Category Archives: von Arnim Elizabeth

Recent Reads – Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

Brief thoughts on a couple of relatively recent reads, both of which explore the theme of overbearing, abusive men and the alarming power they exert over impressionable young women.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Just as good as I expected it to be given the tidal wave of positive reports and reviews. This is a taut, skilfully-crafted novella in which the twin horrors of past and present-day abuse come together to devastating effect.

The story takes place in the midst of a heady summer at some point in the 1970s or ‘80s (I can’t quite recall which). Sixteen-year-old-old Silvie and her parents are participating in a student encampment in the Northumberland countryside, complete with its wild surroundings and natural terrain. The camp is being run by Professor Slade, an archaeologist with an interest in the Iron Age world; more specifically, its way of life, mysterious rituals and ancient beliefs. During their stay, the participants must live their lives as the ancient Britons once did – existing in the wild, hunting for food and observing Iron Age traditions.

I don’t want to say very much about Silvie or what happens to her at the camp – it’s best you discover that for yourself if decide to read the book. (Throughout the narrative, Moss carefully reveals specific information about Silvie and her family in a way that never feels calculated or manipulative.) What I will say is that the final chapters shook me to the core – this is a striking book in more ways than one.

There is some beautiful writing about the natural world here, particularly in the author’s evocative descriptions of the countryside: the feel of the ground underfoot; the wild plants and berries along the way; the images of water breaking up the terrain.

You move differently in moccasins, have a different experience of the relationship between feet and land. You go around and not over rocks, feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin. The edges of the wooden steps over the stile touch your bones, an unseen pebble catches your breath. You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet. (p. 27)

All in all, an excellent novella. It has that blend of beauty and brutality which I love, a little like Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome or Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

Dorian has written about this novel in more detail here.

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921)

A thoroughly chilling tale of the innocence of love and the oppressive nature of tyrannical men. Quite different from her other, lighter books – The Enchanted April in particular.

Devastated by the sudden death of her father, Lucy Entwhistle – young, vulnerable and terribly innocent – comes into contact with Everard Wemyss, a man also recently bereaved and seemingly in need of a kindred spirit for support. At forty-four, Everard is much older and worldly-wise than Lucy, putting him in a position of authority and control. As such, he takes charge of the Entwhistle funeral arrangements, relieving the pressure on Lucy at a traumatic time.

Aside from Lucy, everyone at the funeral assumes Everard is an old family friend, returning to pay his respects to the late Mr Entwhistle. At this point in time, only Lucy knows about Everard and his personal circumstances – more specifically, the recent death of his wife, Vera, following a mysterious fall at the couple’s country home. (A little later it emerges that the incident has created something of a scandal around Everard, a point intensified by the open verdict at the inquest into Vera’s death.)

Dazed by the trauma of grief, Lucy finds herself strongly drawn to Everard with his confident, capable manner and kinship in a shared sense of loss. However, as Everard inveigles his way into the Entwhistles’ company, a more sinister side to his character begins to emerge – something the reader is privy to even if Lucy is not.

She had the trust in him, he felt, of a child; the confidence, and the knowledge that she was safe. He was proud and touched to know it, and it warmed him through and through to see how her face lit up whenever he appeared. Vera’s face hadn’t done that. Vera had never understood him, not with fifteen years to do it in, as this girl had in half a day. (p. 26)

Much to the concern of her benevolent Aunt Dot, Lucy soon agrees to marry Everard, believing him to be a source of comfort, reassurance and love. However, it is only once the couple are married that the true nature of Everard’s merciless personality comes to light. In truth, Everard is unpredictable, cruel and intolerant – even the smallest details are liable to spark a tantrum if they are not in line with his orders or wishes.

At first, Lucy is quick to try and forgive Everard for these outbursts, rationalising them to herself as the consequence of his grief. There soon comes a point, however, when these eruptions prove more challenging to excuse…

She was afraid of him, and she was afraid of herself in relation to him. He seemed outside anything of which she had experience. He appeared not to be – he anyhow had not been that day – generous. There seemed no way, at any point, by which one could reach him. What was he really like? How long was it going to take her really to know him? Years? (p. 168)

To make matters worse, Everard thinks nothing of bringing Lucy to The Willows, the foreboding house in the country where Vera fell to her death. Once firmly ensconced in her new home, Lucy must contend with the shadow of Vera, something that feels virtually impossible to ignore in spite of her best efforts. The house is littered with reminders of the first Mrs Wemyss – from her books in the sitting room, to her portrait in the dining room, to the place where she fell to her death, just outside the library window.

Vera is a very powerful novel, one that highlights the destructive nature of tyrannical men when their behaviour is left unchecked and allowed to run rampant. The tone is chilling and sinister, all the more so when we learn that the story was inspired by von Arnim’s own troublesome marriage to Earl Russell, brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. There is a childlike innocence to Lucy, with her trusting nature and wide-eyed view of the world, something that leaves her open to abuse by the autocratic Everard.

At first, I was a little surprised by the novel’s ending, but looking back on it now it all feels sadly inevitable. This is a cautionary tale that still holds some relevance today in spite of the radically different times. Definitely recommended, particularly for fans of character-driven stories with a dark or disturbing edge.

Several others have written about Vera, including Ali and Simon.

My copies of Ghost Wall and Vera were published by Granta Books and Hesperus Press respectively; personal copies.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Oh my goodness, what an enchanting novel this turned out to be! I read it over that beautifully sunny weekend just before Easter, and I couldn’t have chosen a better time – it matched the glorious weather to perfection.

First published in 1922, The Enchanted April, tells the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. The rather shy and mousey Mrs Wilkins proves to be a somewhat unlikely catalyst for the trip when she sees an advertisement in The Times appealing to those who appreciate ‘wisteria and sunshine’ to take a small castle on the shores of the Mediterranean, furnishings and servants provided – a prospect that captures her imagination on a dark and dreary afternoon in February. Before long Mrs Wilkins is joined in her quest by Mrs Arbuthnot – a woman previously known to her only by sight – who also appears to be transfixed by the very same ad and the idea of a break from her dismal routine.

As it turns out, both of these women are unhappy with their current lives, albeit in rather different ways. Lotty Wilkins feels trapped and belittled in a stifling marriage; her husband, Mellersh-Wilkins, is a stuffed shirt and a bully, someone who demands prudence and thrift in every department of their home life except the one that relates to his food. In this respect he is highly critical, dismissing any shortfalls in standards as poor housekeeping on Lotty’s part. Rose Arbuthnot, on the other hand, has all but abandoned any chance of ever being noticed by her husband, Frederick, a highly successful writer of rather salacious memoirs of the mistresses of kings. In the early days of their marriage, the Arbuthnots were very much in love; but all too soon the situation changed as Frederick began to throw himself into his work. As a consequence, Rose has filled her life with other things to occupy her time, mostly self-sacrificing charitable work in support of the poor and needy, primarily as a means of easing her conscience about the somewhat grubby nature of the source of Frederick’s income. In short, Lotty and Rose feel constrained by their respective circumstances, worn down over the years by a lack of love and affection – even though they are only in their early thirties, both of these women seem old before their time.

Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk – real natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? And she could not help thinking that Mrs Arbuthnot, too, was reading that very same advertisement. Her eyes were on the very part of the paper. Was she, too, picturing what it would be like – the colour, the fragrance, the light, the soft lapping of the sea among little hot rocks? Colour, fragrance, light, sea; instead of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the wet omnibuses, and the fish department at Schoolbred’s, and the Tube to Hampstead, and dinner, and tomorrow the same and the day after the same and always the same… (p. 7)

Having overcome their initial reluctance to do something so daring, these two ladies from Hampstead decide they will reply to the ad and take the castle in Italy. The only real obstacle that remains is finding a means of funding the cost of the trip from their respective nest eggs, a task that would prove particularly challenging for Lotty given her personal circumstances. So, as a solution to their dilemma, Lotty and Rose decide to place their own advertisement in the paper in the hope of finding two suitable companions for the trip. Thus they are joined by Lady Caroline Dester, a glamorous young socialite who is seeking refuge from all the charming men who want a piece of her back in London, and Mrs Fisher, a rather crabby old lady who seems determined to live in the past, forever lamenting the loss of old friends and acquaintances from her beloved literary world.

On their arrival at the San Salvatore castle, these four very different ladies begin to connect and interact with one another, often with the most amusing consequences. There are some priceless scenes, especially at mealtimes, as the different personalities start to emerge, frequently clashing over the smallest and most telling of details. In this early scene, the elderly Mrs Fisher has adopted the role of grande dame at the breakfast table, almost as if she were the hostess or chief facilitator of the trip. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Rose Arbuthnot is more than a little put out by this development, and so she tries to establish her own standing as joint hostess with Lotty Wilkins, a move which doesn’t quite go according to plan! The indomitable Mrs Fisher is the first to speak here.

She turned more markedly than ever to Mrs Arbuthnot. ‘Do let me give you a little more coffee,’ she said.

‘No, thank you. But won’t you have some more?’

‘No indeed. I never have more than two cups at breakfast. Would you like an orange? ‘

‘No, thank you. Would you?’

‘No, I don’t eat fruit at breakfast. It is an American fashion which I am too old now to adopt. Have you had all you want?’

‘Quite. Have you?’

Mrs Fisher paused before replying. Was this a habit, this trick of answering a simple question with the same question? If so it must be curbed, for no one could live four weeks in any real comfort with somebody who had a habit. (pp. 66-67)

Gradually over time, the castle begins to work its magic on the occupants, often in profound and surprising ways. Lotty Wilkins is the first to experience its bewitching effects, transformed as she is by the abundance of beauty and resplendent atmosphere at San Salvatore (the descriptions of the gardens are magnificently lush). And how could she fail to be when she opens her curtains for the first time in the morning, only to be greeted by the following sight?

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. (p. 50)

Almost immediately upon her arrival at the retreat, Lotty Wilkins comes right out of her shell, becoming bolder, more impetuous, more enthusiastic about life and all the possibilities it has to offer. As a consequence, she makes an audacious decision, one that she hopes will lead to the promise of greater happiness in the future. To reveal any more might spoil things for the reader. Suffice it to say that Lotty’s enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that it catches the attention of the previously reclusive Lady Caroline. As a consequence, these two women strike up an unlikely friendship, one that looks all set to last beyond the duration of the trip. Lady Caroline, for her part, also begins to question the value of her life to date and what may lie ahead for her in the months and years to come. Even the disagreeable Mrs Fisher starts to soften as she realises that the members of the younger generation are not all as shallow and as frivolous as she had previously assumed.  

Nevertheless, perhaps the one person who is most affected by Lotty’s optimism and enthusiasm is Rose Arbuthnot. As she reflects on the transformation in her new friend, the rather lonely and sensitive Rose longs to experience something similar. If only her life with Frederick were different, if only they could recapture the early days of their marriage, the first flushes of love and affection for one another, the feeling of being cared for and valued by an attentive partner.

[…] and once again Rose wondered at Lotty, at her balance, her sweet and equable temper – she who in England had been such a thing of gusts. From the moment they got into Italy it was Lotty who seemed the elder. She certainly was very happy; blissful, in fact. Did happiness so completely protect one? Did it make one so untouchable, so wise? Rose was happy herself, but not anything like so happy. Evidently not, for not only did she want to fight Mrs Fisher but she wanted something else, something more than this lovely place, something to complete it; she wanted Frederick. For the first time in her life she was surrounded by perfect beauty, and her one thought was to show it to him, to share it with him. She wanted Frederick. She yearned for Frederick, Ah, if only, only Frederick… (p.103)

Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming novel has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. At times, I was reminded of Winifred Watson’s equally adorable book, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a story that also captures a sense of joie de vivre and escapism from the constraints of an unfulfilled life.

Von Armin takes great care in portraying each of her central characters with enough subtlety and depth, thereby encouraging the reader to invest in these women from an early stage in the story. Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot are particularly well developed, especially in the fleshing out of their marriages and the different challenges they face with their respective husbands. Lady Caroline is also painted in a nuanced fashion. At first, it would be tempting to assume that she is simply selfish, spoilt and rather ungrateful for the attention others lavish upon her; but as the novel progresses, a different side to her personality starts to emerge, one that is more thoughtful and vulnerable. Even the fusty Mrs Fisher is portrayed in a manner which ultimately encourages the reader’s sympathies as it becomes clear that she too is rather lonely and isolated in her restricted life.

All in all, this is a most delightful novel with much to commend it – another strong contender for my end-of-year list.

The Enchanted April is published by Penguin Classics and Vintage Books.