In this well researched monograph Isobel Maddison offers an excellent introduction to the novelist Elizabeth von Arnim and a thorough discussion of her works. Von Arnim was born in 1866 as a member of the Beauchamp family in Australia. She married the German officer Count Henning von Armin-Schlagenthin in 1891 in London. The latter’s maternal grandfather had been a nephew of Frederick the Great, and the couple settled in Nassenheide in Pomerania in 1896. This count might have been a descendent of the famous German Romantic poet Achim von Arnim (1781-1831), but Maddison never even mentions this possibility. Instead, the study is focused entirely on the publications of this successful female writer and her social background. Most impressively, it is the result of extensive archival research and careful interpretive analysis, clearly bringing to life this author and her work. It would be too simplistic, as Maddison emphasizes, to recognize here just a ‘feminist’ writer; instead she urges us to see in von Arnim a satirical author who critically examined her society and the tensions among the various social classes. She attracted a wide readership, although, or just because, she voiced considerable criticism of the social constraints at her time.
In order to do justice to von Arnim’s accomplishments, Maddison carefully investigates the social, historical, and literary context and background relevant both for the author and for her individual texts. Apparently, as she can unearth, von Arnim was exceedingly well connected with many important writers of her time, so this study sheds good light on other contemporary literature. The entire third chapter is dedicated to the relationship with Katherine Mansfield. Curiously, however, as Maddison observes, von Arnim did not always receive positive reviews, especially if we think of Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West. Nevertheless, as this study demonstrates, von Arnim proves to have been a solid author who had much to say to her audience, and was certainly an important contributor to contemporary literature, living partly in Germany, partly in England, representing a transcultural experience, as we would say today. Nevertheless, as many of her personal statements indicate, she had little positive to say about the Germans at [End Page 101] large and mostly embraced stereotypical views imbibed from British propaganda in the wake of the First World War. Some of von Arnim’s novels also reflect the relationship between Germany and the United States, such as Christopher and Columbus (1919)
Much of Maddison’s discussions pertain to a close reading of von Arnim’s texts, adding comments from reviewers, while critical opinions by contemporary scholars seem to be missing here to some extent. I list just a few from recent years: Juliane Roemhild, “Beauty’s Price: Femininity as an Aesthetic Commodity in Elizabeth’s von Arnim’s Novels,” Cahiers Victoriens 75 (2012): 31-39; Amy Mullin, “Narrative, Emotions, and Autonomy,” Narrative, Emotion, Insight, ed. Noël Carrol and John Gibson (University Park: PA State U, 2011), 92-108; or Sara Ann Wider, “‘And What Became of Your Philosophy Then?’: Women Reading Walden,” More Day to Dawn, ed. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis et al. (Amherst, MA: U of MA Press, 2007), 152-70. The bibliography is arranged in such a peculiar fashion that the reader has a hard time figuring out the system. Pleasantly, the volume concludes with an index. Most important, Maddison has put together an appendix with an accurate overview of the relevant papers by the author, from 1890 to 1962, a finding aid.
While the introductory chapter with its biographical sketch proves to be most helpful, I am missing a conclusion or an epilogue in which the various aspects discussed here would have been pulled together. Nevertheless, altogether this monograph represents a major step forward in research on Elizabeth von Arnim, both because of the good close reading of the primary texts and because of the solid appendix detailing the source materials in the personal papers.