Saturday, January 16, 2021

Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim

 Love this cover image, The Letter by Mary Cassatt (1890). 

Another book that's been on my radar forever. I love Elizabeth von Arnim and I've been saving this one for awhile -- I read two by von Arnim last year (Father and In the Mountains) and though I still own several unread, I'm trying to ration them out -- I know I'll be sad when I've completed them all.

Anyway. Published in 1907, Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther is a departure for von Arnim -- it's an epistolary novel, told in letters spanning a little more than a year, from a young woman in Germany (the eponymous Rose-Marie Schmidt) to her sometime lover, Mr. Roger Anstruther. Roger, a young Englishman of 25, has spent the past year boarding with Fraulein Schmidt, her step-mother, and her father in the small town of Jena in eastern Germany. Herr Schmidt is a professor and makes very little money writing books that no one reads, so the family takes in English students for extra cash. Rose-Marie also has a small legacy from her mother, who died ten years ago. At 25 (the same age as Roger) she is considered a spinster. 

Nice period-appropriate image on this German edition

The first letter is sent from Rose-Marie to Roger shortly after he departs Germany, and reveals that on his last day, he has professed his love to Rose-Marie, and they are secretly betrothed -- secretly, because his father will never approve. Roger is from a Good English Family who have a long history, but little money. Rose-Marie is considered middle-class and therefore Not Good Enough, though her late mother was English. Roger is entering the Foreign Service and is therefore destined to marry someone with money, and preferably someone whose social standing will help advance his career. 

After a few months, [MILD SPOILER ALERT] Roger breaks off the engagement because, as predicted, he needs to marry someone with money. He then becomes betrothed to the perfect girl, but continues to write as a friend to Rose-Marie. The letters become more formal but it's pretty clear that they still care for one another -- but how much? Does Rose-Marie still love him? Can she forgive him, or has she moved on? Does he even deserve her? 

This cover art is from an 1883 painting by Renoir -- too early, but I get why they chose it. 

I liked this book but it wasn't what I expected; first of all, the letters are one-sided -- the reader only gets Rose-Marie's letters to Roger, not the other way around. There are 83 letters, some very long, some very short, so there are no chapter breaks, and some of the letters are just solid blocks of text which are a little difficult to read. However, I loved the character of Rose-Marie and I particularly enjoyed learning about her life in Germany. I could easily picture the little town of Jena, which is a real place about halfway between Frankfurt and Dresden, not far from the border of Czechia. It's about a four-hour drive from my village in the Rhineland, and I'm sorry I didn't read the book sooner so I could have made a weekend trip to visit the area and get a real look at it. 

Rose-Marie is a great character and you really get to know her through her letters. She's very smart and funny and has to put up with a lot, with her absent-minded father and her overbearing stepmother, not to mention all the village biddies who make cracks about her unmarried state. Parts of the book do veer into the philosophical which made my eyes glaze over a bit (lots of love for Goethe, not my favorite writer!) but I did get caught up in the plot and I was really rooting for Rose-Marie. I particularly loved this passage in which she describes how much reading means to her: 

Try to imagine yourself in my place. Come out of that gay world of yours where you are talking or being talked to all day long, and suppose yourself Rose-Marie Schmidt, alone in Jena, on a hill, with books. Suppose yourself for hours and hours every day of your life with nothing particular that you must do, that you have no shooting, no hunting, no newspapers, no novels. . . . Think of what writers are to me. . . . 

My one complaint is that it ends very abruptly, and the reader doesn't really learn what happens to Rose-Marie. I was rather gobsmacked about the ending -- I really wanted more resolution! However, I did really enjoy this book. I still have four unread books by Elizabeth von Arnim on my shelves and will probably read at least one more of her books this year, probably The Caravaners, which I'm planning to read (finally!) as my Travel or Journey Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

I'm counting this as my German book for the European Reading Challenge

6 comments:

  1. I adore this book and think it's von Arnim's best. She is so skillful in the way she handles the one-sided correspondence, illustrating for us not just Rose-Marie's character but also Roger's (which is sadly lacking) and the entire small, limited world in which Rose-Marie lives. Mostly, I love the character of Rose-Marie, with her energy and resilience, her ability to be happy in the face of an inconstant lover (the letters post-engagement are the best) and domestic life in a place where she clearly does not fit in. Your wonderful review has made me want to reread it all over again!

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    1. I really liked it but I so wish I knew what happened to Rose-Marie! I'm so conditioned to wanting everyone to live Happily Ever After but that doesn't mean she needs to end up married, does it? Maybe she'll just end up translating books for all the other German academics like her father.

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  2. Thanks for putting this book on my radar. I need to read an epistolary novel for a reading challenge.

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  3. Having read into EvA's life last year for my post about Eliz and Her German Garden, I suspect this story is based on the young writers who came and stayed with EvA and family over the years - including E M Forster and Hugh Walpole.
    This sounds rather delightful - so thanks for sharing.

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    1. I forgot about them! Wasn't Forster one of her children's tutors? I didn't know about Walpole, but I don't know anything about him.

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