Barefoot and Pregnant

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.

18 thoughts on “Barefoot and Pregnant

  1. Indeed, I’ve never heard a description of a von Arnim book that even hinted at this kind of darkness. And I have to admit that your description here, in particular the use of humor to discuss dark societal themes, appeals to me more than the fluffier-sounding garden stories I’ve always heard detailed before. 🙂

    Do you think von Arnim takes any kind of stance here on whether female infantilization & male boorishness are inherent versus socialized qualities?

  2. I’m also suprised to find this is a von Arnim book. I’m very intrigued by this book. Mothers who cannot cope, for whatever reason, always strike me as an important and tragic topic. It seems – more even than to women who want no children – that society is cruel to those who can’t handle it or not as well or just don’t try to cover up how hard it can be.
    I knew since my early teens that I didn’t want to be a mother but I understand those who do and also those who think they do tand sadly find out later that they were wrong. How helpful empathy would be. Thanks for making me discover another side of an author I had placed into the “cheerful corner”. I’ll look for this one.

  3. Emily – ooh that is a good question. What I felt (and this is purely my instinctive response rather than anything properly reasoned) was that von Arnim was really quite furious with men and their ability (bred in nature, fostered and indulged in culture) to both need women and make them irrelevant to their lives. What she is far too polite to say is that men seem only to want women for sex and breeding, and making sure their meals appear on time. She paints a portrait of the male – and this repeats in father, husband and lover – who exists solely in a masculine sphere of work with no genuine interest in women whatsoever. What this novel lacks is the figure of the brother – someone who would engage with a woman with no ulterior motive. But I do think that von Arnim is less clear-sighted when it comes to her female figures, who can be quite insufferable, with their blissful dillying around in nature. They allow themselves to be patronised and infantilised because they, too, live in a separate sphere, one of monstrous naivety and innocence. I know von Arnim made pretty dreadful mistakes in her relationships (one particularly catastrophic one involving Bertrand Russell’s crazy brother), and I think she writes her men from life here. Quite how self-aware she is towards her female characters is harder to say. I think there is a certain essentialism at work, but in 1914, I don’t think anyone had quite considered an alternative yet! It is definitely clear from her work that there is a dreadful lack of meeting point between men and women, and that Things Could Be Much Better if only men and women removed their blinkers and looked at each other without prejudice. I don’t think she sees that as happening any time soon, though (and indeed, it didn’t).

    It was an altogether more interesting book than her happy ones, even if the seams of her ideology were showing more in it, if you see what I mean!

    Lilian – and that’s another good question! I think it is better written than The Enchanted April, but not so well plotted. However, I completely agree with you that her romance sections can strain the nerves, and I really liked the darker vein she drew on. She was mad as hell in some places, which came out very sharply funny and satirical, and I liked all that.

    Caroline – I couldn’t agree with you more. When I was reading for the motherhood project, I was astonished by the extent to which culture seeks to reinforce an idealised image of motherhood, and women swallow it entirely and do their very best to be perfect attuned to it – which is usually the cause for some of the worst mistakes and failures. There is a very good book, though, The Mask of Motherhood by an author whose name I’ve forgotten – I’ll come back with it in a mo (ETA: the author is Susan Maushart). That was quite brilliant at laying out various difficulties mothers encounter, and it’s the sort of book that everyone who has a baby ought to look at. Much more than the bibles of childrearing by people like Penelope Leach (a book that made me feel a dreadful failure!). I’d love to know what you think of this one if you get to read it – the motherhood sections are the best bit, I think.

  4. What can a woman expect, married to a man whose greatest interest is manure? But as you’ve described in this detailed review, Ingeborg has no choice. Alas, that’s the tragedy. I’m sure the humor sprinkled in the story isn’t enough to scatter the darkness and despair. I have not read Elizabeth von Arnim, but this book reminds me of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles… and makes me to think Madame Bovary is spoiled indeed.

  5. I too am intrigued by this novel; that was a fascinating review! I haven’t read much von Arnim but I think there is also anger in Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Solitary Summer, albeit veiled. And the narrator of those books makes it clear that she’d rather be alone in her garden than in human society; yes, she’s privileged to be able to do so but surely that in itself speaks volumes for her tolerance for other people (not just men actually)? As I think you say, the garden is her sofa. And yet her books are usually cheery, and generous. Was she dependent on book sales for a living, I wonder? Altogether I am curious about her, especially after your reply to Emily, and would like to know more – do you know if there is a decent biography of her?

    ‘What can a woman expect, married to a man whose greatest interest is manure?’ – love that, Arti!

  6. Arti – lol! Too funny! I agree the manure gives it away. And that is a fascinating comparison with Madame Bovary. Charles is infinitely preferable to any of the men foisted upon poor Ingeborg (who is herself a far more selfless and low-maintenance woman than Emma ever was!). I’d be very interested to know what you thought of von Armin if you ever read her, and you remind me that one day I really must try Thomas Hardy. I am afraid of dialect when it is written down!

    Helen – ooh ‘veiled’ is a good word; I like that. I can see what you mean about the narrator of Elizabeth and her German Garden (trying to recall if I’ve read The Solitary Summer, and argh, can’t), who most certainly does prefer her own company to that of others (and gets very fed up of trying guests when they come to stay, I remember!). She has choices that Ingeborg doesn’t, though, which is what makes this story so intriguing. I think von Armin must at times have been dependent on her books for a living. I know bits and pieces of her life story: there is one biography of her, called ‘Elizabeth: The Author of “Elizabeth and her German Garden”‘ by Karen Usbourne, and despite the clunky title, if it’s the one I read several years ago, it’s good. There’s also an excellent chapter about her in Katie Roiphe’s book ‘Uncommon Arrangements’ about literary mariages. It only talks about parts of her life, though. But given that her life was not so very unlike her novels, it is indeed fascinating!

  7. I must say, LL, this novel, despite its author’s reputation for lightheartedness, sounds awfully grim to me. I can’t abide – in life or fiction – the habitual passivity of certain modes of feminine victimhood. This storyline reminds me, very uncomfortably, of a couple of women in my family. Not sure I want to go back there, not even (or especially?!) for 500 pages of brilliant writing.

  8. Doctordi – sweetie, no, not for you at this precise moment. It is essentially a very funny book, and when the characters live in East Prussia, which doesn’t even exist anymore, they probably espouse attitudes that are also out of date! But still, there are plenty of other good books to read.

  9. I liked Enchanted April and I want to read this. There’s an excellent book by Nancy Huston about motherhood. (La Virevolte) I’ve read it twice.

    Being a parent is a definitive experience. There’s no going back, you can’t know before if you’ll be good at it and you have the huge responsability to raise another humanbeing. I don’t believe in motherly instinct, it’s just a convenient idea men like to put forward to justify our staying at home.

  10. Emily – And I would love to know what you think of it if you get hold of a copy! I found this a fascinating E von A, much darker than her usual fare and yet full of humour, too.

    Emma – I would love to know what you think of this, too! And I am a fan of Nancy Huston but have not read La Virevolte. I will add that one to my tbr, as everything I’ve read by her has beeen stunning. I completely agree with what you say about the responsibility of parenthood – it is immense and drops from a great height in the space of a few hours. Amen to your comments about motherly instinct, too. Women have no more ‘natural’ sense than men, it’s just that they get left holding the baby. I read a very interesting book about motherhood a while back that suggested the more caplitalised and commercial our public world becomes, the more idealised the world of the nursery, where women are imagined to give boundless love from sheer innate generosity. If we got our public world more in balance, then there is every chance that motherhood might be viewed more sensibly, too. Well, I can wish!

    • I found a free kindle version. I’m very interested in this book, especially after reading Effi Briest.

      There’s a review of La Virevolte on my blog, in case you want to know more. I love Nancy Huston. And she’s a Romain Gary fan too, so she can’t be bad, really. 🙂

      • I’m still intending to write a post on Gary and his life story in December. I haven’t forgotten that I said I would and it’s such a wonderful topic. And I’ll be over to read your review of the Nancy Huston, thank you! A free kindle version of the von Arnim is a brilliant find.

  11. I’m afraid I don’t have anything to add to this wonderful discussion–I’m feeling a little out of my league not being a mother (or even a wife), but the story does sound a little dark after having read The Enchanted April and her “garden” books. It’s a little sad that you only ever hear of women being bad mothers but never men (well maybe never) as being bad fathers (it seems there are two in this equation, right), and it isn’t even something they seem to write about either. She may have been stuck in this situation but she saw fit to write about it (even if she maybe had blinders on to a certain extent), which I find interesting–she’s interesting actually. Wonderful post–you’ve made me look at EvA in another light entirely!

  12. Pingback: The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim |

  13. I have just finished “The Caravanners” by Elizabeth von Arnim which has a male first person narrator. He is a most unattractive figure with a down-trodden wife and no insight into himself at all. No learning curve there either – he ends up as blinkered and unsympathetic as he begins. E v A definitely had a low opinion of men!

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