Sunday, 20 September 2020

Flabbergasting

Recently I was in Chester with my brother and two cousins, paying a farewell visit to my late (and last) uncle and aunt's house, and scanning the well stocked bookshelves for a few mementoes. I took several slimmish volumes, including Fanny Burney's diaries, which I'm reading now and will no doubt write about in due course. Among those I did not take at the time was a Virago Modern Classics edition of a novel called Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim. This one my Derbyshire cousin rescued, read, was hooked and flabbergasted by, and passed it on to me. Now I have read it and been hooked and flabbergasted in my turn. 
   It's an extraordinary book, and the more flabbergasting for the knowledge that it was based on Elizabeth von Arnim's own experiences during her short, disastrous second marriage to 'Frank' Russell, brother of Bertrand. Elizabeth (who often styled herself by her Christian name alone) was a cousin of Katherine Mansfield, and had a huge success with her semi-autobiogaphical novel Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but is perhaps better known now for The Enchanted April. I had never read her before I opened Vera, but I fancy I might well be reading more of her now.
   Vera is an unsparing account of what would now be termed 'coercive control' in a marriage. The control is exerted by one Everard Wemyss (the perfect name for him), a pompous and arrogant oaf with plenty of money, a town house and a treasured – and perfectly ghastly – country house, The Willows, by the Thames. Wemyss's default state is one of high indignation, and his response to the slightest thwarting of his minutely detailed, entirely self-centred plans is to throw himself into an almighty silent sulk. Clearly not ideal husband material, then – a fact made all the more evident by the fact that his wife (the Vera of the title) has apparently committed suicide by jumping from a high window at The Willows. When we first meet Wemyss, he is in a state of towering indignation because the inquest jury impudently returned an open verdict rather than one of misadventure, and as a result there has been something of a scandal. He has escaped to Devon to sit it out, seething with indignation and wallowing in self-pity. While there, he chances upon his victim to be – an unworldly young girl called Lucy Entwistle, whose father, with whom she has always lived, has just died. She is in a dazed and vulnerable state, and Wemyss sees his opportunity.   
   What follows, and what unfolds from then on, is like a slow-motion car crash. Everyone but Lucy, though they try to think well of Wemyss, can see him for the monster he is, but they can only look on helplessly as Lucy succumbs to his glutinous wooing and, despite all the evidence of his entire, callous selfishness, continues to adore him, or to try to – though it becomes increasingly difficult. Lucy soon comes to know all too well that she is powerless, that nothing less than total servitude will satisfy Wemyss, and that there is no escape. 
   All this is told quite sparely (it is not a long novel) and with such skill that the story is instantly and powerfully gripping: once you start, it's impossible not to read on. As a novel, Vera could perhaps be criticised for being rather thin: there is little there but the single narrative and the principal characters – Wemyss, Lucy and the maiden aunt who does her best to protect her niece (and pays the price) – though The Willows, the terrible house by the river, is such a strong presence that it almost amounts to another character. Thin or not, Vera makes for a gripping, often hair-raising read. Middleton Murry characterised it as 'Wuthering Heights written by Jane Austen'. Elizabeth von Arnim regarded it as her 'high-water mark', and even Katherine Mansfield approved. 



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