‘The Pastor’s Wife’ by Elizabeth von Arnim

Originally published 1914, 492 p.

Where has Elizabeth von Arnim been all this time? Or rather, where have I been? – because she was here all along, even though I had never heard of her until I read Joyce Morgan’s The Countess from Kirrabilli (review here) and Gabrielle Carey’s Only Happiness Here (review here) It was Carey’s book that finally nudged me to actually read one of her books, instead of just reading about them, and I’m so glad that I did!

Ingebord was the daughter of a bishop, and had been brought up to be his clerical assistant, as her mother had taken to the couch “ill” and her sister was busy on the marriage market. No-one in the family expected that Ingebord would be anything other than a clerical assistant until one day, sent into the city to visit the dentist for what was assumed would be a week-long procedure, she found herself free after just one day and standing outside a travel agent with money in her purse. On the spur of the moment, she bought a ticket to Lucerne. On her trip she met Robert Dremmel, a Lutheran pastor, and very shortly married him. But after traumatic childbirth experiences and the deaths of several children, she resisted Robert’s pressure to have more children. Angry at her intransigence, he plunged himself even further into his agricultural hobbies, and deliberately withdrew both emotionally and physically from her. When an English artist, Ingram, came to stay in their small village, she was swept up into an unwitting courtship that led to her accompanying Ingram to Italy. There she had to decide whether to follow her besotted but feckless lover, or to return to a stable but loveless marriage.

Ingebord is a frustratingly fey, innocent character. She is largely moulded by the people around her, and passively drifts into other people’s plans for her- until all of a sudden she breaks out for one of her abrupt, life-changing decisions. But she also hungers for beauty and happiness, and opens herself up to new people and experiences where-ever she can find them – quite difficult in a small German village, where she does not speak the language and is largely ignored.

This book was written in 1914, and it certainly has that slight archness of ‘old-fashioned’ writing. It is very wordy: rather ironically, it reminded me quite a bit of the more recent writing of Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth in its panopticon vision of the thoughts and motivations of different characters, which are explained at some length. But it also has a Jane-Austen-esque wit, as if the author is winking at you. It’s a pleasure to read complex sentences that are so well-constructed, and which flow so smoothly. I often found myself chuckling away (more, in fact, than I did with Miriam Margolyes’ book).

Yet, although it might be styled as a ‘comedy’, there is a great deal of truth about human nature in this book. Von Armin captures so well the draining nausea and fatigue of early pregnancy; she writes sensitively about the sharp pain caused by another’s indifference, and as Gabrielle Carey notes, von Armin luxuriates in the glow that happiness brings. The Pastor’s Wife was far more perspicacious and witty than I expected it to be – thank you Gabrielle Carey for sharing your pleasure in her work with me!

Rating: 9/10

Sourced from: an omnibus e-book that still has lots of other Elizabeth von Armin stories to enjoy

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