Writer From Another Time and Place

I admit to having a soft spot for an occasional romance if it isn’t too treacly and is cleverly constructed. Anyone who dismisses the genre out of hand has to be willing to throw “Taming of the Shrew,” “Much Ado,” “She Stoops to Conquer,” Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and other masterpieces overboard.

One of the more charming filmed examples is “The Enchanted April” with a lovely script about four mismatched women fleeing cold, wet London for an Italian villa. It is perfectly cast and fetchingly shot. The movie is that rare bird, a faithful adaptation of a novel with only one change, and that actually an improvement. When the world-weary Lady Caroline Dester fails for Mr. Briggs in the book, it is inexplicable. But the movie contrives a lovely and plausible explanation.

The 1922 book is by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1866-1941). I only recently got around to reading it and I recommend both it and the film, but I really want to talk about the author as a case study of how the world has changed in the hundred years since she was a famous author. And how English tales and American differ.

Then, as now, people scribbled for money, but today authors can come from anywhere, scions of wealth or chaps from the other side of the tracks, the academy or the street. The writerly pool was smaller then. Literacy was far less widespread. Higher education was restricted to a small fraction of the population and the leisure to write likewise available to a relatively narrow slice of society.

For every Dickens, up from the blacking factory, or inky journalist like Kipling or Twain there were far more authors with an income to subsidize their avocation. As for women, with virtually no career paths open, scribbling was a logical avenue to pursue from Austen and the Brontes to Wharton and Von Arnim.

Despite the exotic name she was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Australia. By the time she was three her father, a wealthy merchant, had prospered sufficiently to remove the family to the capital of the world, London in 1870. At twenty-five she married a Prussian aristocrat she met on a tour of the continent with her father. Thereafter they lived in Berlin and on the family’s landed estate. Their children were tutored by literary lions-to-be, E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole. She began to write as a refuge from the husband she named the Man of Wrath and published her first book, “Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” in 1899.

It was to be the first of several dozen over the next forty years. The last, “Mr. Skeffington,” was made into a Bette Davis film during the Second World War. The royalties must have helped when the deeply in debt Count was imprisoned for fraud. She decamped to London in 1908 and was widowed two years later. For the next three years she was the mistress of H.G. Wells before marrying John Russell in 1916, the 2nd Earl Russell, who was the elder brother of the great mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. The marriage was not a success, but did provide grist for the mill. He appears parodied in one of her books, “Vera,” as had her Prussian consort in several earlier novels.

The Russell connection also helped provide entree to the higher reaches of the intelligentsia as did her cousin Katherine Beauchamp who, like Von Arnim, arrived in London from the antipodes. She became famous under her pen name, Katherine Mansfield. She was married to the critic John Middleton Murry who was close to D.H Lawrence and the Bloomsbury crowd.

As is obvious by now, Von Arnim’s London, from the turn of the 20th century to the Great Depression, may have been the epicenter of a waning empire, powerful in finance, global trade and the arts, but it was also a small world. Her heyday encompassed the Edwardian years beloved of Masterpiece Theater dramatists. Late Victorians like James were still about, along with the turn of the century generation of Kipling, Wells, Shaw, Galsworthy, Conan Doyle and so many others. A new generation was in the ascendancy after the Great War: Ford, Lawrence, Woolf, Eliot, Waugh and his bright young things. It is a vanished world in many ways.

It is also markedly different from the American scene. Some of today’s authors may hang around with each other in New York, due to its proximity to publishing and media, but most are scattered around the landscape. Those without sufficient sales to survive are likely to be immured on college campuses. Best selling authors may reside anywhere and do from Boston to San Francisco, Miami to Mississippi. No doubt they get on nicely, but literary London in Von Arnim’s era was an elite enclave within a metropolis of 7 million, where everybody knew everyone else due to ties of blood,class, school or club.

Of course, American literature, like American life, has always had a different character than that of England where family pedigree and class counted for so much, as did connections to town or village, the terroir. There stories are about dense webs of social connections and traditions, about love, marriage and money. Consider “Tom Jones,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Vanity Fair,” “Barchester Towers,” “Middlemarch,” “Women in Love.” Then consider American classics, so stark and rootless by contrast with loner heroes and lonesome heroines who are lost or trying to find a place to fit in, “Last of the Mohicans,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “Moby Dick,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Red Badge of Courage,” “O, Pioneers,” “The House of Mirth,” “The Great Gatsby.”

It may be no surprise that, in a case of opposites attract, Americans are so taken by cozy tales of English villages, estates and drawing rooms and their denizens, like the folks in “The Enchanted April,” the form often comedy or satire. Nor that Brits are suckers for tragedy or romance in the non-romantic sense concerning pioneers in a vast landscape, runaways on a raft, outsiders bereft of society, self-made men or lost women.

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