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.