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.
Fascinating is definitely one of the best words to describe Von Arnim with – she certainly has some intriguing characters. Wait til you get to Vera!
This sounds very good. I just read another review on another of her books which was equally good – Elizabeth and her German Garden.
I am 48 and the idea of a relationship with a young man in his twenties is quite icky. I would constantly be cutting his steak and buying him ice cream!
This sounds like a fascinating read even if some of it may be through hands over my face.
Oh, this is definitely one for my list… although I totally agree with Darlene's comment.
I've yet to see a Virago classic that didn't interest me. They certainly know how to choose their material.
While my initial gut reaction is the same as yours, I know of May/December relationships that work. It's a mystery to me, but they are out there. Have you seen Chris and Don, the documentary about Chirstopher Isherwood and Don Bacardy who were together some 40 years. Just a few more years than their age difference, I believe.
Plenty of their friends said it wouldn't last.
Great review, Thomas. I can't remember whether or not I have this one, but I think I do, in a non-Virago edition. I've only read (and loved) The Enchanted April.
Oh, and I think you've pinpointed why I find Mr. Knightley creepy…
I can't believe Simon just said Mr Knightley is creepy…I'm ignoring that!
Anyway…great review, Thomas. It's interesting, the double standard in such relationship issues, but there is something disconcerting about it. I'd always worry about being left for a younger woman! Elizabeth Von Arnim isn't afraid to broach difficult topics, is she? I have this back at my mum's and I'm looking forward to reading it now! Thank you for your wonderful enthusiasm this week, Thomas!
Verity: So happy about having finally gotten around to von Arnim.
Mystica: I can't wait to read that one.
Darlene: I would find it especially difficult because I didn't even like 25-year olds even when I was one.
JoAnn: Me too.
CB: Agree about Virago. Although on a few occassions, once I began to read found that they can be tedious. But I guess that is true of many books. The Isherwood doc sounds fascinating. I supppose these things can work.
Simon: I must say it doesn't bother me so much in Austen and things of that vintage. Perhaps because marriages, or the reasons for many marriages, were for such different reasons than what we would consider healthy today or even when Arnim wrote this in 1925.
Rachel: And, and with most things, the way society appreciates the looks of an older man vs an older woman, is tilted in favor of men.
Okay, I'm with Rachel ignoring Simon's comment about Mr. Knightly. But Thomas, you are so right about the “tilt” in favor of the men in these relationships. My grandfather was 26 years older than my grandmother (and they married in 1932, so not far from your book). Since she was not the first wife, there were some interesting relationships – my dad had a half-brother who was only 2 years older than his mother (!) – so I agree with those who think it odd. The other common tragedy is that as in my family, my grandmother was a widow for 44 years after he died.
So, why am I now humming, “Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson?” :)
I loved Enchanted April. This book sounds quite different…and fascinating as well as sad.
The gender, age gap for married folks is an odd and interesting issue. Most of the time I'd just hope the people are happy. But, no matter the year odr century, I think a 49 year old man marrying a 19 year old girl is always going to be percieved badly by most people.
This is definitely going on my TBR list!
What a great review! I agree with you about the creepiness inherent in an adult, watching a child growing up, and then marrying her when she is 'of age'. It still sounds a fascinating read though… particularly the older woman/younger man and how he expects her to look young forever. Women always get a raw deal in these things – SIGH!
Rachel and Susan… haha! But, I'm afraid, he is nearly 17 years older than Emma… and talks about having held her in his arms when she was a baby. In my book, that's quite creepy…
It's very difficult to find Virago publications here in Karachi but sometimes, if luck is on my side, we find some great books at the Sunday book bazar.
This book is definitely going to be on my list next Sunday!
After reading The Enchanted April this week and loving it, I'll definitely be reading more of von Arnim's work. This one sounds fascinating, but very different to The Enchanted April!
I have all of EVA's books on my shelves having discovered Enchanted April some 20 years ago – by sheer accident I might add. It is still myf avourite of hers but Vera is chilling and her best I think though I love her more amusing stories too. The Caravanners is a hoot, as is Elizabeth's Adventures in Rugen, Princess Priscilla's Fortnight wonderful …oh I love them all. Those of you who have yet to discover her have a treat in front of you
Susan: Can you imagine being a widow for 44 years? Wow.
Amy: So often it isn't perceived badly, that is what is so weird.
Rochester: Catherine definitely got the raw deal.
Simon: Especially when you know that the historical Mr. Knightly was probably not as as handsome as Jeremy Northam.
Fahreen: So nice to know someone in Karachi is visiting My Porch.
Helen: Very different.
Elaine: I can't wait to discover the rest of EVA's novels.