I remember, many years ago, falling in love with Elizabeth Von Arnim’s writing as I read every one of her books that Virago republished. Back then I read library copies, and years later I started to collect her books for my own library, secure in the knowledge that I could happily read them over and over again.
‘Love’ was one of the most elusive titles, and even though many of the details had slipped my mind I remembered that it was a particular favourite, that it had an especially striking cover, and so I was delighted when I finally found a copy to keep.
This is the story of a romance between a young man and a somewhat older lady, and I on the second time of reading my love for the story grew and grew.
The young man is Christopher, who works in an office and shares a London flat with a friend. His favourite pastime is visiting the theatre, and there is one play he loves above all others and goes to see many, many times. He comes to realise that there is a lady who must love the play as much as he does, because he sees her there often; and one day, when they are sitting on the same row, Christopher broaches a conversation.
The lady is charmed, and the pair talk about the play and about many other things, but Christopher finds that she is reticent when it comes to talking about herself. All he learns is that she is Mrs. Catherine Cumfrit, and that she is a widow. He wishes she would say a little more, and that he could get to know her rather better.
When the perspective shifts it is easy to understand why Catherine is reticent. She had married a sensible, reliable man who was significantly older than her, and she had been a widow for a few years. He had been concerned that she might fall prey to fortune hunters when he was gone, and so he left his estate and his fortune to his daughter and just a small income to his wife.
His concern had been well-intentioned, but it had consequences that he hadn’t considered. He left his estate and his fortune to their daughter, rather than to Catherine herself, because he was anxious that Catherine might be taken advantage of by a fortune hunter. Catherine’s daughter, Virginia, had married at the age of eighteen; and that left Catherine in a rather uncomfortable position in the where she had once been mistress. She saw that her daughter was blissfully happy with the older clergyman who said that she made him feel young again, and she realised that it was time she found a new home of her own.
Her small income allowed Catherine to live modestly in a flat in London, with one servant to look after her. She missed her home, she missed the countryside, she missed having money to buy new things, but she told herself that she had to come to terms with a new way of life.
When Christopher came into her life, Catherine was flattered by his attentions, and she began to think that maybe she wouldn’t be a widow for the rest of her life. She was anxious though, because she knew that Christopher hadn’t really thought about how much older that him she was, and what the consequences of that might be. Not knowing quite what to do, she decided to escape to the country for a little while.
The household staff were delighted when Katherine arrived with two trunks, but Virginia and her husband, Stephen, were rather alarmed by the prospect of a long visit. They were too polite to say so, but their behaviour made their feelings clear, and Katherine was appalled to find herself considered of an age with Stephen’s mother when she was in fact a little younger than Stephen.
They completely forgot that Katherine had been mistress of the house for more than twenty years, until just a few months ago; and they didn’t give a thought to how she might feel. They were completely wrapped up in their own love story, and they were oblivious to anything else.
Katherine couldn’t explain why she had come to stay, and she began to realise that she was an unwelcome quest.
Then Christopher – unwilling to give up his pursuit – arrived with on his motorbike, with a sidecar to carry her back to London. Katherine was delighted, her family were scandalised, and the trip back to London put the relationship between the pair onto a new footing.
There would be drama in London as Katherine tried to keep up with her young husband and to be the kind of wife she thought he would want; and there would be drama in the country when the time came for Virginia’s first child to be born.
Would the relationship between come through the approbation of friends, family and society, AND all of that?
The answer wouldn’t come until the last pages, and I flew through the book until I got there, because I was so caught up with the characters and their stories. Those characters and their relationships are so well drawn; and there are many lovely reminders that love is blind, and that it can make us blind.
The juxtaposition of two relationships with age gap – one considered quite normal by society and one not – is particularly well done.
The plot is so cleverly constructed, balancing expected and unexpected developments, confirming some assumptions and overturning others, changing some things and leaving others just as they were. There are big questions and small questions to ponder, wrapped up in a wonderfully engaging story.
Best of all is the narrative voice. It has the warm, wry wit that is so typical of Elizabeth Von Arnim, and also has things it wants to say and points that it wants to make. I wasn’t at all surprised at all to learn that the author was inspired by a relationship of her own with a much younger man.
She really was inspired, and I really think that ‘Love’ is a marvellous novel.