Category: Fiction/Relationships – Paperback: 377 pages – Publisher: Virago Modern Classics – Source: The Book House, Otley (secondhand bookshop)
First Published: 1907
I’ve come to reading von Arnim’s book via a rather circuitous route. I first heard of her via someone’s review of The Caravaners in about 2009 I think. Then she kept popping up in my non-fiction books, always as the source of a snarky comment or a clever piece of wit. My favourite of these so far is Somerset Maugham’s amusing (and yet horrifying) account of her reading her husband into his grave. I bought a stack of five of her books from one of my favourite secondhand bookshops when I saw them one Saturday and I’ve been meaning to read her books since the spring… but only finally got around to it as part of my mini-readathon. I’m thoroughly annoyed with myself for the delay as I’ve skimmed and dipped into many less entertaining books in the meantime when I could have been delighting in the company of the very droll Rose-Marie Schmidt!
As the book opens, Roger, the young, wealthy student who has been boarding with the Schmidt family in the little German town of Jena, has returned to England, his impending exams and his impressive future. The story is told solely through the letters that Rose-Marie, the twenty five year old daughter of the house, sends to Roger but we catch clues and quotes enough to understand the tone of his letters to her.
In these opening letters, Rose-Marie is impulsive and swept up in love with a man who seems prepared to risk his father’s criticism and social boundaries and marry her despite her being poor and not a countess. The tone of letters, sent every day and filled with the ever-changing moods and drama of new love, shifts as Roger drifts away from Rose-Marie and seems to be awfully absorbed by the young woman his father would prefer him to marry… At the end of the first part of the book it becomes increasingly obvious to both Rose-Marie and the reader that Roger has no intention of keeping his engagement to her so she releases him from it.
‘Pray think of me as a young person of sobriety; collected, discreet, cold to frostiness. Think of me like that, my dear, and in return I’ll undertake to write to you only in my after-breakfast mood, quite the most respectable I possess.’
In a conventional tale, much more drama would be infused in this half of the story – the young, poor woman led on and left broken-hearted by the spoilt English buck on his term abroad. For von Arnim though that’s just the background to a much richer story. The level-headed and wiser Rose-Marie receives more letters and, after considering it sensibly, begins corresponding with Roger again.
Now more formally addressed to Mr Anstruther, her letters are full of snapshots of her life, both in the rural town of Jena where she doesn’t really fit in with the more staid hausfraus and her intellectual life which is alive with reading and analysing poetry and books. She offers him advice when he seems to tie himself up in knots because he doesn’t know what he wants out of life and chides him for being selfish and spoilt in the nicest, most good-humoured way imaginable. Her friendly letters are lively, thoughtful and increasingly happy and fulfilled – something that the unworthy Mr Anstruther seems to resent.
Although Rose-Marie is sick after their engagement ends and has family tragedy to contend with she doesn’t wither or shrink, she thrives and shines as she grows into the life she can now shape for herself. From a twenty five year old woman who is awkwardly aware of her ordinary looks and unable to gossip with the wives or play with the teenage girls, she turns into a far less conventional twenty six year old living in an odd house on the outskirts of town that suits her much better than she expected, audaciously re-writing her father’s book in English (rather than just translating it as requested!) and more realistically assessing her possible suitors.
I shan’t give away the ending, the final six letters made me laugh and gasp out loud because I hadn’t quite trusted von Arnim to break with convention so convincingly, but it is perfect. Rose-Marie is a character who seems funny and quirky at the start but grows to be a pragmatic heroine with an Austenesque wit and you can’t help but love her by the end. Seeing her actively decide her own future seems like a victory she has truly earned and the reader can applaud with enthusiasm. If you see a copy of this somewhere, snap it up without hesitation. :)
Also, if you capture an iconic green VMC edition the introduction by Xandra Hardie offers a lovely story of how von Arnim actually went under cover to work as a governess to gather details for Rose-Marie’s life before writing this book!
Further Reading: Claire’s review at The Captive Reader
Buy the book: Book Depository