnered praise from all quarters. In one of her last letters Katherine Mansfield compared her cousin’s gift with Mozart (qtd. in de Charms, 251). Virginia Woolf, admittedly not a friend of the middlebrow, enthused that von Arnim made her “shout with laughter, some of her saying are absolutely tophole: as good as Dickens” (Woolf, 5 September 1930).

In closing this article on such a celebratory note, my argument is coming full-circle. It seems that von Arnim’s appeal to such a wide and varied audience was due precisely to her gift for being so agreeably “betwixt and between”, of mixing “art and life” in the best sense and defying easy post-mortem categorisation. Elizabeth’s contagious passion for books and the refreshing unorthodoxy of her attitude towards literature remain enjoyable to this day, leaving the reader in agreement with her declaration: “What a blessing it is to love books” (SS, 30).


1. In subsequent references abbreviated to EGG.

2. In subsequent references abbreviated to SS.

3. Due to the complicated history of this bequest, the library received mostly the books that were considered to be of no great interest to the general reading public. This predicament turns out to be a blessing in disguise since the disproportionate amount of philosophy, poetry, history, biography and criticism gives an impression of von Arnim’s interests beyond fiction.

4. Von Arnim’s enduring dislike of Carlyle is manifest also in her humorous treatment of Mrs Fisher, a pompous character in The Enchanted April, whose claim to authority lies in her father’s acquaintance with Carlyle and other literary notables of the 19th century. As it turns out, Mrs Fisher’s own memory of the works of Carlyle has become a little dusty over the years.

5. Among her books acquired at the time we find Henry Sidgwick’s Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers as well as an introduction to Darwin by Grant Allen. Later purchases include The Odyssey of Homer done into English Prose by S.H. Butcher, Talks to Teachers on Psychology by William James and Henrik Ellwood’s Everyman's Chemistry.


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