Here are three short extracts from the first three pages of Expiation. They set the scene of a social milieu that is smug and critical and which provides the material for a novel of folly and lies, in which Elizabeth von Arnim has a great deal of fun at the expense of a large bourgeois family called Bott, known collectively as the Botts. We imagine that the family’s and suburb’s names are intended to be absurd.
Not only were the Botts kind, but the whole of Titford was kind. That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continually increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened. Titford was full of Botts, and every one of them a credit to it. (1-2)
And here she was at forty-five, a little cushiony woman, fair-skinned and dove-eyed, with dimples on her plump hands where other people had knuckles, and a smooth head, sleekly covered with agreeable hair the colour of respectability. (2-3)
What a wife. What a nice place the world would be if all wives were more like Milly, the male Botts had frequently thought – whispering it to themselves, for it wouldn’t do to say it out loud – when they had been having trouble with their own wives. (3)
The novel opens as the family have just buried Earnest Bott who has been killed in a motor accident. His will has been read and the family are shocked. He has left his substantial everything to a charity for fallen women, except for £1000 to his wife Milly. ‘Only my wife will know why’. What had Milly done?
The Botts are concerned to keep the dreadful business of the will (not so much Milly’s offence) from being known in Titford. Milly must be treated as though she has done nothing wrong. But they don’t know what she has done. They begin to have suspicions. The family decide to give her houseroom in rotation. There are four remaining brothers and five sisters, and their discussion about how to support Milly resembles the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, talking each other down in the matter of their contributions to support a less fortunate family member.
When they go to tell her this, Milly has disappeared.
Milly is mortified to realised that Earnest had known that she was conducting an affair and added the codicil to his will 2 years before. Milly leaves very early the morning after the will was read, to get her £1000 and go to live with her sister in Switzerland, also estranged from the Botts because she eloped with her lover from Earnest’s home 25 years previously. The story goes on from there, with Milly giving her sister Agatha the money because she has lived in great poverty since she eloped. Milly, now penniless, realises that she will have to marry Arthur, much against her inclination, for the affair long calmed into a generous friendship. But when they meet for a final time, she realises that he has found a young girl with whom he is in love and plans to marry.
And so, with no means of support, she returns to Titford and to the Botts. Milly finds she must atone for what she has done. Not to Earnest, who is dead, but to his family – for Milly also suffers from that double standard:
It is the woman, the Botts considered, on whom the duty has been laid of walking steadfastly along the straight path of virtue, thus persuading man, that natural deviator, to walk along it too. Sometimes he won’t, the Botts admitted, and then the woman’s duty is to continue along it alone. (38)
Milly begins living with each of her brothers-in-law and their wives in turn, and this causes severe strains upon their marriages, as each makes deductions about Milly and what she has been doing, the money, the cause of the dreadful will and the identity of Milly’s paramour. There is a great deal of hysteria and suspicion, and Milly is understood to be guiltless or extremely full of guile by different Botts in turn. All is resolved by the patience and good sense of the matriarch.
This is a novel that looks at hypocrisy, especially of the smug family Bott. It’s about the cost of lies and deception. We follow Milly, indeed sympathise with her as she tries to do the right thing by the Botts, but find ourselves questioning with her when it is okay to lie, why are some lies not punished (I’ll make you the happiest woman ever) and others are (finding happiness outside marriage). Frequently the family have to halt their discussions because it does not do to talk before the servants, from whom the truth must be hidden. It’s told with Elizabeth von Arnim’s trademark wit, her ability to reveal hypocrisy and with a certain amount of daring since she was writing in 1929 when adultery and divorce were not words to be breathed in mixed or polite company.
Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1929 and republished by Persephone Books in 2019. 362pp
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim
Father by Elizabeth von Arnim
Fallen Women, a themed post on Bookword
Heavenali’s blog delights in the absurdity of the Botts, in February 2021.