For years Elizabeth Von Arnim didn’t really appeal very much to me but people whose opinion I respect a great deal kept recommending her and so eventually I bought a copy of ‘Vera’. I was in a very big bookshop at the time, and I vaguely remember there being quite a choice but I was sold by the blurb on the back which declared this:
“Elizabeth Von Arnim’s masterpiece, Vera is a forceful study of the power of men in marriage – and the weakness of women in love.”
After all masterpiece seems like a good place to start, and forceful study sounded interesting, furthermore the cover was vaguely optimistic – open spaces and warm yellows. Yes, yet again judging a book by its cover turns out to be a mistake. This must have been five or more years ago, I tried reading ‘Vera’ then and got nowhere with it. This spring I rediscovered Von Arnim when I picked up the altogether more typical ‘Elizabeth and Her German Garden’ in a charity shop, I followed that with 'The Enchanted April' and wondered why I had waited so long – here was a delightful writer funny, observant, light and perhaps just a little wicked – and then I got round to ‘Vera’ again.
I notice that previous covers Virago used for ‘Vera’ give a better impression of its contents, this book is undoubtedly a masterpiece but I would describe its contents as explosive rather than forceful. It is certainly one of the best most empathetic descriptions of domestic abuse that I’ve ever read and it chilled me to the core. I found this book far more worrying, frightening, and downright spooky than ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ for example, and can’t help feel that the horror section might be its natural home.
‘Vera’ turns out to be the deceased wife of Mr Wemyss, only 2 weeks dead when he meets Lucy Entwhistle on the day she is orphaned. Poor Lucy is young (22) and cherished, the death of her father leaves her with nothing and almost nobody, so when the much older Wemyss simply takes over she lets him. The brilliance of this book is also the thing that makes it most chilling and likely. Lucy’s is a pleasant but still unformed personality; Wemyss is a monster of selfish determination with apparently no awareness beyond what he wants. His behaviour isn’t entirely rational and certainly falls short of what society expects, nobody seems to like him very much, but nor do they dislike him enough to really see what’s wrong with him, everybody likes Lucy but not enough to understand how vulnerable she is, or how in need of protection.
In the end Lucy is married to Wemyss, increasingly isolated, with a dawning realisation of what her situation is, and what most likely happened to ‘Vera’ who’s death looks less and less accidental. Wemyss behaviour becomes increasingly shocking not because he’s evil, but because he so totally believes that what he wants is right and anything that runs contrary to his will is wrong. The conclusion left me hanging with the certainty of tragedy to come, and wondering at what point it should have been possible to stop it. Probably a book best read by single people who can then count their blessings- and definately should come with a warning!