“The cover of Flassbeck’s book is eye-catching. A photograph of Elizabeth von Arnim split into two halves and placed against the background of a William Morris wall-paper design suggests a contorted perspective on the late-Victorian cult of the beautiful woman and the house beautiful. Marianne Flassbecks study of Elizabeth von Arnim does not specifically deal with these connotations, but examines four of von Arnim’s novels … in their multiple dialogic implikations. Parody, puns and witty dialoques are shown as serving von Arnim’s subversive engagement with patriarchal culture, symbolised either by eminent Victorians, by the ‘Man of Wrath’ or profit-making businessmen. In seven chapters, Flassbeck (re-)situates Elizabeth von Arnim both in context of the Edwardian era and in connection with a tradition of writing which she defines as gender-specific: that of humor. For this purpose, Flassbeck combines critical approaches of écritur feminine, gynocriticism, gyn/ecology, and gender studies, while equally taking into account male theories of laughter: Immanuel Kant, Jean Paul, Erich Kästner, Sigmund Freud, Mikhail Bakhtin.
It is one of Flassbeck’s great merits that she neither universalises nor essentialises feminine laughter – a ‘queer imp that sits in a detached corner of one’s mind refusing to be serious just when it most should be’ (as von Arnim writers in Love). Instead, she illustrates its subversive potential in a given cultural, environment as well as its dynamic, polyphonous, and (necessarily) protean nature. The quality of von Arnim’s laughter, launched from a minority position in culture and targeted against social hierarchies, changed in the course of her work. Flassbeck shows with great skill how von Arnim rebelled against existing gender roles and patriarchal concepts of love, against domestic brutality, male reason and prejudice by simultaneously drawing on and undermining conventional images of femininity. Thus elizabeth’s ‘German garden’ is turned into a polyvalent metaphor, harking back to a rich tradition ranging from Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and Milton’s Paradise Lost to James Thomson’s Seasons. A symbol of fecundity and growth, it carries associations of wilderness and unlimited space, both of which are conducive to the formation of the subject beyond the boundaries of the house and the hearth. Elizabeth’s garden is a ‘herland,’ a ‘room of her own.’ Described as her ‘kingdom of heaven’ it also serves the creation of a feminine counterspirituality, emancipated from Protestant piety, religious fervor, and self-denial. Flassbeck’s reading brings to light the many nuances of von Arnim’s Mutterwitz: its paradistic, carnevalesque strain, its grim gothicism, its angry as well as disrespectful tones.
While Flassbeck minutely contextualises Elizabeth von Arnim’s oeuvre in connection with the New Woman question and convincingly describes her as a forerunner of Modernism, she pays surprisingly little attention to von Arnim’s cosmopolitan background and its potential effect on the destabilising quality of her writing. Occasionally one wonders what distinguishes her laughter, especially in its lighter aspects from a particularly British vein of humor? Or is it British feminine? The question suggests itself because Flassbeck highlights the particular appeal of von Arnim’s early garden diary to a British audience, and because she refers to a variety of female British writers who ventured into parodistic, gothic or subversive genres (Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Fay Weldon). There are, of course, many others she might have cited. A comparative reading of von Arnim’s and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novels, published about the same time, or in connection with writers like Stevie Smith and Ruth Pitter might shed yet more light on the feminine quality of her humor and its (gender-)specific function. (Like von Arnim’ fantaisie déréglée, Pitter´s Humor, too, unfolds within the domestic realm of the garden, and she, too, rebelled against ´standards´ and pleaded for a toleration of weeds and vermin).
Tracing Elizabeth von Arnim´s writing career in terms of a pattern of success and silence, typical of many women writers who fell into oblivion after their death and were only recovered in connection with the rise of feminist literary criticism in the 1970s, Flassbeck´s book closes a gap in the study of this female, feminine, or feminist line of wit, undervalued for such a long time. It is sure to kindle further critical interest – partly because it offers shrewd insights into traditionally feminine territories: the (wild) garden, sisterhood, cyclical time, love, death, and ´natality´ and partly because Flassbeck´s own language is remarkably fresh. Those who have not read Elizabeth von Arnim will want to do so after reading Flassbeck´s study.” (Sabine Coelsch-Foisner, Salzburg)