Ages ago now, back when I was working on motherhood, someone suggested to me I should read Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel, The Pastor’s Wife. Von Arnim can be hard to get hold of, however, (or only at vast expense) so imagine my pleasure on finding a very good secondhand copy in the bookstore over the summer. Whoever made the suggestion was spot on; this is a very intriguing portrait of the disaster motherhood can be when it comes at the wrong time, or to the wrong person. But despite the typical von Arnim narrative quality of wide-ranging humour, from sheer delight in nature to the sniggering behind the hand that she does at men and their foibles, this amused and amusing book imperfectly hides a black heart and some ladylike rage at the impossible condition of love relationships in 1914.
It is basically a buildungsroman, although quite what Ingeborg, the story’s heroine, learns over the course of her life experiences is ultimately uncertain. When it begins, she is the overworked and underappreciated daughter of a very pompous bishop and his sofa-dependent wife. Not that Ingeborg’s mother is ill, she is only clinging to an expedient excuse; ‘It is not easy for the married, she had found when first casting about for one, to hit on a refuge from each other that shall be honourable to both. In a moment of insight she perceived the sofa. Here was a blameless object that would separate her entirely from duties and responsibilities of every sort…All she had to do was to cling to it, and nobody could make her do or be anything.’ Ingeborg also has a sister, the gloriously beautiful, but strangely vapid Judith, who meets all her parents’ requirements by marrying a very elderly but powerful academic. What chance has Ingeborg with this lot? She has grown up utterly compliant, believing that her only pleasure is to make others happy by tending to their self-centred needs. However, when the book opens she is on a once-a-lifetime trip to London, having been forced to visit a good dentist. In the euphoric aftermath of having her troublesome tooth removed, Ingeborg falls into an unexpected rebellion, and seeing an advert in a window she passes, decides to blow the rest of her money, and the days of freedom at her disposal, on a trip to Lucerne.
On this trip, and in a series of set piece scenes of high comedy, von Armin marries her off to a pastor from East Prussia, Robert Dremmel. He is a scientist of agriculture (in their first conversation he confesses with pride that his greatest interest is in manure) far more than he is a spiritual man, and after a few days he sets his heart on Ingeborg and will not be deterred. Her refusals are just whistling in the wind as far as he is concerned, and this blithe ability to bulldoze Ingeborg into doing whatever he wishes ensures that she does end up married to him, living in the back of beyond in East Prussia, and before the first year of their marriage is out, pregnant. Although Ingeborg does not love Robert initially, the opportunity to escape her family is too good to miss, and her first days of blissful freedom in her rural retreat seem wonderful recompense for the risks she has taken. She has no desire to be pregnant, but confusing her happiness as somehow due to Robert, rather than freedom itself, she does as he wants (of course!) and enters a long nightmare of suffering. Pregnancy makes her ill, giving birth is a hideous trauma that nearly results in her death; before the last semi-clause of the sentence that sees her regaining some health, she is pregnant again. And then the babies keep dying.
Von Arnim is essentially a cheery writer. Her women live in little bubbles of self-content, due mostly to a great deal of communing with nature, which stabilises their tempers. Hence the vagaries of fate are mostly met with amusement, but Ingeborg’s troubles are of a different quality altogether. Half-dead with exhaustion after labour, Robert views Ingeborg’s inability to put her arms around her newborn son as a sort of wilful failure of pride and backbone. When she is too ill to feed the baby herself and the doctor tells him he must buy tinned milk, Robert is outraged and dismayed. It is as if he has purchased a machine and he cannot comprehend its malfunctioning. And when Ingeborg finally decides that enough is enough, no more pregnancies, Robert behaves quite intolerably, telling her that she can never have loved him. Here is Robert’s private point of view, as told in free indirect speech by von Arnim:
‘A wife who is not a wife, but who persists in looking as if she were one, can be nothing but a goad and a burden for an honest man. Either she should look like someone used up and finished or she should continue to discharge her honourable functions until such time as she developed the physical unattractiveness that placed her definitely on the list of women one respects.’
Given that Ingeborg’s history is uncannily like von Arnim’s, I think we must assume that she knew whereof she spoke. Being informed by the doctor that his wife’s health certainly cannot survive more children, Robert accepts this – and turns Ingeborg into a sister, someone who prepares his food and who he blithely ignores. Well, there is more trouble in store for Ingeborg when a painter turns up in the local area and falls for her too, but I don’t want to give away the entire plot of the book (it’s long, though, almost 500 pages). What struck me forcibly was the way that Ingeborg’s inability to do what others wanted – sacrifice her life to looking after the bishop, provide more children for the pastor – was met with a complete lack of understanding or forgiveness. A woman who does not do as she is told is beyond the pale, or at least Ingeborg is in this book. Be warned, however, that Ingeborg is also congenitally unable to stick up for herself, or even to find her mother’s equivalent of a sofa. Her real tragedy is never to grow up enough to realise that her needs are as important as anybody else’s. Partly this has to be excused by her appallingly low self-esteem thanks to her graceless subjugation at the hands of her family. And inevitably this means that she ends up with men who get what they want by bullying women into it; those sorts of men are unlikely to be appeased by any sense of justice or fair play. But beyond the rationalities of the plot, there is a dark shadow over this narrative, which suggests that women at their loveliest are children still, laughing, flitting, joyful spirits regarding life through rose-coloured glasses, while men are self-obsessed and entirely without empathy, polite brutes who want what they want and intend to get it. Little wonder, then, that the relationships depicted here are so ill-matched. And little wonder, also, that von Arnim’s women take to their gardens whenever they can, as society makes life impossible for them. As ever, this is quite brilliantly written, and often very funny; but I have never known von Arnim quite so dark in her underlying purpose.