The 1920 Club has been happening this week, with many good choices of books to read – including the first Agatha Christie novel, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence and some of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, including The Wind Blows – and more. But as I didn’t have any of these on the shelves already, and not wanting to break the TBR20 challenge, I chose Elizabeth von Arnim’s In the Mountains (available from the Internet Archive).
The year 1920 must have been met with such mixed feelings by so many. The First World War had ended, with Peace Day being celebrated in July 1919, and the end of the war and the global flu pandemic should have brought a sense of relief and hope for the future. That would have been tempered by a huge sense of loss and for many, thoughts of the years stretching ahead without their loved ones. Of course, for us reading back into this time, there is the knowledge that war is going to come again, just as the babies born at the end of the first one are becoming adults.
In the Mountains starts quite full of despair and hopelessness, as von Arnim’s never-named narrator laments to her diary that she has been ‘extraordinarily stripped of all that made life lovely.’ She compares herself to Job and wonders if she will ever escape the sadness that she has brought with her to Switzerland, where she has gone hoping that the location of pre-war happiness will replenish her spirits. Her misery is palpable, especially as the dates tick around into August and the memories of five years before and how everything has altered are unavoidable. But it isn’t long before the beauty of the scenery and the fresh air begin to work their magic and her diary entries shift in tone to an air of trying to jolly herself out of it.
The only thing to do with one’s sorrows is to tuck them up neatly in their shroud and turn one’s face away from their grave towards what is coming next.
Even when trying to cheer herself up, the metaphor is one of death and mourning for her troubles, but there is solace in books and the house seems to be full of them, left by previous guests almost where they fell. The nurturing environment does its work and, as usually happens, as her ‘convalescence’ takes hold, she begins to look outside herself for company and comfort. There are the Antoines, husband and wife who act as housekeepers and take whatever comes in stride, holding everything together, while only occasionally resorting to ‘c’est la guerre,’ as justification for any inexplicable behaviour. Apart from them, she is completely cut off from the world.
Fate intervenes, bringing two widows seeking escape from an uncomfortable hotel, and almost without thinking, our narrator invites them to stay. Here, In the Mountains began to remind me of another woman escaping her troubles in this part of the world in Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, as the narrator becomes curious about the two women and the circumstances that have brought them to her door. Secrets abound, some of which may seem easily overcome to our modern sensibilities, but which would have been earth-shattering at the time. So completely does she involve herself in their lives that as her return to London looms, she begins to feel guilty at abandoning them. (It is funny to think of her desperate to get back before winter, when in a few decades people will be heading the other way then to ski…) Again, fate will intervene!
There is quite a difference in tone between the darkness of the start of the story and how it ends, similar to a cloud lifting off the mountains, as summer takes hold in the narrator’s heart again. There is almost a P.G. Wodehouse-like feel once the guests arrive, albeit with a chalet rather than a country house setting but I had to laugh at diary entries such as: ‘It is usually, I know, a bad sign when a hostess begins to use the back door…’ She also muses on the attractiveness or otherwise of having one’s holiday solitude broken:
Those weeks I was here alone seemed not longer than a few minutes. These days since my guests came seem to have gone on for months.
The scenery is beautifully brought to life and, if your own four walls are chafing a little, In the Mountains might allow the scenic panorama with its fresh air and flowers to act as a similar tonic to you, so perfectly are they brought to life here.
I didn’t think of anything; I just lay there in the hot sun, blinking up and counting the intervals between one spike being reached and the next. I was conscious of the colour of the delphiniums, jabbing up stark into the sky, and how blue they were; and yet not so blue, so deeply and radiantly blue, as the sky. Behind them was the great basin of space filled with that other blue of the air, that lovely blue with violet shades in it; for the mountain I am on drops sharply away from the edge of my tiny terrace-garden, and the whole of the space between it and the mountains opposite brims all day long with blue and violet light. At night, the bottom of the valley looks like water, and the lamps in the little town lying along it like quivering reflections of the stars.
This was my first book by Elizabeth von Arnim and I suspect it won’t be the last! Thanks to the hosts of the 1920 Club and to Neglected Books for the recommendation.