On 23 July 1926, the author we now know as Elizabeth von Arnim wrote to emphasise to her friend Hugh Walpole that she no longer wished to be known by her German surname. She concludes her letter thus:
“I am forever and ever your loving friend Elizabeth, once Beauchamp, late Arnim, and now very unfortunately Russell.”
So why do we now use the name Elizabeth von Arnim?
Born Mary Annette Beauchamp on 31st August 1866, in Sydney, Australia, she was the youngest of six children. Her father, Henry Herron Beauchamp, was a successful English businessman who made his fortune in Sydney; her mother, Elizabeth Weiss Lassetter, of British extraction, was born in Australia. In 1870, Henry Herron and his family returned to England. Mary, known to her family as May, never returned to the country of her birth.
Mary Beauchamp was educated in London, and showed early musical talent, eventually entering the Royal College of Music. There, by her early twenties, she had achieved a professional standard in her principal study, the organ. During a visit to Rome with her father, her exceptional organ playing brought her to the attention of the widowed Prussian count, Graf Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin.
On their marriage in 1891, Mary took on a new identity when she became a German countess, the Gräfin Mary von Arnim. The couple took up residence in Berlin and the births of three daughters followed in close succession.
In 1896, Henning and Mary visited his large country estate at Nassenheide in Pomerania. This neglected and rambling Schloss appealed deeply to Mary, and seeking to escape the stifling atmosphere of society in Berlin, she decided to move there; Henning and the little girls followed.
Nassenheide became the setting and inspiration for her first novel, a work in diary form, Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898). It became an instant bestseller, with eleven editions printed before the end of the year. By May 1899, there were twenty-one editions.
The three von Arnim daughters, Evi, Liebet and Trix, appeared in the novel with fictional identities, the April, May and June babies.
There was much speculation in the press about the unknown author. Was she English or German? Male or female? Was she perhaps Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Henry of Prussia?
Mary quickly began work on a second novel, also in diary form, The Solitary Summer (1899). This was published, as all her subsequent novels were, as ‘by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden’.
Thus Mary’s identity became synonymous, to her reading public, with that of the fictional author of the diary, ‘Elizabeth’. Once established, the name remained long after the author’s true identity was revealed. As her literary career developed, ‘Elizabeth’ became a celebrity author, well known to the public and the press. ‘Elizabeth’ became her name in both her public and often in her private life.
The Count von Arnim died in 1910; in 1916 Mary was married to Earl Francis Russell. Thereafter, despite their bitter separation in 1919, Mary was known for the rest of her life as the Countess Russell.
In the 1980s, several of Elizabeth’s novels were reprinted by Virago, who devised the name ‘Elizabeth von Arnim’. This name, a combination of the fictional authorial name, Elizabeth (always used in her lifetime), and her first married surname, has become the one we generally use today.
The memorial tablet to the author ‘Elizabeth’ on the wall of the church of St Margaret’s, Tyler’s Green, bears the following inscription:
Mary Annette, Countess Russell, “Elizabeth”, Died February 9th 1941, Parva sed Apta.
There is a certain irony in the accepted convention that she is now, for academic purposes, referred to as ‘von Arnim’.