Thankfully for both Virago Reading Week and the TBR Dare, I actually had two Virago’s in my nightstand so I could participate in the former and stay true to the latter. I had a wonderful volume of Edith Sitwell letters and Love by Elizabeth von Arnim. I didn’t get to the Sitwell, but I did read this fascinating von Arnim.
[Aside: Somewhere outside my window right now there is a bird trilling away. Not sure what kind but it is making me really happy.]
The only other von Arnim book I have read is the wonderful The Enchanted April. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this one. Even after reading it, I am not sure what I think. I certainly enjoyed it, but have so many conflicting feelings about the story itself. The big theme of the book is the gender double standard when it comes to May-September relationships. A younger woman married to a much older man is acceptable, but the reverse, a younger man married to a much older woman, seems just short of a tragedy. Perhaps in the days of Demi and Ashton and the rise of Cougars, this isn’t so much the case today. But in 1925 it was certainly true. What makes the double standard even more glaring from this period (and earlier) is that the chronological gap in the ages of the young female and the older male is not just a matter of 10 or so years but more like 20 or 30. Can you imagine being married to someone 30 years your senior — or junior for that matter? At my age I would have to wait another seven years to find a partner since someone 30 years younger than me wouldn’t even come of legal age until 2018. Yikes. And what on earth would I ever have in common with this person?
But I am getting a little ahead of myself. Forty-seven year old Catherine is assiduously courted (today we would say stalked) by 25-year-old Christopher. After doing her best to throw cold water on the situation Catherine finally gives in to the love and interest Christopher shows her and they end up marrying. Yes, he makes her feel young, but more than that she is starved for love and affection. The lack of which in her life isn’t apparent to her until she goes to stay with daughter and son-in-law and is made to feel like an unwanted third wheel.
But here it gets complicated. Catherine’s much much older, now dead husband left her comfortable but somewhat poor so that in the event of his death a fortune seeker wouldn’t marry Catherine for all the wrong reasons. Instead he leaves his money to his daughter. Of course her husband controlling her life from beyond the grave is maddening enough. But the fact that her daughter has married a rather unpleasant vicar thirty years her senior and they now inhabit the house that was once hers adds insult to injury. Catherine never minds it as much as I did. The gall of a 49-year-old man, to marry a 19-year old who he has known since she was FIVE I find utterly repugnant. The 19-year-old Virginia may love the predator Stephen and be happy in the relationship but no one will convince me that it isn’t anything more than the Stockholm syndrome. The man was an active part of her life since she was young child and then he, and the other adults surrounding her think it acceptable for him to go in for the kill. It is disgusting. No 19-year old knows her self (or his self) well enough to enter into such a lopsided arrangement. But even here I digress, the issue in this book is not the age spread so much as it is the double standard.
Long story short, Catherine and Christopher get married. Despite loving each other very much, she looks and feels her age and it starts to bother him when an emotional crisis leads Catherine to forgo her expensive hair and make-up regimen that helps keep her looking younger. And the fool Christopher is repulsed by it. Even during their courtship, Christopher often commented on how “tired” Catherine looked whenever he would see her in daylight. Well duh. Although the book ends on a hopeful, but ambiguous, note, I have a hard time seeing good days ahead for these two. There were so many wonderful moments in this book, some touching, some enlightening, and some humorous. But the facts of the story itself I find tragic.
I can’t wait to read more by von Arnim. Her writing and her stories are fascinating.