Book Review

Review: Vera, by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921)

I’m not going to lie. This book disappointed me, and it was a struggle to read. Part of that I think was deliberate: von Arnim uses a lot of repetition which results in a claustrophobic reading experience to mirror what the protagonist, Lucy, feels. That aspect was so effective.

I also think, though, that either I had too high expectations of the ‘thriller’ elements, or there was too great a distance between my world and von Arnim’s. I just became frustrated by so much of the characterisation – I don’t necessarily need to ‘like’ characters in order to enjoy a story, but I need to believe in them, understand something about them. And I didn’t feel much of that with the characters of Vera.

I can, however, if the speculation is to be believed, see elements that may have inspired Daphne du Maurier to write Rebecca, and what I enjoyed most of this novel came from noting the parallels between the two narratives.

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Before I look at these in more detail, allow me to outline the plot briefly.

Hours after the sudden death of her father, Lucy Entwhistle stands bereft at the gate of their holiday home in Cornwall. Passing by at that moment is a Mr. Wemyss, who, being recently widowed, has come to the country to escape the speculation surrounding his wife’s death. Their shared grief draws them together: they confide in one another, and Lucy finds herself strengthened by Wemyss’ guidance and protection. As their connection becomes deeper, Lucy’s aunt (and only relative) becomes suspicious of this strange man’s behaviour and of his first wife’s sudden death. But what will Lucy make of these suspicions?

The opening pages set up Lucy’s grief really well – the prose is beautiful.

“Into this emptiness, Lucy stared, motionless herself, as if she had been carved in stone. There was not a sail on the sea, nor a line of distant smoke from any steamer, neither was there once the flash of a bird’s wing flashing across the sky. Movement seemed smitten rigid. Sound seemed to have gone to sleep.”

As the novel progresses, the constant repetition of certain dialogue and ‘scenes’ really helps to replicate for the reader the claustrophobic atmosphere that the characters experience. A significant number of chapters take place on one day, so we are witness to everything that happens from breakfast until bedtime, and it was in these chapters that that chilling claustrophobia was most effective.

Wemyss is a completely bullish character. Churlish, selfish, ignorant, needy, unnecessarily cruel. He sees Lucy – her body, thoughts and actions – as his possession. There are many portrayals of controlling spouses across genres that show how they suddenly switch from aggression to an almost child-like innocence. Often, such portrayals are really effective, increasing unpredictability, showing how partners are manipulated and why family, friends, and acquaintances do not suspect.

We are clearly meant to see Wemyss as pathetic, a little schoolboy throwing tantrums, but with the cruelty of an adult. It sort of works, but I found Wemyss more annoying than frightening. I thought his misogynistic interpretation of Lucy and her aunt was well done. Lucy he always calls ‘little love’ or ‘baby’, whereas her aunt is a ‘monster’. Those portrayals of women have run through literature for generations, and von Arnim used hints of irony in the portrayal of Wemyss to undermine the toxic masculinity that constructs women in this way.

Lucy is simultaneously portrayed as naive, vulnerable, and intelligent (her father encouraged her to read and debate ideas). I just felt hardly any substance to her. The following quote sums her up quite well:

‘“Yes, but – ” began Lucy faintly. She was, however, so much muffled and engulfed that her voice didn’t get through.’

I didn’t feel like she loved Wemyss much at all, in spite of all the mentions of her overwhelming affection for him. The result of that was that I just didn’t understand why she stayed with him, because there are whole passages dedicated to her thinking about his behaviour and how wrong it is.

There was some implicit humour throughout, which I enjoyed. At one point, Wemyss (who keeps all of his beautifully bound books in locked cabinets and rarely if takes them out to read) comments of his first wife:

“Vera hadn’t taken any care of her books either; she was always reading them.”

There’s also a really great scene between Wemyss, the housemaid, and the piano cover, with his fastidious tendencies becoming the butt of the joke again.

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The pre-emptive parallels to du Maurier’s bestseller are obvious. A Cornish setting; a young, isolated woman meeting a much older man just after he is widowed; the eerie presence of a first wife transcending death, with the name in particular haunting memories, locations, lurking in newspapers and reports, and even displacing the second wife as titular character.

While Vera, Wemyss’ first wife, is a presence that Lucy is intrigued by, it’s nowhere near as strong as Rebecca’s presence in du Maurier. The third person narration switching between characters in Vera was a significant cause of that. We aren’t privy to a slow-building, obsessive fascination with the first wife. Lucy just seems more keenly interested in her than is perhaps normal, and personally, I didn’t understand why she was interested.

Whether or not du Maurier lifted elements from directly from this novel for her own, the similarities between them are used to far greater effect, with much more substance and skill, in Rebecca than von Arnim achieves in Vera. Personally (and this could just be my fascination with du Maurier prejudicing my reading) the earlier novel feels much more like a poor copy of the later one than the reverse.

As I reached the last few chapters, I felt like tension was being geared up for a climatic confrontation scene of some variety. Alas, I was disappointed. That may have been the intention, and the final scene is quite eerie, in the sense that the reader is left to imagine (and assume from what has come before) what turn future events will take. I just wanted more, though. I felt like a more dramatic conclusion was needed. I understand that von Arnim was writing in an era of social niceties and as women were just at the beginning of securing equality, so I wasn’t expecting a huge confrontation. But the way one character in particular was depicted throughout the narrative, I just couldn’t believe in their final actions.

It could be that I naturally applied the rules and expectations of our current society to the novel, which caused a lot of my frustration. I may have to read again in the future with this in mind.

Overall, the idea and basic plot is interesting, and the chilling, claustrophobic atmosphere is built up really well initially. It just seemed to be reduced to nothing in the end. An unusual read.

 

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