Someone once told me that they thought Elizabeth von Arnim was the kind of woman I’d have liked. They’re probably right – she seemed to possess a lot of the characteristics that I find appealing: she was irreverent, enjoyed nothing more than reading in a garden, was a bit gushing about dogs, and didn’t mind a whiff of scandal.
She was also utterly unafraid to speak her mind, writing in Elizabeth and Her German Garden ‘if your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don’t listen to the shriek of your relations… Don’t be afraid of public opinion… Everything is possible if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.’
Born in 1866 in Australia, Elizabeth met Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin (side note: what a cracking name) in Italy and married him. She divorced him after bearing five of his children, citing his tyranny over her to be the primary cause. She moved on to have an affair with HG Wells and then married Bertrand Russell’s brother, separating from him three years later. Oh – and she wrote 20 odd books.
This one is an enduring classic and it isn’t hard to see why – it’s full of delicious descriptions of Italy in April (see below for some of my favourites) and hope sliced through with wry observations. Pick this up if you’re looking for a pick-me-up while we wait for the sun to hit…
‘All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a black sword.
‘She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light. Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her. A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair. Far out in the bar a cluster of almost motionless fishing boats hovered like a flock of white birds on the tranquil sea. How beautiful, how beautiful.’
‘How warm, though, things like admiration and appreciation made one feel, how capable of really deserving them, how different, how glowing. They seemed to quicken unsuspected faculties into life. She was sure she had been a thoroughly amusing woman between lunch and tea, and a pretty one too. She was quite certain she’d been pretty; she saw it in Mr Brigg’s eyes as clearly as in a looking-glass. For a brief space, she thought, she had been a torpid fly brought back to gay buzzing by the lighting of a fire in a wintry room. She still buzzed, she still tingled, just at the remembrance. What fun it had been, having an admirer even for that little while. No wonder people liked admirers. They seemed, in some strange way, to make one come alive. ‘