19 May 2014

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

If you are in the mood for something chilling and scandalous this book would certainly fit the bill.  Published anonymously in 1921, the title refers to Vera Wemyss who flung herself onto the flagstone patio from a window in her palatial home.  Fifteen years of marriage to a controlling, narcissistic, misogynist completely withered her self-esteem to a point beyond despair.  This character, Everard, was based on Elizabeth von Arnim's second husband, Francis Russell, the elder brother of Bertrand Russell.  If the characterization is even remotely true, exposing him in print this way must have been incredibly cathartic.

The novel is set in 1920 and opens with twenty-two year old Lucy, half in shock over the death of her dear father.  His body is being laid out by two women from the village.  Father and daughter had barely arrived in Cornwall to spend August and September in a pretty cottage to enjoy the fresh air.  A lovely change of scenery from their home in the London borough of Bloomsbury.  Clearly, vacations should be viewed with much trepidation as Lucy's mother had died barely twenty-four hours after arriving at their summer house one July, several years earlier.

Standing by the garden gate, staring at nothing while lost in grief, Mr Wemyss strolls past.  Recognizing the look of someone adrift he stops for a chat.  His wife, Vera, has died only two weeks before and with the details of her suicide available in the papers he is in hiding from public opinion.  So quickly does he ingratiate himself into her sphere that Miss Entwhistle, Lucy's aunt, assumes Wemyss must be a close friend.

'In the dark under the mulberry tree, while her aunt talked softly and sadly of the past, Wenyss had sometimes laid his hand on Lucy's, and she had never taken hers away.  They had sat there, content and comforted to be hand in hand.  She had the trust in him, he felt, of a child; the confidence, and the knowledge that she was safe.  He was proud and touched to know it, and it warmed him through and through to see how her face lit up whenever he appeared.  Vera's face hadn't done that.  Vera had never understood him, not with fifteen years to do it in, as this girl had in half a day.  And the way Vera had died'....'the determination to do what suited her, to lean out of the dangerous window if she wished to....'

Thoroughly taken with the idea of having a father-figure in her life once more, Lucy, allows herself to be led to the alter.  I was so hoping that the suspicions of Aunt Entwhistle would outweigh her Edwardian etiquette of  ladylike decorum but no.  As you can probably guess, once a wedding ring was on Lucy's finger she became Everard's next victim to bully at will or for entertainment.  She immediately begins to shrink under the horror of being expected to sleep in Vera's bed, sit at her dressing table, look in her mirror...or worse, gaze from the very window where Vera flung herself to escape life with a despicable man.

Of the ending...

'Katherine Mansfield replied to Dorothy Brett's critical opinion of Vera:

Isn't the end extraordinarily good.  It would have been so easy to miss it.  She carried it right through.  I admired the end most, I think.  Have you never known a Wemyss?  Oh, my dear, they are very plentiful!  Few men are without a touch.  And I certainly believe that husbands and wives talk like that.  Lord, yes!
You are so very superior, Miss, in saying half an hour would be sufficient.  But how is one to escape?

The ending wasn't what I expected but Mansfield was absolutely right.  A couple of years ago I read von Arnim's book Love and wasn't overly bowled over by it but this story was a winner with me.  This would make a terrific read during November's atmospheric cloudy weather or this summer to give you a chill!


'Lady Orpen in her Drawing Room' by William Orpen

8 comments:

  1. I agree with you that it's a chilling book. Don't you think Daphne Du Maurier must have read it?

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    1. I've only had the pleasure of the film, Lyn, but I think you're right!

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  2. I loved this when I read it a few years ago. I think people have commented on the likeness to Rebecca!

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    1. I have Rebecca on my shelves but couldn't take two stories like this in a row; I'm anxious for a comparison read though! Here Be Dragons is the perfect book to lighten things up a bit.

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  3. Ohh this sounds deliciously thrilling. I've only read Enchanted April before and this sounds rather different!

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    1. Welcome, Brona Joy, lovely of you to stop by! Just the thing for a rainy weekend but mark my words, you'll want to slap both main characters at one point or another.

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  4. Oh, excellent review Darlene. I love von Arnim but have been consciously putting off reading this, being a little scared to encounter the darker tone. And yet I know I'll enjoy (if that's the right word but I don't quite think it is) it when I do.

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    1. Isn't it funny the way we put off books for one reason or another?! This would be a perfect blend for you, Claire, during blustery months or say...a Halloween read. Not that it's scary at all but the darker tone will definitely suit.

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