I really did mean to review Introduction to Sally (1926) back when I read it before I attended the Elizabeth von Arnim conference last year, but… oops. I don’t think it’s one of her best regarded novels, but I thought it was fantastic – and heard a great paper on it too. It’s rather more high concept than the others I’ve read: essentially, what would happen if a hyperbolically beautiful woman was born in a working-class environment? What if a Greek goddess came to life – but only with the looks, not with any of the powers or bravado?
Spoilers: it doesn’t go particularly well.
This novel makes an intriguing counterpoint to Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm’s 1910 novel about a woman so attractive that all the undergraduates at Oxford University fall in love with her; Sally, likewise, attracts every man who sees her. The difference is that Zuleika welcomes and expects it: Sally would just like to get on with her life, and humble shopkeeper Mr Pinner (her father) is just keen that she gets married quickly, to avoid being taken advantage of by the nearby Cambridge university undergraduates. As the opening line states with typical von Arnim panache, ‘Mr Pinner was God-fearing man, who was afraid of everything except respectability.’
We start with a quick back story: Sally is short for Salvatia, being a much-longed-for daughter. Her mother sadly dies, and Mr Pinner is anxious and fraught, and not the sort of man who could put a defence against very much. Sally is docile and naive, unaware of the affect her beauty has as she grows older. Her naivety becomes quite the hallmark of the novel; she is as exaggeratedly simple and good as she is beautiful, making this all rather like a fairy tale – or, rather, a fairy tale character plunged into the slings and arrows of the real world.
The real world comes into the shop in the form of Jocelyn Luke. He is fine-speaking and high-falutin’, horrifying Mr Pinner until he realises that Luke is proposing marriage. To please her father, chiefly, Sally accepts – though she has little idea what Luke is saying when he quotes poetry or expresses his undying love. Von Arnim writes these scenes brilliantly; they are funny while also carrying dark undertones.
Jocelyn sat down too, the table between them, the light from the oil lamp hanging from the ceiling beating down on Sally’s head.
“And Beauty was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” he murmured, his eyes burning.
“Pardon?” said Sally, polite, but wishing her father would come back.
She is shy and uncertain, and very much of her class. She drops her ‘h’s, says ‘I don’t mind if I do’ rather than ‘yes’, and is generally full of habits and tics that would make Eliza Doolittle blush.
This is all very well at first, but it soon grows to infuriate Jocelyn. All Sally wants is to be a good, honest, quiet wife and mother, and von Arnim has no great notions about the egalitarian nature of marriage. If there is a message in this novel (and perhaps there is not) it is that a marriage between ‘non-equals’ cannot possibly work. In this particular marriage, Sally has to put up with Jocelyn’s interfering mother (while she, in turn, has to cope with attentions of her brash neighbour Mr Thorpe), and she finds that situation equally difficult – though with the sort of fatalistic pragmatism that von Arnim writes beautifully.
Sally’s knees shook. She clutched the grey wrap tighter still about her. Mr. Luke’s mother was so terribly like Mr. Luke. Two of them. She hadn’t bargained for two of them. And she was worse than he was, because she was a lady. Gentlemen were difficult enough, but they did every now and then cast themselves at one’s feet and make one feel one could do what one liked for a bit, but a lady wouldn’t; a lady would always stay a lady.
The chief difficulty is Jocelyn Luke’s monstrous jealousy. He cannot cope with any man speaking to Sally, believing – often quite rightly – that they have designs on her. When she meets anybody with whom she can have a normal conversation, he gets in the way and tries to isolate her. This fairy tale turns dark – though Luke’s rod of iron comes from hysterical jealousy rather than malice.
The ending is a little less engaging; it feels rather as though von Arnim has written herself into a corner, and has to find a solution that isn’t too bleak – but what makes this novel great is von Arnim’s writing style. Line by line, she shows her wry wit and her well-practised ability to turn a sentence. This may not have the charm of an Enchanted April, nor the realism of some of other dark works, but it is a triumph of its variety of twisted fairy tale. I loved it, and highly recommend tracking it down.