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March 2018



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Elizabeth von Arnim: two novels

Chanel jasmine farm from here.

The other day, looking for a completely different book, I found two by Elizabeth von Arnim, which I’ve had for years but never got round to reading. They are Father (1931) and The Jasmine Farm (1934), both in the original Macmillan green cloth editions. In another book I’m reading at the moment, a character who is trying to write an account of his real life adventures marvels that some people are able to write ‘pages and pages about nothing’. Elizabeth von Arnim had this ability all right, and the proof is in these two novels.

Like Princess Priscilla, Father is a book about trying to escape. Written in a curiously light style for the subject matter, it deals with quite serious issues of freedom versus duty and whether achieving the first can justify neglecting the latter. Jennifer, the main character, lives alone with her widowed father, typing his manuscripts (for he is a distinguished writer) and running the household. When Father, astonishingly, appears one day with a new wife who is much younger than his daughter, Jennifer’s reaction is relief. At last she is free! So she rents a country cottage where she meets James, a young clergyman who lives in thrall to his much older sister. Jennifer has run away. Now James’s sister Alice makes him run away abroad because she fears he will marry Jen. Then, horrors, the new little wife runs away! Where is poor Jen’s duty now? To add to the orgy of escape, James tries to run away from his sister, to return home to Jen, but she forestalls him. This all takes place in the form of internal monologues, sometimes amusing, sometimes a leetle long and tedious, and one has a strong desire to bang all the characters’ heads together until they sort themselves out into couples. The ending is rather inconclusive, making it an odd book altogether. There are touches of the von Arnim charm, as when she writes of Alice, ‘For her the hedges in May foamed with white sweetness, and the buttercups turned the fields to glory, in vain. … While as for when the daffodils trooped out in March and took possession of the world, she saw in this recurring miracle merely a sign that lamb would be in season and hastened to order it, roast, for their Sunday dinner.’

For the first half of The Jasmine Farm, the big question is, why the title? For neither jasmine nor farms come into it. The story begins with a country house party and well done if you get through the first chapter. The author’s method of drawing in all the characters is to take each in turn around the luncheon table and record their reaction to being given unripe gooseberries to eat, yet again. Why is our lovely hostess, Lady Midhurst, doing this to us? they wonder. The clue is that she’s worried by terrible suspicions and doubts about the behaviour of her daughter Terence; clever and too good to be true, devoting her life to improving the lot of the poor. Lady Midhurst is a fading beauty, determinedly keeping herself as young as money can make her look. She was disappointed in marriage by an unfaithful husband who then got himself killed in the First World War. Since then she has been a byword for purity and correctness.

Also at the table is an adorable (to look at) little thing called Rosie. She’s married, in name, to a much older man, who sees to Lady Midhurst’s business matters. The scandalous story Lady Midhurst dreads is true. Terence has been having an affair with Rosie’s stick of a husband for several years. The modern reader is horrified to find that the affair began, emotionally at least, when Terry was *ten*. To be fair to Roger, he is horrified when the grown up Terry calmly and rationally demands that they become lovers, but he can’t resist. As a result of a slip at this party, rumour spreads and Lady Midhurst collapses, seeing her life in ruins. What makes the book readable is that Rosie also has a mother, the indomitable Belle, or Mumsie. She is a dreadful woman and by far the liveliest and most sympathetic character in the book. Mumsie has been widowed three times. Unlike Lady Midhurst, she has absolutely no hang ups about sex, is always ‘cheery’ and looking to have a good time. Like her, she makes a great effort to stay attractive. To Mumsie, the scandal is a godsend; she sees it as her entrée into a society which would otherwise spurn her.

In part two, Lady Midhurst runs away, to the tiny farm in the south of France bought for her on her honeymoon. She resolves to stay there, never seeing anyone again. Some hopes! Out come first Mumsie and then other visitors in the farcical last few chapters, which are quite funny. The contrast between the two mothers of different classes and their attitudes to their daughters is the real subject of the book, although the way to their meeting is very convoluted. Looking these books up, I see they’re both hard to get hold of, which isn’t very surprising. Neither is as good as Elizabeth and her German Garden or The Enchanted April. I still quite enjoyed them.


I've read The Jasmine Farm, too, and feel pretty much the same about it as you do.
Glad it's not just me.