The Enchanted April was my introduction to Elizabeth von Arnim last year, and she became one of my literary crushes. I added several of her books to the TBR pile, but I've only now got around to reading this one. From the back cover blurb of Love, I knew the basic premise: an older woman's relationship with a younger man. From glancing at the introduction, I learned about Elizabeth von Arnim's own affair with a man thirty years her junior. From reading some of her other books, I was expecting a comic, perhaps cynical version of a May-December affair. But to my surprise, this book turned out to be nothing like what I expected. As the title suggests, it is a story of love.
Catherine and Christopher meet at a play that draws small but fanatical audiences who learn to recognize fellow devotées. The first time they notice each other, it is her fifth visit, and his 32nd. Four performances later, Christopher moves to sit beside her, and in the intervals they talk. He is half in love with her before he ever learns her name, or anything about her. While he knows that she is older than he is, he takes no notice of that. Catherine, who has a good idea just how much older she is, can't help but be flattered by his attentions. A widow with a married daughter, she hardly takes them seriously, enjoying his company and his devotion, until she realizes that he has fallen in love with her. When neither her true age (47 to his 25) nor the existence of her grown-up married daughter bring Christopher to his senses, Catherine tries to break things off with him. But he simply refuses to accept that. In a moment of passion, his kiss shocks Catherine into recognizing her own feelings, but also brings a sense of shame, of impropriety.
Fleeing both Christopher and her feelings, she seeks refuge with her daughter Virginia, now living with her husband Stephen at the family's home in Chickover, which she inherited on her father's death, and pregnant with her first child. Stephen Colquhoun, the rector of the parish, is himself a year older than Catherine, making him thirty years older than his wife. This May-December pairing is a happy and passionate one, with Stephen very much the dominant partner. It is also a very private one. While Stephen's mother lives in the village and is a frequent visitor, none of the three is pleased to see Catherine, who cannot explain why she has fled to her old home. Stephen travels to London on the weekends to preach a series of sermons on Love, the focus of which is marital love, infused with his own late emotional development. It is painfully obvious, though, both to Catherine and the reader, that whatever he or Virginia says about love, there is little room in their hearts or their life for her. When Christopher rides unexpectedly to the rescue, on a motor-cycle with a side-car, Catherine cannot resist returning to London with him, however inappropriate Stephen and his mother may consider it. This journey, seemingly such a simple one, will lead to their marriage, and further complications in their relationship, and in Catherine's with her family.
I was constantly surprised by the turns that the story took. I was also surprised by how invested I found myself in Catherine and Christopher, and even in Virginia, how strongly I wanted things to go well for them. I found myself peeking ahead, something I rarely do. Catherine is a very sympathetic character, a good person who desperately wants to do the right thing. She has spent her life caring for her husband and her child, cheerfully accepting her place in the background. She makes the best of her widowhood, which under her husband's will left her only £500 a year and a London flat while her daughter inherited everything else, including her home. In London, even in her reduced circumstances, she has re-discovered relations and found friends, and life seems to be opening out before her in a quiet way suited to her age and circumstances - and then she meets Christopher, who opens her life up in unquiet and unsuitable ways.
In this book Elizabeth von Arnim is exploring more than just romantic love, though that takes center stage with the two very different couples and their relationships. She also focuses on love between parents and children, from both points of view. In addition, she considers how love is expressed, how it is made real, how it is lived. The contrast between what Stephen preaches about love, and how he practices it toward everyone but his wife and mother, could not be clearer. Virginia is torn between her love for her mother and her husband, particularly Stephen's disapproval of Catherine and Christopher. They in turn face the challenges of most marriages, moving from the ecstasies of courtship to the practicalities of married life.
Love was published in 1925 but feels very topical in 2012. May-December romances are of course common in stories, and now in celebrity culture, though an older woman-younger man pairing still draws more attention and comment than the reverse (I would be very glad if I never again hear the word "cougar" applied to a woman). Reading Love reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett's Nicholas de Fleury, whose first marriage is almost as complicated and unwelcome as Christopher's. Stephen made me think particularly of all the film pairings I find most uncomfortable, like Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon (she was so frequently paired with much older men, and Cary Grant was supposedly embarrassed by it in Charade). There is something a little creepy about Stephen's history with Virginia:
"[He] had had his thoughtful eye on Virginia from the beginning. When he went there she was five and he was thirty-four. Dear little child; he played with her. Presently she was fifteen, and he was forty-four. Sweet little maid; he prepared her for confirmation. Again presently she was eighteen, and he was forty-seven. Touching young bud of womanhood; he proposed to her."I couldn't help thinking of Mr. Knightley in Jane Austen's Emma, but after all he is a far different (and better) person than Stephen, and the difference in age and experience isn't as great.
As much as I wanted a happy ending, particularly for Catherine and Christopher, von Arnim doesn't give us one. The ending is ambiguous, and we are left to write our own. I do worry about the fate of one character introduced in the last pages; I fear his future at Chickover will be bleak.