Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fräulein Schmidt's letters

Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, Elizabeth von Arnim

I am not quite sure what to say about this book.  As I was reading it, I found my opinion of it, and feelings about it, changing constantly. Elizabeth von Arnim's stories never seem to go in the direction I expect, which can make for an unsettling reading experience.  This wasn't as difficult a book for me as The Pastor's Wife, but days later I am still looking it and thinking, "Hmmmm...."  This post is an attempt to figure out why.  There may be some mild spoilers, for those who haven't read the book.

Published in 1907, this is an epistolary novel, a genre I love.  It consists of letters written by Rose-Marie Schmidt, a young woman of twenty-five living in Jena, a small country town near Berlin.  In the first letter we learn that she has just become engaged to Roger Anstruther, a young Englishman who has been boarding with her family for the past year while studying German.  His declaration and proposal, and her acceptance, were hastily given and received, almost as he was on his way out the door, returning home to England.  Rose-Marie sends her first ecstatic love letter following after him, full of things she had no time to say.

Rose-Marie's love and hopes pour out in frequent letters to Roger, and she is constantly expecting to hear from him, calculating how long it will take letters to reach her from England.  When his begin to arrive, they quickly begin to suggest that he is having second thoughts, and that it is "out of sight, out of mind" with him.  I appreciated Elizabeth von Arnim's skill in building up a picture of Roger solely through Rose-Marie's letters.  He plays such a major part in the story without ever appearing even once, or speaking a word - and yet his character and his personality come through so clearly.  He is obviously the vacillating type, for whom the grass is always greener over the proverbial fence.  Rose-Marie, clinging to her love, trusting her beloved, doesn't see this - or perhaps refuses to.  It was painful to read her letters, knowing what coming, watching her increasing desperation at his silence.  But no sooner does Roger break the engagement, in favor of a rich and well-connected young English girl, a favorite of his father's, than he begins to pine for Rose-Marie again, and to pursue her by letter.  She, slowly recovering from heart-break, answers his letters briefly and reluctantly at first.  As she warms to writing again, she insists it is as a friend only, almost a sister.  She warns him off constantly from any expression of sentiment or emotion, but he doesn't seem to understand how serious she is.  Like Lily Dale, she will not accept love again from someone who proved unworthy of her trust.

That determination, her strength of mind, is part of what makes Rose-Marie such a wonderful heroine.  Other than a few bitter asides, she does not complain to Roger about his caddish behavior.  She simply sets about rebuilding her life.  I admired her for that (while thinking of a few things I'd like to say to Roger myself).  She is a bibliophile, and poetry becomes a solace for her.  She is bright and inquisitive, and somewhere in her small-town life she has learned to think for herself.  Endlessly curious about the world around her, she writes about her neighbors and people she meets, books she is reading, the challenges of housekeeping, what she sees on her walks in the countryside around Jena.  She philosophizes frequently (sometimes at great length) on the big questions of life: love, faith, the role of education, women's place in society.

Part of Rose-Marie's initial joy in her engagement is at the prospect of escaping from small-town provincial life, and from her step-mother Emilie, who brought necessary income but not much happiness to her new home.  Rose-Marie's father has no profession and no money of his own, other than the fees he collects for tutoring.  Known as "the Professor," he is a student of Goethe, a religious free-thinker who scandalizes his conventionally pious neighbors.  He is also a rather unworldly man, writing long books that fail to find a publisher.  The father and daughter have a warm, loving relationship, with shared interests in poetry, and shared jokes.  I can imagine that Emilie must often feel a bit left out, and Rose-Marie recognizes at one point that she has not always been kind to her step-mother, resolving to do better.  The Professor reminded me a bit of Mr. March in Little Women, with Rose-Marie something like Meg and Jo.  I think this is the happiest father-daughter relationship that I have come across in von Arnim's books.

Rose-Marie writes frequently about the beauty of the country-side around Jena, where she loves to ramble (and where she also finds solace for her heart-break).  Her letters also discuss the details of house-keeping on a small budget (including an amusing attempt to become vegetarians, even vegans).  I was fascinated to learn from the introduction to my Virago edition that Elizabeth von Arnim did some personal research for this book, in a small town like Jena, where she disguised herself as an English governess on holiday, boarding with a local family and doing housework in exchange for German lessons.  In a version of "Victor/Victoria," we have an English woman pretending to be a German woman pretending to be an English woman.  I wonder if her employers ever discovered the deception..

Writing as the German "Elizabeth," the English von Arnim frequently skewered the people of her adopted and native countries, particularly the men, in her books.  She was writing with inside knowledge of both, though few of her readers at the time would have known that.  (In fact, Rose-Marie herself is half-English, though she apparently learned little of England from her mother.)  Here Roger is presented as immature, indecisive and completely self-absorbed.  We also get Joey Collins, his successor in the Schmidt household, who is equally immature, interested only in sports.  And while on the German side we have the Professor, we also get his brother, a Berlin banker, another Man of Wrath who snubs his wife and daughters at every turn, as well as his lackadaisical brother; whose own comfort must come before everything else.  And through Rose-Marie's letters von Arnim paints a very unflattering portrait of provincial German life, where the riches of Sunday dinner are contrasted with the cold emptiness of Sunday services, where the women's constant "Kaffee-Klatches" consist mainly of gossip about whichever neighbors aren't present that day.

Teresa just posted about deceptive back cover blurbs, and whoever wrote this one for Virago is equally guilty:
This enchanting story tells of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther.  A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor.  To their home comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love.  But the course of true love does not run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.
Reading this, one would never know that the story starts after Roger has left Jena.  It's not as if we get to see them fall in love, we only learn about that in retrospect, from Rose-Marie's letters.  And that last sentence is completely misleading.  I find the ending rather bleak, and very ambiguous (like others of von Arnim's stories).  There is a hint that she may follow in her creator's footsteps, and become a writer.  I wonder if Elizabeth von Arnim ever thought about the later lives of her characters.  Jane Austen used to tell her family little snippets, like Kitty Bennet marrying a clergyman with a living near Pemberley.  I wish more authors did that.


  1. That blurb is extremely misleading - it sounds like a completely different book than what you've described!
    I've never read Von Arnim, though I own quite a few of her books. They seem to be very plentiful at one of the used bookstores near me and I always end up buying them. I find that her plots are enticing, but her writing is cold to me. I should try her again as I am having success with loving authors on the second try these days.
    Overall, I think this one sounds quite sad.

  2. Yes, what is with that blurb? This book has so much comedy in it (the lentils!) that I thought the ending would be much happier. But I guess I should have expected it from Elizabeth von Arnim; she is not a very optimistic writer when it comes to romance.

  3. Anbolyn, I've had to buy her books on-line, since I rarely see them in the stores. I think they are often rather bleak, but as elizabeth says below, they can be really funny too - in the same book!

    elizabeth, I think Rose-Marie is at peace with her decision, at the end, but you're right, her love stories don't usually have happy endings. I loved the father's more gradual approach to vegetarianism - he wouldn't give up his eggs! It was actually quite a modern discussion, with all the "expert" & conflicting advice R-M was reading.

  4. I don't read enough epistolary novels, now have I read an von Arnim for AGES, so I think I know what I want to read now... ;-)

  5. vicki, hopefully you can find a copy without too much trouble. I started with an e-book edition, I think through Girlebooks. I have Vera on the shelves still, but I know that it one of the traumatic ones.


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!