Monday, December 3, 2012

Daughter, wife, muse

The Pastor's Wife, Elizabeth von Arnim

When I started this book, I had only the vaguest idea of the plot: that the title character leaves her home in England to marry a German pastor.  I expected it would draw on Elizabeth von Arnim's own experiences in meeting and marrying Count Henning von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and moving with him to Germany in 1890.  As I read it, I kept thinking that I knew where the story was going, only to find myself mistaken, as the plot twisted off into a new direction.  In the end, all my expectations were wrong - or perhaps I should say my presumptions.  I was constantly re-evaluating the book as I was reading, which left me feeling off-balance.  It was the oddest reading experience I've had in a long time.

Just a warning, there will be spoilers ahead.

I don't mean to give the impression that I didn't enjoy this book, because I did, very much.  This is Elizabeth von Arnim at her sharpest and most satirical, and wickedly funny.  The humor here reminded me of The Caravaners, one of my favorites among her books.  But the central character of The Pastor's Wife is much more sympathetic than Baron Otto von Ottringel, who narrates The Caravaners and is neatly skewered throughout.  I was drawn to Ingeborg Bullivant from the first page, walking down Regent Street on an April morning, delightfully alone.  The elder daughter of the Bishop of Redchester in the west country, 22 years old, she lives a busy life in the Palace, acting as her father's secretary, representing her sofa-bound mother on social occasions, and chaperoning her sister Judith to parties and dances.  She owes her unprecedented freedom to dental problems that required a specialist's care.  Her family wanted her restored to health and activity as soon as possible, so her father sent her off to London with £10 and instructions not return until she was better, even if it took a week or ten days.

It took the dentist no time at all to extract the problem tooth, leaving Ingeborg free for the day in London.  She is considering how to spend her 24 hours before catching the train home when she sees a poster outside an office: "A Week In Lovely Lucerne, Seven Days For Seven Guineas."  Hardly stopping to think, she walks into the office and pays her fee, for a tour leaving the next day.  Good for her, I thought.  Here is her declaration of independence, from father and Palace.  She will find a new life opening up for her in Lucerne.

Well, yes and no.  On the train to Dover, she is seated across a person who is obviously a foreigner.  When they fall into conversation, she learns that he is Robert Dremmel, a Lutheran pastor who proclaims that his real vocation is manure (to the shock of their neighbors).  He has devoted himself to scientific agriculture, to improve the poor soil of eastern Prussia, where he lives.  As the tour continues, Herr Dremmel finds himself falling in love with Ingeborg, in part because (trained by her father) she is an excellent listener, "intelligent without argument, a most comfortable compound..."  Though he has never seriously contemplated marriage before, he soon decides that he will marry her.  She is taken aback by his proposal, she dislikes what she terms his "clutchings," and she is not in love with him.  Robert simply talks over all her objections and arranges a formal betrothal ceremony.  In one of my favorite scenes, he slips a note under Ingeborg's door to inform her that the ceremony will take place the next morning: "Since no man can be betrothed alone, it will be necessary that you should be there."  However, not knowing which is her room, he put identical notes under eight doors, and seven women find their way to the room before Ingeborg.  She arrives determined to say no, but she is overwhelmed by the witnesses and Robert's calm assumption of their engagement.

She returns to Redchester to break the news of her betrothal to a Lutheran pastor from east Prussia, and all hell breaks loose in the Palace.  As painful as the events are for Ingeborg, they are great fun to read.  Von Arnim saves some of her sharpest knives for the Bishop, "handsome as an archangel, silvery of head and gaitered of leg," who is furious over her rebellious and undutiful behavior, which will deprive him of his unpaid secretary.  (The separation from a daughter goes unremarked.)  Her mother will not help her.  Though perfectly well, she spends her days on the sofa.  Early in her married life she "discovered in it a refuge and a very present help in all the troubles and turmoils of life, and in especial a shield and a buckler when it came to dealing with the Bishop."  Ingeborg's younger sister Judith has just become engaged to the Master of an Oxford college, a man her father's age, who will soon (in the Bishop's mind) leave her "the most magnificent of widows."  If Judith seems unenthusiastic about her own coming marriage, she joins her father in disdaining Ingeborg's. To show their displeasure, her parents and Judith effectively shun Ingeborg.  After a week of such treatment, it is hardly surprising that she welcomes Robert's arrival in Redchester.  His ardent courtship seems to offer her love, a life outside the narrow confines of the Palace, and in response her feelings toward him grow warmer (though she still dislikes the clutching).

They are married by the Bishop in the Cathedral at Redchester and set off for Robert's Prussian home, a small village called Kökensee.  At this point, I expected perhaps a story of adjustment, both to marriage and to Germany.  I wondered how a daughter of an Anglican palace would learn to be a Lutheran pastor's wife.  I thought that this might become the story of how Ingeborg, like Elizabeth von Arnim, eventually found her way to her own German garden.  Well, yes and no.  Ingeborg is not the first to find a great difference between a courting suitor and a husband.  Once back on his home soil, Robert reverts to his vocation of scientific agriculture, locking himself into his study to to carry out his experiments with grain and manure.  He is kind to Ingeborg when he notices her.  He alternates Sunday services between the two churches in his parish, preaching one of the 26 sermons that he keeps on hand, rotating them through each year (the parish particularly enjoys the annual Advent sermon on the slaughter of pigs, anticipating their Christmas sausages).  His parishioners are quite satisfied with their disengaged shepherd, and they make it clear to Ingeborg that they don't need "Frau Pastor" trying to practice good works among them.

Ingeborg finds herself with few responsibilities, and her first summer in her new home is one of glorious freedom.  She wanders through the woods and the fields, she luxuriates in flowers and birds and berries, she takes a punt along the shore of a neighboring lake.  As the winter closes in, curtailing her expeditions, she learns that after many false starts, she is pregnant with her first child.  The news brings Robert to tears of joy.  Aha, I thought, a new chapter of her life opening up.  Deprived of her parents' love and care, with a husband mentally and physically absent, she will find joy in motherhood, in her children, perhaps her own "April, May and June babies."  Wrong again. 

After a difficult pregnancy, as Robert grows impatient with her illness and her increasing size, she almost dies during a botched delivery.  She suffers an injury nursing the child, a boy named for his father, and she struggles for months with postpartum depression.  When she finally recovers enough to notice the baby again, she is dismayed not to feel the love that everyone tells her is a mother's highest and best feeling.  She is equally dismayed to find that, just as she is feeling herself again, making plans to return to her walks, her punt, to introduce the baby to the wonders of the world, she is pregnant again.  The cycle repeats itself five more times in the next six years, though only her second child, a daughter, survives with Robertlet.  This section makes for grim reading.  Von Arnim herself had five children, and she writes plainly of the difficulties and dangers of pregnancy and childbirth.  Though not explicit in today's terms, it is franker than I expected of a book published in 1914.  I would not recommend this book to a woman in her first pregnancy.

Ingeborg's doctor intervenes after the sixth pregnancy ends with a second still-born child, sending her off with a nurse to a sea-side resort.  She returns after four months, recovering in mind and body.  But she knows that her complete recovery requires more.  She steels her courage to ask the astounded Robert if "this wild career of - of unbridled motherhood" might end?  Immured in his laboratory, Robert might not have much use for a wife, but he does have one, and he absolutely rejects the idea that Ingeborg could refuse to "live with her husband as his wife."  At one point he goes up to their bedroom
to end the matter by the shortest possible route to reason. He would have it out even to the extent of severity and have done with it.  He was the master, and if she forced him to emphasize the fact he would.
Ingeborg escapes the threat of marital rape by having taken refuge in the children's room.  Again, I wondered how this would have read in 1914.  Some must have taken Robert's side, in his traditional view of marriage and wifely duties, but surely there must have been women who saw themselves in Ingeborg's situation.  Again, it is the doctor who intervenes, speaking plain truths to Robert, and telling Ingeborg,
"Your one duty now is to keep well in body and mind, provide your two children with a capable mother and your husband with a companion possessed of the intelligent amiability that springs from good health . . . I will not allow you to turn him, who deserves so well of fate, into that unhappy object a widower."
Unfortunately for Ingeborg, Robert shows no interest in an amiable companion who will not perform her wifely duties.  He ignores her even more persistently than before.  Her two surviving children are round phlegmatic things that show no interest in games or outdoor activities.  They patiently endure their mother's kisses and hugs but give no affection in return.  They much prefer going to school, which means they can board with their German grandmother, who has never approved of her English daughter-in-law.  Neither wife nor mother, Ingeborg must make a life for herself.  Feeling uneducated and provincial, she embarks on a regimen of reading, and she also immerses herself again in nature.

One day, paddling down the lake in the punt, she meets a celebrated English artist, Edward Ingram, who is staying with the local count's family.  Finally, I thought.  Here is someone who will love Ingeborg as she deserves, and rescue her from her small Prussian life.  Wrong again.  Ingram is instantly attracted to her, or to an idea of her, as "a perfect little seething vessel of independent happiness, bubbling over with your own contentments."  Despite his fame, he is restless, driven by his art yet fearing that he is wasting his talents on society portraits.  Separated from his wife, he is a notorious womanizer who soon tires of his conquests.  Ingeborg knows nothing of the seedier side of his life.  She admires his work and relishes the chance to talk with someone so cosmopolitan.  As they continue to meet and to talk, she does not realize that he is falling in love with her, taking his extravagant compliments as teasing.  His compliments go on and on and on, as he proclaims her his soul-mate, his life-force, his muse.  He sketches her constantly, with growing power, and he repeatedly declares that he must paint her.  But he can only paint her in his studio, in Venice, and he begins a campaign to convince her to come with him to Italy.  It is her duty, he tells her, to help him create the masterpiece that her portrait will be.

This is where I began to have trouble with the story.  I could accept that Ingeborg, having lived a constrained life both in Redchester and Kökensee, might not be able to see through the flattery, to see Ingram for what he really is.  I can certainly understand how much she has wanted someone to talk to all those years, and how strongly she feels the lure of travel itself, particularly to Italy.  But I had a hard time accepting that a bishop's daughter and a pastor's wife would agree to travel to Italy with another man, convincing herself that it is just a trip with a friend, while at the same time deceiving her husband to think she is only going on a shopping trip to Berlin.  Yet this self-delusion has quite entertaining consequences: Ingeborg has no idea she is running away with Ingram.  He keeps trying to seduce her, but she is completely distracted with the novelty of travel, with the new scenes opening before her.  To his disgust, she even tries to send Robert postcards along the way, to share her joy with him.  When Ingram finally makes the situation clear, Ingeborg is horrified,  Staying with Ingram never ever crosses her mind.  Her one thought is to get safely back to Robert.  But will he welcome her back, or will he rather punish her for her great sin?

I think that Elizabeth von Arnim meant Ingeborg to be a sympathetic character, through whom she explores the limited roles available to women at the time.  Ingeborg tries to be faithful to her roles as daughter, wife and mother, despite the difficulties that she faces, and to do her duty cheerfully.  Ingram offers what might seem like wider horizons, but eventually she realizes that they come at a steep price, the end of her marriage.  The reader knows, as she doesn't, that she also risks finding herself abandoned when his infatuation wears off.  Though it is unclear when this story is set, by the time it was published in 1914, women in Britain and North America were finding more opportunities for education and careers, as they would in even greater numbers after the Great War ended.  Will those years bring change to Kökensee, to Ingeborg's life?  Will she still be able to find happiness in her essentially solitary life in a small backwards Prussian village?  I want to think so, but she deserves so much more.


  1. As always, an interesting and thoughtful review. I disagree though that von Arnim meant Ingeborg to be viewed sympathetically by the reader. For me, part of the joy of this book is how callously she abuses all of her characters, including Ingeborg. And I certainly don't agree that she deserves so much more! She is passive, pliable and not especially intelligent or thoughtful. Her fate is of her own making and, in the end, I think she lacks the imagination to be really unhappy with her lot in life. After all, you need to be able to imagine the alternatives in order to long for them.

  2. I haven't read any Elizabeth von Armin yet, but I have heard a lot of good things about her books. My mother has a copy of Enchanted April, I think I will borrow it in the new year.

  3. Your first paragraph has intrigued me (I stopped at the spoiler mention). A quick click over to amazon tells me this book is free in kindle format...

  4. Von Arnim amazes me by the way her stories don't go where conventional plots of her time would go. The Pastor's Wife most reminded me of Vera in terms of being an account of a woman marrying against family wishes and then being sorry. I felt for Ingeborg but I wanted her to get to Italy and have sunlight -- but not with somebody who kept thinking "the pains one takes to bed a woman" about her. It's hard to see any way to actual happiness for her -- and I suppose Von Arnim was saying that many people do not find happiness in their lives.

    I haven't read The Caravanners yet.

  5. I felt the same way about this book. Ingeborg is such a strange character; she's sympathetic, but I think that the reader is supposed to have almost as hard a time understanding her as the men in her life do. I loved how both men compared her to a spirit. I kept thinking that she was like a nature spirit (like Undine, maybe?) who was trying to adjust to human life, but could never quite comprehend it.

  6. Thank you all for your comments! As you can probably tell from the length of my post, I'm still wrestling with this book, with what I think it means & how I feel about it - and I very much appreciate your different points. [I still can't find the setting for responding to individual posts (and welcome any hints).]

    Claire, true, no character is safe in this book, but I think Ingeborg comes in for much less of the abuse you mention. She is certainly passive & pliable - the Bishop trained her well - though I don't agree that she lacks intelligence. She hasn't been taught to use her mind, to think for herself, or even to express her opinions (which the Bihsop considers "unwomanly"). For her sake, I hope she can find at least a little peace & happiness again after she returns.

    Joanne, thanks for stopping by! The Enchanted April was the first of her books that I read, and I read it almost in a single sitting - and then immediately went looking for more.

    JoAnn, Girlebooks also has this one & several other von Arnims in e-format. I really like their epubs.

    Jo, thanks also for stopping by. I haven't read Vera yet, but Love is also about a marriage contrary to family wishes & advice. It was lovely to watch Ingeborg's joy in her travels, despite her increasingly cranky companion (rusks and weak tea - for shame!). I hope she gets to Florence and Venice some day.

    elizabeth, that's an interesting comparison with Undine! Of course part of Ingeborg's problem is that the three men in her life are so self-absorbed & selfish - they won't take the time to listen. I was struck by how constantly she is interrupted.

  7. This just sounds sad. Married to someone she doesn't love, suffering the loss of children, and duped by someone she thought a friend - poor thing!

    I've never read Von Arnim and I'm not sure how I feel about starting. Most of the blog posts I've read about her books leave me with mixed feelings.

  8. I've got this one on my Kindle and I was going to read it soon but I think I'll leave it a wee while yet. I usually love von Arnim's books but I want something more uplifting than this one just now.

  9. Anbolyn, she wrote such a range of books. This is the bleakest I've read, but it also has some really funny parts - I do love her humor. The Enchanted April and her best-known book, Elizabeth & Her German Garden, are much sunnier, in both senses of the word. And The Caravaners is almost pure comedy, though at the expense of one clueless character.

    Katrina, I don't think this is a book for a grey day - or a holiday read, though there's a happy Christmas celebration at one point.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!