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Horrid husbands – a user’s guide

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IF we had a march proclaiming Husband Pride, my favourite novelist would have offered wicked, subversive and acerbic suggestions on how it might be celebrated. Elizabeth von Arnim was an entertaining writer with a fine sense of the ridiculous – for me, as comedic as P G Wodehouse, but with plausible characters drawn from her own life.

Born in Sydney but brought up in England she, with her parents, was followed about Europe by a bereaved and besotted Prussian aristocrat. Despite their attempts to shake him off, he persisted, eventually marrying her and making her a German countess in 1891. Looking back in her 1936 memoir, she was surprised that her parents regarded this loss of their daughter to Germany with insouciance, but ‘we didn’t mind Germans then’. This marriage encouraged Elizabeth to begin her lifelong writing career in which husbands feature as targets for her wit, and as creatures from which all level-headed women try to escape. So we must thank Count Henning von Arnim-Schlagenthen for pursuing her and winning her consent.

She submitted to his censorship of her first book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, to observe the proprieties of the late nineteenth century. For an Englishwoman married to a Prussian Junker military aristocrat these were as draconian as could be. Kate’s final speech in The Taming of the Shrew (‘Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy sovereign’) embarrassed no one in those days.

She was wittily feminist before the nineteenth century was over, mocking men, and especially husbands. In her first book, ostensibly about her garden in Germany, published in 1898, her husband was referred to gently as The Man of Wrath, a gloomy presence restricting spending on her garden.

The Man of Wrath gave way to something sharper in The Pastor’s Wife, 1914. Ingeborg, the protagonist, setting off on holiday finds herself sitting opposite a German gentleman in a railway carriage. They are strangers, but are assumed by other passengers to be man and wife ‘because he did not speak to her’. Later, after a pursuit which includes taking her up a mountain, she becomes his wife and mistress of his house in Kokensee.

Men enjoy freedoms denied to women: ‘Don’t you think it unworthy,’ asks Ingeborg, who wants to shop in another town, ‘the way women have to ask permission to do things?’ The husband wasn’t listening, having decided, like Socrates, that having a wife in the house was like living next to a water mill and in any case it didn’t matter what women said. ‘Her clothes were what her husband called modest and becoming, and her acquaintance, to each other, called a perfect sight.’ From her books we guess that marriage disappointed her ‘by the third morning, when the bickering begins’.

Strategies were available however. In The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen (1904) she wrote that ‘There is nothing so bracing for the soul as the frequent turning of one’s back on duties.’ Running away was a theme in many of her books. Her play, Priscilla Runs Away, was on the London stage in 1910; in 1920, In the Mountains, recorded her flight from her disastrous second marriage to Francis, Earl Russell, Bertrand’s older brother. Enchanted April, 1922, has a group of women pooling their meagre resources and fleeing to Italy where they rent a castle. This was later made into a film which is beguilingly entertaining to this day. Faced with melancholy, or a feeling of being entombed, Elizabeth knew what to do: bolt. Failing that, Mumsie, in The Jasmine Farm, 1934, advised agreement as a coping strategy. Her attitude towards men was that of a nurse who pops something sweet into a child’s mouth as soon as it opens it to cry: ‘Keeps them quiet to say Yes. Say Yes and do No – that’s my motto.’

Elizabeth was not cold or unromantic. One of her complaints about her husbands was how stolid and discouraging they were. In The Jasmine Farm, Lady Cecelia, overhearing a German count on the piano playing the Liebestod from Tristan, and causing her, as well as the whole house, to throb with passion, ‘went into (her husband’s) dressing room, snatched the Edgar Wallace he was peacefully reading from his mild hands, flung it across the room, and without a word marched out again’.

After her first husband’s death she had affairs with H G Wells and Earl Russell before marrying Francis in 1916. She immediately regretted it as he became a controlling bully on the very same day. On the morning of the wedding, her friends, more clear-sighted than she, finally persuaded her to make him sign a pre-nuptial agreement protecting her income from his notorious gambling.

After fleeing this marriage, she wrote Vera (1921), a book which is typically humorous but carries a minatory tone. The bleak ending – shocking even today and which I won’t spoil for you – was much praised for its courage. The book so closely caricatured Francis that he carried it about, reading extracts to anyone who couldn’t get away fast enough to prove it wasn’t about him.

She foresaw that Prussian Junker militarism would bring on WW1. The Caravanners (1909), distilled 17 years’ acquaintance with the German ruling class into the ludicrous but menacing Baron von Ottringe, who is confident that England, ‘that plump little island’, will soon be part of the German empire. A generation later she saw Hitler not as something new, but as a development of existing supremacism. In 1932, writing from France, she forecast another war with Germany. ‘Those Germans continue to be the danger, they are just as Junker as ever, they will drag us to hell and themselves too’. As a succinct description of WW2, those last nine words are hard to beat.

Elizabeth pilloried anti-Semites in The Jasmine Farm, 1934. One of her characters, a besotted German, congratulates himself on offering his intended ‘an ancestry completely Jewless’. Spookily, in a book published in 1898, one of her characters was a Jew-hating Lutheran pastor called Adolf.

Whatever else annoyed Elizabeth, she never left off taking stabs at husbands. Here’s Mumsie again, whose third husband has just shot himself: ‘The least a man can do who has a wife to support is stay alive. Downright vulgar . . . to blow your brains out . . . if he was set on dying, he could have waited till the War came and done it as a man, being gassed for England.’

A commonplace of the time was that a woman was not complete until she was married. No, one of Elizabeth’s characters said, a woman was not complete until she was widowed, when she could look forward to ‘a future bright with new frocks and no husband’. Quite the wrong opinions on relations between the sexes. Exhilarating to read, and half a dozen of her books are still in print.

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