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'Downton Abbey' fever reaches forgotten author Elizabeth von Arnim

January 13, 2012 | 12:36 pm

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Molesley making moves on Anna last week immediately after Mr. Bates had left her confused and brokenhearted was a little sleazy -- but at least he used a book as his overture. The novel Molesley gave Anna, with the distinctly unpromising title "Elizabeth and Her German Garden," turns out to have been an acid-tongued 19th-century bestseller. And now it's on the verge of finding new fans.

What we're talking about here is "Downton Abbey," the biggest hit PBS has had since anyone can remember. More people watched Sunday's premiere than watched an average episode of the most recent season of "Mad Men." And because people who like books are a likely PBS audience, you may already know that Anna and Molesely and Bates are all servants in a grand country house, where the Crawleys and their unmarried daughters try to find their way forward into the 20th century. There are lots of pretty dresses, beautiful people, lovelorn looks and, now, a rediscovered book.

"Elizabeth and Her German Garden," written by Elizabeth von Arnim, was published in 1898. The novel, loosely based on Von Arnim's life growing up on a country estate, was known for its distinctly wry voice. In the first chapter she writes:

The house is very old, and has been added to at various times. It was a convent before the Thirty Years' War, and the vaulted chapel, with its brick floor worn by pious peasant knees, is now used as a hall. Gustavus Adolphus and his Swedes passed through more than once, as is duly recorded in archives still preserved, for we are on what was then the high-road between Sweden and Brandenberg the unfortunate. The Lion of the North was no doubt an estimable person and acted wholly on his convictions, but he must have sadly upset the peaceful nuns, who were not without convictions of their own, sending them out on to the wide, empty plain to piteously seek some life to replace the life of silence here.

Von Arnim wrote a few novels along these lines, and others that were quite different, even thriller-ish. A comedy, "The Enchanted April," was republished in England in a deluxe edition just last year. It was published in the U.S. by the New York Review of Books Classics with an introduction by Cathleen Schine. In the fall, the British newspaper the Independent published a profile of Von Arnim, newly popular 60 years after her death.

Elizabeth Von Arnim was a member of the literary glitterati: her cousin was Katherine Mansfield; her children were tutored by E M Forster and Hugh Walpole; she was a lover of H G Wells and, perhaps as a consequence of the latter, disliked by Rebecca West (who was also a mistress of Wells). Born Mary Annette Beauchampin Australia in 1866, daughter of an English merchant, she moved to England as a toddler and in due course studied at the Royal College of Music where she won a prize for organ playing. While sightseeing in Italy, she met Count von Arnim whom she married, and rendered as "The Man of Wrath" in her three memoir-cum-novels (Elizabeth and Her German Garden, The Solitary Summer and The Benefactress).

In the U.S., a few enterprising souls have thought to create ebooks of her works that are in the public domain -- these can be bought from the major e-book retailers, if you're the upstairs type. There's a nice 2007 New York Review of Books. If you're more downstairs, they can be downloaded for free from Googlebooks or Project Gutenberg.

I wonder if Anna and Molesley will end up having a one-on-one book club after all.

RELATED:

The Reading Life: Geoff Dyer on "The Missing of the Somme"

"Downton Abbey" recap: Season two premieres

A century of British newspapers goes online

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The "downstairs" half of Downton Abbey, Season 1. Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is third from right. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

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