BOOK REVIEW: Only Happiness Here – In search of Elizabeth von Arnim by Gabrielle Carey

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Elizabeth von Arnim is one of the early twentieth century’s most famous – and almost forgotten – authors. She was ahead of her time in her understanding of women and their often thwarted pursuit of happiness. Born in Sydney in the mid-1800s, she went on to write many internationally bestselling novels, marry a Prussian Count and then an English Lord, develop close friendships with H.G. Wells and E.M. Forster, and raise five children.

Intrigued by von Arnim’s extraordinary life, Gabrielle Carey sets off on a literary and philosophical journey to learn about this bold and witty author. More than a biography, Only Happiness Here is also a personal investigation into our perennial obsession with finding joy.

My Thoughts:

Many years ago, I read Elizabeth & Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, a wonderfully warm and funny book about a young woman who restores an unloved garden and finds true peace and joy there. I re-read it again every few years (it’s so slim it only takes me a few hours), as a kind of restorative medicine for the soul. I also adore her novel Enchanted April which in 1991 was turned into a charming movie starring Miranda Richardson and Josie Lawrence.

I did not realise that Elizabeth von Arnim was Australian, and grew up only half-an-hour away from me until recently. This really sparked my interest in her life, and I began to read up on her. So imagine my delight when I found Gabrielle Carey had written a bibliomemoir of her life and work called Only Happiness Here, exploring her own love of Elizabeth’s von Arnim’s work and how much it taught her about the secret of a life filled with contentment, purpose and joy. 


I love bibliomemoirs. They are one of my favourite genres to read. Combining the biography of a writer with the reader’s own personal response to their work, they are like having a wonderful conversation with a kindred spirit. I curled up with Gabrielle Carey’s book one Sunday morning soon after finishing my latest novel (which feels a little like you are convalescing after a very long illness), and devoured the whole book in a single sitting. I then watched the Enchanted April movie again. It was a truly delightful day.

Elizabeth von Arnim was born in Sydney in the mid-1880s, grew up in Kirribilli, went to Europe with her family on a kind of Grand Tour, and met and married a much older German count (nicknamed ‘the man of wroth’ in Elizabeth and her German Garden). Her first book became a runaway bestseller, and she went on to have a fascinating & flourishing career. She scandalously left the German count and later married a mad English lord, and was close friends (and perhaps lovers) with E. M. Forster & H. G. Wells. Her life was bold and joyous and enviable, and I loved discovering it through Gabrielle Carey’s thoughtful and insightful book. Give yourself a treat and buy Only Happiness Here in a bundle with Elizabeth and her German Garden and Enchanted April – I promise you it’s a dose of sunshine and sea air for your soul.

You might also like to read my review of Take Courage: Anne Bronte and The Art of Life by Samantha Ellis:


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Kate Forsyth
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