Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Pastor's Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim

Another beautiful Virago cover.
I thought it was Seurat but it's actually "La Couseuse" by Theo van Rysselberghe.
The other day I was looking for audiobooks set in other countries that I could download for the European Reading Challenge, and I came across one of my all-time favorites, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. I definitely want to read it again (or listen) but it occurred to me that Elizabeth von Arnim spent much of her life in Germany and set many of her books there, and that I could choose one of those toward both the European Reading Challenge. Also, many of them are available for free digital download -- another win-win!

I downloaded three or four of her books, and randomly chose The Pastor's Wife, published in 1914. Here's the setup: young Ingeborg Bullivant, aged 22, is alone in London, sent by her family to visit the dentist. Her father, a rather overbearing bishop, has given her ten pounds and insisted she has a bad tooth dealt with; Ingeborg has been miserable for days and unable to help her father. Though taken for granted at home, she is an indispensable, unpaid secretary for her father, chaperone for her beautiful young sister, and basically does everything for her mother, who doesn't seem to get up off the couch much.

The dentist solves Ingeborg's problem at once and all of a sudden she's alone in London (supposedly chaperoned by an aunt) with 10 pounds burning a hole in her pocket. On a whim, she signs up for a week's vacation tour to Lucerne, Switzerland, where she meets Robert Dremmel, the pastor of a rural German church. He promptly falls in love with her and after an unconventional proposal, they are engaged -- honestly, I think she's just too polite to turn him down. To the dismay of her family, she marries this unsuitable German and leaves home, where her new husband benignly ignores her and is obsessed with improving the soil for the local farmers. She really only gets his attention when she's producing babies. After several years of this stifling life, Ingeborg meets a visiting artist who is quite taken with her and tries to tempt her into running away with him to Italy.

I really enjoyed this book but parts of it were much darker than I expected. Some of the situations are quite funny and others are incredibly heartbreaking. All the men in Ingeborg's life take her for granted and assume they know what's best for her -- they think of Ingeborg only as how she can be useful to them, and not one iota of what she wants and needs. Von Arnim also had quite a bit to say about women and pregnancies in the Edwardian era -- there's a lot of discussion about procreation that I wasn't expecting. I would not be surprised if it wasn't rather shocking for the time period (much like my previous read, The Wreath by Sigrid Undset).

One thing I didn't like about this book was how naive Ingeborg was. I realize that she had a very sheltered upbringing as a bishop's daughter, and was then stuck in a small town as a pastor's wife, but she read books and newspapers, and would had some idea about the morals of the time. And the way the men in this book treated Ingeborg made me want to throw the book across the room.

I've now read three of Von Arnim's works of fiction, and I've noticed a recurring theme of women who are breaking the boundaries of conventions. In Love, the main character shocks everyone by having a love affair with a man young enough to be her son; in The Enchanted April, the four women break free and go off by themselves to rent an Italian villa for a month (not so shocking, really, but pretty gutsy for the time). Elizabeth Von Arnim was actually married to a German aristocrat and had a rather unhappy marriage. I don't know many details of her life but I do know some of her early works are semi-autobiographical and I wouldn't be surprised if Herr Dremmel was loosely based on her own husband.

I'm counting this as my German read for the European Reading Challenge. 

9 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed The Enchanted April, but it sounds like it was much more fairy tale like compared to The Pastor's Wife. I will keep this title in mind, but I think for my next von Arnim, I want to try Elizabeth and her German Garden.

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    1. Elizabeth is really good! I also love Enchanted April (also a great movie adaptation) but it's definitely a bit of a fairy tale. I've also heard Vera is really good but it's rather dark.

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  2. I've been meaning to reread Enchanted April for years as well as Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but I've not heard of this one. It does sound bleak, but it is interesting to notice how an author works at a theme through multiple works.

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    1. I'm listening to an audio of Enchanted April, it's probably my third time reading it and it's still wonderful.

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  3. I've read almost all of von Arnim's books but Enchanted April is still my favourite. I read somewhere that her husband was rather hard up but it didn't stop Elizabeth from spending a fortune on her garden, I believe she bankrupted him!

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    1. Katrina,
      Oh, now, I am really very interested in this woman! I imagine she must have done it with survival in mind.

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    2. I didn't know she bankrupted her husband! I'd love to read her biography some day.

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  4. Jane,
    Your post has made me aware of von Armin in a way I wasn't before. I loved the film Enchanted April, but did not know the author of the book who inspired it. Tonight I'm hopping about the internet reading about her and realize yet again (!!!) another writer I need to acquaint myself with. I'd like to find a copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, as a way to get more closely acquainted.

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    1. The film version is really wonderful, and I want to watch it again after I finish the audio. I also want to read more of her fiction -- I've heard Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther is very good, and Vera is somewhat controversial, which is really intruiguing.

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