Sunday, August 7, 2011
Love by Elizabeth von Arnim
Elizabeth von Arnim had a lot to get off her chest regarding the topic of older women coupling with younger men and the double standard when the situation is reversed. She was speaking from experience as I found out while reading the riveting introduction by Terence de Vere White. And while there is much less discrimation today surrounding all sorts of relationships, vanity and the search for the fountain of youth is still a booming trade.
Being aware of each other's presence at multiple viewings of a play, Christopher sets about his relentless quest to woo Catherine. Things get icky quite rapidly when he hails a cab after a show so Catherine can avoid getting wet during a bit of rain. With his hanky he dabs at the droplets of rain on her clothing...and then her shoes, even the soles. That sort of thing would have had me out the door at the next red light.
To be fair, Catherine does her best to put off her admirer but slowly over time she returns his affections. Her euphoria at feeling loved and adored brings a youthful glow to her complexion but soon this fails to be enough. Her realized terror is very like the magic mirror telling the wicked stepmother that she's no longer the fairest in the land scenario. Secretive, not to mention expensive, treatments are begun with a doctor who barely speaks English assisted by a deceitful nurse. The less than impressive results are reminiscent of another fairy tale The Emporer's New Clothes. Counteractive to all of her efforts is the extreme worry about what people will say should this relationship become public knowledge in society and amongst family.
The double standard is that Catherine's teenage daughter, Virginia, is married to Stephen, her senior by twenty-nine years. And he's a vicar. So while he rails against what he deems to be a disgusting relationship between Catherine and Christopher, his wife sits on his knee and he refers to her as his 'blessed child'. There were a few times when I came close to flinging this book across the room in frustration. The constant insecurities about looks were annoying but that Catherine suffers her very existence in accordance with the terms set by her deceased husband and defers to her son-in-law's view of morality...Eek! In many ways I was born too late but in this regard my feminist views would surely have had me locked up in an asylum as a hysteric. Sentences such as the following had me writing "WHAT?" in my notebook more than a few times.
"Was she strong enough to defy Stephen and go on seeing Christopher just as before, without marrying him?"
Thank goodness for the comic relief provided by the housekeeper, Mrs Mitcham. Spying some new nightgowns belonging to the newlywed, Catherine, she thinks to herself....
"There were six nightgowns that you could pull through a wedding-ring, they went so into nothing. Chiffon nightgowns. Different colours. Pink, lemon-colour, and so on: and all of them you could see through as plain as daylight. It was a mercy, thought Mrs Mitcham, that it was dark at night."
Arguably, this book could have been called Looks instead of Love for all the worry and extreme efforts to conceal an aging visage. But von Arnim doesn't exclude the young completely, even the lovely Miss Wickford with the most beautiful eyes in London is a spinster for being unmarried at just twenty-eight. Society is so quick to label isn't it? But thankfully that was then and this is now. Vanity is alive and well and there is still more prejudice in this world than there should be but an older woman with a younger man is far from frowned upon. But would I want to be married to a man twenty years younger than myself? Not on your life!