Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth von Arnim’

I have only two books yet to read to meet the 2014 Century of Books goal – one for 1933 and one for 1983 – so it looks like (fates allowing) I will be finishing it under my personal deadline of December 31st – for a bit there I had my doubts! Then it’ll be back to reading-at-random, and I have a rather nice must-find/must-read list developing. Loads of memoirs and biographies, and of course a goodly smattering of mid-20th Century middlebrow fiction, as well as some promising 19th Century things.

Without further ado, here’s another assortment of opinions and summations on Century books needing reviews to qualify them for the project. Abandoning all attempts at themed presentation, and in no particular order, just as they come off the pile. The scanner is on for cover pictures, and here we go.

the motive on record dell shannon 1982 001The Motive on Record by Dell Shannon ~ 1982. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1982. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 7/10

A fairly standard police procedural by the prolific Elizabeth Linington, who penned something like 40 murder investigation novels featuring Lieutenant Luis Mendoza of the Los Angeles Police Department. She started with these in 1960; The Motive on Record is (I believe) number 33 or thereabouts. (She also wrote numerous murder/suspense novels under her own name, as well as under a second pseudonym, Lesley Egan.)

The books follow a sequential, chronological pattern, though it seems to me as though time perhaps works a bit differently in Shannon’s fictional world, for though 22 years of “real time” have passed between Mendoza’s first appearance and this book, he seems to have aged hardly at all, and his wee children whom I remember from much earlier books are still very young. If I really cared I would investigate further as to whether this tale was supposed to be set in the 1980s when it was published, or if it is meant to be set back in the 1960s. It reads like a book from an earlier era than the 80s, though some of the slang the author uses seems to place it later. For example, much offhand talk about “f*gs” in reference to homosexual men. Curious and repellant from a 2014 standard, I found, much as I like this writer in a general way.

Anyway, Mendoza and his fellow LAPD investigators tackle an ambitious number of suspicious deaths and other criminal activities. A murderous child rapist stalks a peaceful neighbourhood, an elderly woman and two children are found slumped dead in a church pew, an elderly fortune teller catches a knife to the chest, a missing drug dealer shows up on (not in) an elevator, a quiet postal worker turns up naked and dead behind a warehouse though his half-empty letter basket has been neatly returned to the mail hub, Vietnamese immigrants fall fatally afoul of their neighbours due to different dietary customs, and a clever pair of robbers successfully scoop several theatres’ door receipts on their busiest nights. And more.

All of the problems are eventually solved; just another few weeks down at the station…

Mendoza’s “quirks” include a customized Ferrari which he drives to work, and a quartet of Siamese cats, as well as a palatial dwelling outside of the city, complete with a small flock of grass-controlling sheep (the Five Graces) and ponies for the children.

Nasty murders aside, this is a mild sort of thing for the genre. Probably most appealing to those who’ve started out at the beginning of the sequence; much of the narrative assumes a prior acquaintance with the main characters.

the silk vendetta victoria holt 1987 001The Silk Vendetta by Victoria Holt ~ 1987. This edition: Doubleday, 1987. Hardcover. 345 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

An utterly stereotypical gothic romance concerning a young woman with mysterious antecedents living in a stately English home.

Beautiful Lenore lives with her grandmother in a separate suite of rooms in Silk House, home base of the wealthy silk manufacturer-merchant family, the Sallongers. Grandmother designs dresses, while Lenore shares a schoolroom and meals with the Sallonger daughters, though the servants sneer at her relentlessly, and the family matriarch obviously despises her. She’s definitely not viewed as an equal to the “young ladies”, but neither is she a servant. What’s it all about, I’m sure we’re meant to wonder. No points for figuring out that “someone” was begotten on the wrong side of the blankets, as it were. Or is she really legitimate? A fortune may ride on the answer…

Both Sallonger sons are attracted to beautiful Lenore, with very different motives towards her. The obligatory near-rape scene pays homage to the gothic novel tradition, as does the doomed marriage Lenore undertakes, before finding herself a safe haven enclosed by muscular manly arms.

I’m rather ashamed to say I read this with no qualms at all; it’s utter crap but also acceptably diverting, for those times when one doesn’t want to have one’s intellect or emotions ruffled. The writing is quite decent for this sort of thing, though the plot is completely standard issue. To be read on auto-pilot, while sipping a soothing cup of tea after a tiresome day. If all else fails, you can claim you’re reading it ironically, or perhaps just doing “research” for your book blog…

The honest verdict? Not particularly recommended. There’s better out there. (But in a pinch it would suffice.)

love elizabeth von arnim 1925 001Love by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1925. This edition: Virago, 1988. Softcover. ISBN: 0-86068-941-7. 408 pages.

My rating: 9.75/10

One of von Arnim’s “serious” novels, and one which deserves a much more detailed discussion. I suspect I’ll be returning to it in future.

Middle-aged widow Catherine attracts the besotted notice of much-younger Christopher. He proposes marriage, to the dismay of everyone in their joint circles, and Catherine eventually accepts.

The question at the heart of the novel why is it completely acceptable for a very young woman to be married to a much older man (vis-à-vis Catherine’s own 19-year-old daughter’s recent marriage to a 49-year-old clergyman) and so socially dire for the opposite to be true.

Catherine’s second marriage soon encounters rocky ground, and, as she desperately tries to keep up a youthful appearance both for her husband’s and her own sake, much deep discussion on the nature of “Love” itself ensues. A favourite topic of von Arnim’s, and as seriously treated here as it was frivolously mauled about in The Enchanted April.

The ending is one of the best I’ve yet read by this particular writer; she doesn’t let us down as she sometimes does with her romantically tidy conclusions, but gives us something to consider most thoughtfully.

jalna mazo de la roche 1927 001Jalna by Mazo de la Roche ~ 1927. This edition: Macmillan, 1977. Hardcover. ISBN: 333-02528-8. 290 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

This dramatically romantic novel by a young Canadian writer won a literary prize of $10,000 upon its publication nearly a century ago: an astonishing amount for the time, equivalent to something like $132,000 in today’s currency. (I looked that bit up using a handy-dandy inflation-indexed currency converter I found online.)

Spurred on by her success, Mazo de la Roche went on to write another fifteen Ontario-set installments in the Whiteoaks family saga, creating something of a literary cottage industry of sequential books, assorted editions and collections, and theatrical, radio and filmed productions for the next fifty years.

I was well aware of this novel and its reputation as an iconic bit of literary Canadiana, but I hadn’t actually read it until this year.

My verdict: I’m not stacking up the other 15 on my night table for essential reading, though I might possibly poke my nose into another one if the mood feels right. I do have a number of them stashed away, found at a library book sale some years ago. I gave them to my mother, and she returned them with not much comment, which should have been a bit of a tip-off.

No hurry on the others, though. Jalna was not particularly compelling. In fact, only okayish is as far as I’m willing to commit myself on this one.

The plot in a nutshell:  Wealthy matriarch Adeline Whiteoak is approaching her 100th birthday, and her various offspring and descendants circle round her angling for her slightly senile blessing.

One grandson unpopularily marries a local girl, by-blow of  the man who once unsuccessfully courted one of Adeline’s daughters, while another brings home an American bluestocking. Both brides soon come to think that perhaps they have chosen the wrong brothers. The eldest of Adeline’s grandsons, broodingly charismatic, ceaselessly womanizing and still-single Renny, catches the eye of the American wife, while her spouse in turn dallies with his brother’s bride. Much chewing of the scenery ensues, helped along by the unmarried members of the family, Adeline’s two elderly sons and her much-past-her-prime passive-aggressive daughter.

Absolute soap opera. Think a low-rent Gone With the Wind, sans Civil War and southern drawls and a horribly likeable heroine, but with similar over-the-top romantic heart-throbbings and dirty little secrets. (Perhaps not really the best comparison, but it was what popped into my mind. It’s not really like GWTW at all. Perhaps Mazo de la Roche does stand alone.)

And there’s an elderly parrot, and a cheeky young boy, to provide much-needed levity, though not enough to ultimately save this overwrought thing from itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Getting ready to unfurl - leaf buds at University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, late February, 2014.

Getting ready to unfurl – leaf buds at University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, late February, 2014.

Well, here we are at the end of March, with the year one quarter over, and there is a largish stack of books read in January-February-March sitting here and nagging at my conscience. They all deserve some sort of mention, ideally a post each all to themselves, but with spring coming and longer daylight hours and some serious gardening projects coming up (meaning somewhat less computer time for me – which is by and large a good thing – hurray!) I know that I will not get to them all.

So I think a series of round up posts is in order, to temporarily clear my desk and my conscience, and to allow me to shelve these ones and recreate a new stack over the next few months, because that pattern or reading/posting is inevitable, it seems.

I’ve been considering how best to present these (there are quite a few) and have sorted them very loosely into sort-of-related groupings. Here’s the first lot, then.

All four of these particular books are linked by general era – just before, during and just after the Great War, and by their vivid reflection of the times they are set in. From playful (Christopher and Columbus) to sincere (The Green Bay Tree and The Home-Maker) to bizarre (Her Father’s Daughter), all help to fill in background details against which to set other books, and all are engrossing fictions in their own disparate ways.

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Not my copy - I have a much more recent Virago - but a nice early issue dust jacket depiction.

Not my copy – I have a much more recent Virago – but a nice early issue dust jacket depiction too good to not share.

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1919. This edition: Virago, 1994. Paperback. ISBN: 1-85381-748-1. 500 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Charming and playful, with a serious undertone regarding wartime attitudes to “enemy aliens”, set as it is in the early years of the Great War, in England and America.

Their names were really Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas; but they decided, as they sat huddled together in a corner of the second-class deck of the American liner St. Luke, and watched the dirty water of the Mersey slipping past and the Liverpool landing-stage disappearing into mist, and felt that it was comfortless and cold, and knew they hadn’t got a father or a mother, and remembered that they were aliens, and realized that in front of them lay a great deal of gray, uneasy, dreadfully wet sea, endless stretches of it, days and days of it, with waves on top of it to make them sick and submarines beneath it to kill them if they could, and knew that they hadn’t the remotest idea, not the very remotest, what was before them when and if they did get across to the other side, and knew that they were refugees, castaways, derelicts, two wretched little Germans who were neither really Germans nor really English because they so unfortunately, so complicatedly were both,—they decided, looking very calm and determined and sitting very close together beneath the rug their English aunt had given them to put round their miserable alien legs, that what they really were, were Christopher and Columbus, because they were setting out to discover a New World.

Total digression – check out the paragraph above. It is ONE sentence. Thank you, E von A, because now I don’t feel quite so bad about my own rambling tendencies!

Ahem. Back to our story. To condense completely, the two Annas, having been rejected by their English connections, are sent off to America (this is before the Americans have joined in the war) to be settled upon some distant acquaintances there. Everything goes awry, but luckily the two girls – they are twins, by the way – have gained a sponsor/mentor/protector in the person of Mr. Twist, a fellow passenger, who just happens to be wealthy young man with a strong maternal streak.

The three adventure across America – the twins getting into continual scrapes and Mr. Twist rescuing them from themselves – eventually ending in California, where they acquire a chaperone and a Chinese cook, and decide to open an English-style teashop. It is a blazing success, but not in the way they had planned…

Very much in the style of The Enchanted April, more than slightly farcical, with romantically tidy endings for all.

Internet reviews abound, and this is happily available at Project Gutenberg:  Christopher and Columbus

her father's daughter gene stratton porterHer Father’s Daughter by Gene Stratton-Porter ~ 1921. This edition: Doubleday, 1921. Hardcover. 486 pages.

My rating: 2/10

Talk about contrast between books of a similar vintage, between this one and the previous Elizabeth von Arnim confection. This next book was a shocker, and I disliked it increasingly intensely, forcing myself to keep reading because I was determined to see where the author was going to go with it. (Nowhere very good, as it turns out.)

I already had an uneasy relationship with Gene Stratton-Porter, and though I’d been forewarned by other reviewers about the deeply racist overtones of Her Father’s Daughter, I wasn’t prepared to have the “race issue” as such a major plot point.

Two teenage sisters are orphaned. The elder sister spends their joint income on herself, on her lavish wardrobe and gadding about, while the younger sister is left to her own dismal devices.

Luckily sister # 2, our heroine, Linda, is a young lady of vast resource and apparently limitless talents. She pseudonymously writes and illustrates popular articles on California wild plants and flowers, excels at her high school courses, and has attained the selfless dedication of the family cook/housekeeper, a brogue-inflicted Irishwoman, one Katy. (GS-P’s dialect mangling reaches new heights in this book.)

Linda also tootles about in her late father’s car, a Stutz Bear Cat, driving everywhere fast, and as it goes without saying, better than all the boys. There’s nothing this girl doesn’t excel at, and her acquaintance ooh and ah over her many accomplishments, and chuck their devotion at her feet. She’s ultimately so all-round darned smart and gorgeous and generally desirable – especially once she bullies her sister into ponying up some of Daddy’s cash so she can buy a few new dresses – that she attracts three suitors, two of them older men, and one a high school classmate.

Which brings us to the race angle. For in the high school class the teenage suitor attends, there is a Japanese boy, who is at the top of the class despite all efforts of Linda’s Boyfriend to displace Japanese Guy. So Linda wracks her brains to find a way to help Boyfriend beat “the Jap”. Says she:

 “They are quick; oh! they are quick; and they know from their cradles what it is that they have in the backs of their heads. We are not going to beat them driving them to Mexico or to Canada, or letting them monopolize China. That is merely temporizing. That is giving them fertile soil on which to take the best of their own and the level best of ours, and by amalgamating the two, build higher than we ever have. There is just one way in all this world that we can beat Eastern civilization and all that it intends to do to us eventually. The white man has dominated by his color so far in the history of the world, but it is written in the Books that when the men of color acquire our culture and combine it with their own methods of living and rate of production, they are going to bring forth greater numbers, better equipped for the battle of life, than we are. When they have got our last secret, constructive or scientific, they will take it, and living in a way that we would not, reproducing in numbers we don’t, they will beat us at any game we start, if we don’t take warning while we are in the ascendancy, and keep there.”

And this:

“Take them as a race, as a unit—of course there are exceptions, there always are—but the great body of them are mechanical. They are imitative. They are not developing anything great of their own in their own country. They are spreading all over the world and carrying home sewing machines and threshing machines and automobiles and cantilever bridges and submarines and aeroplanes—anything from eggbeaters to telescopes. They are not creating one single thing. They are not missing imitating everything that the white man can do anywhere else on earth. They are just like the Germans so far as that is concerned.”

And then this:

“Linda,” said the boy breathlessly, “do you realize that you have been saying ‘we’? Can you help me? Will you help me?”

“No,” said Linda, “I didn’t realize that I had said ‘we.’ I didn’t mean two people, just you and me. I meant all the white boys and girls of the high school and the city and the state and the whole world. If we are going to combat the ‘yellow peril’ we must combine against it. We have got to curb our appetites and train our brains and enlarge our hearts till we are something bigger and finer and numerically greater than this yellow peril. We can’t take it and pick it up and push it into the sea. We are not Germans and we are not Turks. I never wanted anything in all this world worse than I want to see you graduate ahead of Oka Sayye. And then I want to see the white boys and girls of Canada and of England and of Norway and Sweden and Australia, and of the whole world doing exactly what I am recommending that you do in your class and what I am doing personally in my own. I have had Japs in my classes ever since I have been in school, but Father always told me to study them, to play the game fairly, but to BEAT them in some way, in some fair way, to beat them at the game they are undertaking.”

Well, Japanese Guy soon realizes that something is up, because suddenly Boyfriend is pulling ahead in Algebra. (Or was it Trigonometry?) All because Linda is now helping Boyfriend study and has given him many words of encouragement. And then Linda and Boyfriend start to suspect that Japenese Guy is not a mere teenager like themselves, but an older man who is dying his hair and using cosmetics to make himself look younger. And then the gloves are off on both sides.

Subplots concerning sister and the inheritance and a friend who is an aspiring architect and more skulduggery concerning both of those scenarios, with the whole thing ending in a murder attempt by Japanese Guy upon Boyfriend, and his (Japanese Guy’s) death at the hand of Linda’s Irish servant Katy. Luckily killing a dirty yellow Jap is all in a day’s work in this neck of the woods:

“Judge Whiting, I had the axe round me neck by the climbin’ strap, and I got it in me fingers when we heard the crature comin’, and against his chist I set it, and I gave him a shove that sint him over. Like a cat he was a-clingin’ and climbin’, and when I saw him comin’ up on us with that awful face of his, I jist swung the axe like I do when I’m rejoocin’ a pace of eucalyptus to fireplace size, and whack! I took the branch supportin’ him, and a dome’ good axe I spoiled din’ it.”

Katy folded her arms, lifted her chin higher than it ever had been before, and glared defiance at the Judge.

“Now go on,” she said, “and decide what ye’ll do to me for it.”

The Judge reached over and took both Katherine O’Donovan’s hands in a firm grip.

“You brave woman!” he said. “If it lay in my power, I would give you the Carnegie Medal. In any event I will see that you have a good bungalow with plenty of shamrock on each side of your front path, and a fair income to keep you comfortable when the rheumatic days are upon you.”

By the end Linda has nabbed control of the family fortune, the sister has received a severe humbling, and the architect friend wins the prize. (And Japanese Guy is dead and vanished, his body mysteriously spirited away by “confederates”, adding a strange conspiracy theory sort of twist to the saga. All I could think was, “All that for academic standing in a high school class? Really? Really, Gene Stratton-Porter???!”)

Linda predictably finds true love, not with Teenage Boyfriend but with Older Man with Lots of Money and A Very Nice House built up amongst the wildflowers in Linda’s favourite roaming ground. How very handy.

Trying to think what I left this unsettling bit of vintage paranoia two points for. I guess because I did keep reading. But it was thoroughly troubling from start to finish on a multitude of levels – the racist thing being only one of the points that jarred – and even the gushing descriptions of California flora didn’t really salvage it.

Not recommended, unless you are a Gene Stratton-Porter completest. Not a very pretty tale, but if you wish to see for yourself, here it is at Project Gutenberg: Her Father’s Daughter

Will I read more books by this writer? Yes, very probably. For the curiousity factor, if nothing else, because these were hugely popular in their time, and that tells an awful lot (pun intended) about the general attitude of the populace who found these appealing, and they do much to enrich our background picture of an era.

the green bay tree louis bromfield 001The Green Bay Tree by Louis Bromfield ~ 1924. This edition: Pocket Books, 1941. Paperback. 356 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Moving on just a year or two, to this family saga by American writer Louis Bromfield, who served in the French Army during the First World War, and subsequently lived in France for thirteen years, before resettling in the United States and dedicating himself to the improvement of American agriculture by establishing the famous Malabar Farm in Ohio.

Bromfield was a prolific and exceedingly popular writer of his time, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his third novel, Early Autumn. 1924’s The Green Bay Tree was his first published work, and it was immediately successful, paving the way for his stellar future writing career.

This is a book which fits neatly into the family saga genre, focussing on one main character, the wealthy and strong-willed Julia Thane, but surrounding her with a constellation of competently drawn characters all carrying on full lives of their own, which we glimpse and appreciate as they bump up against Julia in her blazing progress from the American family mansion surrounded by steel mills to the secluded house in France, where she settles with her secret illegitimate child and remakes her life very much on her terms.

Bromfield, in addition to creating a strong female lead and allowing her much scope for personal activity, also has a sociopolitical angle which he persistently presents, in the major sideplot of ongoing labour unrest in the steel mills surrounding the Shane family mansion, and widening the focus to the greater situation right across industrial America, with the hard-fought battle for workers’ rights and labour unions, and the rise of Russian Communism and its ripple effect which spreads across the globe.

Late in the story Lily Shane is caught up in the German invasion of France at the start of the Great War, and though this section is reasonably well-depicted, it was a bit too conveniently rounded off, with the author fast-forwarding to the end of the war with very few details after Lily’s one big dramatic scene.

It took me a chapter or two to fully enter into the story, but once my attention was caught I cheerfully went along for the ride. Bromfield is a smooth writer, and though this occasionally whispers “first novel” in slight awkwardness of phrasing and sketchiness of scene, by and large it is a nicely polished example of its type.

Bromfield seems to be something of a forgotten author nowadays, which is a shame, as his novels are certainly as engrossing (if not more so) than many of those now heading the contemporary bestseller lists. More on Bromfield in the future, I promise.

the home-maker dorothy canfield fisherThe Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield ~ 1924. This edition: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1924. Hardcover. 320 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Saving the best for last, here is a book I had been looking forward to for quite some time, after seeing it featured on the Persephone Press reprint list, and reading such stellar reviews by so many book bloggers.

It was very good indeed, though I found that the ending was vaguely unsatisfactory to me personally, involving as it did an unstated conspiracy between several of the characters to continue with a serious misrepresentation in order to allow a societal blind eye being turned to an unconventional family arrangement. I think I would have preferred an open discussion, rather than a sweeping under the rug sort of conclusion. But that’s just me… This novel must have been rather hard to round off neatly once the author had taken it as far as she thought her audience would swallow, and she decidedly had made her point and was likely ready to move on.

An ineffectually dreamy man labors on at an uncongenial job, while his wife keeps the house polished to the highest standard possible, and receives accolades from all levels of the social hierarchy of the small New England town where the family lives for her obvious achievement of wifely and motherly perfect devotion. Meanwhile the family’s three children are showing very obvious symptoms of psychological distress: excessive shyness (the oldest girl), a perennially wonky digestion (middle boy), and determined naughtiness (youngest boy).

Husband loses his job and on the way home to break the news has a terrible “accident”; he ends up in a wheelchair and the wife forays forth into the working world. And wouldn’t you know it? Suddenly everyone is much happier, and the children’s issues start to resolve “all on their own”. But the husband is healing much more fully than at first it was feared. How will this all end, in 1920s’ small town America, where gender roles are by and large carved in granite?

A lovely book, and extremely readable for its keen examination of the marital relationship it portrays, and its touching details of family life and the woes and joys of childhood.

Where it lost its few points with me was in the unlikely perfection of the wife’s experience in the working world; she waltzed right in and was promoted up the department store ladder of responsibility remarkably easily; even allowing for her detail-freak perfectionism her immediate grasp of her new role in life was a bit hard to swallow, as was her sudden relaxation regarding less than stellar household cleanliness. And I was uncomfortable with the “easy” ending, as I mentioned earlier.

I’ve read a number of other Dorothy Canfield Fisher novels, and they share this same occasional over-simplification as the author hammers her point home – she was something of a crusader in the area of improving family life and giving a fuller and freer role to children – but as she is also a marvelous story teller we can allow her this tiny tendency, I think.

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Of the four books in this grouping, if I were going to recommend one as a should-read, it would definitely be The Home-Maker.

Followed by Christopher and Columbus, because it is utterly charming, if a bit silly in its premises and occasionally rather wordy. The Green Bay Tree is a perfectly acceptable drama, though nothing extraordinary. As for Her Father’s Daughter, consider yourself forewarned!

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the princess priscilla's fortnight elizabeth von arnim 001The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1905. This edition: Smith, Elder & Co., 1906. Hardcover. 329 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Her Grand Ducal Highness the Princess Priscilla of Lothen-Kunitz was up to the age of twenty-one a most promising young lady. She was not only poetic in appearance beyond the habit of princesses but she was also of graceful and appropriate behaviour. She did what she was told; or, more valuable, she did what was expected of her without being told. Her father, in his youth and middle age a fiery man, now an irritable old gentleman who liked good food and insisted on strictest etiquette, was proud of her on those occasions when she happened to cross his mind. Her mother, by birth an English princess of an originality uncomfortable and unexpected in a royal lady that continued to the end of her life to crop up at disconcerting moments, died when Priscilla was sixteen. Her sisters, one older and one younger than herself, were both far less pleasing to look upon than she was, and much more difficult to manage; yet each married a suitable prince and each became a credit to her House, while as for Priscilla,—well, as for Priscilla, I propose to describe her dreadful conduct.

German Princess Priscilla is finally facing an appropriately marriageable suitor, a personable prince with a suitably secure income, and all that is left is to arrange the formal engagement. But the princess is suffering from what would vulgarly be called “cold feet”, so she dreams up a plan to escape from her overly lavish courtly surroundings, “where one is never alone”, by taking up an incognito life in an English country cottage with her personal mentor, the elderly ducal librarian, who sympathizes with Priscilla’s secret desire to pursue the beautiful simple life.

Bribing one of Princess Priscilla’s maids to go on ahead and meet them in Cologne, prefatory to travelling through France and crossing the Channel, Priscilla and Herr Fritzing disguise themselves in old clothes, scarves and veils and depart the castle on bicycles. Luck smiles on them; they make a clean getaway, and eventually fetch up in the English countryside, where they turn a sober village upside down by their joint combination of well-meaning naïvety and high-handed snobbishness.

Two young men fall immediately head over heels in love with the oblivious princess, two households are bitterly disrupted, and then the cheerful farce of this improbable adventure turns even more sober when Priscilla’s thoughtlessness and misplaced generosity causes a hitherto honest young woman to turn thief through irresistible temptation, and an elderly woman to be murdered for the money Priscilla has given her.

Once luck deserts the two idealistic German vagabonds, it does so with a vengeance. Their emotional maid, deeply resentful of her lowly position and the assumption that she will take on menial tasks unthought-of in castle days, blackmails Herr Fritzing for his last penny. The indignant mothers of Priscilla’s two local suitors descend upon the household with their respectively outraged and tearful maternal woes, and the local tradespeople send in their bills and refuse to extend any more credit to the suddenly-beleaguered establishment.

Luckily this is by way of being a fairy-tale-ish confection, and a bold rescuer appears from an unexpected direction. Priscilla comes away from her rural fortnight a much sadder and wiser young woman, and the obvious morals are writ large in bold letters all over the concluding chapters.

This playful story with a semi-serious message is a very readable light novel, something along the lines of The Enchanted April and The Jasmine Farm in tone, with a similarly neat and tidy satisfactory ending. Perhaps not one of von Arnim’s best and most complex works, but more than acceptable for cheerful diversion, and charmingly witty, with the author getting her usual digs in at the Germanic patriarchy’s tendency to squelch their women into an acceptable meekness.

Here is Princess Priscilla at Project Gutenberg, and here are several other favorable reviews:

The Captive Reader ~ The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf ~ The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

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the enchanted april elizabeth von arnim 001The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim ~ 1922. This edition: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Afterword by Terrence de Vere White. Paperback. ISBN: 0-671-86864-0. 316 pages.

My rating: 6/10. I’ve now read this twice, plus watched the lush 1992 movie. Still my least favourite von Arnim, of the three I’ve read.

The others:

*****

I guess the thing to remember with this one, and the thing I had to keep reminding myself of, was that this fluffy little tale is supposed to be a romantic comedy. Or is it? Away from the comical sunniness there are pockets of dark shadow. The decided element of genuine sadness in the four heroines’ circumstances, especially during the first part of the book, jarred with the eventual descent of the tale into musical comedy style farce.

I honestly could not get a true sense of which goal the author was aiming at. There are certainly times when an author, especially one of proven calibre of Elizabeth von Arnim, can successfully blend serious social commentary, light satire, and downright silliness, but I don’t feel that von Arnim pulled it off in this case.

I realize that this book has a tremendously strong following, and I will temper my criticism to say that it was a decent enough read for its genre, which I’m pegging at romantic comedy. Or perhaps serio-comedy? It wasn’t ultimately at all dark, though there were clues early on that it might go that way. If anything, I wish the author would spent more time in the darkness with her creations. I’d have liked her to maintain the initial tone set with the first sensitive depictions of the emotionally troubled lives of Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot, which made their yearning for an obligation-free (and husband-less) month in the Italian sun so moving. And the solitary Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline – what were the real back stories there? It didn’t feel like we ever really got a handle on those, making their eventual epiphanies on the terraces of San Salvatore contrived to the extreme.

The Enchanted April felt to me to be just a little bit off; I was never quite able to close my inner critic’s eyes enough to wholeheartedly accept the inconsistencies and silly situations of the plot, though many sections of the book were immensely enjoyable to read, despite the cringe-engendering gushings of Lotty once she’s crossed the Italian border. “Tub of love”? Oh, Elizabeth! I wish you’d spared me that!

*****

It began in a Woman’s Club in London on a February afternoon – an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon – when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking-room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this:

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.  Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April.  Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

That was its conception; yet, as in the case of many another, the conceiver was unaware of it at the moment.

So entirely unaware was Mrs. Wilkins that her April for that year had then and there been settled for her that she dropped the newspaper with a gesture that was both irritated and resigned, and went over to the window and stared drearily out at the dripping street.

Not for her were mediaeval castles, even those that are specially described as small.  Not for her the shores in April of the Mediterranean, and the wisteria and sunshine.  Such delights were only for the rich.  Yet the advertisement had been addressed to persons who appreciate these things, so that it had been, anyhow addressed too to her, for she certainly appreciated them; more than anybody knew; more than she had ever told.  But she was poor.

***

She turned away from the window with the same gesture of mingled irritation and resignation with which she had laid down The Times, and crossed the room towards the door with the intention of getting her mackintosh and umbrella and fighting her way into one of the overcrowded omnibuses and going to Shoolbred’s on her way home and buying some soles for Mellersh’s dinner – Mellersh was difficult with fish and liked only soles, except salmon – when she beheld Mrs. Arbuthnot, a woman she knew by sight as also living in Hampstead and belonging to the club, sitting at the table in the middle of the room on which the newspapers and magazines were kept, absorbed, in her turn, in the first page of The Times.

Mrs. Wilkins stops and strikes up a conversation with Mrs. Arbuthnot, and as they delicately sound each other out on the desirability of an Italian escapade, the small germ of an idea begins to form. Mrs. Wilkins has a small “nest egg” of ninety pounds; Mrs. Arbuthnot, though she doesn’t come right out and say it, is well-supplied with money by her husband, though she feels guilty about spending it on anything but “good works” – Mrs. Arbuthnot is a devotee of charities for the poor. Eventually the two decide to go ahead and contact the castle’s owner; they also advertise for two more women to share in the holiday, and when only two people respond, the party is made up.

So off to the small castle of San Salvatore in Italy go:

  • Mrs. Wilkins (Lotty) – seeking respite from her scornful husband, Mellersh, who feels that his wife has not exactly improved in the years since their marriage, and is becoming more odd and shy by the day, to the detriment to his flourishing occupation as a popular solicitor.
  • Mrs. Arbuthnot (Rose) – privately despairing that the love she and her husband once felt for each other is long gone, as they cannot agree on moral issues. Mr. Arbuthnot is the best-selling author (under a pseudonym) of salacious biographies of kings’ mistresses; Mrs. Arbuthnot is deeply religious and feels that she is being supported by “dirty” money, hence her many charitable works and contributions to the poor, as a form of penance.
  • Mrs. Fisher – an elderly wealthy widow, who is convinced that the world is a much more inferior place now than when she was a girl. Her father was a friend of many great literary men – Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson and the like – and she seeks a place of repose where she can sit alone without worrying about household cares, and remember the glorious past.
  • Lady Caroline Dester  – an extremely lovely, not-too-young socialite (though she’s the “baby” of the party, at twenty-eight) whose only current desire is to have a rest for a month far away from the demands of people who all want something from her – to look at her and talk to her, ask her for things and talk to her, and expect some sort of gracious response. Poor jaded Lady Caroline is at a point in her life where she has some serious decisions to make, including whether she is going to accept an important marriage proposal. A month among innocuous women who will not bother her will be a respite from her frantically hectic life.

As the four settle into their temporary holiday home and work out their relationships with their fellow escapees, they find that the glories of lovely San Salvatore are impacting their very souls in ways which no one could have anticipated.

Lotty spontaneously decides to invite her husband to join the party; Mr. Arbuthnot, ardently pursuing Lady Caroline, unexpectedly arrives without realizing his wife is in residence – Lotty and Rose had both been deliberately vague about their destination to their spouses; San Salvatore’s owner, Mr. Briggs, under the misconception that the gentle Mrs. Arbuthnot is a widow, and rather infatuated with her since their meeting to arrange the renting of the castle, decides to drop in for a “casual” visit. Needless to say, things begin to happen.

If you’ve not yet read the book, stop here. The next bit is addressed to those who’ve already experienced The Enchanted April, so if you haven’t you will be lost among the references. There also may be spoilers!

*****

Things I Really Didn’t Like About This Book:

  • The gushing tone once the magic of the romantic setting started doing its work. “Tub of love” – ack! Made me quiver all over, and not in a happy way, people.
  • The parody of the Italian servants. Was that really necessary? It wasn’t that funny.
  • Mellersh’s reason for joining the party was understandable (hoping to get up close and personal to high society Lady Caroline), but it bothered me a whole big bunch that his attitude towards his wife changed so drastically once he saw on what good terms she was with Lady C. Did she have no other qualities than as a “connection” to someone he was wanting to snag as a client? And his “cute” habit of fondly pulling her ears – oh, please. That was just lame. Ugh. Lotty, oh, Lotty – your poor dear thing – words fail me.
  • Frederick (Mr. Arbuthnot) – gee, where to start? He stumbled into the mix because he was pursuing another woman. Ding ding ding – that was more warning bells going off.
  • Mr. Briggs – wow – the epitome of shallow. He was instantly infatuated with Rose way back in London for her Madonna-like aura and appearance; one glimpse at the even more lovely Lady Caroline and he dropped allegiance to Rose in a heartbeat and transferred over to her companion.
  • Lady Caroline herself. Let’s see. Strange man you’ve never met before falls in love with your profile, so you decide to marry him, though one of the main reasons for your month-long Italian retreat is to mull over a proposal from another man, who now gets wiped off the list of spousal possibilities with nary a backward glance. Umm, okay. That was a deeply thought out decision, and a great thing to base your future happiness on. (Don’t lose your looks, Lady C.)
  • My biggest issue was how the author pushed the whole “pairing off” scenario so strongly. The husbands were all impressed by their new, improved wives. In Frederick’s case, I forgive him fairly easily, as Rose was the one being rather unreasonable in their relationship. But Mellersh is still a jerk. And a deep-dyed snob, and manipulative. Why couldn’t he change? And Lady Caroline and Briggs – maybe just a wee bit contrived? Just maybe? I couldn’t really get any sort of reading on why Briggs would be a grand catch, unless  of course you call hereditary castle ownership an accomplishment.

Things I Quite Liked About This Book:

  • The initial premise, about the escape from dreary London to an enchanted Italian castle. This is probably why this book has garnered its fandom. Oh yes, take me with you!
  • The character portraits of the four leading ladies were a lot of fun. Lotty, so shy and repressed, and so quick to respond to the magic of San Salvatore and blossom into confidence and warmth. Rose, so sincerely good, but so quick on the draw to respond to Mrs. Fisher’s bossy way of assuming hostess status. I loved the mealtime scenes with the counter-offers of passing the goodies and pouring the tea. Mrs. Fisher was so selfishly self-assured – her initial snobbish audaciousness was a treat to eavesdrop on. Lady Caroline – oh, poor lady! – so be so continually misunderstood because of the elegant shape of your face and the melodious sounds of your voice! (Though I felt like she perhaps should have been spanked more as a child, or at least told “no” occasionally by her adoring family; it might have improved her entitled attitude.)
  • The word pictures of the settings, from the dreary London women’s club to glorious San Salvatore. I could easily picture the sequence of bloom and the fragrances wafting about the terraced gardens, though I suspect a reader with less horticultural experience might not get the full picture; it’s basically a listing of flowers. Unless you know nicotiana, or jasmine, or stocks, how could you imagine the glories of their evening aromas? It felt very much like the castle bits were written from life, sitting on the terraces and taking notes, which turned out to be the case, according to the afterword. Elizabeth von Arnim based San Salvatore on a very real Portofino castello, which she had rented with a friend as an April of 1921 writer’s retreat.
  • The happy ending. I know, I know – I moaned on about that aspect earlier. But I did appreciate that both of the troubled marriages were given new life. (I’m all for happy marriages, though not for either spouse being continually downtrodden or repressed to “make it work”.) And of course the new Mrs. Briggs can always invite her friends back to the castle for immersion in the Tub of Love when reality sets in too harshly once again!

Well, there’s my take on this most popular and perennially in-print (and on-stage – it’s an exceedingly popular play among amateur theatrical companies, too) von Arnim. I’m still very much looking forward to reading the rest of her novels, an enjoyment which will I anticipate will stretch ahead for the next few years as I slowly track them all down. No library borrowings here; I’m intending to purchase them all sight unseen, because I’m confident that they will be worthy of owning, even if bits of them occasionally annoy!

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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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