Reviewing a classic: Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

Once again I owe a lot to Heidenkind, my good Internet friend and an excellent reviewer, who encouraged me to read Vera – thank you very much! Her short but incisive and funny review can be found here.

Synopsis:           

The same day her father died Lucy Entwhistle met her future husband, Everard Wemyss. Everard, a 45-year-old London Stock Exchange broker, has lost his wife, Vera, not long ago. An accident, a suicide? Nobody knew. Anyway Everard understood Lucy’s situation splendidly. He understood and helped – with the funeral, with the feeling of utter loss and mayhem, with her tears and isolation. He was so helpful that after a day or two Lucy, just 22, couldn’t imagine a more understanding, better, kinder man alive. Wemyss was anything and everything she could need: a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, a playmate, a troubleshooter, a suitor. Somebody you can count on.

Soon enough she found herself engaged and married to that paramount of all manly virtues – in other words a man she barely knew. After their honeymoon in France Wemyss decided that they should go to The Willows, his country house, a place haunted by the presence of his late wife who had her fatal accident and died there. Lucy, although extremely unwilling, had to acquiesce to it. Already during their honeymoon she found out that a cross Wemyss could turn into a pretty disagreeable, even boorish man, a complete stranger. Will she manage to play her role of a meek, dutiful, complacent  ‘baby’? How much will it cost her?

My impressions:

When you read the synopsis without knowing anything about the life and work of Elizabeth von Arnim (née Mary Annette Beauchamp) you might think it is just a story about a hasty marriage gone wrong. That’s why I think you can truly appreciate that novel only after you find out more about its background. It is, in fact, a black comedy, a very subtle and toned-down comedy but still.

Firstly there is the marital experience of Elizabeth herself. In 1891, she married Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, a Prussian aristocrat, whom she had met during an Italian tour with her father. They lived in Berlin and eventually moved to the family estate of von Arnim  in the country. Arnim would later refer to her domineering husband as the “Man of Wrath”. The fact that he also had increasing debts and was eventually sent to prison for fraud didn’t help. After all the couple had to cater for five children, four daughters and a son. This was when Elizabeth launched her career as a writer by publishing her semi-autobiographical, brooding, yet satirical novels. Writing was her refuge from what turned out to be a rather incompatible marriage. Count von Arnim died in 1910. You might say that event filled his widow with too much hope and optimism. In 1916 Elizabeth married John Francis Stanley Russell, 2nd Earl Russell –  at first glance quite a catch for a not exactly wealthy widow with five kids. However Earl Russell was mainly known for his dalliances and love for cars. The marriage ended even sooner than the first, in acrimony.  Elizabeth fled to the United States and the couple separated in 1919. They never divorced but they never reconciled either – a complete disaster.

Vera is called a semi-autobiographical book because it is supposed to reflect exactly the disastrous second marriage of her author. The childishly cruel, overbearing  and dull Everard Wemyss was modelled on Earl Russell although, I suppose, von Arnim might have given him a trait or two  of her first Prussian husband as well – that cruel streak or the unflinching punctuality sounded very Prussian to me. Still you should remember that the book is also a parody of Rebecca, a Gothic romance by Daphne du Maurier, which was published for the first time one year before WWII and has been moderately popular ever since.

The premise of both, Rebecca and Vera, is practically the same. They feature a very young, inexperienced girl, barely in her twenties but looking much younger, in other words a juicy morsel for any baby snatcher. After a very short period of courtship she marries a wealthy, urbane man twice her age, allegedly completely smitten with her, a widower but so conveniently without children. In both cases his late wife’s mysterious shadow follows the new missus like a curse. Still while in Rebecca we are soon immersed in very dramatic twists and turns of the darkly Gothic plot, whatever it means, evolving incessantly along that old ‘maybe-he-loves-me-maybe-he-loves-me-not’ problem, in Vera the tension is built slowly by adding small details, making the main characters face different trivial situations, while the reader is practically sure, up to a point of course, they do love each other very much.

However, what at first appears to be just a different and quirky romance, soon turns out to be an accusation of egoism and dominance in relationships. Everard transforms from a cuddly teddy bear who has some quirks but is basically harmless, into a narrow-minded despot. There are funny moments, breaking the narrative in an ingenious way, but more often than not I admit the laughter simply died in my throat because Lucy was such a painfully naïve child when it came to basic psychology. After a while she saw no other option but to become Everard’s doormat, repeating parrot-fashion his opinions and following his plans like an automaton. Once again, if you know nothing about von Arnim’s life and Rebecca, the book she mocked, you might get easily annoyed with Lucy but keeping the proper background in mind her character, although still frustrating, makes a lot of dreadful sense.

Finally the thing I liked the most was the fact that while in Rebecca the dead wife proved to be definitely a black hat and the cause of almost all misfortunes of the main heroine, the hasty marriage included, you cannot help thinking that Lucy would only have profited from even a short conversation with the first wife of Everard.  Vera sounded positively cute.

Final verdict:

Very intelligent and subtly ironic novel with an inconclusive ending and a heroine you would want to murder for her lack of spine. I had a lot of fun while reading it; still I wish it were less bleak. If only Lucy had possessed a tiny little spark of independence… I recommend it for all those who are tired of  romance stories in which all male leads are handsome, rich and know the best and the heroines always choose  right  because they follow their heart. And their man. Always.

Some great quotes:

“There was a general conviction in Strorley that the new Mrs. Wemyss must have been a barmaid, a typist, or a nursery governess,—was, that is, either very bold, very poor, or very meek. Else how could she have married Wemyss? ”

“’After all,’ [Miss Entwhistle] said almost entreatingly, ‘what can be better than a devoted husband?’

And the widow, who had had three and knew what she was talking about, replied with the large calm of those who have finished and can in leisure weigh and reckon up: ‘None.’”

Pst, pst:  the novel is a part of Gutenberg project so you can download it for free; it’s enough you follow this link.

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9 Responses to Reviewing a classic: Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. rameau says:

    So, what you are saying is that I should read Rebecca first and then decide whether I want to read Vera too? Clearly, I’ve not read enough classics in my lifetime.

    • You should absolutely read Rebecca first – then you’ll have far more fun with Vera. And,as both positions are classic, your statistics will improve considerably ;p.

  2. blodeuedd says:

    Hm it does sound pretty good

  3. heidenkind says:

    This was pretty dark and cynical. I can’t believe I enjoyed it so much, but Everard is SO AWFUL. It’s like watching a train wreck.

    • Everard was awful but also very real, even though presented with exaggeration. Pure enjoyment guaranteed ;p and yes, it was dark. When I finished I was thinking that poor Lucy wouldn’t live another year for sure.

  4. Red Witch says:

    Her story reminds me a little of Colette’s (the French writer) wretched first marriage.

  5. Pingback: Reviewing a classic: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier | portable pieces of thoughts

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