Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Von Arnim’

I am as you are all probably aware a big fan of Elizabeth von Arnin and of course a big Persephone fan so a book combining the two felt like a real treat. This wonderful Elizabeth von Arnim novel was out of print for decades before Persephone brought it back. I can’t understand why it was out of print so long, perhaps the rather unexciting title is partly responsible. For me, Expiation felt like classic von Arnim.

This is a novel full to the brim of Elizabeth von Arnim’s delicious wit, a satirically humorous novel about middle class prudery and close-minded cruelty. Everything about this novel is perfect – each scene, each piece of dialogue is simply superb. Even the name chosen for our heroine’s in-laws is perfect – Bott – a word that can be spat out in exasperation and disgust as poor Milly might long to do. Oh, those Botts!

“That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continually increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, ordered. Titford was full of Botts, and every one of them a credit to it.”

As the novel opens Milly Bott is surrounded by her sorrowing in-laws – her husband died in a road accident a few days earlier, they have buried him and the solicitor is about to read the will. Everyone adores Milly, in her forties, she is soft and comforting and good – and never gave poor Ernest a moments trouble. Though the couple remained childless she was a good wife to Ernest. The Bott clan is a large one, an elderly mother-in-law and several sons and daughters each with their own wives and husbands and offspring. These people are drawn so well – they are hilariously infuriating, and while Milly may have committed adultery, our sympathies are one hundred per cent with her. There is something very lovable about Milly – perhaps because she isn’t perfect, and the Botts are so insufferable, pompous and rather absurd. We know how well von Arnim writes such absurd creatures, her portrayal of them is always wincingly accurate.

In the polite suburb of Titford the Bott family are well known and well thought off – the Botts are suitably proud of their position. They are respectable in every way – and consider themselves the leading lights of behaviour and morality.  However, the Botts are about to be shaken to the core. When the will is read, it is revealed that Ernest has left all his money to a charity for ‘fallen women’ – adding the dark rejoinder that his wife will know why. Milly will have just a £1000 of his large estate for herself. Speculation is immediate and not kind – by page 29 the reader knows that the Bott speculation is pretty spot on.

“It had begun quite by chance. And what a chance, thought Milly, looking back now with the horrified clear vision which is the portion of the found out, at the beginning. Such small things had made it begin. Five minutes earlier, five minutes later, and she never would have met Arthur. A missed train, a slower taxi, even just a pause to watch the pigeons in the courtyard, or, indeed, even a little decent reserve, and she would have been saved. But the train was caught, the taxi was swift, the pigeons didn’t interest her, and in she went; and there, in the British Museum, in the gallery where the busts of the Roman emperors are, she met Arthur Oswestry, and they sinned.”

For ten years Milly had been having an affair with a man she met in The British Museum – and now she realises, due to the date of the will, that Ernest had known for the last two. For readers of a novel first published in 1929, this was far more shocking than it would be today.

The novel is the story of Milly’s attempt at expiation, at atonement for her great sin. This involves her deciding to escape the Botts by fleeing to her sister who many years earlier disgraced the family – and who Ernest had barred Milly from contacting – yet in a wonderful bit of past defiance had continued to write to. Only, things don’t quite work out as Milly had planned. We follow Milly as she encounters the harsh world of disapproval in the guise of her sister changed by circumstance, a nosy landlady and the sneering, family lawyer. She even feels unworthy of her £1000, and the deep black of mourning that she is wearing. Poor Milly wears her shame heavily and is horribly hard on herself.  In time Milly must make her way back to Titford – and the world of the Botts – submitting meekly to their plans for her.  

Anyone worrying that this will all be horribly bleak and sad, fear not – in Elizabeth von Arnim’s hands it is anything but. Ultimately this is marvellously uplifting – and I defy anyone not to fall in love with dear Milly.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

There is something so wonderfully engaging about Elizabeth von Arnim that her books often feel like a tonic. Despite the fact that she is usually telling a truth about women’s lives that isn’t always happy she does it in a way that is touching and wry, more than a little tongue in cheek, while showing us the wonderful absurdities of a certain kind of pompous male. In Father one of Elizabeth von Arnim’s later novels she employs both light comedy and poignancy to tell a story of unmarried women reliant upon men for the comforts of home.

Jennifer Dodge is thirty three, living in Gower street with her father – her mother having died some years earlier – she is one of the surplus women of the 1920s and 30s following the Great War. Since her mother’s death, Jennifer has devoted her time to her father – acting as his secretary as well as running the house and directing the servants. Her father: Richard Dodge is a renowned novelist, revered more than he is read – he considers Jennifer’s assistance to be tied into the gratitude she owes him. Father has a rather unreasonable dislike of old maids – and while he expects Jennifer to be at his beck and call he is also irritated by her presence.

As the novel opens Father arrives home for tea with a very young woman in tow – and reveals that he has just married Netta and is about to go away for a month’s honeymoon to Norway. He is expecting a scene – certain that his daughter will have an objection to a much younger step-mother. Yet all Jennifer can see in front of her is freedom.

“Through and beyond father she saw doors open, walls falling flat, and herself running unhindered down the steps, along Gower street, away from London, across suburbs, out into great sunlit spaces.”

Surely, this is the chance she has always wanted. To live independently – away from London to have the garden she has always dreamed of. Her mother left her £100 a year (Simon Thomas, in his Afterword helpfully translates that into today’s money to be around £6,500 a year, a long way below the poverty line) and she decides that is more than enough to rent a tiny cottage and cultivate her garden. As soon as her father and Netta have gone away – he leaving instructions about editing his fifth chapter – Jennifer puts her plan into action. She will find a cottage and spend the weekends while her father is away beginning her independent life – in the week she will finish that fifth chapter and prepare the house in Gower street for her father’s return. After which she will leave finally to start her own independent life. Minnie the maid suggests that she consult the advertisements in a clerical paper called The Sussex Churchgoer – and despite never having been a churchgoer herself not having been confirmed even – Jennifer does so and is soon setting out for the countryside in reply to two of the adverts.  

In Jennifer’s expedition, to secure herself a little cottage, von Arnim is at her comic best. With only the train at her disposal she is obliged to walk miles through the Sussex countryside before she finds herself at the first vicarage that has a cottage for rent. Here, she manages to get on the wrong side of the dour faced clergyman – who we shall meet again later – and is then obliged to walk several more miles to get to the second. Here Jennifer is in luck – and secures herself the key of Rose cottage having paid six months rent in advance.

Rose cottage in the village of Cherry Lidgate is rented to her by Alice Ollier – the much older sister of young vicar James Ollier – and she only did so because she was in a temper with James and likes to have her own way. Alice controls James in a not dissimilar way to how father controls Jennifer – she rules his every moment, it is because of her he is a clergyman when he doesn’t really want to be – and she is forever silencing him by spitting out “bosh!” at him in reply to anything she disagrees with, a word he has come to despise. Alice is another of those surplus women – and her comfortable life would be under threat if her younger brother ever married. She has a nice home with servants where she has complete control – is at the heart of the community, a respectable spinster.

Meanwhile Jennifer secures herself a few necessary items, including a mattress and a kettle and takes up immediate residence in the cottage. Planning to return to town on Monday. During the weekend Jennifer makes James’s acquaintance and despite the short time they have together it seems it is a moment that changes everything – particularly for poor harried James.

“…listening with absorbed attention more to her voice than to what she was saying, and thinking how like she was, flowering through her voice into beauty in the darkness, to some butterflies he had come across in the Swiss mountains the summer before. When they were folded up they were grey, mothlike creatures that one might easily overlook, but directly they opened their wings they became the loveliest things in the world, all rose-colour or heavenly blue. So had she been to him in the daylight that afternoon, – an ordinary woman, not in any way noticeable; but now listen to her, opening into beauty on the wings of her voice!”

Alice senses danger – and spirits James away to Switzerland. Jennifer senses danger of a different kind when she discovers that Netta may have already begun to regret her hasty marriage. While Alice is desperate to prevent her brother bringing about the end of her comfortable life by having his head turned and marrying – Jennifer is equally desperate to prevent her young step-mother from turning away from her new husband.

This is a glorious novel – von Arnim’s tone is humorous though she is making a serious point. Exploring the expectations that were placed on unmarried women in this inter war period she reminds the modern reader (especially those of us who are single women) that while things may be far from perfect – we do, in this part of the world, at least have the freedom to live as we want to.

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It is no wonder to me that Elizabeth von Arnim continues to be so loved by readers more than seventy years after her death. Christopher and Columbus may just have become my favourite of her novels and I can think of no more perfect antidote to the lockdown blues than to read this charmingly, effervescent novel.

First published in 1919 it harks back to a time when women were too often portrayed as either delicate little creatures or terrifying old harpies – but this needn’t get your feminist sensibilities in too much of a spin, because I remain convinced that Elizabeth von Arnim, always had her tongue placed firmly in her cheek. She is so adept at showing us the absurdities of people. Christopher and Columbus is witty, light, bright and deliciously cynical. If Elizabeth von Arnim had any message in this one, it is perhaps in showing the cruelty of the anti-German sentiment so prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic during WW1.

The Christopher and Columbus of the title are the two Annas; Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas von Twinkler, seventeen year old twins. Their father died some years earlier and as World War one gets under way, they lose their beloved mother too. Their mother was English, their father German, having spent much of their lives in Germany, they roll their rs in a way their English relatives find deplorable. In fact, their Germanness is a big issue for their English Aunt Alice’s very patriotic (idiotic) husband Uncle Arthur with whom the Annas were obliged to stay. Wishing to be rid of these enemy aliens who his friends will inevitably regard with suspicion, Uncle Arthur arranges for their passage to America (the US not yet in the war) putting money in a bank account, and providing letters of introduction to a couple of family friends – he sends them out into the world, only too glad to be rid of them. Having been protected and cosseted all their lives, they are as lambs to the slaughter, naïve and unworldly but utterly devoted to one another.

“Their names were really Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas; but they decided, as they sat huddled together in a corner of the second-class deck of the American liner St. Luke, and watched the dirty water of the Mersey slipping past and the Liverpool landing-stage disappearing into mist, and felt that it was comfortless and cold, and knew they hadn’t got a father or a mother, and remembered that they were aliens, and realized that in front of them lay a great deal of gray, uneasy, dreadfully wet sea, endless stretches of it, days and days of it, with waves on top of it to make them sick and submarines beneath it to kill them if they could, and knew that they hadn’t the remotest idea, not the very remotest, what was before them when and if they did get across to the other side, and knew that they were refugees, castaways, derelicts, two wretched little Germans who were neither really Germans nor really English because they so unfortunately, so complicatedly were both,–they decided, looking very calm and determined and sitting very close together beneath the rug their English aunt had given them to put round their miserable alien legs, that what they really were, were Christopher and Columbus, because they were setting out to discover a New World.”

Anna-Rose is the eldest by twenty minutes, and she takes her responsibilities as elder sister very seriously. She is small and a little more serious than her sister who is much taller and something of a dreamer. Anna-Felicitas is frequently the sister to be the most ill on board ship – but there is a definite suggestion of toughness beneath it all.

Travelling second class (Uncle Arthur really couldn’t bear to be more generous than that), and beset with sea sickness, they meet first class passenger; thirty-something entrepreneur Mr Twist. Mr Twist, the inventor of the non-tricking teapot that adorns every breakfast table in America, sees two huddled up figures alone and ill and some kind of maternal instinct he was unaware of kicks in and he immediately takes them under his wing. His plan is to offer friendship and protection to these girls who he can’t help but view as little more than children – and then hand them over to their uncle’s friends. Nothing quite works out as he had planned. The two Annas are ill-prepared for the world, they manage to upset the German women they share their cabin with – worry about the etiquette of tipping, which they have never had to do before – are socially rather awkward, having at the same time absolutely no filter. The dialogue between the two of them is one of the best things in this novel.

On arrival in New York, there is no one to meet the Annas, the friends have not materialised and Mr Twist feels duty bound to help them to at least reach the home of these friends. While Mr Twist persists in his view of the sisters being little more than children – the rest of the world certainly views them differently. They are two remarkably attractive young women of marriageable age – escorted by an unmarried man to whom they are not related – the world is suitably shocked. While Mr Twist valiantly tries to assist his new friends, who have a habit of chattering away to anyone who shows them any interest, he is causing a mild sensation everywhere they go. A comedy of errors naturally follows, and Mr Twist is obliged to abandon his home coming (his horrified mother – not the first person to view the twins with grave suspicion) and accompany them to California to look up the second set of Uncle Arthur’s friends. The Twinkler twins are frequently puzzled by American hotels, unwittingly upsetting the management of one with their new pet canary.

“That evening, while the twins were undressing, a message came up from the office that the manager would be obliged if the Miss Twinklers’ canary wouldn’t sing.

‘But it can’t help it,’ said Anna-Felicitas through the crack of the door she held open; she was already in her nightgown. ‘You wouldn’t either if you were a canary,’ she added, reasoning with the messenger.

‘It’s just got to help it,’ said he.

‘But why shouldn’t it sing?’


‘But it has always sung’

‘That it so. And it has sung once too often. Its unpopular in this hotel, that canary of yours. Its just got to rest a while. Take it easy. Sit quiet on its perch and think’

‘But it won’t sit quiet and think.’

‘Well, I’ve told you,’ he said, going away.”

Mr Twist does everything he can to shield their Germanness from everyone they meet – while he is unconcerned by their parentage, he is aware that almost everyone else feels differently. The Annas remain oblivious to any suggestion of scandal and wide eyed with innocence and enthusiasm they throw themselves into Mr Twist’s plan for their future. These plans are inspired by the twins love of afternoon tea, and their confusion at not being able to get it anywhere. Here we also meet the hilarious Mrs Bilton, who Mr Twist employs on their behalf.

The ending is suitably adorable, and predictably romantic and I defy anyone not to finish this with a great big smile on their face.  

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With thanks to Handheld press for providing me with a beautiful copy of the new edition.

Elizabeth von Arnim wrote The Caravaners in 1907, following a similar type of holiday. She, her teenage daughters (her husband elected to stay at home) her niece, a family friend and her daughters’ tutors (E M Forster, Hugh Walpole and Charles Erskine Stuart) spent August of that year touring the English countryside of Sussex and Kent in caravans. It was one of the wettest summers on record. Personally, I find the idea of that group, touring together utterly fascinating. This novel is of course a highly fictionalised version, in The Caravaners, von Arnim plays with some recognisable types – a German army officer, the Englishwoman and the English Gentleman, the young clergyman, the flapper. Her observations are simply wonderful and her satire at its best. The only reason The Caravaners won’t be my favourite Elizabeth von Arnim novel is because the presence of Baron Otto van Ottringel began to get on my nerves.

The Caravaners is the only one of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels to be narrated by a male character – he is quite reminiscent of the husband in Vera – though to my mind less dark, and more ridiculous. As the novel opens it becomes clear that Otto is writing a reminiscence of his English caravanning holiday, with which he plans to delight and entertain his after dinner listeners in his small hometown. Otto; is a Prussian army officer – a proud, pompous, traditional man. He and his wife Edelgard join a group of Anglo-German travellers, to caravan through the English countryside. The holiday; is in recognition of his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary – only he has only been married to the much younger Edelgard for six years, but he feels he should be able to add that to the nineteen years he spent with his first wife. One wife being much the same as another. In that alone, we see the man Otto is. He does of course have a fairly fixed idea of what a wife should be.

“Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak, on every table, and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.’”

Otto and Edelgard’s fellow travellers, are two German sisters; Mrs Menzies-Legh, and her wealthy English husband, her younger, beautiful sister the widowed Frau von Eckthum, two young Englishmen, Mrs Menzies-Legh’s niece and her friend. The stage is set for a wonderful comedy of manners, narrated by one of the most infuriating narrators in fiction. Elizabeth von Arim is immensely clever here – because she allows her readers to develop a view and an understanding of Otto, that he certainly doesn’t have of himself.

From the moment the couple arrive in England Otto seems to be on the backfoot – nothing is ever quite to his liking – either that or things aren’t done quite as they would be in Germany. He rather likes to look down upon the habits of the English and find fault with everything. When the couple join their touring group they are introduced to the Elsa, the Ailsa, and the Ilsa; the three horse-drawn caravans. While, Edelgard exclaims in delight over the tiny cups hanging on hooks, Otto is more concerned with his stomach.

It isn’t long before Otto notices subtle changes in his wife – as she discovers some new freedoms, becoming emancipated under the influence of her companions, all this, needless to say to the Baron’s absolute horror. He notices how one of the young men – Jellaby (who the Baron despises) seems very friendly toward his wife, and so the Baron plots how he can bring up her age as being close to thirty into the conversation – thus, he believes putting him off. He is really quite horrible to his poor wife – he shows no affection, and reprimands her like a child over the most ridiculous things, he of course is always right.

“Every time Edelgard is neglectful or forgetful she recedes about a year in my esteem. It takes her a year of attentiveness and diligence to regain that point in my affection on which she previously stood. She knew this, and used to be careful to try to keep proper pace, if I may so express it, with my love…”

Edelgard gets on with everyone well, they all clearly feel for her being saddled with such a husband – but the Baron is completely unaware of his effect on everyone around him. Instead he becomes a little smitten with Frau von Eckthum. There is so much comedy here – the Baron shamed into performing menial tasks which he sees as being beneath him, problems with horses, mud, cultural differences galore. Elizbeth von Arnim has an eye for such absurdities and reproduces them gloriously.

Among the satire and many genuinely laugh out loud moments, Elizabeth von Arnim had quite a lot to say about bad, abusive marriages and the subjugation of women. It’s a familiar theme for her, and one she explores with her customary wit and intelligence.

(Handheld publish this edition of The Caravaners on 16th September 2019 with an introduction by Juliane Römhld)

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Today has been declared Elizabeth von Arnim day by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock in her year long celebration of underappreciated lady authors. I have read quite a number of von Arnim novels, I love her voice so much. One of her most famous books of course is Elizabeth and her German Garden, which was published anonymously in 1898. EvA went on to write two more ‘Elizabeth’ books – The Solitary Summer and The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904). I don’t suppose it matters which order one reads these books, and in fact I read The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen a couple of years ago.

In many ways there is very little to say about The Solitary Summer – so you may be glad to hear that this post is likely to be fairly short.

“What a blessing it is to love books. Everybody must love something, and I know of no objects of love that give such substantial and unfailing returns as books and a garden.”

The Solitary Summer was a delightful little read, in the company of Elizabeth, The Man of Wrath, the April, May and June babies we spend the summer in the German countryside. Here, Elizabeth assures her doubting husband that she wants nothing more than to spend a summer alone – alone meaning no visitors, her husband and children will have to be present. Yet, Elizabeth longs to be free from the constant whirl of polite society.

“May 2nd. Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes.”

However, Elizabeth’s alone – is not quite my alone – and neither is it quite what she had envisaged. Aside from The Man of Wrath and the April, May and June babies, there is the governess, the gardener and a new parson to be appointed to her husband’s living. Toward the end of the summer – much to poor Elizabeth’s exasperation, there is a soldier, a lieutenant staying in her house – a man she exhausts herself just trying to avoid.

Elizabeth glories in her garden, realising she has made mistakes in the past – she takes her husband’s advice and employs a new gardener – and soon she is glorying in her larkspurs and roses. She sneaks out of the house early before anyone is awake, and glories in her garden as it wakes.

“Here was the world wide-awake and yet only for me, all the fresh pure air only for me, all the fragrance breathed only by me, not a living soul hearing the nightingale but me, the sun in a few moments coming up to warm only me.”

the solitart summer

When the children don’t need occupying, or even when they do, there are forest walks to be enjoyed and mud banks to be scrambled down. When it is raining, Elizabeth has her books, her wants are really very simple, and very restful. Her joy in the simple things is really quite infectious. Unfortunately, my garden doesn’t inspire quite the same feelings in me and would take precisely 37 seconds to walk around.

In the company of Elizabeth, we meet the poor women of the village who are too afraid of cold/dirt to let their babies go out of doors. This allows us a (not entirely comfortable) glimpse of the different levels of German society. However, Elizabeth von Arnim is a wonderful observer of people, as always, she is warm, witty and wise – and I continue to love her writing very much.

“If one believed in angels one would feel that they must love us best when we are asleep and cannot hurt each other; and what a mercy it is that once in every twenty-four hours we are too utterly weary to go on being unkind.”

We realise in time, that Elizabeth does indeed love her Man of Wrath, he is even more affectionately portrayed in this book than in German Garden. Elizabeth seems happiest in her garden with her babies under the summer sunshine, and soldiers, parsons, husbands and babies apart – she did manage to get a more or less solitary summer.

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mr skeffington

Over on the Librarything Virago group, the author of the month for April is Elizabeth von Arnim, appropriately enough. Despite the temptation, I decided not to re-read The Enchanted April as I had three or four unread von Arnims on my shelf, two of them from my classics club list.

Mr Skeffington was Elizabeth von Arnim’s last published novel, written when in her 70s it certainly shows a certain preoccupation with ageing – (as did her 1925 novel Love). Elizabeth von Arnim’s adorable irony is present from the first page, her voice is instantly recognisable. I quickly settled into this occasionally poignant story of Fanny Skeffington’s self-evaluation, as she approaches her fiftieth birthday. (Spoiler, a certain book blogger not a million miles away will herself be approaching that birthday in thirteen months’ time – so, despite still having this year’s birthday to get out of the way first, I entirely sympathised). Although, I must say I do take great exception to the idea of fifty being as ancient as it is regarded by everyone in this novel.

Lady Frances Skeffington managed to rid herself of a husband with a roving eye, finding it hard to forgive dalliances with seven successive typists. Fanny seems to rather congratulate herself for this, there is little in the way of regret. Attempting to help her dear, adored brother; Trippington, Fanny married a wealthy Jewish businessman, and converted her religion in order to do so – she has never bothered to change it back. There are one or two slightly iffy remarks about Job Skeffington’s Jewishness – but nothing like as bad as I have read elsewhere – and it seem to highlight the attitudes of the times rather than the author’s – at least that’s how I saw it. The wealthy Mr Skeffington, made a very generous settlement upon Fanny when they divorced twenty-two years earlier, and Fanny has lived a very nice life ever since. A large London house, fully staffed, a country cottage, a fabulous social life, and many adoring lovers. Fanny was always a beauty, she knew she was beautiful, and enjoyed it.

Now she is rapidly approaching her fiftieth birthday, she has recently recovered from a long illness, which has ravaged her face, she has been obliged to visit a top beautician and wear some artificial curls pinned into her hair. Still, Fanny doesn’t consider she is too much changed, and believes she can still charm her much younger male admirers (although she is forced to admit they haven’t been around much lately).

One day in her Charles Street house, she becomes aware of Mr Skeffington’s presence, just as if he never left. Of course, she knows he isn’t really there – she hasn’t seen him at all for over twenty years – so it’s most alarming to see him looming at her as she eats her morning grapefruit.

“If she shut her eyes, she could see him behind the fish-dish at breakfast; and presently, even if she didn’t shut her eyes she could see him behind almost anything.
What particularly disturbed her was that there was no fish. Only during Mr Skeffington’s not very long reign as a husband had there been any at breakfast, he having been a man tenacious of tradition, and liking to see what he had seen in his youth still continuing on his table. With his disappearance, the fish dish, of solid silver kept hot by electricity, disappeared too – not that he took it with him, for he was far too miserable to think of dishes, but because Fanny’s breakfast, from the date of his departure to the time she had got to now, was half a grapefruit.”

Worried that she may be going a bit funny – what with that birthday fast approaching, she decides to consult the renowned nerve man, Sir Stilton Byles. Here poor Fanny gets a rather dreadful shock, far from telling her she looks very young for fifty (as she had expected) he says he rather thought she was sixty – and that her love days are over, and she really should have kept Mr Skeffington – poor chap!

Fanny is furious, in a rage she stalks off to Oxford to track down her most recent (very, very young) lover, who she finds in the fond embrace of another girl. On the train to Oxford she runs into her cousin George, of whom she is hugely fond – but even he manages to irritate her by telling her she looks tired, and looking at her in a way she doesn’t like. Also in Oxford, she meets a rather marvellous old lady, who rather grumpily tells Fanny exactly what she thinks – and takes her for being an actress from a touring group because of her painted face.

“What could be sillier in other people’s eyes than a woman kicking up a fuss because she too, in her turn, had grown old, and her beauty was gone? Yet what could be more tragic for the woman, who, having been used all her life to being beautiful, found that without her looks she had nothing to fall back upon? ‘That’s what is wrong,’ she thought. ‘There ought to be something to fall back upon. Somebody ought to have told me about this in time.'”

Slowly Fanny is forced to acknowledge that her looks are not what they were – for a woman known to everyone for her charm and beauty it is a hard lesson. Over the next few weeks as her birthday approaches Fanny meets up with several of the men whose hearts she once broke as she tripped her way charmingly through life. There is Lord Conderley, now married to a nice sensible wife with young children, a rabble-rousing, fasting clergyman Miles in Bethnal Green, Sir Peregrine Lanks hard bitten and so successful, he once turned down the Home Secretaryship, and Sir Edward Montmorency, home after twenty years’ governance in the Pacific. Each of these men help Fanny face who she is now, and never far from her thoughts is Mr Skeffington.

They years have not treated these men any kinder than they have Fanny, they are all drastically changed too – whether it be married and aged, exiled, or embittered. The most poignant change is in that of Miles Hyslup, who Fanny meets again preaching on the streets of Bethnal Green. Miles lives with his worn-down sister Muriel, his heartbreak over Fanny having led him to live a life of austere, religious sacrifice.

I refuse to say anything much about the ending – just to say it was a tiny bit of a tear-jerker.

This is a joyous little read – Fanny is definitely a woman of her time and her class – let’s be clear she doesn’t present as much of a feminist. Von Arnim shows us a society who put a too great importance upon such things as beauty and youth, for women of that class beauty and charm were all that mattered. Each of the men in Fanny’s life had wanted her to be something to them she didn’t want to be – in a sense she was always just herself.

Apparently, this was made into a film starring Bette Davis – I haven’t seen it – so don’t know how true to the book it is – but I would be interested in seeing it.


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The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen is the third in a series of autobiographical novels by Elizabeth von Arnim which starts with her novel Elizabeth and her German Garden. The second novel The Solitary Summer I have yet to read, (or even possess) but I don’t think it really matters which order one reads these novels, they don’t follow on really in the conventional sense.

This beautifully written novel took me right away from the here and now, to another time and a place I must admit to not even having heard of. In that first and probably more famous novel, Elizabeth is content to stay in her home, delight in her garden, her children and poke gentle fun at her husband The Man of Wrath. In this novel, Elizabeth is a little older, a little more jaded perhaps, she needs a break from her home, and so we join her on a journey round an Island in the Baltic sea. Elizabeth von Arnim’s descriptions of Rügen are wonderful, and I am now keen to follow in the footsteps of Elizabeth one day and take a trip around Rügen myself.

“Round this island I wished to walk this summer, but no one would walk with me. It is the perfect way of moving if you want to see into the life of things. It is the one way of freedom. If you go into a place on anything but your own feet you are taken there too fast and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.”

In 1901 the real Elizabeth (Countess von Arnim) took a well needed break from home, children and husband to travel around Rügen with a woman friend, they travelled by horse drawn carriage, and were away about ten days. Nothing very particular happened on her holiday, nothing that the writer could weave a story out of. So, the writer invented some adventures, and some humorous characters and the novel based loosely upon her own trip, and celebrating the place she loved so much, came into being.

The Elizabeth of the novel; like the woman who created her was a woman needing a break from the domestic realities of home, having come across a map of Rügen she was determined to explore it independently of her husband. Convention dictated that Elizabeth did not travel alone, and she could find no woman friend to join her, she contented herself with her old maid Gertrud. Gertrud, at least could be trusted to be mainly silent, content with her one small bag, and her knitting, Elizabeth feels it will almost be like travelling alone. Travelling first by train to Miltzow, Elizabeth and Gertrud begin their journey, they transfer to a carriage at Miltzow, pulled by a pair of horses and driven by their coachman for the journey; August. The two women are settled in the back, hemmed in by Elizabeth’s luggage.

“The carriage was a light one of the victoria genus with a hood; the horses were a pair of esteemed at home for their meekness; the coachman, August, was a youth who had never yet driven straight on for an indefinite period without turning round once, and he looked as though he thought he were going to enjoy himself.”

During her eleven days away from home, Elizabeth has a series of memorable mini rugenadventures, including getting left behind on the road as August drives on, unaware he has lost his passengers. In everything she does, and with everything she sees Elizabeth brings the Island of Rügen at the beginning of the twentieth century to life, its beauty, its hoteliers and sightseers, even a fisherman and his son who take the travellers and their carriage over to Vilm.

If you have ever taken a holiday in a small place, you will probably have found you see the same people over and over again, you may even run into someone you know (it’s happened to me in Devon). Like so many holiday makers, Elizabeth does meet the same people again and again, particularly the dreadfully snobbish Bishop’s wife, and her son – a very personable young man Brosy Harvey-Browne. The Harvey-Brownes turn up at regular intervals, the Bishop’s wife pushing herself more and more onto poor Elizabeth as she travels around the island.

“You must be dying for some tea,’ I interposed, pouring it out as one who should pour oil on troubled waters.
‘And you should consider,’ continued Charlotte. ‘that in fifty years we shall all be dead, and our opportunities for being kind will be over.’
‘My dear Frau Nieberlein!’ ejaculated the astonished bishop’s wife.
‘Why, it is certain,’ I said ‘You’ll only be eighty then, Charlotte, and what is eighty? When I am eighty I hope to be a gay grandame skilled in gestic lore, frisking beneath the burthen of fourscore.’
But the bishop’s wife did not like being told that she would be dead in fifty years, and no artless quotations of mine could make her like it; so she drank her tea with an offended face. “

Deciding to take advantage of some bathing machines in one place early in her tour – Elizabeth watches her unknown neighbour in the other of the two cells available for bathers. The woman enters the water from the platform and shrieks. Elizabeth is determined to do nothing so ridiculous. So, Elizabeth follows suit, and when she enters the cold water, she too shrieks, worse than that she finds herself clinging on to the unknown woman in the water. Dimly aware that she has seen the woman before, Elizabeth has no idea until later, when both women are out of the water that her fellow bather was none other than her cousin Charlotte, who she’s not seen in ten years. Charlotte is something of a bluestocking, who went to Oxford and married her Professor, a much older man, who she is now trying to evade. An early feminist Charlotte is very serious, wanting to promote the idea of female liberation, she doesn’t really appreciate Elizabeth’s wry humour, neither is she very keen on her cousin’s obvious desire to interfere in bringing her and her husband back together.

This is a truly wonderful book, Elizabeth’s vivid descriptions, astute observations and her tongue in cheek humour make this a joyful read. I adored the feeling of being in a world with an entirely different pace of life. It was absolutely what I needed.


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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.


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Reading Elizabeth and her German Garden reminded me how few Elizabeth von Arnim books I have read really. I must remedy this, there is something so appealing in her voice, that I feel, not only that I like her books very much, but also that I would have really liked the woman behind them.

“Not the least of my many blessings is that we have only one neighbour. If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books, and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?”

gardenDescribed as a novel, Elizabeth and her German Garden has the feel of a memoir. Written in the form of a diary, it was Elizabeth von Arnim’s first novel, originally published anonymously. It is immediately very personal as it recounts the first couple of blissful months that the Elizabeth of the title spends alone supervising the redecorating work at her German home.
Here in the garden of her home, Elizabeth is able to escape the traditional routine of German wife and mother. Her simple joy in her garden is adorably infectious, she has a lot to learn about gardens – she orders a mass of seeds and is deflated when the promised paradise doesn’t materialise. Her gardener and his assistant are sometimes bemused by her instructions – but bit by bit her garden begins to take shape. Her days are spent almost entirely in the garden; here her meals of salad and bread are served to her on a tray. At night she keeps an old dinner bell by her bedside which helps to quell the night time fear of being alone. Elizabeth revels in the beauty of her peonies, roses and lilacs. Wishing sometimes that convention didn’t preclude her from getting her own hands dirty.

“I did one warm Sunday in last year’s April during the servants’ dinner hour, doubly secure from the gardener by the day and the dinner, slink out with a spade and a rake and feverishly dig a little piece of ground and break it up and sow surreptitious ipomoea and run back very hot and guilty into the house and get into a chair and behind a book and look languid just in time to save my reputation.”

Soon her husband arrives, wondering why it is she hasn’t written to him – Elizabeth informs her husband (here after he is called The Man of Wrath) she was far too happy to do so. Elizabeth’s friends and acquaintances regard what they see as her burial in the country as a reason for pity, Elizabeth is amused by their attitude. Elizabeth’s husband the hilariously named Man of Wrath is portrayed with a degree of satirical affection, I get the feeling her teasing of him though irreverent is tongue in cheek. He in turn seems to tolerate with some bemusement his wife’s eccentricities which include spending most of her pin money on things for her adored garden.

In time Elizabeth is joined by her family, The Man of Wrath, and her children, three little girls referred to as: the April, May and June baby respectively, although the eldest, the April baby is actually five. The children are portrayed with deep affection, their little exploits and cute childish sayings recounted with maternal humour and pride. The children are naturally accompanied by their governess, a woman Elizabeth finds just a little trying.

“In common with most governesses she has a little dark down on her upper lip, and the April baby appeared one day at dinner with her own decorated in faithful imitation, having achieved it after much struggling with the aid of a lead pencil and much love. Miss Jones put her in a corner for impertinence. I wonder why governesses are so unpleasant? The Man of Wrath says it is because they are not married. I would add that the strain of continually having to set an example must surely be very great. It is much easier, and often more pleasant, to be a warning than an example.”

Elizabeth’s home and peace is further invaded by a lengthy visit of two women Irais and Minora, their presence and the need to play hostess taking her away from the garden, but when they leave it is spring and Elizabeth can move forward with her plans.

Elizabeth is a woman out of her time in many respects – quietly irreverent she is a woman who appreciates her own space, who feels she has earned the right to her own space, a woman who believes:

“…all forms of needlework of the fancy order are inventions of the evil one for keeping the foolish from applying their hearts to wisdom.”

And who is to say she is wrong?

I loved this book, just as I have loved the other Elizabeth von Arnim books I have read, I feel I must now acquire more – immediately!


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This is the third Elizabeth Von Arnim novel I have read this year, and of the three it is the saddest and darkest. Apparently Elizabeth Von Arnim based the character of Everard Wemyss in this novel on her own second husband. That fact alone is enough to give me chills.
On the day that Lucy Entwhistle’s father dies she meets forty five year old Everard Wemyss apparently terribly bereaved himself, and in need of  some human contact and someone to talk to. Lucy is instantly drawn to him, and places herself and much of her affairs in his capable hands. Shocked by the story of his wife’s Vera’s terrible and sudden death Lucy feels only she can understand him.  Even the arrival of her beloved maiden aunt Miss Entwhistle does nothing to lessen the hold that Wemyss is already beginning to have over Lucy. Taking pride of place at the funeral of her father, a man he never knew, only a fortnight after his own wife’s death, Wemyss eases his way in to their lives.
Returning to London, Wemyss sets his sights on Lucy, and works hard to lessen her aunt’s influence upon her. Lucy is twenty two, but a complete innocent, and Wemyss quite often thinks of her and calls her a child. She is blinded by love, any tiny nagging doubts about Wemyss’s behaviour – his sulking over thwarted plans, his apparently quick recovery from his very recent bereavement she is able o explain away to herself with simple childlike reasoning. Miss Entwhistle is not so persuaded however, and is frequently disquieted by him. When they make their engagement public, Miss Entwhistle and her brother’s friends are horrified.
The marriage takes place, quickly, only a few short months after Vera’s death at their home The Willows. The house which Lucy has not yet visited is to become one of her homes, and is the one place that she regards with dread. Nothing has been to alter the house since Vera’s death, Lucy will have Vera’s sitting room, from where she fell to her death below, sleep in the bedroom she once shared with Wemyss, in the same bed, and have Vera’s life sized photograph staring at her from across the dining room. Wemyss’s temper is often roused by  the smallest things not going his way, and the newly wedded Lucy returning from her honeymoon to the house she dreads seems doomed to say the wrong thing.



A house,’ said Wemyss, explaining its name to Lucy on the morning of their arrival, ‘should always be named after whatever most insistently catches the eye.’

‘Then oughtn’t it to have been called The Cows?’ asked Lucy; for the meadows round were strewn thickly as far as she could see with recumbent cows, and they caught her eye much more than the tossing bare willow branches.

‘No,’ said Wemyss, annoyed. ‘It ought not have been called The Cows.”

Wemyss is a deeply controlling figure, he wants everything his own way and generally gets it. Lucy is an innocent who is unprepared for a man like him. The only person who could possibly upset his plans is Lucy’s aunt little Dot Entwhistle, and he has no intention of allowing that.

With obvious similarities to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Vera is a much darker less hopeful story than that more famous novel. The ending of Vera, was maybe not what I had hoped, but no doubt Von Arnim found more realistic. This is a story that will stay stay me I am sure. I loathed Wemyss of course, and found I wanted to shake poor Lucy, but I loved Miss Entwhistle.


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