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Archive for the ‘Girlebooks’ Category

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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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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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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