Do You Know What It Feels Like, For a Girl?

Elizabeth von Arnim

“She was 23 years old when her parents took her to Europe with the express purpose of marrying her off.  They were worried that their bright, sharp-tongued daughter would never marry.  Barely out of the nursery, the inexperienced May sensed her parents’ rising panic; she sensed that somehow by her very existence she was straining the bounds of acceptability.

At a ball in Florence she met an imposing German officer, Henning von Arnim, who was fifteen years older than she was.  He asked her to marry him on the third day of their acquaintance, at the top of the Duomo, saying “All girls like love. It’s very agreeable, you will see.”  She was alarmed by his embraces, but not by the diamond-and-sapphire ring he produced from his pocket.  She liked the importance the engagement conferred on her; she liked the cakes her betrothed bought her when she indicated the slightest interest in a bakery.

When the engagement dragged on for too long, and made her parents unhappy, the resourceful girl concocted a scheme; she told von Arnim that she was going to stay in a cottage by the Thames and would be lightly chaperoned. He came to her, and she lost her virginity to him, with the sound of the river outside her window. Her father then insisted they be married.

A tinge of that earlier desperation, that looming spinsterhood her parents feared for her, may have c lung to her, even in her forties: a lingering sense of marriage as the ultimate goal, even for a woman as remarkable and accomplished as herself.”

Excerpt from Katie Roiphe’s chapter on Elizabeth von Arnim* in Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages in Literary London 1910-1939

by Katie Roiphe

I’m glad I spent so long picking the perfect read with my Christmas voucher, as this is the best book I’ve read so far this year. Engaging, smart, and full of intimate, interconnecting stories about some of the most interesting people of the period, I was totally enthralled by both the content and Katie Roiphe’s sharp writing and tight research/selection. I know I’ll read it again and again. There’s lots of scandal in here, sure, but it’s never included for scandal’s sake, this isn’t a historical version of NW!

It’s a genuine exploration of how human nature and society interacts with our expectations of love/marriage/partnership, and some really inventive attempts to do these differently than the prevailing model. I always find it refreshing to be reminded that the complicated relationship s of our times are not so radical and the past was not so prim.

* Extras for experts: Elizabeth von Arnim grew up in NZ as Mary “May” Beauchamp – Katherine Mansfield’s first cousin.


February 2, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , . writing.


  1. S replied:

    Love this! ex u

  2. swingsandskateboards replied:

    I know! I think I will need to track down her full biography.

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