Friday, April 22, 2022

Fraulein Schmidt & Mr. Anstruther


Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther / Elizabeth von Arnim
London: Virago, 2006, c1907.
392 p.

Now this is an epistolary novel that really works! It is absolutely dependent on the fact that it is a set of letters, and in this case, one sided letters. We only see the missives to Mr. Anstruther from Fraulein Schmidt - we are left to guess the other bits from her responses. I found it very successful. 

It begins with Rose-Marie writing an ecstatic letter to Roger -- he was boarding with her teacher father for a year to study in Germany, and told her of his feelings for her just before going back to England. The letters are charming and funny and romantic, but get shorter and a little less expansive as she waits to hear back. 

Her letters cool down slowly, especially when Roger, now Mr. Anstruther, writes to let her know that he is going to become engaged to a British girl -- not his choice of course but he must follow the requests of his father and his career prospects. But they can remain friends and correspondents. 

Rose-Marie manages this admirably, changing her position to one of "older sister", as she tells him, someone concerned with his well-being but able to criticize and advise as well. And we see through her letters that she grows, and becomes more able to state things clearly, and to be realistic about her life and prospects. Until Mr. Anstruther desires to become Roger once more, and puts Fraulein Schmidt into an awkward position...

Elizabeth von Arnim's writing is sharp and clear, and in this novel particularly I thought she had the voice of a practical young woman down. As in most of her work, the conflict between being German and English is part of the story, and she's able to point out some of the absurdities in both cultures. I recently read an academic study of comedy in her novels, and it surmised that the humour is such that it requires a sympathetic reader, one who can sense the irony and situational wryness -- I think many bookish women readers will be the right ones for this story, and will 'get it'. 

I loved Rose-Marie's voice and her independence. She's a clever letter writer - I'd love for her to write to me. I'm not sure what I think of the ending, it could mean a couple of different things if you extrapolate and imagine. Von Arnim's intent and direction of the narrative probably mean one thing but I wondered if the story could possibly play out another way past the final pages. I couldn't help hoping that Rose-Marie would get everything that she wanted. This was an amusing book, but with emotional heft, and a wonderful main character. One of my favourite Von Arnim books. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2022



Violeta / Isabel Allende
trans. from the Spanish by Frances Riddle
NY: Ballantine, c2022
336 p.

This new book by Allende came into my library shortly after I'd finished reading Dora, Doralina, a novel of Brazil. This is similar in many ways, roving over the long life of Violeta, born in Chile and experiencing financial ups and downs as well as passionate relationships with violent men. I couldn't help but compare Dora and Violeta, even though the eras they lived in only overlapped slightly.

Violeta is born into a fairly wealthy family; the book opens with her birth in 1920. She the youngest, the only girl in a family of boys. And her life is affected by world events from the beginning - the Spanish Flu epidemic rips through Chile just as she's born. (Honestly, reading about this was a bit stressful in light of our own recent experiences with pandemic). Her family makes it through that, only to lose everything in the Crash. They have to leave their city dwellings and find a home in a rural area with relatives of a friend - Violeta, her mother and aunts all find a new home there, while her brothers fan out to make a living. 

It's one of those books where the main character is involved in a lot of things that allow for a country's bigger story to be told. There is a great deal about Chilean politics -- upheaval almost constantly. Class, money, misogyny, world events; they are all here. 

Viioleta grows up and then there is, just like with Dora's story, an incompatible marriage at a young age, only to be superseded by a relationship with a tempestuous, philandering man who operates on the edge of legality. While there is no official marriage for Violeta, she still deals with all the harrassment of a partnership with a man like this. However, she is clever, and still has a hand in running a housing business with her brother, so ends up being financially secure on her own. This gives her many more options once her romance with this bullying man changes. 

The story is theoretically being told as a letter from Violeta to her grandson, although this conceit only partially works. Sometimes the narrative kind of forgets it is a letter - I don't think that the epistolary form is necessary to this book. The ending, especially, doesn't make sense in a letter format, but we'll forgive that, since the narrative is flowing and engaging. Violeta is a great character who finds her own route through life despite obstacles and terrible events. She has a handful of close relationships, including a moving connection to her governess early on, and is indefatigable. It's an interesting look at a Chilean woman's experiences, although perhaps the last years of her life are glossed over pretty quickly. Still, really interesting and a great accidental companion read to Dora, Doralina for a look at South American women's lives over the last century. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Dora, Doralina

Dora, Doralina / Rachel de Queiroz
trans. from the Portuguese by Dorothy Scott Loos
NY: Avon, c1984
281 p.

I picked up this book from a secondhand bookshop many years ago, not realizing that the author is a Brazilian literary lion. I finally read it this year, and was absorbed in the messy life of Dora/Doralina. 

Dora is born to a family of landowners in rural Brazil; her father is not in the picture, and she is raised by her mother at their fazenda (estate). She has a difficult relationship with her mother, who she calls Senhora, never Mother. She is constrained by her rural, isolated life, with little money and a social structure that limits what she can do; she's also emotionally limited, with only a couple of the servants to care for her as a person. 

So she's ripe for being married off to a dashing young man that her mother selects for her. The marriage isn't happy though, with some pretty nasty revelations occurring early on. But it doesn't last, and the first section of the book ends with the marriage's end. 

Dora has had enough and runs away to the city, where she finds work in a travelling theatre. This small group travels around the country to regional theatres, which is an awfully good way for a novel to show conditions across a country. There is a lot of detail about the theatre and her coworkers - anyone who has ever acted or is interested in theatre might find all this very relatable. 

And the third part of the book comes out of these travels; Dora catches the eye of a riverboat captain who is older than her and quite a dashing scoundrel. They marry, and have a tumultuous life together. He is passionate and unpredictable, involved in many illegal activities and has a temper. But Dora says of him, "Yes, for me he was a god: he came as a god, lived like a god, and would die a god; and when he left it was the end of the world for me.” This willingness of hers to live under his thumb is a bit jarring for modern readers but it is the way their relationship works. And through this, and commentary on other marriages and women, we can get a glimpse of the social norms at that time. 

Dora comes full circle to return to the fazenda after both her mother, then her husband, die. She finds her life ending where it began, although the book itself ends rather abruptly. Dora's exciting life in the outside world ends, and so does this story. 

I found this novel a little slow moving at the start, but got into it as the story progressed. The portrait of this woman bucking expectations and living her own way was a compelling one. As noted, I did find the conclusion choppy and abrupt, but overall this was a memorable story. 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Mad Women's Ball

The Mad Women's Ball / Victoria Mas
trans. from the French by Frank Wynne
NY: Abrams, 2021, c2019.
224 p.

The system of asylums that took care of the problem of women who didn't want to fit into their family expectations existed in France as well as England and other countries too. Victoria Mas has created a novel full of dread and powerlessness and also the voices of the dead. 

Genevieve is a nurse at the Salpetriere Asylum in Paris, 1885. After her sister Blandine died young, she gave up religious beliefs and turned to science. She's a no-nonense nurse and guardian to the mad women in the asylum. 

However, as usual in this era, many of the women at the asylum are simply poor, unwanted, or troublesome wives or daughters who are being conveniently disposed of. One of these is Eugenie, a 19 year old daughter of the bourgeoisie who has been committed after telling her family that she can communicate with spirits. The fact is, however, that she can. 

Eugenie begins to pass messages on to Genevieve from Blandine, shaking Genevieve's worldview. And slowly she is won over to Eugenie's plans to escape the asylum, and agrees to help her. 

The book is told in a dreamy fashion, highlighting the era and the varied women in the asylum. My impression of the book is of a dusty, sunlight room full of women imprisoned and dispirited. The big moment of the year is the titular Mad Women's Ball, at which society attends a large party and views all the mad women decked out in finery for one night of the year. The fuss this causes seems like the perfect moment to plan an escape. But is the crowd a help or hindrance in this plan? 

This novel has a quiet air, a historical aura that makes it feel like a sliver of the past. It reminds me of a few French Canadian novels that I've read in tone and pacing -- particularly those of Dominique Fortier.  It's a fascinating premise and I think works well. The style is sparse, not overly packed with detail, so you have space to imagine and make your own decisions about spirits and asylums and who is acting in good faith or not. 

There's also been a movie made from this book, although I think it's only available via Amazon Prime so if you have access to that you'll have to tell me how good it was ;) 

I liked this one -- picked it up only because it came across the desk at work and that cover caught my eye. But recommended if you're in the mood for a slower paced historical novel examining women's lives in 19th century Paris. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

A View of the Harbour


A View of the Harbour / Elizabeth Taylor
London: Virago, 2006, c1947
313 p.

I wanted to read another Elizabeth Taylor after I finished Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I was intrigued by her style and the way she looks at women's lives. Fortunately, I also had this novel on my shelves. 

A View of the Harbour was Taylor's third novel, and features a novelist and painter as characters. Their relationships to their art, and interactions with the other characters, are an important part of this story. 

It revolves around a small cast who all interact and affect one another. Robert Cazabon is the town doctor; his wife Beth is the novelist, who is described by her best friend and next door neighbour Tory as having her head in the clouds and not seeing reality. However, the reality is that Tory and Robert are having an affair. Only the young adult daughter of the Cazabons, Prudence, sees it. 

There's also a newcomer to town, Bertram, a retired naval officer who is staying at the pub and convinced that he's going to become a painter. He spends most of this time chatting people up and visiting other townspeople, rather than painting though. He always means well, but causes problems to others with his actions, however unintended. 

Added to this we get to know Mrs. Bracey and her daughters; she's a longtime local who is now housebound and spends her time gazing out the window at the harbour -- and gossiping about everyone in town. She is controlling and expects her daughters to look after her and bring her news constantly; she's a strong personality and interferes in a potential romance of one of her daughters. Bertram, however, finds her fascinating, and brings interest to her life by visiting frequently. 

All of these characters are kind of the point of this book. The plot is not much more than everyday occurences, with the heightened emotions of a secret affair and the aimlessness that many of the characters feel. While Beth might be blinded to life by her writing, she is also the only character who feels engaged and purposeful thanks to her work. Robert, as a doctor, might be close behind with feeling some meaning in his life, but many of the others are simply adrift. 

But the flow of this moment in time is disrupted when Mrs. Bracey dies, and everything else seems to shake out of place at the same time. People leave, the harbour is changed, and life will be different. This feels like it's the 'message' as much as there is one: nothing stays the same. 

The joy of the book is definitely in the writing. Her style is precise and pries so forensically into the hidden layers of each individual, the unhappiness, agony, secrets held close to each person. Her characters are not always sympathetic but they are sure believable. And the setting, which seems like it should be expansive -- sea view, tourists, fresh air -- is suffocating and claustrophobic for this set of people. Very impressive reading.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Story Girl

The Story Girl / L.M. Montgomery
NY: Bantam, 1988, c1911.
258 p.

I seem to be ranging all across women's lives this week - from end of life to young marrieds to adolescents, in this book. The Story Girl is an episodic tale of the King family in Prince Edward Island, taking place while their cousin Sara Stanley (the Story Girl of the title) is visiting. 

Like many of L.M. Montgomery's stories, it covers a range of themes; nature, family ties, community stories, religious elements, lots of school and friendship in there too. This one is a little unusual in her oeuvre, though, as it's being told by one of the boys involved, as a memoir of sorts. This means we have an adult perspective on the events, which is sometimes more pronounced than at other times. It gives a sense of nostalgia for a "simpler time" as well, but I'm not sure it was a fully successful approach. 

I enjoyed the stories of the children and the scrapes they get themselves into -- some were quite amusing, some probably had more impact in 1911 when this was first published, for example, in one chapter they all freak out thinking the world is going to end the next day because they've seen it in the papers. The adults don't take their fear seriously at all, and it feels like they are even slightly mocking the group of children. It's a bit odd. 

Sara Stanley herself is a typical Montgomery heroine -- a bit set apart from everyone else because of her abilities to make up stories and/or tell old family stories in an impressive way. She's a bit dreamy, and she doesn't live with the others, she's staying with another aunt & uncle nearby, which also sets her apart a bit. This book and the characters were the inspiration for the tv series Road to Avonlea which was huge in the 90s, although it was changed up quite a lot for tv. 

I love Montgomery, but can't recall reading this one before. I've owned it for years, so I must have at some time, but nothing in it seemed familiar to me. I can't say it's my favourite of her work. It was quite episodic so there was no dramatic storyline to follow, and the inclusion of random stories thanks to Sara was a bit choppy for me. The structure of a character telling us about his childhood memories also didn't really engage me as much as some of her other books have. But, if you're a Montgomery fan, or just want a book about bygone days that works when you want to read a chapter at a time, with nothing dark or bleak about it, this is the one for you. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Two Mrs. Abbots

The Two Mrs. Abbotts / D.E. Stevenson
Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2014, c1943.
283 p.

This is the final book in Stevenson's Miss Buncle series, although it doesn't have too much Miss Buncle in it -- she is a pivotal character as the now matronly Mrs. Abbott, but there are so many others taking the spotlight in this book, to great effect. Including the second Mrs. Abbott!

This was a follow up to the first two very successful Miss Buncle books, but it's more episodic than the others. Miss Buncle, now Mrs. Abbott, lives in the country, and it's the family and neighbours that have the adventures in this one. There is a throughline of a plot, but mainly the chapters focus on events that are happening to different people in each. 

My favourite chapter is when the no-nonsense housekeeper reveals unplumbed depths and uncovers a German spy (this was published during WWII, though it's not dark at all). The scene is funny, and allows this character to shine. There's another character who is trying to hide her identity, there's a romantic theme, and some more sober moments -the younger Mrs. Abbott's husband is away at the war and that is mentioned. 

I appreciated that this story is really all about women, of all ages and classes. It focuses on their experiences and relationships; even the romance theme is more interested in the woman involved. There aren't many men around and the women are just doing their thing. I liked it. 

It is a lovely read, and this reissue is part of a nicely designed series with really attractive covers (these are the versions in my local library). If you haven't read the first two Miss Buncle books, you can still enjoy this one. I feel that the first two must be read together and in order, but this one is a bit of an add-on -- you'll get more from it if you know all the backstory, but it does work on its own. It's a great addition to books set in WWII and very readable.