A novel about a younger man who pursues an older widow, much to the chagrin of their friends, family, and society in general. 1925.
In college, knowing nothing about either the title or author, I randomly picked up Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April. (It’s fabulous, by the way.) The Enchanted April was such a memorable encounter that, in my mind, it instantly established von Arnim as an author of the highest rank.
Von Arnim is not known for writing action-packed thrillers…and that’s putting it modestly. Since The Enchanted April I’ve tried a few of her other books—-The Solitary Summer, Vera, Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther—-but my interest in each of these dwindled somewhere around 40 pages (such a treacherous spot in a book!).
Love almost shared the fate of these unfinished von Arnim novels. In fact, I bought it and started reading it (again, to page 40-ish) sometime back in 2012. Love languished on my shelf for two years. Its neglect felt like an insult to von Arnim’s already-established genius; I had to look away whenever I passed by its dark green, Virago spine. Someday, I promised again and again. Someday…
This summer, in preparing for a month in Europe, I searched my shelves for a small, cheap paperback to take on the plane. When I travel I’m a fan of my Kobo, but you know how it goes…visions of drained batteries…nightmares of no-technology-allowed scenarios (do those even exist??). I saw Love waiting there on my bookshelf, and behold! The day had come.
And boy am I glad I finally finished this book. It’s pretty slowly paced, and it does get repetitive. But oh my! Don’t be fooled by the outward simplicity of this novel. It carries a powerful punch. Clearly, von Arnim had something to say when she wrote this book.
Love opens with Christopher, a young man who works in an office and shares a London flat with a friend. Christopher also likes to go to the theater, and there’s one play he has a particular weakness for. Seriously—-when we first meet him, he’s seeing the play for the 32nd time. There’s a woman in the crowd who’s also seen the play a lot, though not nearly as much as Christopher. Christopher’s 36th time seeing the play, he and this other woman happen to sit in the same row, and they start talking.
Christopher is smitten. He knows almost nothing about this woman, except he does learn that her name is Mrs. Catherine Cumfrit. In time, by pushing himself forward into an acquaintance with Catherine, Christopher learns that Catherine is a widow. But mostly when Christopher and Catherine talk, it’s about the present (or about the play they both love).
It’s only when the novel’s perspective shifts that we get to understand more of Catherine. Though she makes the best of it, we see that Catherine’s current position in life is rather uncomfortable. Her husband, a solid man who was significantly older than her, has been gone for a few years now. Out of well-meaning but short-sided concern, before his death he decided to leave his estate and fortune to their daughter, rather than to Catherine herself; he was anxious about Catherine being taken advantage of by a fortune hunter.
Well, there’s certainly no danger of that now. Catherine lives modestly in a flat in London, with one servant to look after her. Her clothes are fine but dated, as she doesn’t have enough money to splurge on new ones. She loves the countryside, but she’s now doomed to end her days in urban exile.
Christopher’s entrance into her life stirs all this up. Catherine’s life might not be over, after all. But he’s also so much younger than her, a fact that he is comfortable ignoring but she cannot ignore. So even while Catherine is flattered by his latching onto her, his dogged, ardent pursuit, she’s also mildly horrified. She’s too old for all of this!
The recurring theme in Love is, well, the transformative power of love. But it’s also about gender, age, and the hypocrisy of social norms. Why, von Arnim asks, is it socially acceptable for an older many to marry a much younger woman, but everyone is shocked by a young man being attracted to an older woman? Love was inspired by von Arnim’s own affair with a young man, in the days when she could no longer be called “young.” Her writing, therefore, betrays the enthusiasm—-obsessive, almost—-of a writer who’s experienced something, and now she wants the world to understand it.
This age difference theme is exquisitely played out. In her initial horror at Christopher’s attentions, Catherine flees, without advance notice, to her former home in the country. There, we meet her grown daughter, who is newly married, newly pregnant (although, true to the novel’s times, this word is never used), and running the household that Catherine was forced to abdicate. Catherine’s daughter is married to the local clergyman who is only a year younger than Catherine herself. The clergyman has a longstanding relationship with the family; von Arnim describes this soooo creepily:
Stephen, who was first the curate and then the rector of Chickover, having been presented to the living by George Cumfrit its patron, who liked him, had had his thoughtful eye on Virginia from the beginning. When he went there she was five and he was thirty-four. Dear little child; he played with her. Presently she was fifteen, and he was forty-four. Sweet little maid; he prepared her for confirmation. Again presently she was eighteen, and he was forty-seven. Touching young bud of womanhood; he proposed to her.
Catherine, by then a widow, had initially hesitated to give consent to the marriage. But her future son-in-law had argued in favor of love, saying what did age matter as long as there was love? So she acquiesced. (Oh and, incidentally, Catherine’s daughter was now an heiress, thanks to her father’s unique will.)
So when Catherine flees to the country home that used to be hers, she is forced to play mother-in-law to a man nearly her age. To force a contrast, the household treats Catherine like she’s in her dotage. After a week there, Catherine’s presence is no longer welcome. Her daughter and son-in-law are so eager for her to leave, they see no hypocrisy in pointing out that “there’s no place quite like home, is there?” They are conveniently forgetting that up until a few months ago—-never mind the twenty years prior to that—-this was Catherine’s home. Poor Catherine!
I don’t want to reveal too much plot, but I will say this: when Christopher arrives unexpectedly on the scene, everyone is horrified by this young man’s infatuation with an older woman. Von Arnim’s dramatic stage has been superbly set. We see that when it comes to relationships, love is not always allowed to be sufficient justification. And happiness…! Don’t even get her started on that one.
This is the kind of novel that take a little longer to get through, and it sticks with you long after you’ve finished. Von Arnim’s points are so clear, her situational irony so brilliant, they make the novel mildly traumatizing as it all plays out. The Enchanted April made me admire Elizabeth von Arnim as a writer; Love makes me admire her as a woman.
Have you ever been mildly traumatized by a powerful novel? I know I cannot be alone in this!!
If you’re interested in other novels from the 1920s, here are some great ones. I’m a big fan of the (literary) ’20s!
And finally, to allow Claire especially some vicarious travel, here’s an unrelated photo from my trip to lovely Slovenia!