my favorite long-lost author
A while back, I was sitting in our living room, “visiting with” some of the antique books we’ve inherited or collected over the years. One of the books I pulled off the shelf was this (clearly old but, sadly, undated) edition of Elizabeth and her German Garden …
Shortly after my college graduation, way back in – well, a long time ago – I received a letter and a book in the mail.
The letter was from the delightful couple I had always thought of as my “other” grandparents (I never knew my dad’s parents). Alan and my grandfather were friends from their high-school days, and so he and Jan were friends of the family even before my mom was born.
For as long as I could remember, Jan and Alan were inveterate world travelers who often booked passage on freighter ships and spent months sailing completely around the globe.
The letter accompanying this particular gift was written “En route on the MV London Senator freighter from the Panama Canal to Florida” … and, unlike most gifts from Jan and Alan, this one was not acquired on their travels. Instead, the unassuming cloth-bound book — from 1904 — had belonged to Alan’s mother. Jan had taken it with her on this particular trip, had just finished reading, and thought I might enjoy it. Why? Because it was “written by a German lady” about her two weeks’ trip around Germany’s largest island.
When The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen came to me, I had spent five of the previous nine years living in Germany. And I had spent my college years wandering through the woods of our mountaintop campus, savoring every detail, and honing my innate capacity for, as Elizabeth wrote, “doing nothing and yet enjoying myself.” As she said, “To sit there and look out into what Whitman calls the huge and thoughtful night was a comely and sufficient occupation for the best part of me.”
I was utterly enchanted with this book when I first read it; Elizabeth was observant and witty and independent and clearly loved many of the same things I did – nature, solitude, books, and the details of peaceful, beautiful places. Happily, I’m enjoying the book just as much now while rereading it decades later.
But who was the mysterious “Elizabeth”? Was she the main character, or the author? The book I have doesn’t say, merely listing this one as being “by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden.”
It turns out that Elizabeth’s full “name” – a pen name, actually – was Elizabeth von Arnim. Her real name was Mary Annette Beauchamp, and she wasn’t German. She was born in Australia and later lived in Switzerland and London. In 1891, she married a Prussian count and took up residence in Germany. There, she fell in love with the garden at their country estate; wrote her first semi-autobiographical novel, Elizabeth and her German Garden; and published it in 1898. Its enormous success gave “Elizabeth” the pen name that stuck with her through twenty more books, some more autobiographical than others. The story of her life is itself worthy of a novel, really.