It was Elizabeth von Arnim Reading Week a week or two ago, organised by some nice people on Facebook, and I took In The Mountains (1920) off the shelf. One of the things I wanted to do this year was read more of the unusual or rare books I’ve got, because it seems a shame that the excitement of finding them shouldn’t get the opportunity to be matched by the reading experience. In the Mountains is one of the harder E von A titles to find in an early edition – though print-on-demand options are there – but I was lucky enough to stumble across a copy in a little bookshop in Dunster. It taught me always to check the pocket editions sections, as it won’t always be Thackeray and Austen.
In the Mountains was initially published anonymously – suggesting, perhaps, that it’s more autobiographical than she could allow under her own name. But any fan of von Arnim’s who came across this novel couldn’t possibly have mistaken it for the work of anybody else – it bears many of the hallmarks of her writing, from various different genres.
The mountains of the question are in Switzerland – the English narrator has returned there after a gap that encompasses the war. She comes with grief and weariness. We are never truly told what the grief is, but the first part of the novel (all of which is told in diary entries) tells how the landscape and the solitude are beginning to cure her. It isn’t quite the vision of natural panacea seen in The Enchanted April, but it is certainly of that ilk. And presumably it was largely inspired by von Arnim’s own Swiss mountain home.
I enjoyed all of this, but I will admit that one of my least favourite of von Arnim’s characteristic narratives is the nature-idyll-description. I still like it a lot, but there are other moulds in which I rather prefer her writing. And, in In the Mountains, she turns from one to the other – the comic outsider.
Mrs Barnes and Mrs Jewks arrive – they are English widows, exhausted by the heat and looking for a pension to stay. While our unnamed narrator isn’t hosting anybody officially, she has had enough of the curing solitude and quite welcomes the company. We see them through the prism of the diary entries, as the narrator gets to know them – or, at least, gets to know Mrs Barnes. She’s a conservative woman, horrified by anything too personal and constantly worrying that her impromptu stay is costing her hostess too much money. No protest assures her, and von Arnim writes amusingly about the hostess having to give up readily-available and much-liked treats to pacify her. Mrs Barnes’ strong (kind but immensely forceful) character gradually dominates the whole group. Her sister just smiles and complies, the only sign of a different character being the wry, amused looks she occasionally shoots the narrator.
All day to-day I have emptied myself of any wishes of my own and tried to be the perfect hostess. I have given myself up to Mrs. Barnes, and on the walk I followed where she led, and I made no suggestions when paths crossed though I have secret passionate preferences in paths, and I rested on the exact spot she chose in spite of knowing there was a much prettier one just round the corner, and I joined with her in admiring a view I didn’t really like. In fact I merged myself in Mrs. Barnes, sitting by her on the mountain side in much the spirit of Wordsworth, when he sat by his cottage fire without ambition, hope or aim.
This was my favourite section of the novel. It was really amusing, and von Arnim draws the characters really well – the anxieties of hosting people one doesn’t know well, the exasperation of coping with well-meaning pains, and the gradual development of friendship. Because Mrs Jewks brings one or two unexpected secrets with her…
The final act is a little forced, but von Arnim often sprinkles a bit of fairy dust into her conclusions and it’s forgivable because it’s enjoyable. This is the tenth novel I’ve read by von Arnim, and while it doesn’t hit the top spot – that honour still belongs to Christopher and Columbus – I thought it was a lovely, slim introduction to many of the things that make von Arnim charming, witty, and with an undercurrent of topical commentary that prevents the mixture being too sweet.
Others who got Stuck into it:
“It is a nice book but rather an odd mix” – The Captive Reader
“It’s a little compromised by its structure, by the sharp change part-way through, by the need to come to an end where there should be not an end but simply a change.” – Fleur in Her World
“I loved reading it, and it has put me in the mood for a lot more Elizabeth Von Arnim” – HeavenAli