Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

Ms. Mirabile:  "Often middlebrow novels are better than the minor classics. "

Ms. Mirabile: “Often middlebrow novels are better than the minor classics. “

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I read two books by “Elizabeths” last week.

Odd how these things happen, isn’t it?  I’m a fan of Elizabeth von Arnim, whose The Caravaners and The Enchanted April I am happy to read over and over, and I am also a devotee of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

During my vacation I took Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford off the shelves and immersed myself in reading.

Often the best middlebrow novels are  greater than the greats’ second-rate. I recently finished Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which is well-written and comical, but not a work of comic genius, and the best chapters–shades of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone–are plotted like a mystery.  The novel rambles, though, all too obviously a three-volume book, and some of the characters are scarcely developed, like the “good girl” Lucy Morris, and the nondescript Mrs. Carbuncle, who wants to marry off her niece to a rich man.  And so I spent a lot of time almost liking Lizzie Eustace, the bad girl who refuses to return the diamonds to her late husband’s estates (the first theft of the diamonds?) and then tells lies. She is unlikable, but at least interesting.

All right, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t Trollope’s best.

The Pastor’s Wife, however, is one of von Arnim’s best books, and, in fact, Deborah Singmaster, the author of the introduction to the Everyman paperback edition, says,

The Pastor’s Wife is Elizabeth’s most ambitious novel.  It is also her richest because it incorporates not just one, but all her characteristic modes:  satirist, nature lover, feminist.”

This is the Virago.  I have the Everyman (can't find a big enough image online!).

The Virago edition

The heroine of this comic, partly- autobiographical novel, Ingeborg, the bishop’s daughter, is in London because of dental problems.  After the tooth is pulled, she is miraculously well for the first time in months–no more ineffective “stoppings.”  When she sees an ad for a tour of Lucerne, she decides to go, as she is not expected home for a week.  This is her first independent act in many years:  she is her father’s secretary:  she is expected to organize his life.

On the trip, she meets Robert, an unconventional German pastor who scandalizes the other women  by talking about manure for his experimental rye crops. (Experimental farming is his vocation.) He and Ingeborg talk nonstop, and are unaware that they have committed social gaffes and are being ostracized by the others.

When Robert decides he will marry Ingeborg, he won’t take no for an answer.  He puts little notes under he doors of all the ladies’ rooms, because he doesn’t know Ingeborg’s room number.  In the note, he requests that she meet him in a lounge at 9 a.m.   All the curious spinster ladies show up, and when Ingeborg arrives and sees the proposal cake, she simply is too delicate to turn him down.

And when she goes home ,her family ostracizes her for her engagement, and she has all the more incentive to leave the bishop’s house.

We do not expect Ingeborg’s marriage to be happy after what we’ve seen of Robert.  And yet it is.  Von Arnim’s writing is lyrical as she describes Ingeborg’s first joyous months.  In Germany, she can be independent.  She is in charge of the house.  She makes one-pot meals.  She walks in the woods.   And we feel she is as responsive to nature as von Arnim herself.

It is true Robert, when he scanned the naked heavens the last thing at night  and peered at the thermometer outside the first thing in the morning, said it was the Devil’s own weather, and if there was not soon some rain all his fertilizers, all his activities, all his expenditure would be wasted; but though this would throw a shadow for a moment across her joy in each new wonderful morning she found it impossible not to rejoice in the light.  Out in the garden, for instance, down there beyond the lime tress at the end, where you could stand in the gap in the lilac hedge and look straight out across the rye-fields, dipping and rising, delicate grey, delicate green, singing in sunlight, dark beneath a cloud, restlessly waving, on and on, till over away at the end of things they got to the sky and were only stopped by brushing up against it…

This is also very much a feminist book, and addresses issues of birth control.  Ingeborg is pregnant six times, and only two of her children live.  Motherhood almost kills her.  She almost dies after the first birth, when an abscess develops and is not treated; after later pregnancies she becomes anemic and a little crazy (post-partum depression?), taking refuge in Christianity.  And finally she cannot get off the sofa.

At last the doctor insists she go away with a nurse.  When she comes back, she tells Robert she will no longer have sex.

And there is another man in her life, an artist, who, once you get to know him, is not much different from Robert.

Von Arnim knows all too well that a new man is not necessarily the answer to family problems.  In some ways, The Pastor’s Wife is a predecessor of Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife.

Very worth reading, one of my favorite von Arnims.

cranford penguinElizabeth Gaskell’s second novel, Cranford (published in 1853) is charming, humorous, and entertaining, narrated by Miss Smith, known as Mary.  The town is “in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of the houses, above a certain rent, are women.”

I am going to write very briefly about this, because I have very little to say.   It is an episodic novel, almost a collection of short stories, and Cranford is based on Gaskell’s hometown, Cheshire.

The narrator often visits Cranford, and is especially close to the rector’s elderly daughters, Miss Deborah Jenkyns, an imperious, rigid woman, who is kind to the poor, but bosses around her younger, sweeter and gentler sister, Miss Matty.  Eccentric women and men populate Cranford:  they include Miss Barbara Barker, who sews pajamas for her cow; Captain Brown, who loves Dickens and openly talks about his poverty, a lapse of manners that horrifies Miss Deborah; and Mr. Holbrook, who courted Miss Matty in her youth, and who now reminds Miss Smith of Don Quixote with his non sequiturs about poetry.

The women of the town play cards, fight crime (yes, there are robbers),  and muse endlessly on fashion, though their clothes are long out of date.

The most moving part of the book occurs after Deborah’s death, when Miss Mattie’s bank goes bust. She loses all her money, and…  Yes, I did cry!

Gaskell beautifully describes the characters, we know that nothing too terrible will happen, and though this is not as sophisticated as her later novels, it is fun.

7 thoughts on “Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

  1. I’m going to object-debate in a friendly way. I don’t see why you are calling these excellent novels middlebrow. As used it becomes a term of devaluation. True Cranford does not debate larger political and economic issues like Gaskell’s North and South and Wives and Daughters. But there is room for novels to teach out in other directions and I suggest that Cranford is a gem of l’ecriture-femme as is The Pastor’s Wife. I haven’t read the Armin but know that there is real depth of exploration of loss, missing persons, impoverishment, social communal need and caring — indeed many centrally important values our own world needs far more of. And done in exquisite good taste.

    A good blog. Myself I like Lucy Morris and find her as alive as any Trollope heroine and the violations and humiliations she endures as grating as any Bronte heroine, if subtler in presentation. I probably warmed to Mrs Carbuncle through the film adaptation by Raven.

  2. Yes, I love that word “middlebrow.” Partly I use it to be humorous: I don’t quite know what to call serious novels that are not up to the level of, say, Bronte, Trollope, all the greats. Perhaps I should say “literary fiction,” but do we use this phrase about older books?

    When it comes right down to it, Trollope is a better writer than von Arnim, and I want to say that.. And yet I like this book very much. And I hate to call it “women’s fiction,” because that also puts it in a different category. What do critics do?

    I’m not as fond of Cranford as most, but it seems like a good reread for some day when I have a cold. It might grow on me.

    I like the idea of Lucy Morris so much, and generally I prefer the good girls, but I kept comparing her to Grace Crawley. Now there’s another good girl! (I know there are others like Lucy and Grace, but I kept thinking of Grace.)

  3. I have fond memories of reading Cranford. These genteelly impoverished spinster ladies inhabit a very different world from the one we know, yet Gaskell makes us share their concerns and feel real affections for them.

  4. I’m completely with you on Cranford. What a trivial book! Not in the class of Sara Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs.

  5. *Is* Trollope a better writer than von Arnim? or do we just think that because he’s a man? (Trying to throw in a little controversy here!) I think both Gaskell and and von Arnim are excellent writers and maybe we should try and move away from the thought that the subjects men write about are necessarily more important that those that women write about. War vs peace – hmmm!

  6. Jen, Jewett is great!

    Cynthia, I hope you like The Eustace Diamonds. It’s not my favorite Trollope, but it’s very entertaining.

    Karen, I love controversy! Always interesting to speculate about women and men writers. I would say that The Pastor’s Wife is a better book than The Eustace Diamonds. On the other hand, The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire is better than anything von Arnim wrote. So what do we do? Many of Trollope’s books are classics. The Pastor’s Wife is a near-classic. I think it falls off just a tiny bit near the end. That’s why I adore that word “middlebrow.” It says just what I mean, but it is not a word that critics would use.:)

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