Book Review: The Countess From Kirribilli delves deep into the life of a complicated woman

The Countess from Kirribilli

Former arts editor turned biographer Joyce Morgan turns her pen to one of Australia’s most famous literary ex-patriots in her latest biography. The Countess from Kirribilli is an in depth look at the life and career of Mary Annette Beauchamp- a.k.a. Elizabeth von Arnim, the beloved author of classic novels like The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and her German Garden.

von Arnim has seen a resurgence in, if not popularity, then at least interest in the last couple of years, and this is the second biographical text to be released in as many years by an Australian writer. Gabrielle Carey‘s memoir of her own emotional connection with von Arnim, Only Happiness Herewas published by the University of Queensland Press in 2020.

If Only Happiness Here was more of a literary analysis, The Countess of Kirribilli certainly follows the formula of a very traditional biography. von Arnim’s life is told in a very strict chronological order, with much of the early chapter actually focussing on her parents and their choice to leave Australia when Mary Annette (as she was then known) was only young.

Throughout the text, quotes from letters and journals are used extensively. Further, the voice of Joyce Morgan in her role of biographer is largely absent, and very rarely does the reader feel as if she is providing a personal opinion on her subject matter. Though there is the odd occasion where a gap in the historical record requires some educated conjecture. The result is a very academic, and at times quite dry account of a woman who was known for being somewhat mercurial. Despite there being much detail provided about her life, the reader comes away from reading this book feeling at a distance from Elizabeth, which perhaps, knowing what we know about her, she would have quite liked.

Morgan’s attention to detail in her research is to be commended, but with so much ground to cover, it is no wonder that at times large events feel small or matter of fact. One such example is von Arnim’s friendship with E.M. Forster, who was at one time her daughters’ tutor.

This is not a biography for reading from cover to cover, and would perhaps work better as a companion to reading her novels, providing biographical colour to novels that are undoubtedly influenced by her own life, loves and relationships with her family and friends (among them the writer Katherine Mansfield.) It is to be hoped that another by-product of the resurgence of interest may be the re-issue of some of von Arnim’s out of print work.

The Countess of Kirribilli is a very fine and functional biography, but may disappoint readers who are already Elizabeth von Arnim fans, and seeking a sense of the woman on the page. For that, this reviewer recommends heading to the original source material first.

The Countess from Kirribilli

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Countess from Kirribilli by Joyce Morgan is available now from Allen and Unwin. Get your 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.

Tags: , , ,