Review by Thecla W:
Jennifer Dodge (Jen), 33, is the spinster daughter of a writer. She promised her dying mother that she would never leave father and for 12 years she has managed his household and acted as his secretary.
One day, out of the blue, father comes home with a young second wife. Jen feels absolved from her obligations and, while the newlyweds are on their honeymoon, she rents a cottage in Sussex in which she plans to live on the £100 per annum left to her by her mother.
In Sussex she meets the Rev. James Ollier and his sister, Alice. It is Alice who runs the parish and, to a great extent, James.
Jen and James are drawn to each other. Alice sees this and does all she can to thwart the development of their relationship, even insisting that James take her on holiday to Switzerland. Meanwhile, father sees no need for his marriage to change Jen’s position in his household and regards her desire to set up home for herself in the country as an expression of a wish to punish him.
Will Jen succeed in standing up to father and James to Alice?
I found this novel absolutely delightful. On the surface, it is a light, romantic comedy but there are more serious undertones concerning people’s need for independence. The more despotic characters are treated in a pleasingly satirical way.
Von Arnim shows us two pictures of domestic tyranny. Jen’s father has treated her as a housekeeper and secretary for 12 years. Everything in the house is subordinated to his writing, for example, no noise is permitted lest he be disturbed. Jen has never been able to do things she’d like to do, such as gardening.
Superficially, James and Alice have a more equal relationship but at home and in the parish it is Alice who makes most of the decisions. James finds it hard to stand up to her.
Von Arnim shows how sudden change (for Jen,father marrying again; for James, Jen moving to the village) can act as a catalyst, enabling the downtrodden to see other possibilities in life and begin to rebel.
One thing which particularly struck me about this novel was its intense physicality. Characters’ personalities, desires, emotions are made manifest in various physical ways.
For Jen, freedom is partly about being able to be physically active rather than hunched over a typewriter.She likes to exercise until she perspires. In London this was difficult; she used sometimes to go and walk up and down Primrose Hill 10 times to achieve this. In Sussex,she trudges up to the top of the Downs on a hot day and at the top takes off her hat and holds her arms away from her body to feel the air around her. When arranging the cottage and tackling the garden she longs to develop her flabby muscles.
By contrast , when father visits unexpectedly when she has been gardening, he suggests that she could have washed. When James kisses her, her response is to be angry at “kisses of such dreadful ravenousness that they had forced the horrid thought on her that she was food being gobbled up”. [Reminiscent of Wemyss and Lucy in 1921’s Vera! – Erica]
Netta, father’s young wife, begins to regret her marriage. Father describes her thus:
“standing as usual as near the door as she could get – from the first she had stood and sat as near doors as possible.”
There are descriptions of the luscious smells of high summer in Sussex,contrasted with the dark hall in Gower Street “like the entrance to a tomb”.
Both Alice and father are rather rigid, narrow-minded and convinced that they are right. Nor are they sensitive to physical signs of emotion. When James rushes home in embarrassment after kissing Jen, he is found by Alice “long legs stretched out anyhow, his face strangely flushed, his eyes…wild”. Alice thinks he must be ill and fetches a thermometer.
In the end, James does manage to escape from Alice and goes to Gower Street where Jen is tending to father who has been ill. She is torn between love for James and duty to father. Then father providentially dies.
The story has the traditional happy ending but the sharpness of von Arnim’s treatment of the less sympathetic characters in particular and the outright amusement to be derived from the various social misunderstandings she portrays (she is very good on this) lift it above the conventional.