A Book for Elizabeth Von Arnim Day: The Pastor’s Wife (1914)

This is not the book I planned to read for Elizabeth Von Armin Day, but for some reason I picked it up, I began to read and I had to keep going. The story makes some very serious points, but because Elizabeth Armin writes with such warm and wit, because she writes from experience, it is wonderfully readable.

Ingeborg Bullivant was the daughter of a bishop and, because her mother was an invalid and her sister was a great beauty who was expected to marry well, it was expected that she would be the dutiful daughter who would look after the house and run around after her father. She had escaped for a fortnight, because she needed to visit a dentist in London and had been granted a that time in the big city to receive treatment and to recover. One visit to the dentist was all that it took. He whipped the tooth out, the pain disappeared, and Ingeborg had a quite unexpected week of freedom. She couldn’t have been happier.

After weeks of miserable indifference she was quivering with responsiveness again, feeling the relish of life, the tang of it, the jollity of all this bustle and hurrying past of busy people. And the beauty of it, the beauty of it, she thought, fighting a tendency to loiter in the middle of the traffic to have a good look—the beauty of the sky across the roofs of the houses, the delicacy of the mistiness that hung down there over the curve of the street, the loveliness of the lights beginning to shine in the shop windows. 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.

A colourful travel poster caught her eye, and she realised that she had time to take the trip to Lucerne that it was advertising, that the money she had been given to cover her expenses would more than cover the cost and that she wasn’t expected at home. She booked her place and off she went!

She felt like a bulb must feel, she thought, at the supreme moment when it has nosed its little spear successfully up through the mould it has endured all the winter and gets it suddenly out into the light and splendour of the world. The freedom of it! The joy of getting clear!

Ingeborg fell into the company of Robert Dremmel, an earnest young Lutheran pastor from East Prussia, who had a passionate interest in agriculture. They were the only two single people, it was natural that they would come friends, and before the trip was over there was a proposal.

‘…I do not ask you,’ he went on, ‘to love me, or whether you do love me.  It would be presumption on my part, and not, if you did, very modest on yours.  That is the difference between a man and a woman.  He loves before marriage, and she does not love till after.’

‘Oh?’ said Ingeborg, interested.  ‘And what does he -’

‘The woman,’ continued Herr Dremmel, ‘feels affection and esteem before marriage, and the man feels affection and esteem after.’

‘Oh,’ said Ingeborg, reflecting.’

Ingeborg wasn’t at all sure that she wanted to marry Robert, but she liked him and she didn’t want to go back to her old life and explain everything. And so she did marry him, she set off happily for a new life in Germany, leaving behind a family who were horrified at what she had done, at her abandoning her duty to them to marry a foreigner!

At first Ingeborg is happy with her new life in the German countryside. She loves being mistress of her own household, she is happy to spend hours in her garden, and she can read as many books as she life. But she comes to realise that  that Robert is more interested in his soil research than in his pastorate or in her, and that he only expects her to housekeep and too provide a stream of children. Her husband, her mother-in-law, all of her husband’s friends, are only interested in her as somebody who will produce and raise his offspring!

After six pregnancies result in two living children, two infant deaths, and two stillbirths, Ingeborg’s heath begins to fail. Her doctor intervenes, and sends her away to convalesce. When she comes home she realises that she has to make changes, and she explains to her husband that she cannot run the risk of falling pregnant again. Robert doesn’t understand all, he loses interest in her, and began to treat her more like a sister or a favoured family retainer.

That unsettled her, but Ingeborg realised that she was free again, and she struck up a friendship with a visiting English painter, Edward Ingram. He was charmed by her old-fashioned ways, her love of the arts, and her enthusiasm for the natural world, and tempted her with the prospect of a trip to his studio in Venice. He was delighted when she accepted, but horrified when he realised that she come for her second adventure , and that she hadn’t run away with him.

Ingebourg went home to her husband, but how would he receive her?

I loved Ingeborg; she was a simple soul, but that was hardly surprising after her sheltered upbringing and her swift marriage. She found such joy in living in the world, and all she wanted was to have a place of her own place in that world.

I loved the diverse cast of characters that spun around her, they had such depth, and each one of them had a distinctive voice.

I appreciated that Elizabeth Arnim made her main point well. Ingeborg was cast in different roles by her father, by her husband, and by her would-be-lover in turn. None of them gave much thought to what would make her happy, what life would be like for her, but none of them were villains, none of them were deliberately cruel or unkind. They were simply men who assumed that they would – they should – be at the centre of her world ….

There is a mass of lovely detail and incident, the writing is wonderful, there is light and shade, and there is a great deal to think about. I flew through his very thick book, feeling so many different emotions along the way. Understanding, amusement, annoyance, empathy ….

It all rang true, except maybe for the last few chapters. I couldn’t quite believe that the daughter of a bishop and the wife of a pastor would think nothing of travelling with another man and letting her husband think she was making a trip of a very different kind.

But the ending was quiet and it was stunning.

I’m still thinking about it.

Love by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1925)

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.

8b8ccc28a2f44a1593544615651444341587343The 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.

They married.

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.