Elizabeth von Arnim, Vera (#BookReview)

After a run of tough reads in 2021, my reading group wanted something gentler, so I suggested that for our “classic” we do a novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, whose works I’ve loved for their pointed wit, delightful humour, and astute commentary on marriage and the relationship between men and women. As is my wont, I nominated one from my TBR shelves, Vera. To my delight, they agreed.

Then, before reading it, I decided to remind myself of von Arnim’s life, so I read Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim (my review). Imagine my horror when, two-thirds through, Carey wrote that Vera was her “darkest” novel, “a haunting portrait of psychological tyranny”. What? Too late by then, but I did hope my reading group would, one, forgive me, and, two, not be turned off von Arnim. As it turned out, all those who attended the meeting liked the book and pronounced it “not too dark”. Was I pleased!

Nonetheless, Vera is a dark novel, one that reminded me of a book written four decades later by Elizabeth Harrower, The watch tower (my review). Both novels are about narcissism and coercive control, about older men who marry and tyrannise vulnerable and inexperienced much younger women.

Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen”

When Vera was published, readers and reviewers were, says Carey, confused. How did “playful, witty Elizabeth von Arnim, author of light social comedies” become “a gothic writer of macabre tragedy”? Von Arnim was distressed but cousin Katherine Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, is reported to have said to her, on the appearance of a negative review in The Times Literary Supplement, “Of course my dear, when the critics are faced with Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen, they don’t know what to say.”

This is an apposite comment for a few reasons – besides its intention to reassure. Firstly, von Arnim pointedly has Lucy, our young wife, read Wuthering Heights even though husband Everard calls it “morbid”. It’s an effective allusion, given the darkness of Brontë’s novel and its focus on obsessive love. However, Murry’s comment also conveys something about the experience of reading this novel, because, while it is dark and distressing, it still bears von Arnim’s Austen-like light touch, and that, I think, is what my reading group appreciated.

By now, if you haven’t read it yourself, you may be wondering why this novel is called Vera when the two protagonists I’ve named are Lucy and Everard? So, let me do a quick plot summary.

The novel begins with 22-year-old Lucy Entwhistle leaning on the front gate of the house in Cornwall that she and her father had taken for the late summer. Her father has just died suddenly and Lucy is in shock. Into view comes another – apparently – grieving person, the mid-forties Everard Wemyss, whose wife Vera had died a week or so ago. Things, though, are not quite as they seem. A shadow hangs over Vera’s death, with a suggestion that it may not have been accidental but a suicide. Lucy, unfortunately, is naive and vulnerable, and despite the best efforts of her wise Aunt Dot, she is swept into marriage, with socially unacceptable haste. After the honeymoon, Everard takes her to his county mansion, “The Willows”, where Vera had died. He makes no attempt to change anything – expecting Lucy to sleep in the same bed Vera did, to occupy Vera’s sitting room, to have breakfast overlooking the flagstones onto which Vera had fallen (or jumped). Kind, head-over-heels-in-love Lucy does her best to justify Everard’s increasingly controlling behaviour but it dawns all too quickly that he expects nothing less than utter servitude . 

And so, Lucy, whose usual state had been one “of affection and confidence”, learns that the “scenes” that she hated could not be avoided “for no care, no caution would for ever be able to watch what she said, or did, or look, or equally important, what she didn’t say, or didn’t do, or didn’t look”. It leaves her “afraid with the most dismal foreboding, that someday after one of them, or in the middle of one of them, her nerve would give out and she would collapse. Collapse deplorably; into just something that howled and whimpered.”

Lucy starts to think kindly of this Vera she’d never met.

“It’s wonderful, wonderful … what love will do” (The doctor)

It’s grim, certainly, but this is Elizabeth von Arnim, so there’s humour – black comedy – here too. There are some truly funny scenes, particularly involving the poor servants for whom Everard has not one ounce of humanity. These servants only stay at “The Willows” because he is in town all week. They can manage his cruelly imperious ways from Friday night to Monday morning, because the wages were higher than any they’d heard of. (They probably had to be!)

So, here is a scene in which Everard confronts the parlourmaid about a missing button on a piano leg cover:

“What do you see?” he asked.
The parlourmaid was reluctant to say. What she saw was piano legs, but she felt that wasn’t the right answer.
“What do you not see?” Wemyss asked, louder.
This was much more difficult, because there were so many things she didn’t see; her parents, for example.
“Are you deaf, woman?” he enquired.
She knew the answer to that, and said it quickly.
“No sir,” she said.

And so it continues, but you get the gist. The scene is indicative of Wemyss’ extreme bullying behaviour, but you can’t help laughing while feeling for the poor parlourmaid.

This black humour is one of the things that kept me reading. Another was von Arnim’s writing. She has wonderful turns of phrase, such as this of Lucy reining in some disturbing thoughts: “Lucy made a violent lunge after her thoughts, and strangled them”.

Von Arnim is also an excellent satirist and ironist. Just look at the doctor’s statement above. He’s surprised and unsure about the marriage to Lucy but, well, look what love can do! Already, however, we are aware that his initial uncertainty is more than valid. One of the points Carey makes in her book is von Arnim’s disappointment in love and marriage. In her experience – including the marriage to Francis Russell which inspired this novel – men change as soon as they are married or, as the heady days of love wane. Vera is at the extreme, but not unbelievable, end of this disappointment.

Finally, there’s Jane Austen. Elizabeth von Arnim – and I’m not the first to say this – owes much to Austen. From my first Von Arnim, Austen’s wit and astute observation of human nature shone through. She nails the way humans think and behave with, sometimes, excruciating accuracy. But von Arnim’s style in Vera is not Austen’s. We don’t have Austen’s omniscient third person voice. Vera is told third person, but von Arnim uses that technique more common to modernists, the interior monologue, with the narrative perspective shifting between the main characters – Lucy, Everard and Lucy’s wonderful Aunt Dot. In fact, a few of the last chapters are with Aunt Dot as she comes head-to-head with Everard and learns just how right she had been to be concerned – but, well, look “what love will do”.

There’s more to discuss in this book. There’s Wemyss’ deeply creepy infantalisation of his 22-year-old wife, calling her “a good little girl” and “my very own baby”. There’s also his insistence that everything can be simplified to one right answer. Initially, the overwhelmed, grieving Lucy finds this comforting but, having grown up in an atmosphere of intellectual enquiry, she starts to not only think that such an attitude might “cut one off from growth” and “shut one in an isolation”, but to doubt “whether it was true that there was only one way looking at a thing” or “that his way was invariably the right way”.

Too soon after her death, Elizabeth von Arnim was relegated to the realms of light romantic comedy, but that denies their value, even when you look at her lighter works. However, when you add Vera to her oeuvre, you have a writer whose work must be seen as relevant now as it ever was.

Elizabeth von Arnim
London: Virago, 1983 (orig. pub. 1921)
ISBN: 9781844082810

Monday musings on Australian literature: Realism and Modernism

Now that’s an aspirational title for you, and one that I will not live up to in terms of expectations. However, I wanted to write something for Bill (The Australian Legend)’s AWW Gen 3 Week (Part 2). As its focus is, primarily, Realism and Modernism in Australian literature from post-WW1 to 1960, and, as my plan is to contribute a review of an Elizabeth Harrower novel, I figured I could leap into this Realism-Modernism murk and see what I could find!

Essentially, of course, most of us readers just want to read good books, and not worry too much about the trends and “isms” that the academics love, but it is sometimes interesting to think about them – at least a little. Bill has written clearly on the subject on his AWW Gen 3 page, so I’m just going to add a few thoughts and ideas that I’ve gleaned from around the place.

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse

Realism – social realism, which is really what we are talking about here – is fundamentally a sociopolitical movement which was concerned about the oppression of the working class by capitalist forces. Its drivers are social rather than psychological, group-focused rather than individual-based. It was the main fictional approach of the first half of the twentieth century, and was a driving feature of Australian literature of the 1920s to 1950s. Mena Calthorpe’s The dyehouse (my review), published in 1961 but set in the mid-1950s, is a good example. In my post, I noted that the characters are types, reflecting the various “players” in the worker-capitalist struggle, but are also authentic, psychologically real human beings which helps make it such a good read. There’s no escaping the fact, though, that Calthorpe’s intent is political.

Book cover

Modernism, on the other hand, focuses more on the individual – on, as Bill quotes, “decay and a growing alienation of the individual. The machinery of modern society is perceived as impersonal, capitalist, and antagonistic to the artistic impulse”. A significant exponent of modernism in Australia was Patrick White. A whole slew of Australian women writers are identified with Realism, but there’s also a good representation of them who worked in the Modernist style, such as Christina Stead, Eve Langley and Elizabeth Harrower (all of whom I’ve reviewed here.) Modernism, the theory goes I believe, eschewed realism.

Realism, or Modernism – or, both?

However, as with all things, real life doesn’t always suit theory, and writers, in particular, don’t always “know” that they are supposed fit the prescriptions of the theorists! So, it was with interest that I read an article about Elizabeth Harrower that discussed this very problem. The article, which appeared in Australian Literary Studies, 15 (3) 1992, is by Nicholas Mansfield, and is titled “‘The Only Russian in Sydney’: Modernism and Realism in The Watch Tower“. Mansfield opens with

Elizabeth Harrower The watch tower

In the post-war period, the dichotomy between Realism and Modernism seemed to summarise all the important rivalries in Australian fiction — nationalist enthusiasm and political responsibility lined up against cosmopolitan sophistication and formalist experimentation. Given the approximate and tendentious nature of the terms of this dichotomy, it was inevitable that writing that could not fall easily into one or other of its broad categories would be met with some uncertainty and perhaps eventually ignored. The aim of this article is to show how a novel which met such a fate, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, both discusses and defies the simple dichotomy that Australian literary critics in the 1960s were so keen to maintain as their paradigm.

It’s a long article, but the gist is that while there is a Realist aspect to Harrower’s novel – a study of power, and a quest for freedom – it is Modernist by refusing to “definitively explain the basis of power” and by refusing to rely on an “essential truth”, on, I suppose, an absolute reason or answer. These refusals “radically contradict the traditional purposes of Realism” which he called “the most social and rational of all literary modes”. Mansfield argues that

Harrower’s novel, like the work of Christina Stead before her and Helen Garner after her, attempted to subject the techniques and concerns of the traditional social novel — especially the question of the nature and function of domestic power — to the self-consciousness that modernism demanded, without giving in to the temptations of either formalist machismo or realist belligerence.

Mansfield believes, however, that because Harrower’s novel combined “Realist” issues with more “Modern” responses, it confounded critics of the time:

Harrower’s novel not only rejected the quest for essential truth that had such poignancy for writers and readers of fiction in Australia at this time, but also confounded the binary opposition on which much criticism rested. For these reasons, even when it was positive, the critical reception of this novel was tentative, and soon ended in uncertainty and silence.

A case of critics trying to make the work fit the theory, rather than look at the work on its own terms? Anyhow, it probably didn’t help, as he also implies, that Harrower was a woman writing about women’s experience.

Interestingly, I also found an article (from Studies in Classic Australian fiction) that outlined why Patrick White’s works, which can look like “traditional, bulky, realist fiction”, are modernist. The writer, Michael Wilding, however, also admits that White “is playing with the realist tradition”, that he “gestures at realism” which he then denies or inverts. Voss, of course, is an excellent example of this, but Wilding discusses several White novels to support his argument.

I like Wilding’s definition of realism, as:

a committed left-wing realist mode: democratic in its sympathies, egalitarian in its perceptions, naturalistic in its causality and motivation, precise and laconic in its verbal manner.

However, while naming Katharine Susannah Prichard and Vance Palmer as purveyors of this style, he also includes Christina Stead! Just shows the limits of theory?

The question is …

Jane Rawson, A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists

Does all this mean anything? Well, not to our individual reading experiences I think. But, if we believe the arts are (partly) about reflecting and/or responding to our times, then these “trends” mirror what was happening. Social realism recognised a growing concern with the inequalities and oppression wrought on people by increasing industrialisation under capitalism, while modernism reflected a sense of alienation and meaninglessness that the times (progress, industrialisation, war, technology, urbanisation) were effecting in people. In current times, we are seeing, for example, a rise of “cli-fi” and climate-related dystopian literature in response to you-know-what. Literature, in other words, tells us about ourselves and these theories are a way of articulating that.

Anyhow, back to Bill. It will be interesting to consider how these traditions “behave” as we move into Bill’s Gen 4 next year. Meanwhile, I’ll just say that both these “isms” appeal to me. I love the reformist heart behind realist novels, but there’s also that part of me that relates to the modernist’s sense of alienation in an uncomprehending and incomprehensible world. I didn’t fall in love with TS Eliot in my youth for nothing!

Patrick White, Happy Valley (Review)

Patrick White, Happy Valley

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

My love affair with Patrick White, figuratively speaking, began in my last year of high school when I studied Voss. Always partial to Aussie literature, I was, at 17 or 18, bowled over by White’s writing, passion and vision – and by his rather acerbic, though mostly compassionate, view of the way people submerge their “selves” in exterior trappings. I was consequently thrilled when Text decided to publish his first novel as part of its Text Classics series because this book, first published in 1939, was not published again in White’s lifetime. His decision, not his fans, I might add!

Why White refused its republication is a matter of some conjecture. He describes it in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass (1981), as “my first published, best forgotten novel”. Whatever the facts, being published in England and New York in 1939 probably made it easy to “lose”. All I can say is that it’s a great shame, because this is one helluva novel.

But let’s not conjecture, and get on with the book. It’s hard though to know where to start. As a newly released but first Patrick White, it’s going to be (and probably already has, but I’ve kept my eyes averted) the subject of much critical and literary analysis. How, this amateur blogger thinks, can I add to that? By, I suppose, just picking a few things that interested me.

There were several things that interested me in this novel, besides the fact that it is a good read. Perhaps I’d better explain that, the plot, first. It’s set in, yes, a town called Happy Valley, in the Snowy Mountains-Monaro region of New South Wales, just south of where I live and where Patrick White was a jackeroo for a year. If you know Patrick White, you’ll know the town’s name is ironic because White’s people are rarely happy. Life tends to be, for them, disappointing at best, sterile, depressing and/or meaningless at worst. In this book we have a large number of people and families, representing a cross-section of a typical country town: the doctor (Holliday), the teacher (Moriarty), the squatter (Furlow), the storekeepers (Quongs), the banker (Belper), the piano teacher (Alys Browne), the farm worker and “stud” (Clem Hagan), the “simpleton” (Chuffy Chambers). The novel begins and ends with the doctor, but its subject matter is the desire to escape. Many of the town’s residents don’t want to be there, and dream of ways out. Alys dreams of California, Hilda Holliday of Queensland, Sidney Furlow of anywhere-but-here, and so on. For the most part the novel chronicles the relationships between the people, explores the sources of their discontent, and teases them with future possibilities. It seems, until near the end, that nothing particularly dramatic will happen but then a shocking event occurs which precipitates decisions – some big, some small – that will change the lives of those concerned. For the better? Well, that’s a question for us readers to consider, but it’s important to recognise that for White the important decisions/shifts that have to be made are internal. Here is Alys near the end, seeing her escape dream for what it was:

I shall not hurry, she said, I shall shape time with what I have already got.

It’s a good story – and it’s clearly White.  There are a lot of characters, which can be the downfall of first novels, but White handles them well. The connections are clear and he keeps them all moving along so that we readers rarely, if ever, feel lost – once we have them in our heads.

What bowled me over most about the novel though is its style. It’s big – it’s inventive, expressive, rhythmic. As I was reading it, I was reminded of DH Lawrence (and his intense sensuality) and James Joyce (and his “stream of consciousness”). Peter Craven, who wrote the introduction to Text’s edition, agrees, and adds Gertrude Stein (whom I don’t know well enough) and Virginia Woolf (whom I should have picked too!). However, despite these pretty clear influences, the novel doesn’t feel slavish. Although this is (obviously) early in his career, his mature style is already evident. I was impressed by how he moves pretty seamlessly between description, dialogue and interior monologue, by how he shifts point-of-view, even within paragraphs, and by how, almost imperceptibly at times, he changes voice from third to second to first person. It’s spirited, gutsy writing. You feel, sometimes, that’s he’s strutting his stuff, but he rarely loses us and, while he may occasionally push a little too far, it doesn’t feel like showing-off but more like a writer with ideas bubbling out of him.

Earlier in the review, I mentioned writers that I felt influenced White, but now I want to mention one that I think was influenced by him, and that’s Thea Astley. She also had a pretty acerbic view of the world, and could skewer characters for their superficiality while maintaining, unless they really didn’t deserve it, compassion for them. White and Astley also use humour, usually wry or satiric rather than belly-laugh. I loved this description of a person in a bar early in the novel:

But another was an old man, one of those static old men you see in country bars, who seem to have no significance at all, except as recipients of drinks that they pour in through the meshes of a yellowish moustache, just standing and nodding, willing to listen to a story, but never giving much in return. They are generally called Abe or Joe. Though this one was called Barney, as a matter of fact.

That made me laugh; it’s the sort of writing that made me keep reading. But it’s not all quite this benign, because Happy Valley is a town where there “never was co-operation”, where “people existed in spite of each other”, where town “stud” Clem would like to “take a lump of wood, treat her almost like a snake”.

One of the threads running through the novel concerns the limits of language to express true feeling:

Both of them wanting to say something and then it only came in words.

White, I understand, would love to have been an artist, calling himself a “painter manque”, but oh dear, what words we would have missed had he done so.

Lisa of ANZ Litlovers, also a Patrick White fan, loved the book too.

Patrick White
Happy Valley
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012 (orig. published 1939)
ISBN: 9781921922916

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Djuna Barnes, Come into the roof garden, Maud (Review)

English: Djuna Barnes, writer

A stylish Djuna Barnes (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’ve never heard of Djuna Barnes (1892-1982). However, I was intrigued when I saw her pop up in the Library of America‘s (LOA) Story of the Week program last month, and so decided to investigate. I discovered that, while I didn’t know her, many did, such as, oh, ee cummings, TS Eliot, Carson McCullers, and other contemporary literary luminaries. She even interviewed, apparently, James Joyce. She was a modernist writer, and, according to Wikipedia, a key figure in 1920s-30s Bohemian Paris.

LOA’s notes state that she wrote around 100 articles for various newspapers, and that these articles “straddle the line between fiction and journalism”. That’s certainly how I’d describe “Come into the roof garden, Maud”. I decided to categorise it, according to my minimal blog taxonomy, “Review – Essays”. It’s an uncomfortable fit, but it’ll do!

Anyhow, to the article I’m reviewing today. LOA’s notes describe it as “fictionalised, comic snapshots of the fashionable crowd chasing the latest craze of the 1910s: rooftop dancing”. I did enjoy it – partly because reading about New York in the early 20th century is a treat in itself, but mainly because it is so deliciously satirical and I do like a bit of satire.

I don’t usually do this, but I think I’ll quote the beginning paragraphs of the article:

First of all, enter the atmosphere.

And this, the atmosphere of a roof garden, is 10 per cent soft June air and 10 per cent gold June twilight, and a goodly per cent of high–hung lanterns and the music of hidden mechanical birds, swinging under the tangle of paper wistaria, fifty feet above, where, between guarding panes of glass, shine electric signs, plus a few stars, of Broadway.

A good deal of the grace of God is there, too. It is a majestic something that keeps a distance east of the champagne bucket, and goes out upon the dancing space not at all.

The thing that is really lacking is a sense of humour. There are not ten people with a really good laugh in their systems in a whole evening on a roof garden.

Doesn’t this – together with the clever title – want to make you read on? It did me …

She goes on to describe the “beautiful people” (though that’s my term, not hers of course) who frequent the roof gardens, skewering their superficiality and inability to have a good time because they are too “hung up” (oh, dear, another anachronistic 1960s term from me) on appearance and being seen. Her language and writing are delicious as she describes this one and that one attending roof garden events. Dancing is a big thing in (or is it “at” or “on”) roof gardens. I loved this description of a band conductor:

The conductor, a great, towering figure in white flannels, stands knee-deep in green foliage, which may or may not be false, but which looks extremely like asparagus gone to seed, fine and green and feathery – a soft accompaniment to a fearsome pair of legs.

And her description of those women “who can come in without looking interested – the very essence of refinement”. (Hmmm … Is this still the case? Are “refinement” and “enthusiasm” mutually exclusive? I fear they may be, at least in the eyes of those who define “refinement”.) There is, though, a couple who throw themselves into dancing … but they’re not American. Her criticism of refined New York is a little reminiscent of Edith Wharton – but reminiscent only. Wharton was three decades older, and her style rather different.

Do read the story: the link is below.

Meanwhile, my question to you is: Have any of you read Djuna Barnes, in particular, her novels? If so, I’d love to hear what you think.

Djuna Barnes
“Come into the roof garden, Maud”
First published: New York Press, July 14, 1914
Available: Online at the Library of America