Vera – Elizabeth von Arnim

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Published in 1921, ‘Vera’ tells the story of 22 year old Lucy Entwhistle who, in the hours after the death of her father, meets middle-aged  Everard Wemyss whose wife, Vera, has also recently died – albeit in rather suspicious circumstances resulting in a public scandal, of which Lucy is oblivious. Companionship in the face of sadness results in the two falling in love and, despite the concern of relatives – especially Lucy’s Aunt Dot – the pair marry.

‘Vera’ concerns itself with the psychologies at work in a relationship, particularly the sado-masochistic gymnastics which characterise relationships underscored by domestic abuse.

Lucy Entwhistle is naivety incarnate, seeing in Wemyss a lover, a comfort, a protector.  But Wemyss is also a child, and this childishness colours their relationship:

‘Now Lucy, I’ll have none of that. Come here’

He held out his hand. She crossed over obediently and took it.

He pulled her lose and ruffled her hair. He was in high spirits again. His encounters with the servants had exhilarated him.

‘Who’s my duddely-umpty little girl?’ he asked. Tell me who’s my duddely-umpty little girl. Quick. Tell me -‘ And he caught her round the waist and jumper her up and down.’

But Wemyss is more than simply naïve. He is also a terrible bully with petty rules and humiliating punishments, a spoilt man-child  unable to interact with adults and adult  sexuality. In once scene Lucy has found herself soaked with rain so she undresses and, while Lizzie the maid sorts out a fresh outfit, wraps herself in a blanket. Wemyss returns home to his wife…

‘His eyes ran over her. It was evident that all she had on was that blanket. A strange fury came into his face, and he turned his back on her and marched with a heavy tread to the door, a tread that made Lucy for some reason she couldn’t at first understand, think of Elgar. Why Elgar? part of her asked, puzzled while the rest of her was blankly watching Wemyss . Of course, the march: Pomp and Circumstance.

At the door he turned and said, ‘Since you thrust yourself into my room when I have show you I don’t desire your company you force me to leave it.’

Then he added, his voice sounding queer and through his teeth, ‘You’d better go and put your clothes on. I assure you I’m prof against sexual allurements’

Then he went out.

Lucy stood looking at the door. Sexual allurements? What did he mean? Did he think- did he mean-‘

And slowly the tone of the book darkens as Wemyss pours his scorn on the women who surround him: the servants from whom he makes petty demands and inflicts humiliating punishments; on his wife whom he suspects of undermining his word and upsetting his world; on his wife’s Aunt, whose eyes are opened and so, must be disposed of.  Will any of these women go the mysterious way of his first wife, Vera: a woman whose spirit metaphorically haunts the corridors of Lucy and Everard’s married life? As we get toward the end of the novel, the anticipation becomes palpable…

Von Arnim has a style which is very formal. In fact, so formal that, like the rigid patterns of the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ in the novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman something else seems to seep through: occasionally words taking flight, producing giddy wordplay of which Ali Smith would be proud:

‘I think we can achieve a happy little Christmas for you here,’ said her Aunt, smiling the smile she smiled when she found difficulty in smiling.’ 

And then something less tangible: a slyness, an irony which gives the book the feeling of a (very) black comedy. We see this in the way von Armin writes Wemyss, making his actions  and attitudes silly, pathetic, almost laughable if they weren’t so cruel and destructive. In many ways, the novel this most reminds me of is Gwendoline Riley’s extraordinary ‘First Love’.

So ‘Vera’ is a curious book: formal yet playful, funny even… and yet all the while presenting a vision of domestic games and anguish which suggests the author may have studied the (recently) published Freud.

Von Arnim was the cousin of Katherine Mansfield, whose writing I have loved – however, Von Arnim is her own self, a writer of individual style and interesting voice. I look forward to tracking down her other works.

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