The Countess from Kirribilli by Joyce Morgan

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

Reading The Countess from Kirribilli is akin to falling into a rabbit hole situated within an elegantly landscaped garden, overlooking Sydney Harbour. The ‘fall’, through said rabbit hole, takes the form of a three-month voyage, after which readers and three-year-old Mary Annette Beauchamp step from La Hogue onto English soil in 1870.  From this juncture, our biographer, Joyce Morgan, presents a wonderland of literary giants, along with a few Mad Hatter aristocrats as they take up major or supporting roles, but Mary Annette Beauchamp always plays the starring role; atypical in Victorian times, where a husband’s rank subsumed every part of a woman’s identity.  It was Mary’s talent as a writer that set her apart.

At this point, readers might be scratching their collective heads trying to place Mary Beauchamp among the literary talents of the time.  Well, on popping Elizabeth von Armin into the memory vaults, some might come up with The Enchanted April or Mr. Skeffington, given that both have been taken on by Hollywood, the former being twice turned into a movie, then a stage play and opera.  But for many, they will remain puzzled, followed by delight to discover a ‘new’ author and intrigued to learn how Mary Beauchamp transforms into Elizabeth von Armin.

Apart from becoming acquainted with the clever and colourful Elizabeth von Arnim, readers will find there are many other amusing people.  My personal favourite is her first husband Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, a struggling Prussian aristocrat, who will be in my memory for some time to come.  Morgan reports his proposal of marriage:  All girls like love.  It is very agreeable.  You will like it too.  You shall marry me, and see.  Who among you, ladies, could not resist that?   And, later, after marriage, a few maxims from this appealing man:  Do not kiss the dog.  No dog should be kissed.  I have provided you, for kissing purposes, with myself.  (I feel weak with desire.)  From this point, he actually ‘provided’ Mary with five children.  She was quite exhausted by so many. Thankfully the last of the five was a boy and much welcomed by the father, who had been expecting an heir for some time.  During this busy period of birthing, Mary found time to write; one gets the impression she lived to write and everything else got in the way.  Her first book In a German Garden (1898) was inspired by her own garden at Count Henning’s Pomeranian estate, Nassenheide; published anonymously as it simply was not considered respectable for a Pomeranian countess to be engaged in commercial life.   Later she became ‘Elizabeth’ and then, much later, Elizabeth von Armin.

For literary buffs, the intersection between Elizabeth von Arnim and a few standout authors such as Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, her cousin Katherine Mansfield, Somerset Maugham and H. G. Wells will be of interest.  Von Arnim was admired by the ‘greats’ of writing, Morgan tells us that Woolf considered some of Elizabeth’s writing as good as Dickens’.

After the death of Henning, Elizabeth met and married, albeit briefly, the notorious Earl Frank Russell, brother of Bertrand Russell, so Countess von Arnim became Countess Russell.  This unfortunate marriage was the subject of the much-acclaimed Vera, a novel that exposed Frank’s cruel and controlling behaviour, which according to Morgan landed like a grenade among Frank’s circle.   Brother Bertrand was horrified at this public vilification and summarily advised his children never to marry a novelist.

But her life was not all froth and witty bubbles; there was the grief of a young daughter’s death; Hitler, and all the angst of the Second World War, given that two of her daughters remained German and in Germany, there was much angst.  Elizabeth had long since removed herself from that country, preferring Switzerland, Italy, France, England, and, briefly America.   At times this biography takes on the guise of a travel brochure, as does some of her novels. Apparently, An Enchanted April placed Portofino firmly on the tourist destination list.

In a world recovering from the Second World War von Arnim‘s works lost popularity and fell out of print; perhaps too frivolous after such horror. Sad, as, inspired by this biography, I acquired The Enchanted April and found it populated by characters in need of psychological insight, which von Arnim delivered in witty and charming prose. Readers can thank Dora Russell, Bertrand Russell’s first wife, for this talented author’s novels being back in print, Russell brought her to the attention of Virago Press in the mid-1980s.

Morgan does not take on the guise of a historian, nor does she express an opinion about the psychology of her subject.  This biography depends on quotes from the journals and many letters, written by Elizabeth and those of her friends and contemporaries, to round out Elizabeth’s character.  Although titillating for Australian ears, the title is a bit of a stretch, given that the famous author left Kirribilli, sailing from Sydney when only three years old, never to return or have any interest in Australia.  Nevertheless, Morgan’s easy prose is engaging; the reader might feel as if reading a novel.  But really, if a subject were as colourful and interesting as Elizabeth von Arnim it would be hard for the biographer to fail in the project, but that said, Joyce Morgan has done an excellent job of subtly bringing to life the personal, social, and physical geography that is the life of Elizabeth von Arnim.

The Countess from Kirribilli

By Joyce Morgan

(July 2021)

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978 17608 7517 6

$32.99; 352pp



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