Elizabeth von Arnim is one of my favorite writers. Like many movie-goers, I discovered her books after seeing the film The Enchanted April, which is based on von Arnim’s novel of the same name. The Enchanted April is the delightful story of four dissatisfied women who escape the rainy English spring to share a castle in Italy. Some find love; some rediscover solitude; one learns that men can love her for her character rather than her siren-like beauty; and all enjoy the beauty of Italy. Wouldn’t we all love to take a vacation in an Italian castle?
Virago has published several of von Arnim’s novels, and I have enjoyed all of them. Now the British Library Women Writers Series has reissued her novel, Father, published in 1931. I am happy to tell you that this is one of her best. In this delightful comedy, Jennifer, a frazzled 33-year-old spinster who is bullied by her father, a great novelist, is freed from her role as secretary-slave when her father marries a much younger beautiful woman, Netta.
Jennifer loses her fear of him and makes her escape during his honeymoon. On 100 pounds a year (a legacy from her mother), she sets out to rent a country cottage and make a beautiful garden. She and her mother always wanted a garden, but had to make do with window boxes because father would never leave London. And so Jennifer goes to the country to check out two advertisements for cottages, both owned by clergymen.
The tale of her long, bewildering, tiring walk from the train will be familiar to those who tend to get lost in unfamiliar places. She finally applies to a stuffy clergyman who refuses to show her the cottage (he is annoyed because she told the maid she was cold, and the maid allowed her to wear his coat). And so Jennifer walks to the next cottage, exhausted, dusty, sweaty, and with blisters. She has better luck: James, a timid young clergyman who privately believes the rough cottage is unsuitable for a woman, refers her to his sister Alice, who takes care of the rental. And Alice, because of a spat with James about where women should live, rents the cottage to Jennifer immediately.
Elizabeth von Arnim’s first book, Elizabeth and Her Garden, takes us through a year of Elizabeth’s rapturous enjoyment of her garden, which also provides an escape from her husband, The Man of Wrath, and her family responsibilities. So it is not surprising that Jennifer loves digging with a spade, weeding, and making war on nettles. She wants nothing more than to be outside all day working in the garden.
And then something odd happens: James, who is bullied by his sister as Jennifer was bullied by father, falls in love with Jennifer after an intimate conversation at night. They sit on a mattress in the back yard, talking of things that are meaningful to them. Then he kisses her and dashes away. She never expected to be kissed; she doesn’t know what to do about sexual feelings. But this single meeting is the catalyst for change. The problem is that Alice worries that she will be displaced and homeless if he marries Jennifer, which, by the way, has not occurred to Jennifer, who is happy to live a solitary, single life.
A comedy of errors occurs. It is really so funny that I will leave you to discover it. But there is suspense, because Netta tracks down Jennifer at her cottage, which seems very strange, as father and Netta are on their honeymoon. Netta indicates that she is unhappy: father wants to make love to her even at breakfast. And Jennifer realizes that if the marriage fails, she will be father’s prey again. Guiltily, she tries to persuade Netta to stay with father.
What will happen to James and Jennifer? What will happen to bossy Alice? The reader knows that Von Arnim will arrange everything satisfactorily, because this is no tragedy. I’m not saying it is not a good ending – it is. But I will say that the expected delight is interwoven with an unexpected event.
And that’s why I love von Arnim. She can write about the quotidian and make it mystical and surprising, but not so surprising that it annoys us.