I confess I am not a fan of teaching English (too many papers to grade), but if I returned to teaching would enjoy planning a class on H. G. Wells’s mistresses. Not only am I a fan of the progressive Wells’s feminist, socialist novels, Ann Veronica and The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, but I am fascinated by his affairs with the Edwardian novelists Elizabeth von Arnim, E. Nesbit, Rebecca West, Dorothy Richardson, and Amber Reeves.
I have been whiling away afternoons in an Adirondack chair with Elizabeth von Arnim, who was best known as the author of The Enchanted April. Vintage Classics has reissued four of her books in bright, attractive, summery-looking editions: Vera, The Enchanted April, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther. My favorite is Vera, a dark comedy that is a kind of predecessor of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The 22-year-old heroine, Lucy, marries a middle-aged stockbroker, who becomes more and more controlling after their marriage. He isolates her from her friends, installs her in his first wife Vera’s creepy sitting room, and prevents her from reading (he actually locks up the books). Soon she begins to wonder about his first wife, Vera, who “fell out a window.” Was it suicide, or was she pushed? (I posted about this book here.)
The only one of the four Vintage Von Arnims I had not read was Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther, a charming epistolary novel. It is light and entertaining, a bit rambling, with many fine passages, but far from her best work. But fans of von Arnim will relish the lively accounts of small-town life in Germany at the turn of the 20th century, the heroine’s beautiful observations of nature, her enthusiasm for poetry, and meditations on the pros and cons of marriage and the single life.
Written in the form of lively letters from Rose-Marie Schmidt in Germany to Roger Anstruther, her English fiance, it opens on a bright note. In her witty letters, Rose-Marie teases him about his fondness for marmalade, thanks him for comparing her to Nausicaa , a princess in The Odyssey, muses on her scholarly father’s eccentricities, and recounts the malicious gossip at a women’s kaffee klatch which her very proper stepmother forces her to attend. Rose-Marie can be funny but she also reports on the suffocating restrictiveness of the women’s social circle.
They were talking about sin. We don’t sin much in Jena, so generally they talk about sick people, or their neighbor’s income and what he does with it. But yesterday they talked sin. You know because we are poor and Papa has no official position and I have come to be twenty-five without having found a husband, I am a quantité négligeable in our set, a being in whose presence everything can be said, and who is expected to sit in a draught if there is one. Too old to join the young girls in the corner set apart for them, where they whisper and giggle and eat amazing quantities of whipped cream, I hover uneasily on the outskirts of the group of the married, and try to ingratiate myself by keeping on handing them cakes. It generally ends in my being sent out every few minutes by the hostess to the kitchen to fetch more food and things. ‘Rose-Marie is so useful,’ she will explain to the others when I have been extra quick and cheerful; but I don’t suppose Nausicaa’s female acquaintances said more.
The women gossiped about an illicit relationship between two people Rose-Marie very much likes, especially the woman, “the nicest woman in Jena.” And when this woman arrives late, they greet her warmly and behave as though they haven’t been assassinating her character. Rose-Marie hates their hypocrisy, and loves this woman whether the gossip is true or false. But this episode explains why she does not have a place in the small town.
She and Roger met when he took lodgings in their house and studied German with her father, but the engagement remains secret because he feels it is not the right time yet to tell his well-to-do father. Soon it becomes clear that there will be no right time. Roger falls in love with a woman he meets at a country house. He and Rose-Marie break off their engagement.
But a few months later he writes to her again, and they embark on a second correspondence, though Rose-Marie now considers him only a friend, as she constantly assures him. And Yet the letters constitute an intimate diary as she writes about her stepmother’s sad death, the financial necessity of moving outside Jena to a tiny, inexpensive house on a mountain, and her friendship with a young woman who is stigmatized because she was jilted almost at the altar.
So will Rose-Marie and Roger marry or won’t they? That is the question. Or is it? Actually, we consider it less seriously as Rose-Marie becomes stronger and happier. An odd book, but very enjoyable–some of the letters are really polished essays on various topics.