Light Reading: Tara Isabella Burton’s “Social Creature” and Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Christine”

This summer I have done LOTS of light reading.  Since the middle of May, when we first saw the sun after a tenebrous winter, I have been soaking up rays (for Vitamin D!) and lounging and reading, if not beach books, very fast books.

There is a puritanical strain in the family that says it is a sin to read a book not reviewed in The New Yorker, but I have broken some rules.  While my husband was out of town, I read Tara Isabella Burton’s creepy thriller, Social Creature, recommended by Janet Maslin  in The New York Times.  Compared by reviewers to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, this racy novel comprises a sticky web of socialites, social media, and lack of social boundaries.  Louise, a mousy wannabe writer, is down-and-out in New York, and though she’s about to turn 30, she is determined not to return to New Hampshire.  She works three jobs, as a barista, an SAT tutor, and a writer for an online catalogue–and she never has money to go out.  Then she meets Lavinia, a rich, wild socialite who takes her under her wing.  They go to posh party after posh party, and are always drunk or stoned.   Louise makes contacts and begins to write for acclaimed publications.   But it can’t last:  Lavinia has a history of adopting best friends, and then dumping them.  The novel takes a horrific turn …  and I had to leave the lights on all night for a week.

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) may be more to your taste if you’re looking for something light and literary.   (I posted here about Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther.)  I recently discovered her out-of-print anti-war epistolary novel Christine, originally published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Cholmondeley (available under both names as a free e-book).

Twenty-two-year-old Christine, a violinist, moves to Berlin in 1914. She is there to study music with a famous violinist so she can make a living, not as a teacher, but as a musician.  In long letters to her mother every Sunday, she records the details of her life.  But she greatly misses her mother.

The worst of it is that we’re so poor, or you could have come with me and we’d have taken a house and set up housekeeping together for my year of study. Well, we won’t be poor for ever, little mother. I’m going to be your son, and husband, and everything else that loves and is devoted, and I’m going to earn both our livings for us, and take care of you forever.

At first she is unhappy.  Rude pedestrians actually knock her off the narrow sidewalks into the road when she takes a walk.   Her stout landlady and eccentric fellow roomers shun her  because of a strong anti-English feeling. Eventually they soften, because she is charming, but is music worth the price of loneliness in Berlin?  Yes, because Kloster, her music teacher, a short, chubby middle-aged violinist, becomes angelic when he plays the violin.  He tells her she is his most talented student, and she improves by long, joyful practice in her room. Kloster and his wife take her under their wing, and sen her to the country when it gets too hot and she looks pale.  He also introduces her to  handsome, musical Bernd, an aristocrat who, unfortunately, because of his class and tradition , is an officer in the army.  They fall in love and get engaged, though his family does not approve.

She knows something political is brewing:  the roomers boast about the strong German army.  And then Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated.  Everyone insists  that there will be war, though she can’t understand why.

Here day and night, day and night, since Wednesday, soldiers in new grey uniforms pass through the Brandenburger Thor down the broad road to Charlottenburg. Their tramp never stops. I can see them from my window tramping, tramping away down the great straight road; and crowds that don’t seem to change or dwindle watch them and shout. Where do the soldiers all come from? I never dreamed there could be so many in the world, let alone in Berlin; and Germany isn’t even at war! But it’s no use asking questions, or trying to talk about it. I’ve found the word “Why?” in this house is not only useless but improper. Nobody will talk about anything; I suppose they don’t need to, for they all seem perfectly to know. They’re in the inner circle in this house. They’re not the public. The public is that shouting, The public here are all the people who obey, and pay, and don’t know; an immense multitude of slaves,—abject, greedy, pitiful. I don’t think I ever could have imagined a thing so pitiful to see as these respectable middle-aged Berlin citizens, fathers of families, careful livers on small incomes, clerks, pastors, teachers, professors, drunk and mad out there publicly on the pavement, dancing with joy because they think the great moment they’ve been taught to wait for has come, and they’re going to get suddenly rich, scoop in wealth from Russia and France, get up to the top of the world and be able to kick it.

And frankly we are terrified for Christine.  The anti-English feeling is very strong.

Von Arnim writes brilliantly at times, at other times her prose is pedestrian, but overall this is an extremely moving anti-war novel.  Surely some press should reissue it!

A Charming Epistolary Novel: “Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther” by Elizabeth von Arnim

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.

Light Summer Reading: Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen & D. E. Stevenson’s Gerald and Elizabeth

light summer-readingSometimes we like light reading.

We’re waiting at the doctor’s or the vet’s.  There are no magazines except People or Us.

A light novel is perfect while lounging under the linden tree.  I don’t want to read James Joyce outdoors.

Whether at the doctor’s or in the back yard, I can lose myself in Elizabeth von Arnim’s amusing novels or D. E. Stevenson’s light romances.

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904) is the third book I’ve read by von Arnim this summer.  It continues the exploits of the narrator of Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898) and The Solitary Summer (1899).  It is really travel writing, with a slender plot.  According to Penelope Mortimer, author of the introduction to the Virago edition, von Arnim wanted to branch out from her meditations on the garden, nature, and solitude.

In 1901, the real Elizabeth traveled around the Baltic island of Rügen with a friend.  She wrote a kind of guide book, with a few charming characters and comic episodes to flesh it out.

In the novel, the narrator, Elizabeth, wants to be alone, so she travels only with her maid, Gertrud, and her coach driver, August.

There are many humorous scenes.  When a motorcar comes roaring by on the road, Elizabeth and Gertrud jump out of the carriage, sure that the horses will bolt.  The horses don’t bolt, but August keeps on driving, unaware that the carriage is empty.  The women are hungry and tired, but eventually they find the picnic basket, which also fell out of the coach.  They have several adventures before they finally catch up with August.

Later, Elizabeth encounters a cousin, Charlotte, on the beach.  Charlotte is married to a German philosopher, but after six years and babies who were stillborn or died shortly after birth, she went to England to become a feminist lecturer.  She is, alas, one of those obnoxious comic feminists, and yet Elizabeth also has sympathy for her.

…and the next I heard she was in England,–in London, Oxford, and other intellectual centres, lecturing on the cause of Women….  Charlotte’s family was so much shocked that it was hysterical.  Charlotte, not content with lecturing, wrote pamphlets–lofty documents of a deadly earnestness, in German and English, and they might be seen any day in the bookshop window Unter den Linden.  Charlotte’s family nearly fainted when it had to walk Unter den Linden.  The Radical papers, which were ony read by Charlotte’s family when nobody was looking and were never allowed openly to darken their doors, took her under their wing and wrote articles in her praise.

Charlotte is made ridiculous, but in von Arnim’s later novel, The Pastor’s Wife, another heroine, Ingeborg, is sympathetically portrayed when, after several pregnancies and a long illness, she announces to her husband that she will no longer have sex with him.  The doctor backs her up, and the heroine finally has time to read and study.  So by 1914, when The Pastor’s Wife was published, von Arnim was definitely a feminist.

There is another important subplot in Rugen.  When Elizabeth and Charlotte  run into Charlotte’s philosopher husband, Elizabeth devises a plot to get the two back together again.  Will it work?  It seems unlikely.

A very enjoyable novel.

gerald-and-elizabeth-d-e-stevenson-001D. E. Stevenson has many fans. A few years ago, Sourcebooks started reprinting some of her books:  Miss Buncle’s Book, Miss Buncle Married, The Two Mrs. Abbots, The Four Graces, and The Young Clementina. My favorite,  Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (the first of four Mrs. Tim books), is available from Bloomsbury.

Stevenson is sometimes rated in the same category as Angela Thirkell, though Thirkell is a better writer.

I have very much enjoyed Stevenson’s books, though I must admit, some are better than others.  Gerald and Elizabeth is charming, but the plot is a utterly unbelievable.  The naive hero, Gerald, framed for the theft of diamonds, returns to England from South Africa, where he was an engineer in a diamond mine.  He has no money and no references.  But his sister, Elizabeth, a famous actress, sees him in the audience at the theater and insists he come live in her flat.  From there, everything slowly gets better, as you can imagine.

The book is feather-light, but I very much liked the characters.

Is there a sequel to this?  Because even though Elizabeth’s life is wrapped up, I didn’t feel Gerald’s was.

If you want to read Stevenson, I very much recommend the books in print, or The Baker’s Daughter.

What is your favorite light reading this summer?

Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera

Elizabeth von Armin’s charming comic novel, The Enchanted April, was adapted in 1991 for a first-rate movie starring Josie Lawrence, Miranda Richardson, Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, and Jim Broadbent.

Vera by Elizabeth von arminSince then, I have hunted down many of von Arnim’s books, and earlier this summer read and enjoyed The Pastor’s Wife.  Her stunning dark comedy, Vera, is perhaps even more compelling (and von Armin considered it her best book):  I simply couldn’t put it down over the 4th of July weekend.  Her writing is plain, but the sum of the book is better than its parts:  by the end, you understand how very artistic the design is.

The novel tells the story of the unfolding of a dark relationship between 22-year-old, pretty, clever Lucy, whose brilliant, affectionate father has just died, and 45-year-old Everard Wemyss, a handsome, despotic widower and stockbroker with no imagination.

At the center of the book is the spectre of Vera, Wemyss’s dead wife, a predecessor of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, though Vera was sensitive and artistic rather than a socialite.  Vera died of “falling out the window”at their weekend home, according to Wemyss.  The inquest’s verdict was open:  she might have committed suicide, might have fallen. Wemyss is indignant:  of course Vera slipped on the oak floors.

Both Lucy and Wemyss are distressed by death, and that is their initial connection. No, they don’t go to a grief group:  the novel opens with a description of the heroine Lucy’s shock over the  loss of her father.  Standing at the gate of the rented cottage in Cornwall, she simply can’t believe she is alone; she has never been alone.  Then Wemyss, who has come to Cornwall to escape the publicity of Vera’s death and because he is expected to mourn (he has no intention of mourning the disobedient, incautious Vera), walks by the gate, notices Lucy, and begins to chat with her. By the time Aunt Dot comes to help Lucy with the funeral arrangements, Wemyss has taken over.

Lucy goes to live with her Aunt Dot in London, and this is a disaster for Aunt Dot, who must leave her small house every day to get away from the obnoxious Wemyss.  She disapproves of Wemyss’ coarseness, his right-wing politics, his lack of education, and authoritarianism.  She dislikes his flouting of mourning conventions.  She is sure his affair with her niece’is doomed, but does not interfere.  And she becomes so tired  of Wemyss that eventually she wants them to get married quickly so she can have the house to herself.

After marriage, Wemyss’ strategy is to isolate Lucy from her friends and dominate her.  He will not give her any reading time or time to herself. And he insists on taking her to the weekend home, of which she is very afraid, and even installs her in the sitting room where Vera committed suicide.

Wemyss even controls his books.  They are locked up, and only he has the key.  The books are unread, and do not look as though they’re meant to be read..

[Lucy] was of those who don’t like the feel of prize books in their hands, and all Wemyss’s books might have been presented as prizes to deserving schoolboys.  They were handsome; their edges–she couldn’t see them, but she was sure–were marbled.  They wouldn’t open easily, and one’s thumbs would hae to do a lot of tiring holding while one’s eyes tried to peep at the words tucked away towards the central crease.

What happened to Vera?  That is one of the questions.  But the other question is:  what will happen to Lucy?  Aunt Dot has some of the answers.

I have the Washington Square Press book, which has an excellent Afterword by Xandra Hardie.  This book is also available in a Virago edition, which I assume has an interesting intro or Afterword.

I loved this book.  No, it’s not quite a classic, but that’s not the point.  This is a fascinating, suspenseful novel about an abusive relationship, marriage, and a spinster’s musings on love.  Yes, in some ways Aunt Dot is the heroine.