Friday, 6 December 2019

Book Review: Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim

Just a hundred years ago the status of a girl largely depended on her chances for marriage. If she hadn’t found a husband by her mid-twenties people around would start looking at her askance, especially when there was nothing in her looks, behaviour or family background to put off courters. Only few women dared to actively defy society’s expectations, least of all the teenage ones who didn’t really know life yet. It was universally acknowledged that a girl who received a marriage proposal from a suitable match should be overjoyed and so is the letter-writing protagonist of the 1907 epistolary novel Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim. Twenty-five years old and a poor scholar’s daughter, she was convinced to end her life as old maid, but all of a sudden she finds herself secretly engaged to an Englishman much above her. The initial happiness doesn’t last, though…

Elizabeth von Arnim was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Kirribilli Point, Sydney, Australia, in August 1866, but she grew up in England. Aged twenty-two, her parents sent the professional organist-to-be on a tour of Europe to find a suitable husband. In 1891, she married Henning August, Graf von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and turned to writing on the family estate of Nassenheide in Pomerania (today: Poland). Under the pseudonym “Elizabeth” the author brought out her first best-selling novel Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898) followed by The Solitary Summer (1899), The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen (1904), The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight (1905), and Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther (1907) among others. After her husband’s death in 1910, she left Germany to live in England and Switzerland with their five children. A second marriage to John Russell, 2nd Earl Russell, ended in her flight to the USA. As from 1919, she divided her time between homes in England, Switzerland and France where she wrote her best-remembered novels Vera (1921), The Enchanted April (1922) and Mr. Skeffington (1940). Only after the outbreak of World War II she moved to the USA for good. Elizabeth von Arnim died in Charleston, South Carolina, USA, in February 1941.

Nobody in the smal German university town of Jena has the least idea that Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther got engaged just before the young Englishman’s departure for home early one November around 1900. Urged by the need to express her boundless happiness, Rose-Marie writes a first letter to dear Roger, her secret fiancé who belongs to a noble family unlikely to approve of their marriage plans. Even for her the proposal had been a surprise because during the whole year that Roger had stayed at her father’s house studying German he had never betrayed a particular interest in her.
“[…] It is a most extraordinary thing that this time yesterday we were on the polite-conversation footing, you, in your beautiful new German, carefully calling me gnädiges Fräulein at every second breath, and I making appropriate answers to the Mr. Anstruther […] And then an hour ago, just one hour by that absurd cuckoo-clock here in this room where we said good-by, you suddenly turned into something marvellous, splendid, soul-thrilling—well, into Dear Roger. […]”
Reality, however, soon brings Rose-Marie back to earth. Her step-mother puts into words what she has known all along, namely that Roger is expected to take a wealthy and well-born wife to further his career in the diplomatic service, not a girl like her who lacks means and social status. Then she finds Roger praising in his letters the charms of a girl whom he met at the house of his father’s oldest friend where he is staying for a while. When he breaks off their engagement within the month, she isn’t surprised at all and readily gives him free.
“[…] I make you a present of everything; of the love and happy thoughts, of the pleasant dreams and plans, of the little prayers sent up, and the blessings called down […] of the kisses, and all the dear sweetness. Take it all. I want nothing from you in return. […] But do you suppose that having given you all this I am going to give you my soul as well? To moan my life away, my beautiful life? You are not worth it. You are not worth anything, hardly. You are quite invertebrate. My life shall be splendid in spite of you. You shall not cheat me of one single chance of heaven. […]”
After this, Rose-Marie writes no more letters to her now ex-fiancé until spring when she feels obliged to thank him for his birthday wishes. Roger, who has returned to be Mr. Anstruther to her, wants to resume their correspondence as one between friends and she agrees – partly because she is a bit bored being still convalescing from the flu or pneumonia. She soon realises that he is getting tired of his new fiancée and of his career, but she refuses to allow him back into her life even when her step-mother’s unexpected death plunges her and her father into misery…

The letters combining to the epistolary novel Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther cover a period of little more than a year from the sole point of view of the female correspondent. It shows an unmarried woman of twenty-five in Germany of the early 1900s, thus almost an old maid by the time’s standards, who realises that contrary to what society makes girls believe, she doesn’t need a husband to feel whole and happy. In the end, she even refuses marriage as the easy way out because she doesn’t want to give up her independence for less than true love and takes life (not just hers but her unworldly father’s, too) into her own hands. The author didn’t really succeed, though, in making her feel truly self-determined and progressive instead of just resigned to an insignificant existence on the margins of society. Nonetheless, the focus of the novel clearly is on the development of her character and accordingly, there doesn’t happen an awful lot. As is quite typical of early twentieth-century literature, the language is lyrical and rich in powerful images that often happen to be a bit too sentimental to my taste. The novel was a pleasurable read despite all.

All things considered, I fairly enjoyed reading Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim as testimonial of an era when (patriarchal) society determined that it had to be a woman’s only purpose in life to be devoted wife, mother and housekeeper. It’s certainly true that even at the time of the novel’s first release in 1907 the letter-writing protagonist could hardly be considered a women’s rights activist, but it still shows that at the turn of the past century not just the latter were aware as well as critical of the social conventions limiting girl’s and women’s personal development. Although the author wasn’t particularly daring and the novel lacks innovative power both from the feminist and from a literary point of view (which surely accounts for it not being one of her best-remembered works), Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther is an interesting time piece that definitely deserves my recommendation.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.