It is fitting that gardens play such an important part in this novel, for I read it while relaxing in mine. At last the sweet peas have arrived, the poppies are dropping their petals and the honeysuckle is drooped over the fence like a chatty neighbour.
For the couple at the heart of this novel gardens represent freedom. Jennifer will find her garden in the Sussex countryside, even if she has to battle with her spade against brambles and snails. For James, a country vicar, it is the only place where he can escape the expectations of his sister and his parishioners.
Gardens were important to Elizabeth von Arnim too. Her first novel was called Elizabeth and her German Garden. And who can forget the magical qualities of the Italian castle gardens in The Enchanted April?
Gardens represent freedom, and in opposition is duty. Both Jennifer and James are caught up in duty’s coils.
Jennifer Dodge is already in her thirties but unmarried. She is one of the nearly 2 million ‘surplus women’ of the interwar years. At a time when marriage was the purpose of a woman’s life, the failure of so many women was an important social issue. She promised her dying mother that she would look after her father and so she is bound by a promise and the sense of duty imposed by father. She has spent the years maintaining a household to his liking, and assisting with his well known, but not well-read, books. He is a man of frigid habits. There are no gardens to enjoy at his house in Gower Street, London.
Richard Dodge diverts from his normal path and marries a young and beautiful girl called Netta. He has done this because his novels have been criticised for being too sensual, so he plans to use up this sensuality in his life and keep it out of his books. This act frees Jennifer from her duty to father and it allows her to set out to find her own cottage with a garden, which she does as soon as they have gone on their honeymoon. (A nice comedic detail is that father plans to take Netta to Norway.)
James is ‘entangled in his own canonicals’ (224). His sister Alice, a mirror image to father, brought him up and is now his housekeeper in the little Sussex village of Cherry Lidgate. She manages everything for him, and manages him through emotional blackmail. It is owing to her annoyance at him that she lets Rose Cottage to Jennifer. But when she sees that there is a danger from her brother being attracted to Miss Dodge she uses all her powers to separate them and to bring him to his senses – as she sees it. She takes him to Switzerland, and while there the hotel manager asks him to provide a Sunday service for the English guests. James realises that he does not wish to be a vicar.
Really it was a terrible, a horrifyingly lonely thing, thought James, gripping his head in his hands and staring at the Bradshaw on his knees, to be all by oneself in the middle of other people’s determinations and conventions, and having to behave as though they were one’s own, having to put on one’s surplice every Sunday and talk as if one agreed, and talk as if one upheld, when all one wanted – (224)
Alice has a very annoying habit of saying, ‘Bosh!’ when she doesn’t agree with something. She says it once too often to James while they are traveling back to England. She plans to remove the tenant from Rose Cottage and he to propose. The reader cheers to realise that James has thrown off the dreadful Alice. And when she finds a soulmate, thinking herself inconsolable by the loss of James, we think this is entirely fitting for both parties.
While they have been in Switzerland, Jennifer has been getting on with her new life, mostly working in her garden. But she is interrupted by Netta, who has not gone to Norway (because her lap dog would have had to quarantine on their return) but to Brighton. Although marriage to Richard Dodge is not at all to her taste she is persuaded to return to Brighton. She is followed a day or two later by father. Netta has left him and he requires Jennifer to return to Gower Street and care for him again.
The scene between the two of them is brutal. He believes that Jennifer sped to Rose Cottage to punish him for re-marrying. She cannot persuade him that she loves her life there. She tries to explain to him, but he only listens silently, unable to understand her.
Such nonsense, too; such grievous nonsense. Stuff about beauty, and independence, and the bliss, he gathered, of nothingness. To have nothing – to be nothing – it appeared to amount to that – was the only freedom, according to his absurd daughter. If she had declared that to be dead was the only true freedom, it would have made quite enough sense.
But, pitiably and confusedly as she talked, and insulting and ungrateful as her implications were, it did somehow emerge from the welter that the theory of a vendetta for his remarriage was incorrect and she was here because she liked it. (203)
There is much that is farcical about this novel, which lightens the pervading sense of oppression and wasted lives. Few people are honest with each other, preferring to make assumptions about; there are attempts to escape Switzerland that are thwarted by other escapes from Switzerland; meanness of spirit is employed to communicate the fault of other people. Who could forget the description of a lover’s first attempts at a romantic kiss to be ‘gobbling’? Some of the comings and goings are remind me of French farce.
The story reaches a happy-ever-after, but not before we have seen the full extent of Jennifer’s duty and obligation to her father.
Father by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1931 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2020. 296pp
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim