Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
I was born and bred in Sydney and, though no expert or fount of all knowledge, not such a slouch when it comes to the history of my home town and yet I had never heard of Elizabeth von Armin. This vivacious, talented and popular woman forged a literary career that earned her worldwide acclaim, and led an extraordinary life and yet, in the city of her birth, there is no mention of her nor her success. Sydney has a Writers Walk, installed in 1991, which acknowledges many leading authors, not only Australian, but those who visited our country and yet there is no mention of this woman whose books were runaway successes and whose career spanned decades. After reading her story, I find that completely unfathomable.
Mary Annette Beauchamp, known as May, was born in 1866 at Kirribilli Point in Sydney to quite wealthy parents and was part of a very large extended family. Her father re-located the entire family to England when May was young and so most of her formative years were spent there. Her first marriage made her a Countess and the mother of five children and was not particularly happy but did provide her with the fodder for her first highly entertaining and witty books, which became instant bestsellers. Following the death of husband #1 she had a lengthy and tempestuous affair with H. G. Wells, which was followed by a very disastrous second marriage to Bertrand Russell’s brother, Frank, 2nd Earl Russell, which lasted a mere three years. Then followed another affair this time with a man half her age, Alexander Frere, who went on to become the chairman of publishing house Heinneman.
Following the ups and downs of Elizabeth’s life (she adopted this name early in her professional career) has been fascinating reading for me the past week or so. Her observations on society of the time in that late Victorian/early Edwardian period in particular and the insights into other famous writers, whom she collected as friends wherever she went, are both enlightening and entertaining.
Her personal life was often marred by tragedy and at times hardship, despite her status, money and success, but she triumphed over this with grace and dignity until her death in 1941. All of her works are available via Project Gutenberg but there have also been some reprinted and certainly my interest in reading at least some of them has been piqued.
In the meantime, this is a wonderfully written biography from Joyce Morgan and provides this largely ignored Australian literary figure with some long-overdue recognition for her contribution to writing.
I would urge you to pick this up for a thoroughly engaging and absorbing read- whether you are interested in writers or Australian literary figures, you will find it fascinating.