First published in 1920, In the Mountains was published anonymously to begin with, which seems a little odd, it is a very Von Arnim book (or so it appears to this non Von Arnim expert) and I am puzzled as to why it was deemed necessary.
In the Mountains was a joy of a read for me, not a huge amount happens in this little novel, everything is contained within the small cast of characters. There is though, a delightful calmness that infuses this delightful novel which sits beautifully alongside Von Arnim’s delicate wit. Narrated by an Englishwoman whose name we never learn, In the Mountains in written in the form of a journal. Taking place in the summer and autumn of 1919, the novel tells the story of the return of this Englishwoman to her Swiss mountain summer home, the home she left in 1914 and has not seen since. We know virtually nothing about this woman, except that in 1914 she left as part of a “we” and returns very much as I. Before the war, from which the narrator comes to be healed, the house had been filled with people, visited by friends, a place of laughter, now it is peace and solitude its inhabitant particularly craves.
During her absence the house continued to be cared for by Antoine, who is now married, and he and Mrs Antoine continue to care for the property, to feed their employer allowing her the peace and space she so obviously needs.
“If only I don’t think – if only I don’t think and remember – how can I not get well again here in the beauty and the gentleness? There’s all next month and September, and perhaps October too may be warm and golden. After that I must go back, because the weather in this high place while it is changing from the calms of autumn to the calm of the exquisite alpine winter is a disagreeable, daunting thing. But I have two whole months perhaps three. Surely I’ll be stronger, tougher, by then? Surely I’ll at least be better? I couldn’t face the winter in London if this desperate darkness and distrust of life is still in my soul”
Whatever her experiences and particular grieves incurred by the war were, we only know that she needs to be healed, and to do so she has returned to her beloved mountain, the paths and landscape of which she knows so well.
“At night the bottom of the valley looks like water, and the lamps in the little town lying along it like quivering reflections of the stars.”
After a few weeks, our unnamed narrator begins to feel the place is having an effect she starts to take an interest again in her books, delights in the beauty of her surroundings, and feel as if she might rather like someone (other than the Antoines) to talk to. Her wish is soon granted when two Englishwomen dressed in black appear outside her house, having walked up the mountain from where they are staying in the valley. The tone of the novel changes slightly at this point, the quietness and introspection of the first part of the novel replaced by the slight mystery which surrounds these two women.
The women are widowed sisters, Mrs (kitty) Barnes and Mrs (Dolly) Jewkes, who have been in Switzerland for some time, but who are finding the heat of the valley unbearable. The diarist invites them to stay, and they so they do for the next couple of months. Mrs Barnes is a kind, slightly reserved woman, rather managing, but devoted to her younger sister for Dolly has a secret, that her sister seeks to force her to keep. Kitty’s worries about Dolly dominate her thoughts and the way she deals with her generous hostess. Kitty tries not to leave Dolly alone with our diarist, but Dolly is irrepressible and sociable and the diarist is drawn to her endearing nature immediately. Dolly’s secret is a fairly innocent one (although one which in the climate of 1919 would have been of some small concern to some) but poor Kitty has been driven to distraction by the weight of it. Our intelligent narrator is quick to discover Dolly’s secret, but wise enough to shield her knowledge from Kitty. The two sisters have had some difficult years, years of exile and wandering, of loneliness with just each other for company. The three women are soon joined by a man, the diarist’s uncle, a lonely, widowed dean of the Church of England who has journeyed to Switzerland to bring his niece home. Just as the reader can’t help but be,the dean is enchanted by Dolly, and the diarist sees that if her uncle and Dolly were left alone long enough to settle matters – then both the sisters’ problems and her uncle’s loneliness would be at an end.
I have been reading quite a lot of books for the Great War theme read – the list of book were put together by members of the Librarything Virago group, and this book is on the list for September and October’s theme of the consequences of war. The war is only referred to as having taken place – the diarist returned to her Mountain home to heal herself, but never does she talk about what she actually experienced. Still, I loved reading it, and it has put me in the mood for a lot more Elizabeth Von Arnim, who I have read scandalously little of.