37. Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim
I am very grateful to Erica Brown for giving a paper on Elizabeth von Arnim’s excellent novel Christopher and Columbus (1919) at the conference I attended recently, as it was the incentive I needed to read it. Not that I needed a lot of incentive – I loved both The Enchanted April and The Caravaners, as clicking on those titles will attest. The former was very sweet, almost sentimental, in its depiction of the changing powers of a beautiful place; the latter was a bitingly ironic first-person account of an unpleasant, war-mongering German on a caravanning trip in England. It would be difficult to think of two more different novels coming from the same author, and I wondered where my third von Arnim experience could possibly take me. As it turned out, right in between the two – Christopher and Columbus is often very cynical, in an incredibly funny way, and yet also very endearing. And it has twins in it. So obviously it goes straight onto my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. (We’re getting quite close to the end now, aren’t we?) Prepare yourself for a fairly long review, since I got carried away…
Christopher and Columbus are, in fact, nineteen year-old twins Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas von Twinkler. I’ll have to forgive their mother for giving her twins essentially the same name, because she is dead – as the novel begins, these half-German, half-English girls are living with their abhorrant Uncle Arthur and long-suffering Aunt Alice, and war breaks out. Uncle Arthur can’t stand opening his house up to enemy aliens (even if they are his wife’s relations) and so packs them off on a boat to America, neutral in 1916 when this is set. They don’t really see themselves as German, as they explain to Mr. Twist, an adorable young man they meet on the boat – and the rich inventor of Twist’s Non-Trickling Teapot.
That’s German,” said Mr. Twist; but his face remained serene.
“I don’t think I quite follow,” said Mr. Twist.
“It is very difficult,” agreed Anna-Rose. “You see, we used to have a German father.”
“But only because our mother married him,” explained Anna-Felicitas. “Else we wouldn’t have.”
“And though she only did it once,” said Anna-Rose, “ages ago, it has dogged our footsteps ever since.”
The most delicious thing about this novel (and it is a very delicious novel) is undoubtedly the twins’ dialogue. It’s such a delight to read. I don’t quite know how to describe it – maybe as though it had been translated into German and back again? But not just that, they both have such a captivatingly unusual outlook on life. Their logic swirls in circles which dizzy the listener; their conversations would feel at home at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – and yet they are lovely, kind, fundamentally good people – and without being remotely irritating.
Those of you who’ve been reading Stuck-in-a-Book for a while will know I like twin novels – but I also like to judge ’em. The cardinal sins of putting twins in a book are (a) making them exactly like each other, (b) making them exact opposites of each other, and (c) having them ever be surprised at the fact that they are twins. You’d be surprised yourself at how often the third of these happens – as though being a twin weren’t something completely ingrained in the characters, and they happened to forget that they looked like their sibling etc. Personally, I find the idea of not being a twin incredibly weird. Your sibling doesn’t share your birthday? Didn’t start school when you did, or have the same bedtime and pocket money? Very strange. (!)
Sorry, sidetracked. As I was saying, Elizabeth von Arnim was being put the test – and passed with flying colours. Well, nearly. I got irritated by them dressing the same as each other at the age of nineteen (THIS WOULD NOT HAPPEN), but we’ll let that slide. They are very believable as twins – wrapped up in each other’s worlds, but with their own personalities. While Mr. Twist may think of them ‘as one person called, generally, Twinklers’, this is not how they see themselves. Anna-Rose is a little more sensible and also more sensitive; Anna-Felicitas is dreamy and other-worldly and yet often the most tenacious when it comes to arguing a point. They make such a wonderful duo, and carry the heart of Christopher and Columbus – even if the rest of the novel had been drab and dull (which it is not) they alone would make it a worthwhile vibrant read.
For the majority of the novel they are being hurried from pillar to post. The ocean voyage takes up a lot of the narrative, as they meet their fellow-passengers pleasant and unpleasant, and most significantly Mr. Twist, who (by the end of the journey) considers them akin to sisters. Whether or not the good people of 1916 America will share this outlook is more open to debate – he has a particularly tricky time in Clark, at the home of his self-delusional, tyrannical mother and put-upon sister. Elizabeth von Arnim’s portrait of small-town life hasn’t dated much in a hundred years (although I still love small towns and villages):
But before they arrive in Clark they travel all over America, bad luck meeting them at every turn. While von Arnim relies heavily on coincidence for the events of this section of the novel (including a very amusing section where a taxi-driver thinks the Annas are dressed for a funeral, when they have no knowledge that their host is dead) it’s all done so endearingly that it doesn’t matter.
Part of the amusement comes from the girls’ unfamiliarity with the brave new not-really-so-neutral world they have entered. They are not accustomed to the American practice of tipping, nor the absence of afternoon tea, as is evinced after they have been instructed in the art of the former by an insolent hotel employee:
“I expect he’ll come to a bad end,” said Anna-Felicitas soothingly.
They had tea in the restaurant and were the only people doing such a thing, a solitary cluster in a wilderness of empty tables laid for dinner. It wasn’t the custom much in America, explained Mr. Twist, to have tea, and no preparations were made for it in hotels of that sort. The very waiters, feeling it was a meal to be discouraged, were showing their detachment from it by sitting in a corner oof the room playing dominoes.
It is, in fact, the lack of afternoon tea which spurs them on to their next project. And, frankly, I can think of no better reason for doing anything. They decide to set up a tea room called The Open Arms, specialising in expensive afternoon teas. I shan’t tell you any more of the plot, because there is plenty in the 500 pages to discover for yourself (including an ending which I felt did let down the tone a little), but I did want to mention The Open Arms as a means of introducing you to Mrs. Bilton. She is the cook hired, ostensibly to cook, but mostly to lend an air of respectability to the endeavour. Mrs. Bilton is a hilarious creation. She does nothing but talk. No interruptions – save screaming in her face – have the least effect on her. Mrs. Bilton is every talkative older lady you have ever known, multiplied by a thousand. Mostly she talks about herself, her thoughts, and the varying state of her psyche.
Oh, how I love E von A’s turn of phrase, which slips so quickly from the merely ironic to the ever so slightly biting. It is this stream of cynicism which prevents the general ebullience of the twins from ever becoming wearing, and which makes the novel so wonderful. She really is a brilliant writer, and has been underappreciated – she seems to be remembered (if she as remembered at all) chiefly as a whimsical, fey writer. But like Austen, her tongue can be as sharp as it is charming.
I’m taking a bit of a risk, putting Christopher and Columbus on my 50 Books list when there are so many other E von A titles I’ve yet to encounter. Perhaps I will end up preferring one of her others, but I will still believe that this particular novel has been unjustly neglected and want to do my best to create fanfare for it. I promise you’ll be enchanted by Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas, and probably repeat fragments of their dialogue aloud to anyone who will listen.
And now I turn over to you – which E von A ought I to read next?
Things to get Stuck into:
Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough (1942) – I haven’t blogged about this, because I borrowed it and had to return it, but it’s absolutely wonderful as an accompaniment – serendipitously, I read it immediately after the E von A novel. It’s non-fiction, about a 1920s trip around Europe by two excited, somewhat green American girls. The transcontinental trip is thus the other way round, but their experiences are equally amusing and eye-opening. This book is an absolute scream, and would also be loved by fans of the Provincial Lady.