Archive for the ‘Elizabeth von Arnim’ Category

Today is the anniversary of Elizabeth von Arnim’s birth and in honour of that Jane is hosting Elizabeth von Arnim Day. I wasn’t quite organized enough this year to read and review something but she is one of my very favourite authors so I could not let the day go unmarked.  Therefore, I thought I’d share the von Arnim’s I have read and reviewed over the years.  They are, of course, ranked in order of preference from least favourite to most beloved.  Enjoy!

10. The Caravaners

9. The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

8. In the Mountains

7. Introduction to Sally

6. The Pastor’s Wife

5. The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

4. Christopher and Columbus

3. The Benefactress

2. Elizabeth and Her German Garden

1. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther

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I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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I can’t overstate how immensely useful Elizabeth von Arnim has been for one of the trickiest decades of A Century of Books, the 1900s.  She has been one of my favourite authors for ages but all of the books I’ve read this year for the project were new to me: The Benefactress (1901), The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905), Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907), and now The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904) and The Caravaners (1909).

adventuresofelizabethLike all of the Elizabeth books, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen is exactly what you would expect it to be based on the title (much like Elizabeth and Her German Garden is about Elizabeth’s garden in Germany or The Solitary Summer is about, surprise, a summer spent in solitude).  Elizabeth, accompanied by her invaluable maid Gertrud, has decided to take a holiday to the German island of Rügen, leaving her husband and children behind.  Unencumbered by dependents, she is free to be the Elizabeth who indulges in long walks and light meals, able to think about the beauties of nature rather than the demands of her family.

But, of course, Elizabeth does not find the peace she had dreamt of.  Though her trip is a short one – only eleven days – she finds herself kept quite busy between her new acquaintances and her old ones.  The Harvey-Brownes, an English mother and son, she can just about handle, but an unexpected encounter with her unconventional cousin Charlotte proves a bit more frustrating.  A strident feminist and deeply annoying woman, Charlotte has abandoned her husband (an aged professor) and now lives and lectures in England.  Elizabeth cannot agree with her cousin’s extreme views, especially when Charlotte begins criticizing Elizabeth’s life, with her garden and babies.  When the professor appears, an irritatingly condescending and benignly amorous septuagenarian who has not seen his wife in more than a year, things get even more complicated.  His wife wants nothing to do with him while the Harvey-Brownes, great admirers of his work, won’t leave him alone.

As much as I enjoy Elizabeth’s (almost) solitary wanderings and musing on her surroundings, the book is funniest when she is the company of others.  Able to observe and comment on the Harvey-Brownes, Charlotte, and the Professor, we see once again that wit that makes von Arnim’s books so delightful.  The laughs are more gentle than in her other books and it did take me a while to ease into the story but it was still a solidly enjoyable read, just not the best example of von Arnim’s powers.

The CaravanersLike The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, The Caravaners is also written in the form of a travel journal although this time the travels are in England and the author, instead of the delightful Elizabeth, is one of the most obnoxious characters von Arnim ever created.

When Baron Otto Von Ottringe and his wife Edelgard embark on a caravanning holiday in Southern England, neither they nor they companions know what they are getting themselves in to.  The indignities of life on the road are one thing – the economies of caravanning do not make up for the inconveniences, Otto quickly realises – but it is Otto’s interactions with his fellow travellers that truly sour the trip for everyone.  Except Otto, our pompous, chauvinistic, lazy narrator, has no idea.  What he does notice is how his wife rebels against his authority once they start out, talking back to him, dressing in the more modern style of their travel companions, and generally not behaving at all in the way of a proper German wife.  And goodness knows Otto has plenty to say on how a good German wife should behave:

…older and married women must take care to be at all times quiet.  Ejaculations of a poetic or ecstatic nature should not, as a rule, pass their lips.  They may ejaculate perhaps over a young baby (if it is their own) but that is the one exception; and there is a good reason for this one, the possession of a young baby implying as a general rule a corresponding youth in its mother.  I do not think however that it is nice when a woman ejaculates over, say, her tenth young baby.  The baby of course will still be sufficiently young for it is a fresh one, but it is not a fresh mother, and by that time she should have stiffened into stolidity, and apart from the hours devoted to instructing her servant, silence.  Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all.  Who want 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.

Otto is awful.  I completely recognize that.  Like those forced to travel with him, I would resent and then avoid him at all costs.  He has no manners, mistreating everyone he views as below his level, and views his wife as a being who neither requires nor desires his affection or respect.  While his courtly manners are deployed on the other women of his party, Edelgard is ignored: No woman (except of course my wife) shall ever be able to say I have not behaved to her as a gentleman should.  Otto is the ultimate portrait of the pompous, poorly educated, undiscerning, war-mongering and overbearing German man so often to be found in von Arnim’s books.  It is sharply but almost too viciously done and by the end I was more upset with von Arnim than I was with Otto.

This kind of humour, where the narrator unknowingly makes himself the object of ridicule, fills me with pity.  Once his companions’ contempt for him became clear, and Otto’s obliviousness remained intact, I spent the rest of the book blushing in embarrassment for him, even as his blunders gave them more and more reasons to avoid his company.  There was something very cruel about the scene at the dance, where everyone darted away as soon as Otto approached.  I know how and why I am supposed to find it amusing, I just don’t.  There is enough sense about Otto – he is particularly sympathetic when pointing out the absurdities of travelling by caravan and how ill-suited he and his upper-class companions are to roughing it – that he cannot be entirely dismissed as a fool.

It is a very humourous book and another wonderful example of von Arnim’s versatility but, for me, it was too uncomfortably cruel to really enjoy.

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For years, my favourite of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels has been Elizabeth and her German Garden.  It is such a joyous, entertaining, and comforting book that I can go back to it again and again and always be delighted.  I have loved many of her other novels, of course – The Pastor’s Wife, Christopher and Columbus, and Introduction to Sally stand out in my mind – but none of them have had quite the same magic.  None, that is, except Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, which has now overtaken Elizabeth and her German Garden as my favourite.

An epistolary novel first published in 1907, Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther has only the barest of plots, which exists only for form’s sake, providing structure and a reason for Rose-Marie Schmidt to be writing these entirely wonderful letters.  And they are wonderful, just as Rose-Marie is wonderful.  Part of what usually attracts me to von Arnim is her talent for writing unsympathetic characters and having great fun at their expense, but Rose-Marie is a heroine in the same mould as Elizabeth, one who the reader can not only love but admire for her intelligence, independence, and wonderful sense of humour.

Rose-Marie’s letters begin when Roger (Mr Anstruther), a young Englishman who has spent a year boarding with the Schmidts in the small town of Jena while he was there studying German, confesses his love for her just before his departure.  The first flurry of letters – written every day, of course – reveal Rose-Marie’s amazement and joy that her feelings for Roger are returned.  They are silly, doting love letters but already Rose-Marie has revealed herself as an unusually funny and perceptive correspondent.  Her home life is dull and unpromising and Roger’s declaration brings with it not only the joy of love returned but the promise of a future away from her sour stepmother.  Forced to sit through one of her stepmother’s speeches about Roger in the wake of his departure, one in which she congratulates her step-daughter on being too old and, damningly, ‘sensible’ to have attracted Roger’s attentions, Rose-Marie cannot help but bristle:

 ‘I fear, though, he is soft.  Still, he has steered safely through a year often dangerous to young men.  It is true his father could not have sent him to a safer place than my house.  You so sensible –‘ oh, Roger! – ‘Besides being arrived at an age when serious and practical thoughts replace the foolish sentimentalness of earlier years,’ – oh, Roger, I am twenty-five, and not a single one of my foolish sentimentalnesses has been replaced by anything at all.  Do you think there is hope for me?  Do you think it is very bad to feel exactly the same, just exactly as calf-like now as I did at fifteen? – ‘so that under my roof,’ went on my stepmother, ‘he has been perfectly safe.’

Rose-Marie may not be the sensible spinster her stepmother sees her as but she is an intelligent woman, who, though happy to be in love, cannot see the point in defying convention and families – as Roger, the sentimental fool, is inclined to do.  She has read widely and knows the romance of rebellious love, of Tristan and Isolde, of Romeo and Juliet, only works if the lovers die at just the right moment, at the very height of their passion.  Living on to face the inevitable denouement and consequences of their folly would not do at all:

My point is, that if you want to let yourself go to great emotions you ought to have the luck to die at an interesting moment.  The alternative makes such a dreary picture; and it is the picture I always see when I hear of love at defiance with the law.  The law wins; always, inevitably.

Rather soon after their correspondence begins, you realise that Roger is regretting the rashness of his declaration and it is not long before their engagement is broken off.  This is when things start to get fun.

After a brief break, their letters resume again.  Rose-Marie has been ill but is now “…busy reading Jane Austen and Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth – books foreordained from all time for the delight of persons getting well…” and is happy to mend her friendship with Roger in the wake of their break.  These are the letters that make the book so very wonderful.  Rose-Marie writes friendly letters full of details of her own life, her philosophical ponderings, and her deliciously frank assessments of Roger’s character and actions.  They are amazing: candid, playful, witty, and, above all, intelligent.  Another character complains about Rose-Marie by saying “…there is something indescribable about her manners – a becoming freedom, an almost immodest frankness, an almost naked naturalness, that is perilously near impertinence” but it is that freedom and that frankness that makes her so marvellous.

Rose-Marie is entirely unlike the other people in Jena, having nothing in common with the rural hausfraus and their daughters that make up the rest of her social circle.  There is one girl who is her particular friend – a young woman whose fiancé broke their engagement, leaving her family shamed and poorer after all the expenses they had incurred preparing for her wedding – but though Rose-Marie loves her they are far from intellectual equals.  Jena is a town that prizes conventionality and sober respectability – no one who reads these letters could think Rose-Marie conventional or sober.  She reads widely and, most importantly, thinks about what she had read.  She delights in the natural world while maintaining a healthy skepticism of those who romanticise it.  She faces all her struggles with a sense of humour that is sharp but never cruel.  And she, no matter how upsetting the situation, never indulges in dramatics or sympathizes with those who indulge in dramatics of their own.  She calmly states or reasons out her arguments and there is a steadiness about her, a calmness and maturity that is very attractive.  She knows who she is and is content with the woman she has become:

At twenty-six I cannot pretend to be what is known as a young girl, and I don’t want to.  Not for anything would I be seventeen or eighteen again.  I like to be a woman grown, to have entered into the full possession of whatever faculties I am to have, to know what I want, to look at things in their true proportions.  I don’t know that eighteen has anything that compensates for that.  It is such a rudderless sort of age.  It may be more charming to the beholder but it is not half so nice to the person herself.

The point of this book is to get to know Fräulein Schmidt – Mr Anstruther’s character is revealed early on and found wanting – and she is a woman well worth knowing.

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I read In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim in the place where it is set: the mountains of Switzerland.  I hadn’t realised at the time that it was set in Switzerland – I was reading it on my e-reader so there was no jacket blurb to remind me – but it was wonderful to begin the book on my first day in Wengen and discover the protagonist describing the very scene that had greeted me on my arrival:

I was prepared to arrive here in one of the mountain mists that settle down on one sometimes for days, – vast, wet stretches of grey stuff like some cold, sodden blanket, muffling one away from the mountains opposite, and the valley, and the sun.

It was quite reassuring to know that the weather hasn’t changed that much over the years, between the summer of 1919 when the book is set and the summer of 2012 when I was there.

The book takes the form of a fictional diary written by an Englishwoman returning to her holiday home in the Swiss mountains for the first time in five years, since the summer of 1914 when war was declared.  The years have not been good ones, for her or anyone else.  She has had a particularly difficult last year (we never learn the details) and is depressed and withdrawn, miserable with a “desperate darkness and distrust of life[…]in my soul.”  She has returned to Switzerland, to the home that used to be filled with friends and laughter and so much youthful optimism.  Now, almost all of those friends who used to join her there are dead and she is very, very alone:

Here I am once more, come back alone to the house that used to be so full of happy life that its little wooden sides nearly burst with the sound of it.  I never could have dreamed that I would come back to it alone.  Five years ago, how rich I was in love; now how poor, how stripped of all I had.  Well, it doesn’t matter.  Nothing matters.  I am too tired.  I want to be quiet now.  Till I’m not so tired.  If only I can be quiet…

Slowly, she begins to heal.  She begins to notice the beauty around her, to take joy in her letters and books, to feel interested in life again.  And then the tone of the book changes completely.  This first bit was quiet but lovely, full of the diarist’s humourous everyday observations and reflections on the rehabilitation of her soul.  But then she meets two widowed sisters, the very respectable Mrs Barnes and the very adorable Mrs Jewks.  They have been living in Switzerland together for some time, though they – especially Mrs Barnes – are still vocally patriotic Englishwomen.  Suffering from the heat lower down in the valley, our diarist takes pity on the middle-aged sisters and invites them to stay with her.  Though their presence makes life decidedly awkward – especially since Mrs Barnes appears terrified to share any personal details about their lives with their hostess and so is never relaxed in her presence – the company is good for our diarist and the mystery they present keeps her inquisitive mind busy.  As their visit lengthens, the diarist finally uncovers their quite innocent secret and the explanation for why they have remained in Switzerland for so long rather than returning to England.

With the introduction of Mrs Barnes and Mrs Jewks, the story shifts from one of von Arnim’s thoughtfully introspective books towards one of her charming fairy tales.  Both women are so endearing: Mrs Barnes, though outwardly reserved, is incredibly devoted to her sister and would do anything for her, and Mrs Jewks is simply the sweetest, most loveable creature in existence, who likes nothing more than to please others.  They have had some difficult years – especially Mrs Barnes, who felt the shame of their self-imposed exile most keenly – but after they meet our diarist things began to change.  When the diarist’s terribly respectable uncle – for what could be more respectable than a dean of the Church of England? – arrives, a happy ending seems within grasp.  Uncle Rudolph, a widower, quite naturally falls in love with the entirely lovable Mrs Jewks, which would solve the sisters’ problems, and, as his niece observes, the acquisition of a sweet wife would be a welcome change from his lonely existence:

It must be a dreadful thing to be sixty and all alone. You look so grown up.  You look as though you must have so many resources, so few needs, and you are accepted as provided for, what with your career accomplished, and your houses and servants and friends and books and all the rest of it – all the empty, meaningless rest of it; for really, you are the most miserable of motherless cold babies, conscious that you are motherless, conscious that nobody soft and kind and adoring is ever again coming to croon over you and kiss you good-night and be there next morning to smile when you wake up.

It is a nice book but a rather odd mix.  I enjoyed the story of Mrs Barnes and Mrs Jewks but I am more drawn towards the kind of writing von Arnim displayed at the beginning of the book, when the diarist may have come across other characters but only in passing: the focus was on her, on her thoughts and feelings, and no one could write those kinds of passages as well as von Arnim.  As I read more and more of her work, it is those introspective books where you really get to know the intelligent, outspoken and always humourous heroines I am most drawn to: Elizabeth and Her German Garden has long been my favourite, though now Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (to be reviewed soon) is challenging it for supremacy.  In the Mountains begins with the same kind of promise as those books but changes abruptly into something still nice, but not quite as wonderful.  It was the perfect book to read in Switzerland but that does not mean it was a perfect book.

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“Still Life with Books and Flowers” by Ethel Sands

I adore November.  It is probably my third favourite month, though I have only ever bothered to rank the top three (in case you’re wondering: 1. February, 2. April, 3. November).  Vancouverites will tell you that November is the most miserable month here, as it rains every single day and the sun never emerges.  This, I think, is what makes it so wonderful.  I get a little grumpy if the sun tries to stick around more than an hour or two a day this time of year.  There is nothing I like more than going out into the woods on a rainy day and walking about for a few hours.  And to be inside afterwards, warm and dry, curled up with a book while you listen to the rain…heaven.  The rest of the city is resentfully going into hibernation but I find myself more energetic than ever.

And I will need energy if I’m going to do what I’m thinking about doing.  I want to learn how to quilt, which would also mean having to learn how to use a sewing machine again.  I reread Jane Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Domesticity a few weeks ago and was so drawn to the bits on quilting that I immediately placed a library hold on Jane’s The Gentle Art of Quilt-making.  I sat down with it Saturday night, planning to flip through it in front of the television but it wasn’t long before I had abandoned my show (a rerun of As Time Goes By – forgive me Judi Dench) and had focused all my attention on the book.  Now, I know next to nothing about quilting so almost everything I read was new to me and it was all enthralling.  In the introduction, Jane talks about “how much I loved quilts and how much I wanted to make one, but…I was convinced it was all rules and regulations and…I thought it would be too difficult.”  A friend convinced her that there was no need to feel intimidated and then that was that.  After a weekend course on the basics of quilting, which you better believe I am already on the lookout for in my area, off she went.

The book focuses on 15 of Jane’s quilts and the inspiration behind their designs.  Because I am a total geek and information-hungry beginner, I found the actual directions even more interesting that the stories.  I went to bed Saturday night dreaming of fabric combinations and quilt patterns.  It was all very obsessive and very wonderful.  On Sunday afternoon, still feeling inspired, I decided to root through one of our chests and pull out some of the old family quilts.

Most of the quilts we have were made by my great-grandmother during the 1930s or my grandmother during the 1950s and 1960s.  Some are falling apart and stained while others are still in perfect condition but all of them use the most amazing patterned fabrics.  These old patterns always make me think of the endpapers in Persephone books.  I found these three particularly striking:

My only other completed reading this week was done on the go – a volume of Maeve Binchy short stories read while travelling around the city by bus.  I could not have had a more appropriate book to keep me company this busy weekend since the London-set Victoria Line, Central Line stories are focused around characters who also travel by public transit.  Victoria Line was originally published in 1978 and Central Line in 1980, making this the earliest of Binchy’s work that I’ve read; until now, I had only tried her novels.  Most of the stories aren’t particularly memorable – though there are a few exceptions, mostly for the stories with more sinister tones – and all seem to revolve around women with unstable but rarely addressed romantic relationships but they were enjoyable to read and made for a pleasant way to pass the time on my travels.

I am still working away at Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim and am falling more and more in love with the heroine with every page.  It is an epistolary novel so I am reading it one letter at a time, savouring the gnädiges Fräulein’s every thought, almost all of which (in the way of von Arnim) are worth remembering.  Being the same age as Fräulein Schmidt, I particularly loved this sentiment:

Dear Mr Anstruther, — It is kind of you to want to contradict what I said in my last letter about the outward appearance of my life, but really you know I am past my first youth.  At twenty-six I cannot pretend to be what is known as a young girl, and I don’t want to.  Not for anything would I be seventeen or eighteen again.  I like to be a woman grown, to have entered into the full possession of whatever faculties I am to have, to know what I want, to look at things in their true proportions.  I don’t know that eighteen has anything that compensates for that.  It is such a rudderless sort of age.  It may be more charming to the beholder, but it is not half so nice to the person herself.

How could I not love a book with such a heroine?

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I have been promising a review of Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim since I read it in June.  Worse, I have been callously and constantly mentioning it since then, enraging those of you who wanted to know more and were waiting on an actual review.  Well, rejoice!, for here it is.

From the opening line, there is no doubt that you are reading von Arnim and what a perfect line it is:

Mr Pinner was a God-fearing man, who was afraid of everything except respectability.

Mr Pinner is an Islington shopkeeper and for years he and his wife have longed for a child.  Finally, they have a daughter and, recognizing that she is the answer to their prayers, they name her Salvatia (Sally for short).  Unfortunately, Sally turns out to be unusually difficult to raise.  She herself is docile and obedient, all that a daughter should be, but she is far, far too beautiful.  Her parents have to keep her under lock and key after the age of twelve, once love-struck (or at least lust-struck) men and boys start following her around.  All the Pinners’ energy goes into protecting the exquisite Sally, whose unthinking innocence makes her welcome the smiles that come her way even though her strict morals mean she would be horrified if she knew what it was those men wanted from her.

It is more than enough work for two people, guarding Sally, but unfortunately Mrs Pinner dies while Sally is still in her teens.  Mr Pinner discovers that he can’t run the store on his own, can’t afford to hire help, and absolutely cannot handle the volume of admirers who appear when Sally works there.  Seeking a simpler life, he buys a shop in a small village near Cambridge whose chief attraction is an almost entirely female population.  Foolishly though, Mr Pinner failed to anticipate the mobility of young undergraduates in possession of motor cars.  When Mr Jocelyn Luke enters the shop and falls instantly and desperately in love with Sally, Mr Pinner is horrified.  Horrified, that is, until Mr Luke reveals that he wants to marry Sally.  Thrilled at the prospect of handing the responsibility for Sally over to someone else, Mr Pinner does all he can to encourage the match and the two are quickly married, the persuadable Sally having been as eager as ever to heed her father’s advice.   Now it is Mr Luke’s burden to hide Sally away and he finds the task just as exhausting as Mr Pinner did.

The widowed Mrs Luke, a doting mother with grand schemes for her son’s brilliant future, is dismayed to hear that he is married and to the daughter of a shopkeeper no less.  Once she sees Sally though, she too falls victim to the girl’s beauty and launches a determined mission to mould the young girl into the kind of presentable, middle class bride Jocelyn Luke needs by his side in order to succeed.  Sally, whose only ambition is for a small home to keep and fill with lots of babies, does not make a good student.  Meanwhile, Mrs Luke is being courted by her neighbour Mr Thorpe, who had no chance as long as Jocelyn was unmarried but now that the tight mother-son bond has been broken redoubles his efforts, making up in determination what he lacks in precision:

‘Marriage never harmed a man yet,’ said Mr Thorpe still more firmly, aware that he was being inaccurate, but also aware that no one can afford to be accurate and court simultaneously.  Accuracy, Mr Thorpe knew, comes after marriage, not before.

The story is a farce mixed with a fairy tale.  The adventures of simple Sally in ever elevating circles of society (she ends up the protégé of a duke) are delightful and I took a callous amount of pleasure in poor Mr Luke’s hopeless attempts to protect his stunning bride from any male gaze but his.

Introduction to Sally is good.  Very, very good in fact and very, very unexpected.  Von Arnim always manages to surprise me but never more so than here.  She has a uniquely sharp eye for the absurdities of humour behaviour and an extraordinary talent for capturing that in dry, humourous prose.  Here she is entirely without sentiment or sympathy and each character is more ridiculous than the last.  It is pure farce – far purer than I had ever expected from von Arnim who usually balances humourous writing with darker themes – and entirely, wonderfully, hilariously entertaining.

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When Anna Estcourt was twenty-five, and had begun to wonder whether the pleasure extractable from life at all counterbalanced the bother of it, a wonderful thing happened.

So begins The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim, another of her fairy tale stories in the same vein as Christopher and Columbus and The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (not to mention The Enchanted April, which everyone else seems to adore but is my least favourite von Arnim).  It is one of her earlier novels – first published in 1901 – and, as in the two books that came before it (Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Solitary Summer), von Arnim clearly drew on her own experiences for inspiration.  And isn’t it any writer’s prerogative to write about what they know, especially if they can do it over and over again so delightfully?  In von Arnim’s case, that was the plight of the well-born foreigner living in rural obscurity in Germany.

Anna Estcourt, pretty, bright and still unmarried at twenty-five, has grown up under the guardianship of her benignly disinterested elder brother and his bossy, social climbing wife, Susie.  With no money – and therefore no independence – of her own, Anna is like a child under Susie’s thumb (and is far meeker at times than Susie’s own daughter).  Susie cannot understand why Anna will not make the most of her good looks and good name to catch a wealthy husband.  But Anna, a rather dreamy, idealistic soul, refuses to compromise her ideals just to get away from Susie:

‘…isn’t it simply terrible to be expected to encourage any wretched man who has money?  I don’t want anybody to marry me.  I don’t want to buy my independence that way.  Besides, it isn’t really independence.’

When Anna’s Uncle Joachim, her German mother’s brother, comes to visit, he and Anna immediately strike up an affectionate friendship.  Neither can entirely understand the views of the other – Uncle Joachim believes “It is a woman’s pride to lean on a good husband.  It is her happiness to be shielded and protected by him” – but nonetheless he, having met the exhausting Susie, can understand Anna’s desire for independence from her.  And so, when he dies a few a months after his visit to London, Anna finds herself an heiress, the inheritor of his prosperous Pomeranian estate, with the instruction that Uncle Joachim

trusted his dear Anna would go and live there, and keep it up to its present state of excellence, and would finally marry a good German gentleman, of whom there were many, and return in this way altogether to the country of her forefathers.

Anna has no intention of marry a good gentleman – German or otherwise – now that she has a generous annual income to fund the independent life she has dreamed of for so long, or of living in rural obscurity in Northern Germany, but she almost immediately sets out to visit her new property (after first struggling to locate it on a map), with her sister-in-law Susie, her niece Letty, and her niece’s governess in tow.

Anna does not get off to the best of starts with many of the locals, having absolutely no understanding of local customs or social hierarchies, but quickly falls in love her new home.  Feeling blessed by good fortune, she soon decides that the best way to use her home and her fortune would be to throw open her doors to distressed gentlewomen, to give them the rest and comfort and independence they long for but can never have when relying on relatives or, if without family, scrambling to make a living.  It is a beautiful, noble plan, though highly impractical as everyone tells her, and it isn’t long before Anna starts to regret her generous impulse, which has created an exhausting amount of work and stress for her.

While there are certainly more than enough of von Arnim’s trademark speeches about the tyranny of men and woman’s desire for and right to independence, this book actually has a male hero – not something typical in her works.  Axel Lohm is the only other major landowner in the region and the only gentleman, too (something Anna recognizes with relief the first time she sees him, having exhausted her patience with crass peasants).  He is the steady, good German gentleman Uncle Joachim had dreamed Anna might marry, a bachelor in his early thirties who has been devotedly attending to his estate, having bought his siblings out after their father’s death.  For years, he has been doing his best on his own, but it is a lonely life for an intelligent, thoughtful man, whose family members can always think of something they would rather be doing than visiting him, or, if they do find themselves visiting, do their best to get away quickly.   When Anna arrives, beautiful, warm, kind, intelligent Anna, they quickly become friends and it is not long before he falls in love with her, though he does his best to repress his feelings knowing that she does not welcome them.  All of Anna’s affection and energy is to be devoted to her distressed gentlewomen, not to some man.

Axel is my favourite type of male hero – quiet, calm, responsible, stable – and my sympathies were all with him as he struggled to counsel Anna on her project, though in her enthusiasm she refuses to listen to any warnings, and then to conceal his love for her, knowing that any offer he made would be rejected.  Anna dreamt for years of the kind of independence Axel has, but they were just that – dreams.  In Axel, we glimpse the weighty reality of such independence and his acute loneliness.  He has the freedom Anna always longed for but that alone cannot make him happy.  It is only as Anna’s troubles begin to pile up that she starts to recognize that absolute independence is very isolating and very, very tiring.  She has no one to share her burdens with, no one to help her see the way through a particularly overwhelming situation.  She finally realises the limits of her much longed for independence: ‘I want someone to tell me what I ought to do, and to see that I do it.  Besides petting me.  I long and long sometimes to be petted.’

It is a surprisingly eventful novel, full of many comings and goings, and von Arnim indulges in an extravagantly dramatic final act that felt a bit jarring in comparison to what I think of as her typical style.  I am used to thinking of her as a cool, humourous, unemotional storyteller, the writer of novels where the comic foibles of all the characters, major and minor, are exploited to excellent effect. (That reminds me that I still owe you a review of Introduction to Sally, which is riotously funny.)  This is undoubtedly the least comic of her books that I have yet to read, which I think makes it particularly interesting and no less satisfying.  It is still amusing – von Arnim could never be anything but – and quite light, but in showing an unusual amount of respect for her characters she creates a very different reading experience.  Usually, I come away from my encounters with von Arnim impressed by her skill, thankful for her neat turn of phrase and gift for capturing and relating the ridiculous.  Never before have I finished one of her books caring so much about the characters, as I did for the genuinely sympathetic Anna and Axel.

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I think I will always remember The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim as the book that made me want to get an e-reader.   Just knowing it was out there and available for free was too tempting.  A humourous fairy tale-like story from my beloved Elizabeth von Arnim?  I had to read it.  So, unsurprisingly, this was the very first book to be loaded onto my Kobo and it was the very first one to be read.  And it was absolutely delightful.

The lovely Princess Priscilla of Lothen-Kunitz is adored by all who know her and has lived her life most comfortably in the lap of luxury.  She is beautiful, young, and rich and should really have no reason to want anything more from life.  She is perhaps a little too intelligent for her father’s liking, but she does her best to conceal her attempts at education from him.  The Grand Duchess had been similarly flawed:

It was what had been the matter with the deceased Grand Duchess; she would think, and no one could stop her, and her life in consequence was a burden to herself and to everybody else at her court.

Both her sisters have been married off and now Priscilla is the only one left, with gentlemen falling over themselves to make her their bride.  Before the novel begins, though, no really appropriate suitor had presented himself:

They were however all poor, and Priscilla and her sisters were rich; and how foolish, said the Grand Duke, to marry poor men unless you are poor yourself.  The Grand Duke, therefore, took these young men aside and crushed them, while Priscilla, indifferent, went on with her drawing.  But now came one who was so eminently desirable that he had no need to do more than merely signify.  There had been much trouble and a great deal of delay in finding him a wife, for he had insisted on having a princess who should be both pretty and not his cousin.  Europe did not seem to contain such a thing.

The Prince, having resigned himself to not finding a woman both beautiful and unrelated to him, has resorted to looking among his cousins and decides that Priscilla would be quite perfect.  Priscilla, having never given marriage much thought, does not agree with the perfection of this plan.  So she decides, with the help of her dear friend and advisor, Herr Fritzing, the Royal Librarian, to run away:

Priscilla wanted to run away.  This, I believe, is considered an awful thing to do even if you are only a housemaid or somebody’s wife.  If it were not considered awful, placed by the world high up on its list of Utter Unforgivablenesses, there is, I suppose, not a woman who would not at some time or other have run.  She might come back, but she would surely have gone.

She wants to run away from the charming castle she lives in, from her father the Grand Duke, and most especially from the proposed marriage with the prince.  She is tired of her privileged and exhausting lifestyle and wants to live quietly and simply in the country.  England, she says, is the only place to go, its picturesque cottages matching exactly the vision she has for her new life.  So, with “the tremendous daring of absolute inexperience”, Priscilla and the devoted Fritzi set off, with Priscilla’s maid Annalise in attendance (Annalise having been chosen chiefly because her greed over promised wages made her the least likely to blab about the plan).

I really think it is a tragedy that so few of von Arnim’s novels feature sea voyages because she writes rather wonderfully about seasick characters and those who come into contact with them.  Fritzi does not do well on the short and very calm voyage from France to England, raising and then dashing the hopes of his fellow travellers:

He clung to the rail, staring miserably over the side into the oily water.  Some of the passengers lingered to watch him, at first because they thought he was going to be seasick with so little provocation that it amounted to genius, and afterwards because they were sure he must want to commit suicide.  When they found that time passed and he did neither, he became unpopular, and they went away and left him altogether and contemptuously alone.

Once arrived in England, the three runaways settle down in a small village where, in a remarkably short period of time, they cause much confusion and several tragedies among the locals.  Unsurprisingly, the lovely Priscilla, who came to England partly to escape male attentions, immediately attracts the admiration of two youths of her own age: the frail Tussie and the cheerful Robin.  Equally unsurprisingly, the mothers of these two young men are less than thrilled by the arrival of the mysterious young woman and are irritated by the amount of chaos she has brought into their lives and the village in general.

With limited funds and very little practical knowledge, the deeply mismatched trio of Priscilla, Fritzi, and Annalise soon run into trouble.  “Truly,” the narrator reminds us as they stumble from crisis to crisis, “it is a great art, that of running away, and needs incessant practice.”  They made no plans for transferring their money from Germany, they buy completely impractical cottages that they have no idea how to manage and forget to hire housekeepers, maids or cooks (something they only recall when meal time arrives and there is no meal waiting – poor Priscilla has many hungry days).  Priscilla, used to freely handing out money when visiting the people of Lothen-Kunitz, happily does the same in her new village – quickly earning their love and depleting Fritzi’s reserves.  Everything she does is done with the best of intentions and in completely innocent ignorance and, unfortunately, it quite often ends badly.

As usual with von Arnim, this is not a novel of brilliant characterization.  I may have liked Priscilla and Fritzi and especially Annalise (she is wonderfully cold-hearted) but there is really no attempt to make them anything other than amusing, fairy tale characters.  The joy of von Arnim’s writing is in the narrator’s sharp-witted comments.  I adore her sense of humour and there was something to make me smile on every page.  There are a marvellous number of generalisations about both the English character and the German one and the prejudices these two groups feel towards one another.  The misogynistic Grand Duke’s rules for raising his daughters are also particularly fabulous:

The Grand Duke’s idea about his daughters was that they should know a little of everything and nothing too well: and if Priscilla had said she wanted to study Shakespeare with the librarian he would have angrily forbid it.  Had she not had ten years for studying Shakespeare?  To go on longer than that would mean that she was eager, and the Grand Duke loathed an eager woman.

I think a large part of why I enjoyed this so much was that it reminded me of von Arnim’s Christopher and ColumbusChristopher and Columbus is a better, more complete novel but the spirit is very much the same and there are definite similarities, particularly in each set of characters’ ability to quite innocently entangle themselves in local scandal.  The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight is a fun little story and I am so glad to have finally had the chance to read it!

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Oh, the excruciating pain of making this list!  I am very pleased with the end result but how cruel to have spent the last few days playing off my favourite books against one another to get down to the ten you see here (and ten it must be for when I attempted to make a list of fifteen things got wildly out of hand).  What I did realise quickly was what an excellent reading year I’ve had, full of wonderful, memorable books.  May 2012 bring more of the same!

10. The Unlikely Disciple (2009) – Kevin Roose
The best books are the ones that get you so excited that you cannot stop talking about them, so that soon all your friends and family know exactly what you’re reading.  That is what happened while I was reading The Unlikely Disciple.  Roose, then an undergraduate at Brown, went ‘undercover’ for a semester at an evangelical Christian university.  His insightful, respectful, and very detailed chronicle of his time there left me highly entertained and incredibly engaged, pondering some of the issues he touched on (the influence of religious groups in politics, evangelical Christianity’s attitudes towards women, and journalistic ethics, to name a few) for weeks after I had finished reading.

9. Skylark (1924) – Dezső Kosztolányi
Set in 1899 in a small town in Austria-Hungary, this is the story of Skylark’s mother and father and the joyous week they spend enjoying themselves while their spinster daughter is away visiting family.  Mother and Father’s excitement at their outings to the restaurant and the theatre (and, in Father’s case, a meeting of the local drinking club) is humourously and heartwarmingly told but it is the return of the pathetic, pitiable Skylark (and Father’s outburst in anticipation of her return) that truly makes this a brilliant novel.  A wonderful and sympathetic view of the burden faced by parents with beloved but unmarriageable daughters. 

8. An Appetite for Life (1977) – Charles Ritchie
Ritchie, though he was a prominent diplomat, is now best remembered for his skill as a diarist and rightly so.  This, the earliest published volume of his diaries, covers the years 1924-1927, as Ritchie was finishing off his studies in Halifax and then experiencing the delightful distractions on offer at Oxford during his first year there.  Ritchie is marvellously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.

7. Christopher and Columbus (1919) – Elizabeth von Arnim
I took the longest time to decide which von Arnim novel was going to make the list but this beat out The Pastor’s Wife by the sheer force of its charm.  A light, fanciful escape from reality, Christopher and Columbus tells the story of two orphaned teenage German-English twins and their exploits once shipped off to neutral America by their uncle during WWI.  While sailing, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas befriend the delightful, doting Mr Twist, an American millionaire who made his fortune by designing a no-drip tea pot.  The adventures of this trio make for enchanting reading, with von Arnim’s witty narrator saving it from descending into anything too saccharine.

6. Earth and High Heaven (1944) – Gwethalyn Graham
Without question, this was the biggest reading surprise of the year.  My first reaction upon finishing was that it was the most Persephone-like non-Persephone book I’ve ever read.  Set in Montreal in 1942, the novel revolves around the challenges faced by Erica Drake, an editor at a newspaper, and Marc Reiser, a lawyer, when they meet and fall in love.  Anti-Semitism and family relationships are at the heart of this novel but it is also full of comments on the war, whether it be French-speaking Canada’s reluctance to be involved or the deadening effect of the destruction of the London Blitz, experienced first-hand by Erica’s sister.  It is an absolutely amazing novel that deserves a much wider audience.

5. Hostages to Fortune (1933) – Elizabeth Cambridge
My love for this quiet novel has come on slowly.  I enjoyed it when I read it, yes, but with each passing month I find myself loving it more.  I remain particularly impressed with Cambridge’s portrait of Catherine and William’s marriage and how it evolves, through separation during the war, the arrivals of babies, and the numbingly chaotic years spent scrambling to raise ( and afford to raise) their three children.

4. The American Senator (1877) – Anthony Trollope
My first encounter with Trollope was an unqualified success.  Since then, I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers and enjoyed both but neither came close to equaling my delight with The American Senator.  Was it Mr Elias Gotobed’s comically offensive but generally true statements that charmed me so?  The love story of the gentle, deserving Mary Masters?  Or was it the magnificent anti-heroine, Arabella Trefoil, whose single-minded pursuit of a husband  is awesome to behold?  The combination of these stories makes for an eventful, always fascinating, deeply satisfying novel that quite rightly convinced me that Trollope was an author after my own heart.

3. Wives and Daughters (1866) – Elizabeth Gaskell
I feel a bit of a cheat to place a reread so high on my list but…This book is absolutely perfect and fully earned its spot.  I don’t think I will ever tire of Molly Gibson, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Squire Hamley or, that most magnificent creation, Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson.

2. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) – Susan Hill
In any other year, this book would have probably garnered top spot.  Hill’s memoir of a lifetime spent in the company of books and other authors delighted me from the first page to the last.  Everything about this book was perfect for me.  There was enough of the familiar in Hill’s reading to comfort me (because one of the delights of reading about books is coming across opinions on books you know well) and enough of the new to excite me and make me eager to track down those unknown titles.  Even before I had finished reading my library edition, I rushed out to buy a copy of my very own.

1. Summer Half (1937) – Angela Thirkell
Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.

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