Gabrielle Carey chronicles the life of Elizabeth von Arnim, the Australian-born bestselling author whose work is largely forgotten

  • Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabrth von Arnim, by Gabrielle Carey. University of Queensland Press, $32.99.

Australian-born author Elizabeth von Armin is probably the most successful female writer of the early 20th century you have never heard of.

Von Armin, who was born in Sydney, spent most of her life in Europe where she led a fascinating, peripatetic life. She married a Prussian count, learnt German, had five children, decorated houses, built gardens and found time to write 20 books, several of which were runaway bestsellers. She had a stormy affair with HG Wells, a disastrous marriage to the brother of Bertrand Russell and a romance with a Cambridge undergraduate 30 years her junior.

She was an most astute chronicler of gender relations, and resolutely sought out and believed in the fundamental importance of happiness for women. As Carey notes dryly on the first page of the book, happiness is not a quality usually associated with writing, the great writers she has adored or their great works.

So can one be a successful, prolific author and write about people seeking and finding happiness? Yes, it is possible and von Armin is proof, says Carey.

But there is an interesting tension at the heart of this work. While von Armin sought out happiness, contentment and beauty for herself and her characters, she was a bundle of contradictions and not always a thoroughly likeable character herself. She adored nature and had an admirable knack of seizing glorious snatches of time in her garden, watching clouds or enjoying her flowers.

But her relationships were rarely tranquil and her parenting benignly indifferent. As an earlier biographer noted, she was also monstrously vain. (Nature was to be exalted - only not when it was chipping away at her fabulous looks.)

So while Carey's presentation of von Armin as an exemplar of contentment does not always ring true, von Armin is a remarkable figure. Carey documents her heroic work ethic and steely will which enabled her to write through bruising periods of upheaval, domestic violence and turbulent relationships.

There are some wonderful contemporary strands in von Armin's fiction, adroitly presented here by Carey. Remarkable for their time, von Armin's characters did not sentimentalise pregnancy and were frank about the horrors of childbirth. Von Armin also wrote often about freedom for women - the freedom to be happy and to shrug off controlling partners and suitors.

Reflections from Carey's own life as a writer are tantalising too. Her crisp prose is a joy to read in this interesting study of one extraordinary writer, and the vexed question of fulfillment for women artists then and now.

This story The fascinating author you've never heard of first appeared on The Canberra Times.