As I said on my previous post, there aren’t many writers that make me want to read everything they ever wrote or will write. Elizabeth von Arnim is one of them, all because of the lingering effect of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, that was written just for me.
So after Enchanted April, I picked up her 1914 work, The Pastor’s Wife. It’s the story of Ingeborg, the sheltered daughter of an English Bishop, the “plain sister”, considered by all as forgettable and of no consequence. Because of her ”unmarriageable” status, she becomes her father’s secretary and everyone, including Ingaborg, is ready to settled down to a life of not much at all.
Until the day a toothache brings Ingaborg to London, where her dentist solves her problem in no time, leaving her with two weeks to spend in the city by herself. On a reckless moment she signs up for a week-long tour of Lucerne, in Switzerland and that’s where she meets German Lutheran Pastor Herr Dremmel.
There are two distinct parts in the novel: pre- and post-marriage. If it wasn’t for Ingaborg’s father, the first part would be a perfect example of von Arnim at her funniest, lightest and wittiest. But I’m considering putting the Bishop on my list of worst literary villains, right there with Dolores Umbridge and Mrs. Danver. He’s not the murderous type, but his lack of empathy, self-righteousness and relentless intolerance probably cause more damage. The Bishop is a nasty passive-aggressive emotional bully. Every single dialogue with him was hard to go through, but unfortunately von Arnim didn’t give me the show-down with Herr Dremmel I was hoping for. Oh what a magnificent scene that would have been!
My expectations to see married Ingaborg develop into a liberated and confident person were also unfulfilled. Her marriage is a happy, but lonely one. Herr Dremmel has his own pursuits (manure!) and Ingaborg must navigate alone a different country, language and culture. Hilarity often ensues, but despite some really laugh-out-loud scenes and the general wit of the first part, this is not a happy-go-lightly book.
Ingaborg’s loneliness is inescapable: her monomaniac husband, her bigoted mother-in-law, her attempts to connect to her children and an uninterested community. Surprisingly, it’s also difficult for the reader to connect with her. I agree with Claire that Ingaborg is a “likeable heroine, if not necessarily a sympathetic one”. Her lack of consciousness of herself was my main barrier.
She is utterly insensible of what others think of her. She also seems unaware that she can have a say in her destiny, much less rebel again what others want of for her. She’s been meticulously trained by the Bishop to bend to his will, so it comes naturally to bend to Herr Dremmel’s will as well. Even when she takes the decision to quit the marriage bed after child-bearing nearly kills her, almost instantly upon recovery the next overwhelming man enters her life. Here is Herr Drumeel’s thoughts when considering Ingaborg after her decision:
A wife who is not a wife, but who persists in looking as if she were one, can be nothing but a goad and a burden for an honest man. Either she should look like someone used up and finished or she should continue to discharge her honourable functions until such time as she developed the physical unattractiveness that placed her definitely on the list of women one respects.
It was really a very interesting book, a fine balance of light and shadow that in the hands of a less subtle writer could go very melodramatic or boring. It’s not a story of female rebellion against control or a cautionary tale of the consequences of not having free will. For me it was all about the limited options of Ingaborg and the women of her time. In her case: a tyrant father, a distant husband, or an egotistical lover? As the Portuguese proverb goes, evil for evil, let the Devil come and choose.
Just a final note to say I was very surprised at how realistically von Arnim described a difficult birth and breastfeeding experience. She did not bother with gentle hints and prude innuendos, and as someone who went though something similar, she has my respect.