Earlier this month I reacquainted myself with Elizabeth Von Arnim by reading In the Mountains. Although I already have Elizabeth and her German Garden waiting to be read, I got The Pastor’s Wife out of the library.
Elizabeth Von Arnim wrote The Pastor’s Wife following her first marriage which had ended with the death of her husband in 1910. The marriage had not been trouble free, Mary Annette (to give EVA her real name) had been plagued by a series of complicated and painful pregnancies. The Pastor’s Wife examines the bondage of women by the constant threat of childbirth, destined never to be more than mere, daughters, wives and mothers.
Surely the colour of London was an exquisite thing. It was like a pearl that late afternoon, something very gentle and pale, with faint blue shadows. And as for its smell, she doubted, indeed, whether heaven itself could smell better, certainly not so interesting. “And anyhow,” she said to herself, lifting her head a moment in appreciation, “it can’t possibly smell more alive.”
Ingeborg (this German name for an English girl never explained) Bullivant, is the daughter of the Bishop of Redchester. The Bishop relies on Ingeborg for much of his secretarial work, while her beautiful sister Judith is busy being quiet and lovely, and her “invalid” mother lies on a sofa. Given the money and freedom of up to ten days in London to consult a dentist, and finding the tooth is satisfactorily dealt with in a day, Ingeborg revels in the sense of an unexpected freedom, with days to fill before she need go home. Ripe for new experiences, Ingeborg catches sight of an advertisement for a tour to Lucerne, a place that instantly captures her imagination. Seized by an uncharacteristic feeling of rebelliousness Ingeborg books herself a place on the tour leaving the following day. On the first day Ingeborg meets Robert Dremmel a German Pastor from East Prussia. Thrown together almost constantly with the serious Herr Dremmel, Ingeborg is still astounded when he proposes marriage to her. Fearing the wrath of The Bishop when she goes home, and although unsure of her feelings, Ingeborg accepts him.
“The years lay spread out before her, spacious untouched canvases on which she was presently going to paint the picture of her life. It was to be a very beautiful picture, she said to herself with an extraordinary feeling of proud confidence; not beautiful because of any gifts or skill of hers, for never was a woman more giftless, but because of all the untiring little touches, the ceaseless care for detail, the patient painting out of mistakes; and every touch and every detail was going to be aglow with the bright colours of happiness.”
Married to Robert, Ingeborg finds life as Frau Pastor in Kokensee, East Prussia to be not quite as she had envisaged, she finds that she has merely exchanged one lot of rules for another. Living in a fairly isolated spot with just her husband for company, Ingeborg must first learn the language. Robert locks himself away in his laboratory where he studies grains from his fields for some mysterious reason, preaching the same set of sermons to his two congregations year in year out, leaving his young wife to fend for herself. I wanted to hug poor Ingeborg when she tries so hard to entertain her alarming mother-in-law to tea, and not knowing the local customs, and having not been enlightened by her husband, gets it so wrong her mother-in-law leaves in tears. Robert’s patron Baron Glambeck and his wife are the only people to whom Robert and Ingeborg can call on, which they very rarely do – and following her first visit, and the counsel of the Baroness; Ingeborg is left in no doubt where her duties lie – to bear good German children. This is certainly what Robert wants too; all he requires of Ingeborg is that she be a good little wife – his “little sheep.” When Ingeborg nervously suggests she do something good, Robert brushes aside her requests.
Naturally pregnancy does soon follow, and her experience of childbirth and a resulting illness is a dreadfully debilitating one, and is followed very rapidly by a second pregnancy. Robert delighted each time Ingeborg falls pregnant, soon loses interest and heads back to his laboratory; he can’t understand that his wife should want such a dreadful thing as chloroform when in labour. Any suggestion that more children should be avoided is met by a mixture of horror, hurt and fury. It is around the time of Ingeborg’s second pregnancy that she meets Ingram, a famous London artist, (of whom at this time an ignorant Ingeborg hasn’t heard). It will be several years before Ingeborg meets Ingram again, when Ingeborg will undergo her second adventure – and come to a sudden resolution about the life she has. For initially Ingram fills a void in the emptiness of her life, Ingeborg is an innocent, almost too gullible at times, but so loveable and Ingram not quite all he seems.
“If you weren’t here I wouldn’t see it,” said Ingram, firmly believing it in the face of the fact that nothing ever escaped his acute vision. “I see all this only through you. You are my eyes. Without you I go blind, I grope about with the light gone out. You don’t know what you are to me, you little shining crystal thing—you don’t begin to realise it, my dear, my dear sweet Found-at-Last.”
I absolutely loved this book; it is nearly 500 pages, a bit longer than some of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s other novels and written with E.V.A’s wonderfully characteristic, warmth, wit and subtlety. This theme of the subjugation of women is a familiar one for Von Arnim, a subject very close to her heart as a woman who endured difficult pregnancies and widowhood by the time this novel was written. The writing is glorious, deeply heartfelt and feels very personal; the voice must surely be that of E.V.A herself, it’s a voice I don’t think I will tire of.