PIle of birthday books

Another of my birthday 2020 books, this one from Ali, who has also read this fairly recently (read her review here), and by an author by whom I’ve read a fair few books over the years. Von Arnim is always pretty clear-eyed on human behaviour – maybe especially marriages – and makes a point of discussing the plights of those women who have to exist outside marriage, too, as she does here in this rather bold and brave book for 1929 which had drifted out of print until Persephone rescued it.

Elizabeth von Arnim – “Expiation”

(21 January 2020, from Ali)

Dove-like, plump and comfortable Milly has just lost her husband at the start of this engaging novel. The rather dreadful Botts gather around her in their prosperous South London suburb but then recoil with horror when the details of the will come out: her husband has disinherited her in favour of a charity for loose women, leaving her only £1,000 – and “she will know why”. And she DOES know why: she has been conducting an affair for the last decade or so, which has actually left her in a position to be a better wife, but of course that’s not really the common belief about such things.

The sad thing is that the affair, which did begin passionately, has slipped into a sort of second marriage, a comfortable state – All Passion Spent indeed.

They settled down, that is; settled down to sin. Too awful, she saw. But there it was. (p. 32)

So she needs expiation, she feels her state bitterly, and she tries to work out if it would be better to run away to her sister’s in Switzerland or stay and throw herself upon her lover’s mercy. That’s the sister who herself went off in disgrace as a young woman … and who has not represented her subsequent life that truthfully in the (forbidden) letters back to Milly. But then her sister returns from Switzerland to London and her lover returns from his holiday in Rome and each of them bears a story that is likely to throw a spanner in the works …

Milly starts to realise that the brave thing that would get her forgiven would have been not to run away in the first place – and run away she has – and she should steel herself to go back to the Botts, shouldn’t she? The Bott husbands are maybe more forgiving of her than their wives, and her presence in their households shows up in sharp relief the nature of those wives – it’s a pretty damning indictment of the institution of marriage as well as a slightly bitter musing on the perilous position of the unprotected woman, amongst the amusing descriptions of hypocritical wealthy London lives. Only one sensible character remains, knowing how time smooths out the bumps in life, but she has a side-part, too, and seems unlikely to prevail.

My heart was genuinely in my mouth at times as I read through this – you can’t see how Milly can manage and she seems both trapped and flying too free. It’s a very absorbing novel and one I would recommend. There’s an interesting introduction by Valerie Grove in this Persephone edition, which relates the book back to von Arnim’s own life, something that’s not entirely necessary for enjoying the book but does give it an added piquancy.