Elizabeth, Countess Russell, was a British novelist and, through marriage, a member of the German nobility, known as Mary Annette Gräfin von Arnim.  Born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Sydney, Australia, she was raised in England and in 1891 married Count Henning August von Arnim, a Prussian aristocrat, and the great-great-great-grandson of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia.

In 1898 she started her literary career by publishing Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a semi-autobiographical novel about a rural idyll published anonymously and, as it turned out to be highly successful, reprinted 21 times within the first year.  Throughout her life she was very prolific, had another marriage and even an affair with H. G. Wells.

I discovered this author when I came upon a list of One Hundred Best Sellers of the Last One Hundred Years, so because I am down to my last 3,000 books on my TBR list, it was only natural that I go see what they were.  Understand, these are not necessarily the BEST books of each year, but the BEST SELLERS of each year.  You will be thrilled to know that these early years, from 1918 are most of them on Project Gutenberg FOR FREE!  I do so love free.  Oh, yeah.  If you would like to take a look at that list for yourself, it is here. 

On to the story.  Gee, what a darling, fun read.  Seventeen-year-old twins, looking more like twelve, and not looking at all alike, are orphaned right before the onset of WWI.  First, their German father dies, so their English mother takes them to England, but there she also dies of … oh, I forget what.  Maybe TB.  So the girls go to live with their mother’s sister, who is married to a very disagreeable and parsimonious man.

Now part of the problem is that they are half German, and at this point in time, because of the war, Germans are not liked, welcomed, and definitely suspected of spying and other devious acts.  The uncle does his best to get rid of the girls, first at a nursing position, where they are incompetent and also unwanted both by the patients and nursing staff, then he gets the idea to write to two acquaintances he has in America, and they can stay with one of those acquaintances and wait out the war.

So off they go on a ten-day sail, attacked once by a German sub.  The one twin is wildly seasick the entire voyage, but the other fares fairly well.  In order to keep up their spirits, they conceive the idea that they are on a voyage of discovery, just like Christopher Columbus, and so one of them would be Christopher, and the other would be Columbus.  On board, (second class doncha know because the uncle is so cheap), they meet a young sweet man from first class, who takes them under his wing and determines to shepherd them to their destination, since they are such naifs.

Well, the first destination is a bust. The wife has just left the husband for another man,, so of course the girls cannot stay with that guy.  Egad.  This is 1916.  Heaven forfend!  The nice young man from the boat thinking he had them safely stowed, goes home to his manipulative and selfish mother in New England, where during their formal dinner, the twins appear on their doorstep, having nowhere else to go.  The mother is horrified, appalled, and after a terrific fight with the son, he leaves with the twins the next day for California, where the second contact lives.

Arriving in California, they find that contact deceased.  Dead as a doornail, so there goes that situation, because of course they cannot impose on the grieving widow, and on the day of the funeral, no less.

The young man, wealthy from having invented a dripless teapot, installs them in a fine hotel while they try to figure out what to do, when one of the twins comes up with the idea to have a typical English tea house where they can cater to the monied crowd,. and also have a place to live.

Events go on, they get snubbed and suspected, and of course, eventually, all’s well that ends well.

Their names are Anna-Rose and Anna Felicitas.  Von Twinkler, of the Pomeranian Von Twinklers, an old, revered and aristocratic family.  Junkers. I bet you never heard of Junkers.  Me, neither.  So here’s a brief explanation.

Junkers were members of the landed nobility in Prussia. They owned great estates that were maintained and worked by peasants with few rights. These estates often stood in the countryside outside of major cities or towns. They were an important factor in Prussia and, after 1871, in German military, political and diplomatic leadership. The most famous Junker was Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Bismark held power in Germany from 1871 to 1890 as Chancellor of the German Empire.

Many Junkers lived in the eastern provinces that after World War II were annexed by either Poland or the Soviet Union. Junkers fled or were expelled alongside other German-speaking population by the incoming Polish and Soviet administrations, and their lands were confiscated. In western and southern Germany, the land was often owned by small independent farmers or a mixture of small farmers and estate owners, and this system was often contrasted with the dominance of the large estate owners of the east.

The twins grew up in Pomerania, which was a province of Prussia from 1815 to 1945.  Their place had no indoor plumbing or running water, and sounded from the twins’ description pretty primitive.  They were delighted to find the amenities that England had to offer.

Some quotes?  OK.

  • We’re not completely young, said Anna-Rose with dignity.  People are completely young the day they’re born, and ever after that they spend their time becoming less so.
  • Kindly tell your master the Miss Twinklers have arrived, said Anna-Rose, looking every inch a Junker.  There weren’t many inches of Anna-Rose, but every one of them at that moment, faced by the housekeeper’s want of discipline, was sheer Junker.
  • Mrs. Twist was suddenly overcome by a cold foreboding.  Mrs. Twist often had forebodings, and they were always cold.
  • Mrs. Twist (the young man’s awful mother) was full of dignity and honour.  As a wife she had been full of it, for the elder Mr. Twist had been good even when alive, and as a widow she had been still fuller, for the elder Mr. Twist positively improved by being dead.
  • Pardon the weird formatting.  I can’t get the hang of this WordPress formatting stuff.  So formatting aside,  it was a fun book, and it is easy to understand how it made the best seller list for 1919.   I enjoyed it so much I think I will see what other works of this prolific author that Project Gutenberg has on tap.  She was wildly popular in her day.  I can see why.






2 comments on “CHRISTOPHER AND COLUMBUS BY Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. Deb Atwood says:

    This book sounds lovely! Now, you absolutely must have a look at Enchanted April. I haven’t read the book, but the movie is delightful.


  2. Marti says:

    Oh, yes, I have read Enchanted April yonks ago.


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