The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim (1914)

Review by Sylvia D:

The Pastor’s Wife is a joy to read. It is witty, thought-provoking, full of wonderful descriptive passages and a fine study of human isolation. The main character, Ingeborg Bullivant, moves from the tyranny of an unbending, pompous Bishop of a father to being helpmeet to a stolid German pastor for whom she held ‘the position next best in his life after the fertilisers’ (p 153). And yet, despite having no friends and like-minded people she can relate too, neglected by her husband and unable to understand her stolid children who closely resemble her mother-in-law, she retains a resilience and a willingness to serve and please that are unthinkable today.

The three men in Ingeborg’s life are extremely unattractive. Her father, the vain Bishop of Redchester, whose ‘personal beauty, his lofty calm, and his biblically flavoured eloquence’ constituted what he thought the perfect bishop should be’ – (p 92) – considers his daughter as ‘very unattractive, entirely designed by Providence for a happy home life’ and, thinking of her as possessed of ‘the mechanical brainlessness’ (p 97) which suits the role, treats her as an unpaid secretary whilst rigorously controlling her behaviour, her reading and her free time.

When Ingeborg announces she is to marry a German pastor whom she has met on a short Dents tour to Switzerland, the Bishop is appalled, not only because he cannot envisage life without her services but also because he could never forgive her for provoking a desire to shake her, thus revealing his true nature:

‘Terrible to be stirred not only to unchristianity but to vulgarity. Terrible to be made to wish that you were not only a Christian but not a gentleman . . . He, a prince of the Church, was rent and distorted by feelings that would have disgraced a curate’ – (p 94).

When Ingeborg “escapes” the stifling life of her family, she moves from one kind of male selfishness to another. Although her husband initially seems to love her and shows a degree of kindness, his life was really only ‘decorated at the edges’ (p 279) by her. His laboratory and field work trying to improve crop yields is essentially the only thing that matters. He makes no attempt to understand her, leaves her to his own devices for long periods in the belief that her chief role is to bear him children and that she will find fulfilment in her maternal role. Much of the time he treats her as a child, patting her and calling her diminutive names which proceed from ‘little one’ when they first meet to ‘little sugar lamb’ through ‘little treasure’ to ‘little sheep’ after she has first born him children. Even the emotion provoked in him by first learning she is pregnant is a transistory thing;

‘. . . the matter being settled and the proper first joy and sentiment felt, he could go on with more concentration than ever with his work, for there would not now be perturbing moments so frequent in the last six months when his wife’s condition, or rather negation of condition, had thrust itself with the annoyance of an irrepressible weed up among his thinking’ – (pp 207-8).

Ingeborg had six difficult pregnancies within seven years (two of the children survived) but was so weakened and debilitated that she had to go away to convalesce and it becomes evident that the only way she can avoid further pregnancies is to cease to have sex with her husband. Dremmel now emerges as the self-interested man he really is;

‘She was to be his wife but not his wife . . . She had decreed, this woman who had nothing to decree, that there were to be no more Dremmels . . . Her moral obliquity shocked him, her disregard for the give and take necessary if a civilised community is to continue efficient’ – (p 294).

The diminutives disappear and she becomes ‘Ingeborg’, he takes to kissing her on the forehead and she is transformed into ‘a gentle maiden sister who on the demise of his wife had taken over the housekeeping;’ – (p 310). He becomes even more distant and wrapped up in his work.

Ingeborg then meets celebrated artist, Edward Ingram. He presents himself as a passionate man and seems genuinely attracted by her innocences and attractiveness. He says he wants to paint her to capture her happiness. They flatter each other but Ingram is in essence a philanderer. He persuades Ingeborg to travel to Italy with him on the pretext that he can paint her portrait in his Venice studio and sits on the train watching her as ‘a cat watching its own dear mouse . . . its mouse that, annexed and safely incorporated, was going to do it so much good and make it twice the cat it was before;’ – (p 409).

I did find Ingeborg’s naivety in respect of his true intentions rather contrived. Perhaps when she does realise and decides to return to her husband, she really had no choice but the reception she gets is not what she expected and it is evident that Dremmel is no longer concerned with her. She seems to be back at the point where when her family rejected her because of her engagement she was prompted to cry out; ‘Oh, oh . . . doesn’t anybody love me?’ – (p 82).

The secondary characters are beautifully drawn; Ingeborg’s mother who has taken to the sofa as the only way of coping with life, her silent, unblinking mother-in-law who cannot understand why her son has chosen to marry this animated English girl and the stiff, buttoned-up Baroness Glambeck who does her duty by presenting her husband with babies six Christmases running and then switches to cigar cases!

There are some passages that made me laugh out loud, especially the betrothal scene which is attended by seven Dents tour ladies because Dremmel, unsure which is Ingeborg’s hotel room, puts his letter beneath each door on her landing ‘strong in the knowledge that she would inevitably get one of them’ – (p 53). There are also scenes amusing to the reader – but bewildering or embarrassing for Ingeborg – that arise from cross-cultural misunderstandings.

It is said that The Pastor’s Wife is partly autobiographical. It certainly brings home how the nature of family life, marriage, child-bearing, gender relationships and women’s freedom of choice have changed over the past 100 years in some parts of the world.

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