Thursday, 12 April 2018

A Woman Grown

Reading authors covered under such terms as 'Vintage' or 'Classic' has led to many musings and feverish writing downs. Sentences taken directly from the narrative and scraps of poetry; the title of a novel or an author's name, for authors too like to refer to their contemporaries or to those they're reading. Pay homage to or mock. I wonder, when they do so because it might lend itself to a character or the tone or their own pursuits of literature, if they realise the curiosity this may spark in future readers.
George Herbert, who he? I said only recently mimicking that Irish comedian and presenter Graham Norton; the answer, an Welsh-born poet, orator and Anglican priest.
Before that (different novel, same author) I'd been tickled by the thought of a Miss Entwhistle that her niece's suitor's way of courting wouldn't be vegetarian. The inference, I supposed, that this Wemyss had been married before and therefore wasn't new to intimacies with women – not in the courting of, the living with or what would be nightly revealed with the removal of clothing. In other words, he wasn't green. How original! And witty to put it like that. Particularly when this novel was, I believe first published in 1914. Though, of course after the courtship and most of the wit there were darker, pervading tones since Wemyss' first wife died, a rumoured suicide, and it wasn't determined whether she slipped or jumped. It never is, so throughout you're always guessing, and yet Vera (the deceased wife) is adjunct to the central theme of husbandly control. An ever-present spectre to upset the new Mrs Wemyss as she learns to appease her new husband's moods.
If this plot sounds familiar, then it is! but Von Arnim's Vera came before du Maurier's Rebecca; some might say the latter is the more-finished work, but both are, in my humble opinion, equally sinister. Vera, however, is easily the more possessive case, and whilst the ending is frustrating I don't see how else she could have ended it. Readers can't always get what they want: an end to the oppression, and neither in that situation (and at that time) could wives easily obtain a separation, but then Lucy (niece of Miss Entwhistle and new Mrs Wemyss) wouldn't have gone about that even if she had wished it, unless of course she finally snapped or felt forced like the first Mrs Wemyss to drastic measures, which is an assumption I've made not unequivocally made in the novel.
What might have happened next is left to the imagination. Does Wemyss continue to wear Lucy down to his ideal? Does her aunt, after being turned out of doors, cease to worry or interfere? Does Lucy begin to rebel rather than appease? A leaden cloud hangs over this trio, for even without the aunt there will always be three in this marriage.
Yes, Von Arnim did tyrannical husbands very well. As she did other matters of the heart and head concerning such relations: the getting of, the getting of and refused, the getting of and once got the subservience to, for some would undoubtedly be required, in order to have some sort of freedom. But she also did bold women. Women that were outspoken and went against convention. Women that would, in all honesty, prefer to remain husband-less or be so after the experience of having one had been realised. Unmarried women with ideas, modest means and scholarly passions. There are entanglements, there are misunderstandings, there is intelligence, there is frankness, there is bravery, there is unsentimental practicality, there is ridicule and an irrepressible urge to take comfort and find beauty in the great outdoors.
Von Arnim novels amuse as well as teach. The world is not turned from, but sometimes its concerns are; the eye turned instead to poets and nature so that the world is seen anew and anything that had the chance to cause anxiety is pushed aside. It's a god-like faith used to soothe and extol the virtues of to anyone that will hear it. How she talks! As well as suffers doses of cold philosophy.
Still, what surprised me, though why should it?, is the allusion to vegetarianism, particularly that of vegetarian economies, in her novels. Most were unexpected and for a vegetarian of some years standing hidden gems, much like the author herself.

Picture credit: Woman, New York City, c.1952, Dorothea Lange