In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim (1920)

The first edition of this novel was published anonymously, though it must have been obvious to readers familiar with Elizabeth’s style that she was the author.

The contemporary Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote that the novel, ‘by an anonymous but surely by a very practised hand, holds a peculiar quality of surprise. […] Behind the exceedingly careful, often the exquisite, workmanship of the little tale lies a strength of emotion, of character, of dramatic situation, that breaks through with unexpected suddenness.’ (26 August 1920)

Review by George Simmers:

This is quite a hard novel to review. Very little happens in it. Important information about the characters is hidden from the reader. The pleasures are all in the subtleties, and in the author’s skilful manipulation of the narrative.

This novel is in the form of a diary, written by a woman whose name we never learn, in the late summer and autumn of 1919. Immediately after Peace Day (the official celebration of the end of the Great War, on July 19th) she travels to Switzerland, and the ‘the little house on the mountain side’ (3) that she had not visited for five years. She has returned alone, although ‘we’ left it in 1914.

What has happened to her during those five years is unclear but ‘What has happened has taken away my faith in goodness [….] and the hurt goes too far down to be healed’ (14)

The mountain landscape, the friendly couple who have been looking after the house, and thoughts of books and reading make the diary entries less melancholy. (She tells herself off because the earlier ones are ‘whining’).

We learn something about her. She knew Henry James well enough to offer her services to him as a Boswell to his Johnson. She jokes about a volume of Henry James, lost from the rest of the set, ‘lost even, it looked like, to propriety, held tight between two ladies. The ladies were Ouida and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. They would hardly let him go, they had got him so tight.’ (23) (Is this a sly joke about James’s homosexuality? We can’t be quite sure.) Her bookshelves hold works by daring and unorthodox authors like Samuel Butler, George Moore and Bertrand Russell. Later we learn that she admires Lytton Strachey. Possibly this selection of authors offers a clue about the spirit in which von Armin wants her book to be read.

The book’s story really begins when two English ladies dressed in black appear outside the house. The diarist invites them in, and is slightly disconcerted when they fall asleep, but she is too polite to disturb them. When they wake, it is very late for them to make the return journey, and so they stay the night. They end up staying for two months.

They are Mrs Barnes (Kitty) and Mrs Jewkes (Dolly). They are immensely pleasant and polite, but there is some mystery attached to Mrs Jewkes. Mrs Barnes dominates her, and manages never to let the diarist alone with her. The diarist guesses that she is not Jewkes but Juchs, and that, having married a German, she must be persona non grata back in England. This turns out to be true, but not the whole story. When her German husband was killed in the war, Dolly married again – to a man who was not only a German, but also her former husband’s uncle, a marriage forbidden according to the lists in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, but apparently legal in Germany. It is this crime against strict religious propriety that so disturbs Mrs Barnes.

The book’s comedy comes from the observation of social awkwardnesses and proprieties. The diarist dares not ask direct questions about Dolly because to do so would breach good manners, and because Mrs Barnes is so obviously good:

What is it about Mrs. Barnes that makes Dolly and me sit so quiet and good? I needn’t ask: I know. It is because she is single-minded, unselfish, genuinely and deeply anxious for everybody’s happiness and welfare, and it is impossible to hurt such goodness. Accordingly we are bound hand and foot to her wishes, exactly as if she were a tyrant. (144)

She remarks later ‘The good do bind one very heavily in chains.’ (145)

The women engage in contests of kindness and unselfishness – each trying to be most generous to the other until they reach a stalemate in which nobody is happy.
What happens rather subtly over the two months is that the diarist’s sadness disappears from the diary. She is so fascinated by her two visitors that she forgets to feel sorry for herself. The reader has almost forgotten her sadness too, when Dolly, alone with her at last, offers sympathy, and a recognition that she too is a woman who has been hurt.

The complications of the women’s visit are resolved unexpectedly, and in a very amusing manner. I shouldn’t reveal how, but it has to do with the appearance of another uncle, a Dean, the diarist’s highly respectable ecclesiastical relative.

I think that this is a brilliantly written novel. The diary form allows each day’s events to be a surprise to the narrator as well as to the reader. It also allows things to go unexplained; we become increasingly aware of subtexts of unstated sadness and unfulfilled relationships.

The authors referenced near the start give a clue about how the book should be read. Lytton Strachey, Samuel Butler and Bertrand Russell were critics of Victorianism, and Mrs Barnes is a Victorian figure, restraining the more instinctive and natural Dolly (and it will be Dolly’s instinctiveness and general loveliness that brings about the happy ending).

Mrs Barnes would probably have disliked this book, since she disapproves of modern literature in general:

‘Ah,’ she said, shaking her head, ‘there are very few really good novels. We don’t care, of course, except for the very best, and they don’t appear to be printed nowadays.’
‘I expect the very best are unprintable,’ murmured Mrs. Jewks, her head bent over her knitting, for it was one of the moments when she too was engaged on socks.
‘There used to be very good novels,’ continued Mrs. Barnes, who hadn’t I think heard her, ‘but of recent years they have indeed been few. I begin to fear we shall never again see a Thackeray or a Trollope. And yet I have a theory—and surely these two writers prove it—that it is possible to be both wholesome and clever.’
‘I don’t want to see any more Thackerays and Trollopes,’ murmured Mrs. Jewks. ‘I’ve seen them. Now I want to see something different.’

This is a novel that offered something different in 1920, and it still reads very well indeed today.

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6 thoughts on “In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim (1920)

  1. “The ladies were Ouida and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. They would hardly let him go, they had got him so tight.’ (23) (Is this a sly joke about James’s homosexuality? We can’t be quite sure.)”

    Would Elizabeth von Arnim have known about James’s homosexuality? Indeed, would anyone alive then who knew about it have thought it widely enough known about to make it worth joking about?
    My own guess is that the joke is that there cannot be many writers in whose literary company James would have been more uncomfortable than Ouida and Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

    • Especially after the Wilde trial, James was keen to hide any hint of homosexuality, but Elizabeth von Arnim was the mistress of H. G. Wells between 1910 and 1913. Since Wells knew all the dirt on James, and put some of it into his novel Boon (1915), I’d have said she would have been very well placed to have heard whispers about James’s sexuality.

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