I discovered Elizabeth von Arnim a long time ago, and read all of her books that I could find. Recently though her those books have been calling me back, asking me to read them all over again. But before I started pulling books out of the Virago bookcase I had a look at the library catalogue, just in case there was a book tucked away that I hadn’t read and didn’t own.
There was – In The Mountains!
The name rang a bell, but I didn’t look up any details, I just placed my order. One of the things I like about reading older books is that you can go into them with no foreknowledge and take the book exactly as it comes, with no preconceptions at all.
I was delighted when the book appeared on the reservations shelf to discover that it was a novel in the form of a journal. A format I love!
The keeper of the journal, whose name I was never to learn, had come to a family home in the Swiss mountains to rest and to recover from – or at least come to terms with – her losses during The Great War.
Exactly what – or who – she had lost, what she had suffered, was never quite put into words, but that she was grieving, that she was trying to come to terms with making a new start, was something I never doubted. I found that I understood.
Her journal read beautifully and quite naturally. Sometimes the words came in a rush, and sometimes she struggled to express herself.
“I wonder why I write all this. Is it because it is like talking to a friend at the end of the day, and telling him, who is interested and loves to hear, everything one has done? I suppose it is that; and that I want to pin down these queer days as they pass, – days so utterly like any I ever had before. I want to hold them a minute in my hand and look at them, before letting them drop away for ever …”
She found sustenance in the peace and beauty of her surroundings, in her books, and in writing in her journal. It was lovely to watch; I liked her, and I cared about her.
But as she grew stronger she began to feel lonely, and in need of a role in life. And that was when two Englishwoman, tired walkers, arrived on her doorstep. She eagerly invited them in, to rest and to take refreshments, and when she discovered that their lodgings were less than satisfactory, she prevailed upon them to stay with her.
The tone of the story changed, and I’m afraid I rather resented it. I wanted things to go on quietly, as they had before. But I was also curious. Why were two English sisters, who surely would have been happier at home, walking in the Swiss mountains? And why was the elder sister so very protective of the younger?
Their hostess was curious too, but she didn’t feel she could ask and they didn’t feel they could tell. But in time friendships grew, confidences were shared; she was able to help them and they were able to help her.
Some things were lost in the second part of the book. The journal that had been so believable became less so as conversations were reported verbatim. And I missed the contemplation of peace and beauty.
But wonderful though they are, peace and beauty alone cannot fill a life. And the coming of company did allow the author to make some telling points silly the rules of hospitality and good manners can be, about the importance of being needed, about the consequences of war, and about how we come to terms with loss, learn to somehow live with it, and carry on.
She did it with such understanding, warmth and charm.
And there were so many lovely moments and details.
“While I dress it is my habit to read. Some book is propped up open against the looking-glass, and sometimes, for one’s eyes can’t be everywhere at once, my hooks in consequence don’t get quite satisfactorily fastened. Indeed I would be very neat if I could, but there are other things … “
The book as a whole can’t quite live up to passages like that. It’s a little compromised by its structure, by the sharp change part-way through, by the need to come to an end where there should be not an end but simply a change.
But it is lovely nonetheless, and it has confirmed that I really must pull Elizabeth von Arnim’s other books out of that bookcase.