Whenever I read an Elizabeth von Arnim novel – I am aware I haven’t read anything like enough of them. Which means of course, that I have plenty left to read which I am delighted about. Love is hugely compelling, it’s a little over 400 pages, but I fairly flew through it.
Elizabeth von Arnim’s voice is as delicious as ever in this novel – but there is a sharpness underlying her engaging humour. In this novel von Arnim highlights the hypocrisy of her society – which dictated how women should behave – who they should love.
“It was not he supposed, quite so personally awful as if it were one’s wife, but on the other hand it had a peculiar awfulness of its own. A young woman might descend declivities, impelled by the sheer momentum of youth; but for women of riper years, for the matrons, for the dowagers, for those whose calm remaining business in life is to hold aloft the lantern of example, whose pride it should be to be quiet, to be immobile, to be looked-up to and venerated, – for these to indulge in conduct that disgraced their families and ruined themselves was, in a way, even more horrible and terrible.”
Catherine Cumfrit and Christopher Monckton, meet at a production of a play The Immortal Hour, playing to reduced audiences, the pair have each attended numerous performances. Recognising each other among the dedicated followers of The Immortal Hour Catherine and Christopher move to sit near to one another. Christopher is pretty much immediately smitten, Catherine aware of his interest is flattered. Christopher is twenty-five, Catherine is in her mid-forties, a young looking widow, with a newly married daughter. While Christopher believes Catherine is probably a little bit older than him – he is sure it is nothing much – Catherine is very aware of the age difference – but enjoys being assumed to be much younger.
Catherine is living alone – with a loyal housekeeper – in a London flat, free and alone for the first time in her life. The large country home she shared with her much older husband – had passed to her daughter upon her recent marriage. The daughter; Virginia – just eighteen, although often appearing rather more middle aged – has married a man a year older than her mother Catherine. Virginia tells her mother how age doesn’t matter when one is in love. Catherine’s son-in-law is Stephen – a clergyman, pompous and self-righteous, does love Virginia madly, she makes him feel young again. In their relationship (about which I felt a bit yucky) von Arnim reminds us that those of us on the outside looking in, can never really see what feeling there exists between two people.
Meanwhile – Catherine is a typically vague slightly flaky von Arnim heroine, and Christopher; her annoying Tiggerish suitor, is oblivious to the disparity in their ages. As Catherine begins to worry that Christopher is really starting to get a bit ridiculous she flees to Chickover; her daughter’s home – which only three months earlier she was mistress of. The servants greet their former mistress with enthusiasm, while Stephen’s dragonish mother and Virginia herself are slightly put out by Catherine’s arrival – with two trunks – indicating a prolonged visit. Tensions between everyone – who are far too polite and English to just say “mother we’re newlyweds, go home” – percolate beneath the surface – while poor Catherine is oblivious to how, in the way she is.
“Vanity had been the beginning of it, the irresistibleness of the delicious flattery of being mistaken for young, and before she knew what she was doing she had fallen in love – fallen flop in love, like any schoolgirl.”
Christopher is never far from her thoughts – although she insists on telling herself that he is absurd. By now Christopher is aware just how big the age difference is – but it appears this has made no difference to how he feels. At Chickover everyone insists on treating Catherine as if she is ancient. Living close by; Mrs Colquhoun, Virginia’s mother in law, seems to believe they are of an age – when Catherine is in fact a year younger than her son, and in this atmosphere Catherine starts to feel her age.
Her family are astounded, when, just as Catherine is contemplating returning to London – saddened at finally realising Virginia doesn’t want her there – Christopher turns up complete with motorcycle and side car. Catherine finds herself happy in his company – and allows herself to be persuaded to allow him to drive her back to London in his sidecar. Naturally they run out of petrol – so far so comic, and a little predictable. However, son-in-law Stephen’s reaction to what is at worst (even in 1920’s Britain) is an embarrassing accident – is completely over the top – and ensures that Catherine and Christopher have to marry. Much to Christopher’s delight and his friend Lewes’s horror.
“Christopher loved her with the passion of youth, of imagination, of poetry, of all the fresh beginnings of wonder and worship that have been since love first lit his torch and made in the darkness a great light.”
Catherine loves Christopher, more and more – and as she does she becomes more and more aware of the age difference. In fact with her increasing love, Catherine actually begins to age. Catherine goes to all sorts of lengths to hold back time, and exhausts herself trying to keep up with her young husband. Naturally there are occasions when meeting new people leads to the obvious misconceptions, which hurt Catherine terribly but of which Christopher is either unaware or unconcerned by. Will Catherine and Christopher be able to find their way through the difficulties and prove the doubters wrong?
I don’t want to risk spoiling this novel for anyone by talking about the ending. However, I was slightly surprised by the turn the story takes and the more sombre tone. It is interesting to note that five years before this novel was published Elizabeth von Arnim had a relationship with a man around thirty years her junior – this relationship was of course the inspiration for this novel. For me this is a wonderful novel – it is a novel about age and ageing every bit as much as it about love.