Jennifer Dodge made a promise to her dying mother that she wouldn’t leave home but would stay and take care of her father. Twelve years later, after a life of dutiful drudgery to her aloof and unapproachable parent, her father announces his marriage to a woman more than ten years younger than his daughter.
Jen seizes the opportunity to leave home and live a life of her own. While her father and his new wife are on their honeymoon, she leases a cottage in the country and moves in. With a small inheritance from her mother she plans to live frugally and pursue her own interests.
Father by Elizabeth Von Arnim was published in 1931 at a time when there was a shortage of eligible men and many women who remained single were left dependent upon their relatives.
Father explores the difficulties this presented in the lives of two very different women, Jen and Alice, whose circumstances brought them into contact with each other.
Jen’s father dominated her and Alice had absolute control over her younger brother, James’ life. James was the vicar in a country village and Alice was sovereign over their home, keeping a tight rein over anything to do with her brother and thus keeping her position secure.
“What a mercy it was that Alice was only his sister, and not his wife; for so at least, though he had to listen to her during the day, he hadn’t got to during the night.”
The two women meet when Jen leases the cottage attached to the vicarage and suddenly Alice feels that her position is under threat.
Meanwhile, Father’s marriage isn’t working out as he had planned and Jen’s new life is threatened.
Elizabeth Von Arnim writes about some serious topics that in someone else’s hands could turn quite dark. In all her books that I’ve read so far she somehow manages to insert an undertone of humour. She writes beautifully and is very descriptive, sometimes to the point of overdoing it. For example, she lets the reader into the thoughts of her characters as they go back and forth, questioning their decisions and the actions of others, etc. For some people I think this would be really annoying and they’d be happier to skip a lot of it but I find it enjoyable as her humour often shines when she does this.
“There came a moment, she imagined, in the lives of most unmarried daughters, and perhaps in other people’s too, when they must either bolt or go permanently under.”
I loved the way Jen’s personality developed in the course of the story. Her father took her for granted and thought she was unattractive and dumpy, a disaffected female relative whom he selfishly used but didn’t appreciate.
“Those years in the back diningroom, like some dark tunnel through which one emerges into sunshine, had ended for her in glory. All the time she had been so miserable, she had really been heading straight for this.“
Jen lived a hidden life consumed by the demands of her father.
“With father, she had never once, in her whole life, been natural. Probably no obedient creature, she thought, could be so, no creature whose time was spent carrying out orders, and dodging round as the shadow and echo of another human being; no person, that is, who was in any way a slave.“
“…listening with absorbed attention more to her voice than to what she was saying, and thinking how like she was, flowering through her voice into beauty in the darkness, to some butterflies he had come across in the Swiss mountains the summer before. When they were folded up they were grey, mothlike creatures that one might easily overlook, but directly they opened their wings they became the loveliest things in the world, all rose-colour or heavenly blue. So had she been to him in the daylight that afternoon,—an ordinary woman, not in any way noticeable; but now listen to her, opening into beauty on the wings of her voice!”
This lovely copy of the book has been newly published by the British Library – Women Writers 1930’s.
‘Part of a curated collection of forgotten works by early to mid-century women writers, the British Library Women Writers series highlights the best middlebrow fiction from the 1910s to the 1960s, offering escapism, popular appeal, and plenty of period detail to amuse, surprise, and inform.’