April 1939: The wisteria was heavy with blossoms; the roses scrambled around the windows of the old French farmhouse.
Joyce Morgan’s biography of Elizabeth von Armin, The Countess From Kirribilli, is an utter delight from start to finish. I could just leave that thought there and be done with this post. But, of course, I do have a few things I’d like to address in respect to the post I wrote last year about Elizabeth von Armin and whether or not she is an Australian writer.
To enhance my understanding of the book, I also joined an online author talk hosted by Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane. Morgan’s conversational partner was Debra Jones.
Morgan quickly cleared the air about EvA’s Australian-ness, “we cannot claim her as an Australian novelist“, but by the same token, various family members maintained contact with Australia and some returned for visits or extended stays. Many of her letter exchanges with them would have featured memories of Australia and a reminder of where she started off her life. Certainly, her father Henry, had very fond memories of his life in Australia “I can be happy in Belsize Park and go into raptures in the Australian bush“.
Elizabeth, herself was also pretty clear when asked by an Australian academic, Professor E. Morris Miller from the University of Tasmania, in the mid-1930’s about her childhood,
“Alas, I cannot claim to be Australian. I was born in Australia because my mother happened to be there at the time, & was brought home to England, I understand, when a few months old”.
However, this one seemingly simply sentence highlights a number of issues that any biographer for EvA confronts.
Elizabeth reshaped her story numerous times throughout her lifetime, she destroyed letters and was deliberately evasive. For instance, the reason her mother, Elizabeth Lassetter (Louey), ‘happened’ to be in Australia was because she was an Australian by birth.
Louey was born in Launceston, Tasmania in 1836, eventually moving to Sydney to live with her eldest brother, Frederic. Here she met an adventurous young Englishman looking to make his fortune. Louey and Henry Herron Beauchamp married in 1855, first living in St Peters on the Cooks River before moving to Kirribilli Point in 1861. EvA (or May as the family called her) was in fact three years old (not months) when they left Australia, for what was originally planned as a year long jaunt with Frederic and his family around the Continent.
A number of years later, Henry returned to Australia to settle up some business matters, plus he had a separate visit to New Zealand to visit his brothers who had settled there. When Frederic returned to Australia in 1883, one of Elizabeth’s older brothers joined him – Walter.
EvA may not have thought of herself as Australian, but many of her close family members were. Clearly Elizabeth did not want to claim her Australian heritage, preferring a European sensibility and outlook. However, I still believe that she deserves to be honoured on the Sydney Writers Walk around Circular Quay with a plaque of her own.
Elizabeth von Armin’s childhood in Australia, England and Switzerland is mostly remembered or viewed through the lens of her father, Henry. He kept an extensive journal throughout his life and a large number of his letters have been saved by the family. Unlike EvA who destroyed many of her own letters and journals.
Although Louey and Henry named their daughter Mary Annette Beauchamp, they never called her that. They dubbed her May…but for many years she was simply Mary Beauchamp.
Henry’s return trip to Australia was to sell up the last piece of property he had left in Sydney, when it became apparent that his family would not be going back. The property was eighteen acres of land with a villa in St Leonards. One of the interesting little facts unearthed by Joyce, was that this land was sold to Bernhardt Holtermann, a gold miner who had just discovered the largest reef gold specimen in Hill End. Holtermann built a ‘palatial mansion‘ on his new land. This land and house are now ‘part of the prestigious boys’ school, Shore.‘
Besides interesting little facts like this, I’m also curious around which books writers like to read themselves.
EvA was a HUGE fan of Jane Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice which she reread often. She also enjoyed reading William Wordsworth, Edmund Spenser, Alfred Austin’s The Garden That I Love, D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, and Shakespeare. Books by and about women also appealed to her, like Marianne North’s Recollections of a Happy Life, Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, Mrs Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Her literary friendships and affairs included E. M. Forster, Hugh Walpole, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Mary Cholmondeley, Henry James, Gertrude Bell and Bertrand Russell. Morgan also spent quite a bit of time fleshing out EvA’s relationship with her younger cousin, Katherine Mansfield. It was a close bond, but “not without thorns“.
Joyce spent three years researching her book including a two month stint at the Huntington Library, California (where EvA, and her father’s, letters and journals are held) just before the Covid lockdowns affected overseas travel in early in 2020. Any primary sources that EvA left behind, Morgan hunted down and read them herself. She has included an extensive notes section at the back of her book and a generous bibliography for me to explore further, at my leisure.
Part of the pleasure of this biography is the inclusion of many interesting details about her novels. Elizabeth wrote 21 books throughout her lifetime. Each and every one was heavily influenced by what was going on her in her life at the time. Curiously, for someone so protective of her privacy, a huge amount of her personal life was made visible through her stories. The names were changed, but many of the incidents and certainly, the emotional truth behind the story, was often very, very real.
Mary’s works were invariably semi-autobiographical; she mined her life for the raw materials from which she constructed situations, characters and incidents.
Elizabeth, herself said, when asked why she wouldn’t satisfy the public hunger for information about her life. “But why should they know? What is there to tell them anyhow? They can find me in all my books.“
‘It is out of these odds and ends of my personality, out of these torn off bits, sometimes bleeding, of my secret self, that the characters in my stories are made.’
In the future, as I read her books in chronological order, I will certainly revisit this delightful biography to read over what was happening in her life at the time of each book. I may even initiate an EvA Reading Week to help me complete this self-imposed project!
EvA Biblio File:
- Elizabeth and Her German Garden | Elizabeth von Armin
- Only Happiness Here | Gabrielle Carey
- The Elizabeth von Armin Society
Title: The Countess From Kirribilli Author: Joyce Morgan ISBN: 9781760875176 Imprint: Allen & Unwin Published: July 2021 Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 352
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.