Book Review: Gabrielle Carey searches for the secrets of happiness in the pages of a near-forgotten writer

Only Happiness Here

Gabrielle Carey may have written more in the field of biography, but is best known as the co-author of Puberty Blues, written alongside Kathy Lette. Her latest offering, Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim combines the straight accounting of the twentieth century writer’s life with a form of literary analysis and memoir that has become popular in the last five years.

Like the books that have come before, such as Mrs Gaskell and Me by Nell Stevens, the genre (sometimes referred to as biblio-memoir) combines an accounting of the subject’s life story with a discussion of the practice of writing biography. It also often includes personal anecdotes by the author, which attempt to illuminate why their subject holds such significance for them as writers, and in their day-to-day lives. This is the case with Only Happiness Here, in which Carey seeks to analyse the life and work of von Arnim in order to discover the secret to why she lead such a happy life.

The problem is, that while von Arnim (who was born Mary Beauchamp) proclaimed herself to be happy and wrote novels which Carey theorises have fallen into a degree of obscurity precisely because they do tend to be cheerful, the details of her life do not seem to add up to a portrait of constant joy. Married to a controlling Prussian Count; finding herself unable to fit in with Prussian society and continually pregnant with his children; having had a disastrous affair with H.G. Wells and an abusive marriage to Lord Russell, von Arnim’s determination then, to find happiness was even more the astounding.

Carey, in her examination of her subject, takes a largely linear account. But also sorts her biography into nine themes, or nine ‘Principles of Happiness’, which she builds from examining the themes in the writer’s published work, excerpts from her letters and diaries (as well as those of others) and the opinions of her previous biographers. The result is a complex portrait of a woman, whom, Carey often notes would have been considered a ‘Great Man’ figure of literature, had she been male.

As it was, von Arnim appears in this book a complicated woman, dedicated to her craft above all else – including her five children. Like the author with whom she has been frequently compared over the years, Jane Austen, it is difficult for the modern reader to truly say they know her. In Austen’s case, much of her papers and correspondence were destroyed by her sister Cassandra after Jane’s death. In the case of von Arnim, the destruction was wrought by her own hand, in an event she referred to in her diary as ‘the holocaust’, giving Carey and her readers the impression that this was a woman who knew that she would be studied and analysed for many years after her death – a woman who valued keeping some things, at least, sacred.

Only Happiness Here leaves the reader with the impression that the real Elizabeth von Arnim, whoever she may have been, was a woman far ahead of her time. Her determination to keep her real identity out of the papers when it was speculated upon by her early reviewers is reminiscent of Elena Ferrante. Would von Arnim, too, have had such a cult following for her works despite her determination to separate her self from them in today’s age of social media platforms and the branding of individual authors to sell books?

Her extensive catalogue of books is hard to come by these days, with some of her more popular titles – Vera, Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and The Enchanted April – available as classics. A good thing too, as Carey’s representation of the work makes it sound so delectable that anyone who reads Only Happiness Here will be scouring their local bookshops for copies.

In general, this desire for more is a hallmark of Only Happiness Here, as it is quite slim of a volume (around 250pp, but sadly with no chapter breaks) for a biography of a woman who published as many novels as von Arnim did. On reading it, one wants more – more analysis of the works, more details. The back cover promises encounters with H.G. Wells and E.M. Forster, but of Forster there is only a few pages. This, alas, is the nature of any historical research. What can be discovered in the archives is all that can be faithfully recorded.

One area where Carey could have delivered the depth longed for was in her own sections, whereby she related incidents in her life which allowed her to relate to Elizabeth von Arnim. The book begins with an anecdote about the reasons why Carey set off on a year long sabbatical to write this work, and the series of unfortunate events that led her to so desperately want to find if there was a secret to happiness. But, though she hints at a number of failed relationships, at her struggle with identity theft, and so on, one senses that there is a reluctance to render herself on the page.

In each section where Carey begins to talk about her own life, the reader is given only a page or so worth of a glimpse. Which often assumes that the reader already knows much of the story. While it builds some degree of sympathy for Carey – and indeed, it sounds to me like she did really need the comforting she found in her research – it fails to elucidate the connection between biographer and subject. In fact, these short interruptions hardly needed to be there at all, and were distractions from the meat of the biography. It is interesting to note, however, that Carey talks at one point about writing biography being like stealing, like plundering other people’s secrets. She goes into great detail about von Arnim’s life, but holds back from doing the same about her own.

Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim is a short book, but a delightful one. I am grateful to both Gabrielle Carey and University of Queensland Press for educating me about this lesser-known writer – one whom I am now sure I will very much enjoy reading.

Only Happiness Here

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Gabrielle Carey’s Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim is out now, published by UQP.

You can purchase a copy from Booktopia HERE.

Emily Paull

Emily Paull is a former bookseller and a future librarian. Her debut book, Well-Behaved Women, was released by Margaret River Press in 2019.

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