This is only the second novel I’ve read by Elizabeth von Arnim, but along with Edith Wharton, she has shot up on my reading radar. Both authors have gotten under my skin with their beautiful literary writing and their sensitive treatment of women’s issues and sometimes difficult themes.
In the context of the times in which they lived, they explored subjects that tended to be either avoided or were taboo.
Wharton and von Arnim’s lives overlapped; both were born in the 1860’s and died at age 75 years in 1937 and 1941 respectively. Both belonged to wealthy, upper class families and spent a good portion of their lives in Europe.
Where Edith Wharton wrote with a good dose of realism; Elizabeth Von Arnim’s writing has a gentler, more subtle tone, almost whimsical at times, and in The Enchanted April and Love, she leaves the reader to imagine the long term outcomes of her characters’ lives. I didn’t mind this with the first book but it left the ending of Love uncertain and therefore a little unsatisfying. However, it is a memorable story and has lingered with me.
I keep wondering how everything is working out for these fictional characters!
‘A gentle romance begins innocently enough in the stalls of a London theatre where Catherine is enjoying her ninth and Christopher his thirty-sixth visit to the same play. He is a magnificent young man with flame-coloured hair. She is the sweetest little thing in a hat. There is just one complication: Christopher is 25, while Catherine is just a little bit older. Flattered by the passionate attentions of youth, Catherine, with marriage and motherhood behind her, is at first circumspect, but finally succumbs to her lover’s charms.’
©1925 Elizabeth von Arnim (P)2014 Audible, Inc.
Catherine Cumfrit had been married to a much older man and was a widow for twelve years after his death before she met Christopher. She had a 19 year old daughter, Virginia, who married a man a little older than Catherine herself. He had been waiting for Virginia to come of age for years and snapped her up as soon as she did. They were quite happy together and Virginia was expecting their first child.
Von Arnim contrasts the societal attitudes to both couples and does so with perception and humour, highlighting the obvious hypocrisy where a man could marry a much younger woman and nobody thought twice about it whereas that wasn’t the case if the situation were reversed.
Virginia’s mother-in-law, who was in her 70’s, treated Catherine as if she were the same age as herself, forgetting the fact that Catherine was actually younger than her own middle-aged son.
‘Beginnings were not suitable, she felt, after a certain age, especially not for women. Mothers of the married, such as herself and Mrs. Cumfrit, should be concerned rather with endings than beginnings.’
I enjoyed the ‘omniscient narrator’ aspect of this story where the reader is privy to each character’s thoughts and motives. This worked extremely well, especially in Christopher’s case, and added some very witty and humorous elements.
‘The woman has a beak,’ he thought, standing red and tongue-tied before her. ‘She’s a bird of prey. She has got her talons into my Catherine.’
Love explores attitudes to marriage, ageing, and the complexity of family dynamics.
It is poignant in places, especially where Catherine begins to be anxious about looking older than her husband and being taken for his mother. Later in the story when she takes steps to try to regain her youth, I wondered how on earth Elizabeth Arnim would manage to bring the narrative to a conclusion. A novel twist did it.
The book is out of print but is available secondhand. I highly recommend the Audible version narrated flawlessly by Eleanor Bron if you don’t have a copy of the book.
‘Laughter – one of the most precious of God’s gifts; the very salt, the very light, the very fresh air of life; the divine disinfectant, the heavenly purge. Could one ever be real friends with somebody one didn’t laugh with? Of course one couldn’t.’