As I mentioned recently, I spent last weekend in Cambridge at a conference about Elizabeth von Arnim. It was really enjoyable; the people there were divided between those who knew everything about E von A and those (like me) who really like her, but haven’t read them all (I’ve only read about eight). The panel I spoke on had three people (including the chair) who’d published books about von Arnim… and me. But they made me feel very welcome, and I spoke about one of her lesser-known novels, Father (1931).
Rather than replicate my paper, I’ll do something more akin to my usual book reviews – though stealing some of the same research! Father is a novel that reminded me an awful lot of Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. In both, an unmarried woman is desperate for her independence, and not to be subservient in her relative’s home. For Laura Willowes, it’s her brother’s home; in Father it’s – you guessed it! – the father’s. Jennifer is 31 and a slave to her widowed father, a writer; she laments ‘the years shut up in the back diningroom at a typewriter, with no hope that anything would ever be different’. Only things are different. Father is getting married again, to Netta, who is younger than Jennifer. She sees her opportunity for escape: she can move to the countryside.
Through and beyond father she saw doors flying open, walls falling flat, and herself running unhindered down the steps, along Gower Street, away through London, across suburbs, out, out into great sun-lit spaces where the wind, fresh and scented, rushed to meet her […] Jen, her wide-open eyes shining with the reflection of what she saw through and beyond father. She could feel the wind – she could feel it, the scented fresh wind, blowing up her hair as she ran and ran…
And, like Laura Willowes, she does move to the countryside. Only things aren’t quite as uncomplicated as she’d hoped. Waiting for her, in that village, are James and Alice – the vicar and his tyrannical sister – who make an interesting parallel to Jennifer and her father. Alice is also a spinster, but holds all the power in her brother’s house – and is keen to dissuade any possible sisters-in-law who might oust her from the vicarage.
Among Elizabeth von Arnim fans, I don’t think Father is particularly well-regarded, but I thought it was excellent. Most of her novels seem to concern marriage, whether happy or unhappy, so to see her tackle the much-discussed issue of ‘surplus women’ in the interwar years was very interesting – and Jennifer is a great character. With her love of nature, her unconventionality (she sleeps outside on a mattress when she first arrives), and her naive but firm belief that she can escape her father’s domain, she is an attractive and engaging heroine.
Though dealing with some slightly sombre issues at times, von Arnim can never leave her humorous tone completely to one side. There are some very funny scenes – particularly, perhaps, one where James and Alice are both trying to abandon the other one in Switzerland (it makes sense in context), though Jennifer’s quirky world-view makes many otherwise mundane sentiments wryly amusing to read.
I’m always intrigued about the effect a choice of title has on a novel. If this one had been called (say) Jennifer, it would feel very different. Though her father isn’t on the scene all that often, calling the novel Father makes him feel curiously omnipresent; it seeps throughout the narrative. A clever decision on Elizabeth von Arnim’s part.
Not the easiest of her books to track down (unless you have a Kindle, where it’s probably free [EDIT: maybe it’s not…]) – and also not up there with her best novels – but definitely an entertaining and interesting one which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. And a perfect companion to the excellent Lolly Willowes!