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the countess from kirribilli : a new biography by joyce morgan

Elizabeth Von Arnim

She was ‘amused, cynical, ironic, loving, gay, ferocious, cold, ardent but never gentle’. She was a whirlwind. She created around her the atmosphere of a Court at which her friends were either in disgrace or favour, a butt or a blessing. ’She was ‘a rare and fascinating combination of dove and serpent’.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Elizabeth von Arnim, 31 August 1866 – 9 February 1941), was a hugely popular author yet today she is almost unheard of. Meticulously researched, Joyce Morgan’s biography has both a prologue and epilogue, is divided into twenty one chapters and has a bibliography and index. A selection of black and white photos is included in the middle. 

Morgan is a former arts editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. She is the author of Martin Sharp: His life and times, which was long-listed for the 2018 Stella Prize, and Journeys on the Silk Road, about the discovery of the world’s oldest printed book.Morgan has written on arts and culture for more than three decades and has worked as a journalist in London, Hong Kong and Sydney. She is a Getty arts journalism fellow and Huntington Library fellow. British-born, she has travelled widely and lives in Sydney. Morgan’s book brings Elizabeth vividly to life.  

Von Arnim wrote many books, among them the 1898 Elizabeth and her German Garden which launched her, at the time anonymous career. In it she (fictionally) depicts her awkward, unhappy marriage. She depicts her first husband as ‘The Man of Wrath’. In 1899 ‘The Solitary Summer’ a sort of companion piece was released. For many years there was a great mystery as to the real identity of ‘Elizabeth’ with various candidates proposed, but her twenty or so books were signed, after the first one as ‘by the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden‘ and eventually as ‘by Elizabeth’.

Some of her other books were also semi-autobiographical (the 1902 The Benefactress, The Adventures of Elizabeth on Rugen in 1904, Vera from 1921 and Love in 1925. There were also books that detailed her observations about German provincial life and the rigid, enforced life of the aristocracy and its expectations, –  for example Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight, Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, The Enchanted April, Father and Mr Skeffington

Her books deal with social snobbery, the lack of female independence, anti-Semitism, and the way marriage and domesticity were regarded as the only path for women. Princess Priscilla was transformed into a play and had a London season. All The Dogs of My Life (1936), while not exactly autobiographical, she never specifically wrote an autobiography,  details her love for her many dogs and also the people in her wealthy A-list high society  set.  At one stage she had five dogs of varying breeds and sizes. She also wrote children’s books. 

She led an extraordinary, turbulent life, mostly in the high society of London and Europe. She was born in 1866 approximately in the area which is known now as Kirribilli and Government House Sydney and had five siblings- four brothers and a sister. Her parents were Henry Herron Beauchamp (1825–1907), a wealthy shipping merchant, and Elizabeth (nicknamed Louey) Weiss Lassetter (1836–1919). Her birth identity was Mary Annette Beauchamp and she was known as May to her family

When she was three years old the family moved to London for Henry’s business, but they also lived in Switzerland and moved around Europe. Elizabeth made her ‘debut , presented at court to Queen Victoria.

We follow the many varied fortunes of both the Beauchamps and Lassetters .One of Elizabeth’s cousins was the writer Katherine Mansfield – they became close in later years and corresponded and reviewed each other’s work . At one stage  ( 1921)  they lived in fairly close to each other when Katherine was there with her husband John Middleton Murry and Mansfield was very ill with TB. Although Mansfield considered Elizabeth at times cutting and patronising.

Von Arnim comes across as a dominating character with enormous presence. She was very musical, studying at the Royal College of Music at one point and attending the opera frequently. She was a great fan of Wagner and attended the Bayreuth and Salzburg festivals. 

We learn of her two disastrous marriages, the first in 1891 to  Count Henning August von Armin- Schlagenthin. In 1896 they moved to the Count’s family schloss of  what was then Nassenheide in Pomerania, now renamed Rzedzjny in Poland, one of her favourite places 

They had four daughters and a son and we learn that E. M .Forster was one of her tutors.

In 1908 Henning was imprisoned for fraud and in 1910 Elizabeth and the children moved to London. In 1910 Nassenheide had to be sold and in 1911 she moved to Switzerland where she built the Chateau Soliel. Henning passed away in 1910 with Elizabeth and three of their daughters by his side. 

There is much discussion as to whether Von Arnim was or was HG Wells mistress between 1910 and 1913. 

Von Arnim’s daughter Felicitas, who had been at boarding school in Switzerland and Germany, passed away in 1916.  She was shattered.

We learn how her family suffered losses during World War 1.

Interestingly, Von Arnim learned to drive a car at this particular time which was a very daring thing to do.

In 1916 Von Arnim entered a tumultuous, fraught second marriage to Frank Russell, the second Earl Russell, known as the Wicked Earl, who was the brother of the great philosopher Bertrand Russell. From what we read Frank was abusive and sought to coercively control Elizabeth. He also had many affairs with other women. The couple  separated in 1919 but didn’t divorce. At this time there was much scandal and plenty of difficulties if one could and did divorce.

In 1920 Elizabeth returned to Switzerland, using it as her base for trips to other European countries. Also in 1920 she began her affair with Alexander Stuart Frere, chairman of Heinemann publishers.  Originally he met Elizabeth to catalogue her library collection but romance  followed and they stayed in touch over the years even after Frere’s marriage in 1927. Frere christened his daughter Elizabeth in her honour.

1930 saw Von Armin move to Mougins in southern France, the warmer climate hopefully helping her health. The house was named Mas des Roses and featured a rose garden. Her entertaining and moving in social and literary circles continued, and she kept the property until she passed away. She did move to America in 1939 at the start of World War 11 for safety. Her trips to Germany made her aware of the political rumbles as Hitler’s scheming and violence had been developing for years. She was horrified at Hitler’s rise to power. 

Mas des Roses was requisitioned for French soldiers.We learn how yet again the family is greatly divided , various members entangled on both sides. Von Arnim died of the flu while in America in 1941 and is buried in England (St Margaret’s, Tylers Green) with her brother Sir Sydney Beauchamp . 

As Morgan writes,  ‘Elizabeth lived her nomadic, free-spirited life on her own terms… The witty, contradictory woman who wrote eloquently of nature, and satirically of people, had a rose named in her honour in Britain a few years ago. It has a magnificent apricot bloom. Beware the thorns.” 


Joyce Morgan ‘The Countess From Kirribilli’


Publisher:Allen & Unwin

Publishing Date:July 2021






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