Archive for the ‘Elizabeth von Arnim’ Category

The Jasmine Farm by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1934. This edition: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1934. First Edition. Hardcover. 322 pages.

My rating: 7/10. Possibly subject to change as I explore more of this author’s work – this is only the third novel I’ve read of the twenty or so Elizabeth von Arnim wrote between 1898 and 1940. The others are The Benefactress (1901), which I absolutely loved, and The Enchanted April (1922), which left me not terribly impressed. (I am planning to reread Enchanted April once it turns up – my copy is lost in the stacks at present.)

The Jasmine Farm was very different from The Benefactress, and much closer in style to Enchanted April. Though I am not familiar enough yet with this author’s full body of work to get a real feel for the progression of her writing history, I’ve read enough to know that I will continue to explore her titles. She has a lot to say that is worth listening to, and a very readable style.

*****

If I had to sum this story up in one sentence, I think I would say something like this:

A lushly sarcastic social farce which begins with an overabundance of gooseberries and ends with a convenient death.

I had a bit of a time really getting into this one – the first hundred plus pages were used in setting up the scene in great detail with many asides, and I wondered for a while if we were ever going to get to the point, or indeed if there was a point. But then things seemed to come together and off I went, quite eager to follow these foolish not-quite-virgins on their various paths to personal enlightenment, mindlessly flirting with disaster as they pursued their self-regarding ways through their lushly padded artificial world.

The fabulously wealthy Lady Midhurst is famous both for her lavish, perfectionist-planned entertainments, and her zero tolerance of any sort of sexual misconduct among her associates. To be vouched for by her Ladyship is to be certified pure in the eyes of society. What scandal, then, as the daughter of this paragon is revealed to have been carrying on an adulterous relationship for the past seven years with a married man, and he no other than Lady Midhurst’s trusted financial adviser!

Lady Midhurst seeks refuge at her almost-forgotten property in France, a tiny jasmine-growing farm near Grasse, which her husband impulsively purchased for her many years ago, and where they spent a few halcyon honeymoon weeks before Lord Midhurst’s roving eye and extramarital encounters so disgusted his fastidious wife that she swore off conjugal relations forever. In that time she did conceive a child, and the resulting Lady Terence – Terry – seems to be following in her mother’s celibate footsteps.

However, Terry had become emotionally and sexually obsessed at a very early age with her late father’s great friend, Andrew Leigh, who became a permanent attachment to the household upon Lord Midhurst’s death. The affection is returned, and their relationship is physically consummated at Terry’s insistence once she reaches the passionate time of her teens. Andrew is not exactly a free man, however. He has previously married the lovely Rosie De Lacy, a not-quite-upper-class girl whom he became infatuated with during a wartime leave. Once the war is over, Andrew realizes that Rosie is nothing like his intellectual equal; she is also shadowed by her very common and socially ambitious mother, whose main  aim in life, besides maintaining a high degree of personal comfort, is pushing her daughter higher in the social strata.

Mrs. De Lacy is thrilled with the news of her son-in-law’s adultery, but not for the obvious reasons. She hatches a scheme in which she hopes to trade Rosie’s complicity and silence for a highly public relationship with the exclusive Midhursts, thus ensuring Rosie’s future position among the creme de la creme of the upper class. Rosie is quite happy to cooperate; she herself is not interested in the bothers of sex and is not at all jealous of her husband’s paramour, preferring to concentrate on the cultivation of her considerable beauty for her own enjoyment, and for the pampered lifestyle that access to the desirous men of the aristocratic set and their hopeful admiration brings.

To escape the De Lacy clutches, Lady Midhurst now flees in haste to France, to the jasmine farm of the title. Much heart-rending ensues, as Lady Midhurst is forced to confront her past and the reasons for her daughter’s lack of restraint and repudiation of her mother’s standards of morality. Terry herself is a strange creature, being outwardly pure and much involved in charitable works; her infatuation with Andrew Leigh is seen by herself as completely natural and beyond the rules of normal social and moral conduct. Andrew himself seems but a puppet controlled by the women in his life; he truly means well but his ingrained weaknesses and inability to take a strong stand against the tempting Terry lead to his ultimate doom.

Does this seem terribly complicated? Yes, I thought so, too!

This novel is a strange combination of innocence and sophistication. It escapes being pure farce by the very real agonies of the morally aware characters (Lady Midhurst and Andrew Leigh), but there is a strong element of humour in the portrayal of many of Lady Midhurst’s friends, as well as the comic leads Rosie and her outrageous “Mumsie.”

I am not quite sure what, if any, social commentary is intended by the author in this work. She certainly has a lot to say about the follies of vanity and obsessive concentration on one’s appearance, and her keen eye picks out many of the quirks of the established aristocracy and the social climbers seeking to join them. It seems more of a general farce, partly humorous and cleverly critical. There are some serious passages among the farcical ones, mostly to do with the between-the-wars situation in Germany, and the growing tide of militarism and anti-Semitism. Coming from this particular author, with her very real experience with the German political and military mindset (Elizabeth’s first husband was a Prussian aristocrat, and she lived many of her early married years on his German estate) these are telling asides.

A diverting read, and, though I felt it had some flaws, it has intrigued me intensely. I hope to get my hands on more books by this captivating writer.

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The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1901. This edition: Dodo Press, 2012. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-4099-8059-9. 338 pages.

My rating: 9/10. Or maybe even 9.5? Very good stuff.

I searched out this book on the recommendation of Claire at The Captive Reader, and I am ever so pleased that I did. It was a most delightful read during my recent trip to “The Coast” – Interior British Columbia code for “The Lower Mainland” or “Vancouver”, for you non-Canadians and Easterners. (For of course most of Canada is East of B.C., something we like to smugly tease our friends from Alberta about as they go on about “The West thinks…” this and that, though they rather rudely reply with comments to the effect that the Rocky Mountains were put there for a reason, to keep the eccentric inhabitants of B.C. safely segregated from the rest of Canada!)

My daughter was attending a dance intensive and working with a choreographer; I spent a fair bit of time parked outside her venue waiting for the brief breaks which required sporadic maternal nurturing in the area of rides back to the hotel for showers, food, band aids and sympathy. She was, as happens every summer, feeling the pain of strenuous dancing after relaxing a bit too much over the previous month of home-studio summer break, and, yes, the maternal words “I told you so!” did leave my lips occasionally, but she easily ducked under them – water off a duck’s sweaty little back – we’ve been doing this a long, long time and we both know our roles inside and out and could run this perennial dialogue in our sleep!

The Benefactress was a perfect car-in-parking-lot and hotel room read; just engrossing enough that it was easy to re-enter at a moment’s notice and just complex enough that I could happily mull it over as I crouched meekly in the darkest corner of the dance space waiting for my cues to videotape the completed choreo as it progressed.

I am feeling a bit behind on reviews this week – a minor bobbling as I reach to attain my self-imposed goals. I spent way too much time reading, and driving – the trip to the coast, one-way, takes a good seven hours, not counting stops to refuel and stretch our car-cramped legs. Time out to visit a few secondhand bookstores in the towns we pass through is built into our itinerary; my daughter is the perfect travelling and book-browsing companion and I am relishing this year in her company; our next-to-last dance season together before she moves on to the bigger world of college and work and her ensuing “adult” life.

We’re back home now, with a stack of new-to-us books which I’m gleefully looking forward to exploring and talking about, so I’m going to cheat a bit on this review and refer you straight to Claire. Her take on The Benefactress is spot-on; I don’t feel like I could add to it in any way except to repeat that I loved this book and it was well worth seeking out.  Very highly recommended.

The Benefactress Review from The Captive Reader

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