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