Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

First published in 1931, Father has recently been reissued by the British Library as part of their excellent Women Writers series – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. While it isn’t as well-known as some of von Arnim’s other novels, there is much to enjoy here, not least the author’s skills in exploring the limitations of women’s lives with humour and compassion. In essence, it is a story of domestic tyranny revolving around two oppressive relationships – one between a thirty-three-year-old spinster and her dictatorial father, the other between a mild-mannered clergyman and his selfish older sister.  

The novel’s central character is Jennifer Dodge, who at thirty-three has devoted much of her adult life to keeping house for her widowed father, the successful writer Richard Dodge (referred to throughout as ‘Father’). In addition to her domestic duties, Jennifer also acts as Father’s unpaid secretary, diligently typing his manuscripts in their claustrophobic Gower Street home. Right from the very start of the novel, von Arnim leaves the reader in no doubt about the nature of Father and his attitudes towards his daughter. He is a selfish prig, content for Jennifer to pander to his every whim while simultaneously viewing her as something of a burden.  

It was her duty to make the best of herself, if only because his eyes so frequently were obliged to rest on her face. Besides, it was every woman’s duty to make the best of herself, and Jennifer’s not doing so no doubt accounted for the fact that she was still on his hands. Off those hands she ought, of course, to have been long ago; yet if some man had reft her from him before he was ready, as now, for her to go, it would have been extremely awkward, father knew; he couldn’t have run his house without her; his work would have suffered considerably; In fact he was unable to imagine what would have become of him. (p. 8)

When Father suddenly marries a much younger woman in secret, Jennifer sees an opportunity to escape from his clutches, envisioning a new life for herself in the freedom of the countryside. With Father and the nineteen-year-old Netta safely packed away on a month-long honeymoon, Jennifer travels to Sussex, determined to rent a cottage to establish her new life. There is a previous inheritance of £100 a year for Jennifer to live on – not much, granted, but just about enough if she is prudent and resourceful.

She was, she was sure, infinitely flexible, able to fit into the humblest little corner and enjoy herself in it, if only she could she be in it alone. Freedom, personal freedom, the right to be alone, was what she wanted, and what she now so miraculously had got; the power to behave naturally, to make one’s own arrangements, to decide (it seemed a little thing but was, she was certain, the whole difference between vigour and wilting) what one would do next. (p. 22)

After a farcical incident with a coat at the first prospective property, Jennifer strikes lucky at the second, securing a rather run-down cottage in Cherry Lidgate for a minimum of six months. The property is managed by the local vicar, twenty-seven-year-old James Ollier, whose older sister, Alice – also a spinster, but very different in mindset and temperament to the amiable Jennifer – is the other tyrannical character in the novel. While Jennifer sets about furnishing her new home, enjoying the freedom to do as she pleases, Alice starts to ponder the security of her own position. What if James were to develop a fondness for Jennifer? Where would that leave Alice, dependant as she is on her younger brother for a home?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, James and Jennifer do find comfort in one another’s company, each viewing the other as a kindred spirit of sorts. Consequently, Alice tries her best to monopolise her brother, spiriting him away to Switzerland on the pretence of a holiday – a trip that proves exasperating for James, strengthening his determination to forge a future with Jennifer.

As Simon Thomas highlights in his excellent afterword to the novel, both Jennifer and Alice are largely dependent on men for their livelihoods. While Jennifer is attempting to break free, her position remains somewhat precarious, especially once it transpires that Father expects her to live at home, despite his new marriage. Netta, it seems, is incapable of managing the household, leaving Father fearful of domestic chaos and disorder. Alice too is dependent on a man for her existence, although the power dynamics in this relationship are quite different to those between Jennifer and Father. Alice rules her brother with a rod of iron, dismissing him rather curtly with her regular cries of ‘bosh’. Nevertheless, despite her selfish, belittling tactics towards James, Alice realises that she would be exposed without him, reduced to a position lacking money, security and authority.

And quite apart from the fact that she owed her comfortable home and position, and her freedom from money cares to James, having ruled him since he was a baby he had now become necessary to her very existence—something to care for and to bully, to goad and to guard, something belonging to her, an object in life. What she would do without James, Alice, in her softer moments, couldn’t imagine. (p. 117)

Alongside the options for unmarried women, von Arnim explores other themes within the novel – freedom, selfishness, love and perhaps most importantly, the tension between individual desires and familial responsibility – all with her characteristic blend of insight and wit. There are some wonderfully farcical scenes here, particularly between James and Alice – a tussle over a basket of apricots seems to typify the tensions between the two siblings, signalling their opposing positions towards Jennifer’s presence in the cottage. Moreover, it is a testament to the author’s skills with character that even the most unlikeable individuals will elicit the reader’s sympathy – to some degree at least.

At heart, Father is a charming novel that uses wisdom, humour and playful ridicule to convey some of the challenges faced by unmarried women in the early 20th century. While understandable from a technical point of view, the ending feels a little too neat, but that’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things. It’s a delight to see it back in print.

27 thoughts on “Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank, Liz. I’m glad you enjoyed it too. The British Library have done a great job with this series, haven’t they? No wonder it’s been so widely reviewed.

      Reply
  1. Simon T

    Lovely review, Jacqui! So glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for the kind mention :) I agree the ending is a bit pat, but that last line also shook me and stayed with me!

    Reply
  2. heavenali

    Such a good novel, I loved the depiction of both those rather tyrannical relationships, Von Arnim always writes such characters well. I know what you mean about the ending, but I suppose it was inevitable.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, and she uses humour so brilliantly, highlighting the absurdities with gentle ridicule. There were times when I want to shake Father in the hope of knocking some sense into him, but I guess he got his comeuppance in the end!

      Reply
  3. Julé Cunningham

    This indeed sounds like a very tempting von Arnim with its similar but contrasting tyrannical relationships. No wonder Golden Age mysteries so often feature a quiet dose of arsenic! Your review makes the characters look quite intriguing and now I’m interested in finding out what happens to them all.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s well worth reading. Maybe not in the same league as The Enchanted April or The Caravaners (which I adored) but an absorbing novel nonetheless. I like the way EvA draws attention to some of the absurdities of day-to-day life, especially for individuals like James and Jennifer.

      Reply
  4. Jane

    I can’t believe I haven’t read any von Arnim yet, I might have to swap something out of my classics club list. These domestic tensions are so readable and relatable, I have at least managed to buy my first BLWW copy so I can get started on this series. Great review as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. Von Arnim is so at drawing out the limitations imposed on women by their husbands and/or family members. She tackles some troubling issues in her books – darker perhaps than one might expect at first sight.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I get the sense she is drawing on her experience with these insufferable men, individuals she has observed at some point in her life. They feel horribly realistic…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I’m glad you like the sound of this one. It doesn’t seem to be as well known as some of EvA’s other novels, but hopefully this BLWW edition will give it a bit of a boost.

      Reply
  5. Grier

    I really enjoyed this novel and especially liked the character of Jennifer. Her cottage sounded so appealing. EvA is a go-to author for well written, early feminist novels. Lovely review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grier. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too. EvA has such an interesting way of tackling these themes, often using humour to highlight various absurdities. Like you, I really warmed to Jennifer, escaping into the country while Father’s back was turned!

      Reply
  6. buriedinprint

    von Arnim was an early MustReadEverything author for me, but it’s been some time since I read one of her books (and, the last time I picked up one, it just did not suit my mood at that time…which I know is timing because I’ve had that happen with her before and returned to the book and loved it as much as I’d loved her others). This one sounds very interesting with the pair of relationships to compare and contrast; I have a very well-worn copy, slightly tattered and without a jacket, that I found years ago at a college sale and, given what you’ve said about the book, I now wonder at the previous owner, who must have really loved this story, to have read it to bits as the spine reveals.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, oddly enough, I also have to be in the right mood for her, otherwise there’s a danger that her tone doesn’t quite land. I’ve never been able to get on with Elizabeth and Her German Garden, for instance, which seems to be a favourite among some of her readers. I recall the central character being quite dismissive at times – cruel, even – particularly to the servants in her house.

      Reply
  7. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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