Saturday, March 7, 2020

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Italian cover. Great photo, but wrong era, it's off by about 50 years.

"There came a moment, she imagined, in the lives of most unmarried daughters, and perhaps in other people's too, when they must either bolt or go permanently under." 

It's funny how some authors are so strongly identified by a single work, when they often have lots of other books which are largely ignored. I feel like Elizabeth von Arnim is one of those authors.  She's so well know for her delightful novel Enchanted April, yet so many of her other books are hardly discussed and mostly out of print.

Author Elizabeth von Arnim
One of those novels is Father, published in 1931. It's sadly fallen out of print, like many of her novels (except in Italian -- most of her books seem to be in print int Italy -- because of Enchanted April ? Of course I'm only guessing.)

Anyway, I've now read nine of her books and Father is near the top of my rankings, by far one of my favorites. Set between the wars, it's the story of Jennifer Dodge, the thirty-three year old spinster daughter of a famous writer. On her mother's deathbed some 12 years before, Jennifer promises to look after her father. Inevitably, she give up her youth and possibilities of any of her own hopes and dreams, devoting herself to Father so that his work is not disturbed.

The only image I could find of an English-language edition
All this changes when Father comes home one day and announces that he has remarried -- to Netta, a nineteen-year-old beauty, a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. Naturally, Jennifer is stunned -- then elated! With a new wife, surely she will be in the way? Now she can escape and have a chance at her own life. Though her father never paid her a cent for her hard work, Jennifer has a tiny income of her from her late mother, and decides to find a tiny cottage where she can garden and live happily in the country.

Minnie, the cook, suggests her home county of Sussex, and Minnie's copy of the local church paper provides two possibilities. After has Father whisked Netta off on a Norwegian honeymoon, Jennifer gets on a train to explore two cottages owned by neighboring vicarages. The first attempt is a disaster, and at the second, the spinster sister of the vicar agrees to rent Rose Cottage to Jennifer, simply out of spite to her brother, with whom she's just had a tiff.

Great cover, but it doesn't represent the characters AT ALL.
These people are far too glamorous and sophisticated.

Alice Ollier, the vicar's sister, quickly regrets her decision when it occurs to her that is distinctly possible that her brother James might fall in love with Jennifer! There's almost a bit of screwball comedy involved as Jennifer begins to settle into Rose Cottage and Alice attempts to thwart her. What would happen to 40ish Alice if James brings home a bride? Meanwhile, Jennifer's idea of a peaceful existence is frustrated by the sudden appearance of the child bride Netta -- apparently there's trouble in paradise. Jennifer's father is also none too pleased at her decision to -- gasp -- want a life of her own! The nerve!

Parts of this are quite funny, but there's an undercurrent of sadness in this novel, as it's mostly centered on men's expectations of the women in their lives, and people trying to manipulate one another. The character of the father in particular made me want to jump into the book and throttle him -- I have rarely read such a well-drawn, frustrating character. He is absolutely self-centered and self-absorbed. And I wanted to give Alice a good talking-to as well.

A French-language edition.
She looks like a dutiful daughter, but about 20 years too early.
This is clearly Edwardian.
I chose this book off my stack because I thought the title would make it a perfect fit for the Classic About a Family category in the Back to the Classics Challenge. It didn't turn out to be quite what I expected -- it is about families, but it's just as much as about the Olliers as it is the Dodges. I hope I'm not giving the impression that I didn't like this novel, because I really liked it, and it will probably be one of my top reads of the year.

I'm counting this as my Classic About a Family for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I'm also counting it as my British novel for the European Reading Challenge.

15 comments:

  1. I look forward to reading this ! Thanks for bringing it to our attention. My favourite is In the Mountains.

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    1. That's next on my list, I want to read it for the 1920 Club hosted by Simon and Stuck in a Book. Sadly both of them are hard to find but I hope they'll be reprinted soon.

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    2. Hi again, yes I am having difficulty finding "Father" but I got In the mountains on the Gutenberg project for free

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  2. It is an eternal puzzle as to why von Arnim's books aren't easier to get hold of these days! I remember being in Bologna a few years ago and feeling intensely jealous of the shelf-full of her books in a store there, only a few of which were available in English. Clever Italians.

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    1. I remember being very impressed at how many bookstores I saw in Italy, even in smaller towns. I'm sorry I didn't take a look for von Arnim while I was there -- not that I read any language other than English!

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    2. For those who read e-books there are quite a few available for free. Wonderful books and in many different modes, from pastoral to domestic comedy to chilling psychological drama. Reprints would definitely be in order - hopefully we'll see some soon.

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  3. This sounds absolutely wonderful, the thread of sadness notwithstanding. I have yet to read anything by this author apart from Enchanted April, but I have a few on my shelf, at the ready. Interesting that more titles are available in Italian...since I am trying to learn Italian, maybe some day I will be able to read one in that language!

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    1. I read somewhere that Enchanted April really boosted the Italian tourist industry when it came out, and I'm sure it started all over again when the movie came out in the 1990s. Now I really wish I'd visited Portofino when I was living in Germany!

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  4. Alas, I also must confess that I have only read Enchanted April. Maybe also the film adaptation helps with keeping it in print. This sounds like a great read. I didn't even realize von Arnim had written more than April and Elizabeth and her German Garden.

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  5. This sounds like a very interesting and emotive read I'll track down some time. I recently finished The Enchanted April, and it sounds like Von Arnim went a bit edgier on this one :)

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  6. In one of his nonfiction works Somerset Maugham relates the story that von Arnim read aloud a story that featured devastating depiction of her husband, who was lying sick in bed. He was so mortified that he turned his face to the wall and died. “He was very sick,” she later said, “and was going to die anyway.”

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  7. This is one of the few that I haven't read, I was lucky enough to get most of her books from a charity shop - the originals. I'm now dying to get my hands on a copy. Thanks.

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  8. I'm re-reading it at the moment and loving it even more the second time. I'm delighted that this will be one of the British Library Women Writers reprints in autumn!

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