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Review: "The Pastor's Wife" by Elizabeth von Arnim

Project Gutenberg, the first and largest single collection of free electronic books, turned 40 this week. We commemorate this event at Girlebooks by releasing another one of our proofreading projects produced in conjunction with The Pastor's Wife may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog. Our review follows.

After reading The Pastor's Wife, I believe I am getting to the root of what I love and don't love about Elizabeth von Arnim's writing. I love her autobiographical and first-person point-of-view work such as Elizabeth and Her German Garden or Fraulein Schmidt. I love her insights into life, love, and nature. I love her optimism and happiness and boundless joy at small pleasures. I love that she loves to be alone with her thoughts, and she actually thinks and sees right to the bottom of things.

I don't love her third-person and omniscient point-of-view work. It is good of course, since the woman can't write badly. However I don't love it, and I didn't know exactly why until I read The Pastor's Wife and found the dialog irritating. It may be naturally the way people talk, but were I to watch a movie of people talking this way--choppily with unfinished sentences--I would wish to strangle them. I wished many times to strangle the characters in this book.

I believe the choppy dialog is Von Arnim's way of getting across the frustration of a situation. The characters in this novel, particularly the main character herself, can never finish a sentence without being interrupted. From reading Von Arnim's biography Elizabeth of the German Garden, it is clear that many times in her life she felt things were out of her control--that she was being controlled by other people, especially by the husbands in her two (mostly) unhappy marriages.

Being controlled is what this book is about. A girl grows up being pushed around by her father. In a reckless, thoughtless moment--the first moment she is ever alone and left to her own devices--she decides to take a trip to Switzerland. She is alone for only a few hours, and then the next overpowering man comes into her life. He is a pastor from Germany, and she somehow--through no effort or even desire of her own--becomes his wife.

The basis of the story seems to be that this woman is utterly lacking in consciousness of herself. She is utterly unconscious of what others think of her, and she is even more unconscious that she can will her own destiny much less rebel again what others have planned for her. She has been meticulously trained while growing up to bend to her father's will, and that is what she does in this new marriage: bends to her husband's will until it almost kills her. Almost instantly upon recovery, the next overpowering man comes into her life...

Putting the story in historical context, it was probably a product of the time. Putting the story in a context of the author's life, it was possibly a product of a bout of depression following the death of her first husband. I'm aware that my criticisms are mostly personal preference, so bear that in mind. To the novel's credit, it does have many beautiful passages and insights that on their own are worth reading.


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