The young bride stepped out of a London church on a frigid February day in 1891. She shivered in her ivory gown of satin and old lace as she paused on the cold stone steps. The damp end of winter was not a romantic time to wed.
She had little time to linger. Within hours, she was on a train with her middle-aged husband to his Berlin home. Miss Beauchamp, a merchant’s daughter, was now the Countess von Arnim.
The 24-year-old had already travelled far from her Australian birthplace. She would travel much further. She would beguile high-society and become an international literary sensation known today as Elizabeth von Arnim.
Although barely 1.5 metres tall – at first glance she was often mistaken for a child – Elizabeth had a formidable presence with blue eyes as penetrating as her wit.
“When one meets her, inevitably she suggests Dresden China, with her tiny voice, tiny hands, tiny manners. And then suddenly, with a shock, you realise that the Dresden China is hollow, and is filled with gunpowder,” author Beverley Nichols wrote of her. Elizabeth created around her the atmosphere of a court at which her friends were either in favour or disgrace. She could be kind and cruel. She was a mix of dove and serpent, her father once noted.
Elizabeth would draw into her orbit aristocrats and artists, among them writer H.G. Wells, with whom it was rumoured she had a tempestuous affair. But she would know deep despair and flee for her life in the face of domestic cruelty and political tyranny.
She was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Sydney in 1866 to a Tasmanian mother and English-born father, a prosperous shipping merchant. Elizabeth (who changed her name as an adult) spent her infancy at Kirribilli Point, where the Beauchamps lived in one of the elegant villas that once dotted its rocky foreshore.
The family moved to England in 1870, where Elizabeth became a studious, musical and independent young woman who showed little interest in marriage and domesticity.
On a grand tour to Italy, she met Count Henning von Arnim at a musical soiree. He was 15 years older than her, a Pomeranian aristocrat with an estate near the Baltic Sea. Within weeks, atop the Duomo in Florence, he proposed to her.
Elizabeth’s mother, Louey, who had a hard-scrabble girlhood on a farm near Launceston, was delighted. But soon she worried that colonial-born Elizabeth was marrying above her class. And when the Count seemed reluctant to set a wedding date, Louey’s anxieties increased.
Back in London, Elizabeth was launched into society. She entered the drawing room at Buckingham Palace in a floor-length gown from which flowed a three-yard train. In her brunette hair, two ostrich feathers swayed as she curtseyed before Queen Victoria. Presentation at court was a greatly anticipated rite of passage for well-bred young women, an entrée to fashionable society.
Elizabeth’s court debut may have been a way to force the Count’s hand, or insurance if the romance toppled. Henning soon set a date and whisked her up the aisle. Her married life was privileged, with balls, embassy dinners and opera concerts, but no fairytale. Elizabeth struggled to fit into formal Germanic society, with its strict rules of behaviour.
She was ill-prepared for motherhood and traumatised by the agonising birth of her first child. Elizabeth begged for pain relief, but her pleas were dismissed as weakness. She was left exhausted and likely suffered postnatal depression. But soon she was pregnant again. And again.
Within three years of marriage she was the mother of three girls. She knew there would be no end to childbearing until she had produced the son her husband demanded. It became the source of conflict.
“[Henning] and I quarrelled, he wanting a baby and I not seeing it,” she wrote in her diary.
When she visited Henning’s remote Pomeranian estate she seized the chance for a life away from Berlin’s unceasing obligations. She turned a derelict 17th century former convent on the 8000-acre estate into a family home. Henning was often absent on business, and she loved the solitude as she wandered among beech forest.
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