Friday, April 17, 2020

#1920 Club: In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim

I always love when Simon and Kaggsy host one of their year-themed reading clubs -- it's so interesting to see the range of different books published in a given year. This round they've gone for the centenary celebration of 1920. It was tougher than I thought to find a book I hadn't read, but I realized that In the Mountains, one of Elizabeth von Arnim lesser-known works, was published that year. It's really a novella, though it's out of print in English it's available online through and iBooks.

Set in 1919, this epistolary novel is the diary of an anonymous Englishwoman who has returned to her summer home in the Swiss Alps, after an absence of five years due to WWI. She retreats to her cozy home to rest and recuperate after the trauma of the war. She is trying to get back to some sense of normalcy and in the beginning she does little more than sit and contemplate. She does have two servants, Antoine and Mrs. Antoine, a caretaker and housekeeper. Some of the most amusing bits are the narrator dealing with the minutia of life. There's a part about Antoine's acquisition of livestock which I really enjoyed. 

Out of print in English, but I love the cover of this Italian edition.

The silence and solitude is therapeutic for the narrator but after a while she longs for human contact, and I found this passage to be particularly timely:

I suppose, however, for most people complete freedom is too lonely a thing, therefore the absence should only be just long enough to make room for one to see clear again. Just a little withdrawal every now and then, just a little, so as to get a good view once more of those dear qualities we first loved, so as to be able to see that they're still there, still shining. (August 4)

Eventually, the author has some random house guests, two English sisters she who literally stumble their way into her yard, looking for a pension, and quite quickly, she invites them to stay. I liked this as it reminded me a bit of the four women sharing the villa in Enchanted April. I didn't expect it, but this book had quite a few parallels with the self-distancing we're all experiencing:

Yet the days are packed. Mine, at any rate, are. Packed tight with an immense monotony.
Every day we do exactly the same things: breakfast, read aloud; lunch, read aloud; tea, go for a walk; supper, read aloud; exhaustion; bed. How quick and short it is to write down, and how endless to live. At meals we talk, and on the walk we talk, or rather we say things. At meals the things we say are about food, and on the walk they are about mountains. The rest of the time we don't talk, because of the reading aloud. That fills up every gap; that muzzles all conversation. (August 25)
(This is essentially my life right now, except we don't read aloud, we're reading silently or watching TV. Or on our phones, sadly).

The sisters, two widows named Mrs. Barnes and Mrs. Jewks, then become the focus of the novel. Mrs. Barnes, the elder, is very buttoned-up about their family history and situation so close to the end of the war, and I could see parallels with some of the current racism in our country. But the best part of the novel was the witty dialogue and lovely descriptions of life in the Alps. I did get to visit the Alps when I was in Germany, once on a day trip to Interlaken, and another on a trip to Innsbruck, Austria. I didn't actually visit any chalets but the scenery was stunning. 

Near Wengen, Switzerland

View from the top of Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps 

After a bit of a slow start, I really enjoyed this novel and finished most of it in one sitting. It really picked up after Mrs. Barnes and Mrs. Jewks arrived, and though it doesn't quite have the charm of The Enchanted April, I could see hints of that book which was published only two years later. My only quibble with In the Mountains is that we never really learn that much about the narrator -- aside from never learning her name, we know very little about her family history, her life, or what happened to her in the war. We learn about one significant wartime loss, but that's it. What was her role in the war? Did she lose a husband or sweetheart? She never says. I wonder if she is supposed to represent an everywoman, or that the she is so neutral so that the reader can more easily identify with her. In the Mountains is considered one of von Arnim's lesser novels but I'm very glad I read it. Thanks to again to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting this event, I'm looking forward to the next one!

I'm counting this as my Classic with Nature in the Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and as my book set in Switzerland for the European Reading Challenge


  1. Those photos are beautiful! I can almost breath the fresh, crisp mountain air!

    I've only read The Enchanted April but for sure one of the things I enjoyed about it was the sense of place - the warmth and foliage of Italy in April and it sounds like von Arnim was able to work the same magic in this book.

    1. Definitely! She's very good at setting the scene in all her books. I really felt like I was up in the mountains breathing the fresh air.

  2. Love that cover! I read this for my latest Century of Books, and agree that it's not up there among her best, but I did enjoy it for its evocation of place.

  3. I really must read more Von Armin - I really enjoyed The Enchanted April & I would be curious to compare her style with her cousin, Katherine Mansfield (who I read for the 1920 Club).

  4. It does sound like she was working out the themes for Enchanted April. The setting alone makes this a TBR for me. Incredible photos. Must visit when we can once again travel.