The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Benefactress front cover showing gilded title & decorationI have been searching around on The Landing to find ideas for a new series of blog posts. Obviously, at this stage my projected spring Renaissance has turned into a pre-Christmas Renaissance. So here goes…

As I was scouring the shelves, I once again realised that we have a nice selection of older books, quirky titles and interesting finds. Some of these are books for dipping into merely, others for a straightforward read. In the latter category I have picked out a book that I acquired many years ago and I am ashamed to say, that I have not got around to reading before now. This is a lovely 1911 pocket-sized edition of The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim.

For the sake of the honour of The Landing I decided that it was about time to remedy the omission and read The Benefactress. The snag with reading something so old (and to me rather precious) is that I felt that I dare not just shove it in my bag to read at lunchtime. And as for my fondness for reading in the bath…well some things are just not very wise. Not that I have actually yet dropped a book in the bath (maybe dipped the odd corner here and there) but there’s always a first time. Reading an older book does give a different quality of experience, due to the touch and feel of the book. I’ll just say a few words about this edition before telling a little about The Benefactress for those of you who don’t know the story.

This little book goes back to my Birmingham days, so I’ve had it for well over twenty years, but sadly I can’t remember what book fair or shop this volume came from. Its cover is very similar to that of a poetry chapbook that I have mentioned in a previous post, a sort of suede like texture but I don’t think it is actually leather. Maybe someday I will take it to an expert who will be able to tell me something about the material and how best to care for it (I may have mentioned before that dusting is not my strong suit). I love the elegant gilt swirl of the cover design, which is echoed on the end papers. Unfortunately, the ribbon marker has seen better days, but I still keep it out of a sense of completeness. The page edges have browned with age and there is gilt on the top edges but not the others. I don’t think it’s rubbed off; rather it looks as if they were never gilded in the first place. Judging from the publishing details this edition was published by MacMillan as part of its 7d series (1911), with the first edition being 1901.

But now to the story: The lovely and charming Anna Lestcourt is twenty-five when the story opens and should be full of all of the optimism of youth. However, Anna is financially dependent upon her rich sister-in-law (wife to her brother Sir Peter), a former Miss Susie Dobbs of Birmingham. As was not unusual at the time, there was a trading of new money for an ancient name and family home. All of this leaves Anna on Susie’s hands to marry off successfully, but so far to no avail. Anna remains resolutely unmarried, but not for the want of trying on Susie’s part. Anna’s fortunes take a turn for the better when her late mother’s brother comes on a visit from Germany and takes a liking to his niece. Subsequently he bequeaths her one of his estates, along with its income, which he hopes will secure her a good German husband.  Anna, however has other ideas, not being much sold on the good German husband idea. She forms the plan of opening up her new abode to several distressed gentlewomen, (who would live at her expense) much to Susie’s bafflement. Once in Germany, Anna makes the acquaintance of her new overseer, the local pastor and her nearest neighbour, Axel Lohm, with mixed results. Perhaps not surprisingly, the plan to fulfil the role of a benefactress does not go entirely according to plan, but I won’t plot spoil. Suffice to say that human nature will out. I will leave you to discover whether or not the marriage to a GGH comes to pass.

As I was reading the first part of the book, I found myself developing a certain sympathy for Anna’s sister-in-law Susie. Now this may have been a case of Brummie lasses sticking together, but I felt aggrieved on her behalf as Von Arnim portrayed her in a definitely unflattering light:

And the Dobbses were one and all singularly unattractive—a race of eager, restless, wiry little men and women, anxious to get as much as they could, and keep it as long as they could, a family succeeding in gathering a good deal of money together in one place, and failing entirely in the art of making friends.

Clearly, one could not come from the mercantile classes in Birmingham and be in any way cultured, socially adept or indeed philosophical (her husband was a philosopher). At the same time of course, her money came in very useful to save the aristocratic Lestcourt family from penury and to restore the family pile. Naturally too, Anna deplored Susie’s vulgar taste in furnishings. Thankfully Von Arnim did give Susie the occasional good line, “Really,” added Susie, twitching her shoulder, “you might remember that it isn’t all roses for me either, trying to get someone else’s daughter married.”

And she has a point; who would want to be trying to marry off a sister-in-law who doesn’t even want to be co-operative. It must have been particularly galling for Susie, since it was Anna who had all of the social cachet that she lacked.

Anna Lestcourt is however a far from heartless girl, who does come to understand that Susie’s position is not a happy one, seeing as she does that, ‘No one cared for her in the very least. She had hundreds of acquaintances, who would eat her dinners and go away and poke fun at her, but not a single friend.’ Yet at the same time, Anna resents been required to do the one thing that that might bring some cheer into Susie’s lonely life. Poor Susie would have loved a wedding to plan for and access to all of those elite hostesses who have so far snubbed her efforts.Front cover & spine showing gilded title & decoration

In The Benefactress, Von Arnim has given us a fascinating mix of characters with decidedly mixed moral standards, from whom Anna learns much in the course of her social experiment. It’s a long time since I read any von Arnim books, the most recent being The Solitary Summer, read a couple of years ago and this is a very different read. I did enjoy the story, possibly enhanced by the delights of finally reading my delightful little edition (despite my misgivings about Von Armin’s rather cruel characterisation of Brummie Susie) and I will no doubt read it again in about twenty years.

I’m not going to promise another blog post soon, though I will try to get back on track. But in the meantime, happy reading!

Picture credits: Chris Mills

 

 

 

 

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