Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther - Elizabeth Von Arnim

When I first read Elizabeth Von Arnim, it was 'Elizabeth and her German Garden' followed by 'The Enchanted April', I loved her - well who could fail to? I really liked 'All the Dogs of my Life' too, then found 'Vera' deeply unsettling but powerful. All was good until I read 'The Caravaners', which was funny but in a way that made me mildly dislike the author - there was no kindness behind her humour. Somerset Maugham's account of her (excellent company, but malicious) in 'The Vagrant Mood' confirmed the faint prejudice.

That's a round about way of saying that I didn't love 'Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther', although every other review I could find if it seems extremely positive. There isn't a plot as such so I'm not giving much away when if I describe it. Rose-Marie Schmidt is the daughter of a German academic who's income is based on the annuity left by his first wife, the little money his second wife has, and anything bought in by boarding students. Mr Anstruther has been one of these students learning German before sitting exams for entry to the foreign office. At the end of his year he proposes to Rose-Marie and is joyfully accepted. She starts writing to him even as his train leaves, but within a month of his return to England he's thrown her over for a rather better connected, and much better off young woman. After a couple of months letters resume.

It's these letters, and only Rose-Marie's letters, which make up the novel. We're obviously meant to see her as the back blurb describes her - "funny, intelligent, brave and gifted with an irrepressible talent for happiness." but I think she shares Von Arnim's love of malice to an extent that makes me sympathise with Mr Anstruther more than I'm meant to.

It's Mr Anstruther who (as would be proper) starts writing again, at which point we can assume engagement number two isn't going so well. It's not entirely clear why Rose-Marie doesn't dismiss his overtures of friendship out of hand (except that the book would come to an abrupt end if she did), instead she enters into a long, time consuming, and intimate exchange of letters over the course of the next year. Von Arnim is amusing, her descriptions of vegetarianism are very funny, as are her observations on German customs and habits. Rose-Marie's accounts of the scenery, her personal philosophies, and her accounts of the struggle to make ends meet are variously beautiful or touching, but there's another undercurrent to the letters.

All the while Mr Anstruther is being encouraged by a woman who knows how to attract him. When he's thrown over by fiancée number two and his attentions become more marked Rose-Marie does nothing to put a stop to it, and when eventually he proposes again he's dismissed as an object of pity, someone she doesn't trust, doesn't love, can't worship.

I find this a problem because I'm not clear why a woman so poor would have wasted so much money on stamps for a man she has such a low opinion of (that's not flippant, daily letters between Germany and England running to several pages a time would decimate my income) unless it was with revenge in mind. Revenge is fine, but when it takes the form of leading someone to the point where they ask for your hand so that you can humiliate them with a detailed 'No', I'm not convinced it's funny, brave, or compatible with a talent for irrepressible happiness. I'm not convinced by an initial love that can't allow for the weaknesses of character we all have either - surely nobody can safely sit in a pedestal forever?

But then there are questions - where do the letters come from? Has Mr Anstruther returned them to Rose-Marie? Could we assume he's showing them to us to vindicate his own opinion that he might have been treated rather shabbily? And if he's turned up in person would Rose-Marie be as indifferent as she claims? (She's very reluctant to meet him again, so I don't think she would be indifferent.)

In the end this book doesn't really come together for me. It's neither the light romance or comedy of the Von Arnim's I've loved, or the merciless hatchet job that is Vera (which is horribly compelling), but another Caravaners which leaves me out of sympathy with her.


  1. I enjoyed this, particularly the insights into life in Victorian Germany, but perhaps interpreted the very ambiguous ending differently. I think she was trying to lure him back, and achieved her aim when he said he was coming to see her in spite of her protestations. For as you say, why else would you take the time and expense to write to an old fiance, and lead him on, unless you are extremely malicious, which the heroine does not appear to be. I also enjoyed the other romance in the book, which I will not spoil for others by going into detail! It would be interesting to see how other readers interpreted it.

  2. The reviews I've found have all loved it, and seem Rose-Marie in a very positive light. To me she's an unreliable narrator, but I can't quite work out what Von Arnim thinks of her, or wants us to think of her. But like you I'm inclined to think the letters stop because he's come and got her. The other romance is delightful, and again do you think Rose-Marie recognises it as the reader does or is she oblivious as her reaction suggests?