Literature is full of overbearing or manipulative fathers – Dr Sloper in Henry James’ Washington Square springs to mind – and Richard Dodge, the father of this 1931 novel, is up there with the finest. From a young age, Jennifer has looked after and supported her widowed father, typing up his manuscripts and maintaining his deathly quiet house. When, at the very start of the novel, her father arrives home with the very surprising news that he has remarried, Jennifer realises this is her chance of freedom.
‘… isn’t one released? Hasn’t one completed one’s job? Can’t one with a clear conscience, indeed must one not, hand him over, and at last, at last – oh, how glorious! – be free?’
What follows is an often very amusing story about Jennifer seeking out a cottage of her own thanks to a £100 inheritance from her late mother (as Simon Thomas points out in his Afterword, this figure is significantly lower than the amount Virginia Woolf had suggested as a minimum for a woman to have intellectual freedom six years earlier). What the rather harried Jen wants is simply her own space.
‘… in order to get the fullest flavour out of life people should live neither as slaves or slave-owners, but each apart in a little house, each independently in a place so small that it was the merest covering, the merest lid, like her own cottage … always going back to the freedom, and healing, and self-development of solitude.’
Whilst the author plays many of the situations with a gentle comedy (there’s a fine moment later in the novel involving two characters trying to outwit each other as they escape from an Italian holiday), there’s little doubt that the oppression of Jen’s childhood home and existence has been awful. Richard Dodge is both irritated by his unmarried daughter and incensed that she wouldn’t want to spend her life looking after him. Even the fact he now has a new wife, who is in fact younger than his daughter, does not mean that she should be allowed to escape her duty.
As an unmarried woman in the inter-war period, Jen represents a group which occupies an uncomfortable space in society. Their rightful place is at home, but whose home? Alice, the sister of the local unmarried clergyman, and unmarried herself, fears that Jen is looking for a husband and will seek to usurp her own role in the vicarage. The idea that Jen may want to live quietly on her own is something few of von Armin’s characters can understand. It might be a reflection of her own experiences – von Arnim does paint a fairly bleak picture of marital happiness for women.
I absolutely loved this novel – it manages to highlight an area of domestic unhappiness and imbalance whilst also being very funny. I cheered Jen on all the way through, particularly in her dealings with the pompous Mr Devenish, and I’m very glad it’s been included in the new (and excellent) British Library Women Writers series.