Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim

First published 1905. Here is a selection of covers...I like the castle:

  

Elizabeth von Arnim is rather noted for the enchantingness of her books. Elizabeth and Her German Garden is one that stays with you despite its overtones of unhappiness - for the protagonist and, by implication, the author -  in the writing, and Enchanted April is just beguiling. At the start, Princess Priscilla has a fairytale quality. It reminded me, with its middle European setting, of Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring, or Andrew Lang's varicoloured Fairy Books. Lothen-Kunitz is in the fairytale heart of Europe - not the lands of great forests and lakes, but a soft, flower-filled haven where no one is ever unhappy. Or, at least, that ought to be the case, but Princess Priscilla is deeply unsatisfied. The youngest of three sisters, she's received a better education than princesses usually have. This isn't intentional - her father thinks she's studying the ladylike accomplishments of music and drawing, but his librarian, Fritzing, adores young Priscilla and her reading list of more appropriate for a young prince, a person for whom action will be paired with study. So it's not exactly surprising when her life of luxury and inaction begins to pall. When her father announces that it's time for her to marry an entirely suitable prince , a cousin from a neighbouring kingdom, she decides that she will put up with it no longer and instructs Fritzing, who can deny her nothing, to set in train her plans for running away.

Posing as uncle and niece, the pair flee to England, whose virtues Fritzing has extolled to his pupil.  Here they will take up the simple life, in a country cottage. Unfortunately, neither is suited to such an existence - Fritzing's experience of the English countryside is of getting himself around as a single and comfortable off young man on a walking tour - and their descent on the Somerset village of Stymford rapidly becomes little short of disastrous.

From the start the reader can see that it's very unlikely to work out - Priscilla hasn't the knack of relating to people on an ordinary level and she deals with her new acquaintances with a combination of warmth and imperiousness which makes both friends and enemies. The most implacable of the latter is Mrs Morrison, the vicar's wife, who thinks she's a designing hussy. Mrs Morrison's son Robin, on the other hand, falls instantly in love, as does the young lord of the manor. Confusion ensues, especially as Priscilla and Fritzing have forgotten to agree some of the most basic elements of their story, such as their names.

Von Arnim's style is chatty and discursive, an ever-present authorial voice observing, interpreting and even disapproving. "I shall chronicle," she says, "and not comment. I shall try to, that is, for comments are very dear to me." And she embarks on a fresh paragraph of moralising. Later she says, "And now I come to a part of my story that I would much rather not write." Priscilla is the erring child of her heart.

My borrowed, 1905 copy of Princess Priscilla came from the deepest vaults of the library service, it seemed, a first edition purchased in 1949 as part of a gift to commemorate the end of the war, since when it has been loaned out a total of 12 times. It's in good condition for a book more than 100 years old, and it seems rather sad that it probably hasn't seen daylight for more of the last 50 (someone did borrow it in 2009). I'm amazed that it hasn't gone the way of most of the older books in the library system, and can only suppose that it's because its a bequest that saved it.  It's exactly the sort of thing I pounced on in my local library when I was growing up, and I'm sorry that it's so obviously a casualty of the compulsion to restock the shelves regularly with chick lit and thrillers and only emerges when someone takes the trouble to trawl the catalogue looking for antiques. Because it's worth reading, and not only as a curiosity - it's witty and diverting and has something to say - lightly, charmingly - about impossible quests and the follies of youth and age. Ardent princesses and old men in ivory towers take note!

10 comments:

  1. You made this book sound like so much fun, so sweet and interesting with the authorial comments, that I am tempted! I think our library will have some of hers, so fingers crossed.

    It's always sad when it's hard to find the older books, isn't it? Or, it's fun to take out a book after 30 years, or 40, it's fun to put it back in the system of borrowing again. Libraries are supposed to be repositories of old and new books, and with all the cutbacks you have been having, it's good to see you can still find an older book like that.

    Now to see see what my library has....I really want to read this, I think. :-)

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    1. It's a very old-fashioned book but has a good deal of charm. Look for Elizabeth and Her German Garden or Enchanted April, both of which are lovely. There's a film of Enchanted April which is very pleasing too.

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  2. I must admit that I have never read anything by Elisabeth von Arnim. Maybe I should start!
    And how intriguing to think nobody took the book out of the library for decades, and then someone did in 2009 - wouldn't it be interesting to find out who it was, and talk to that person about the book?

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    1. I'd love to know who it was - I should have left a note in the book for the next person! I wish I'd thought of that...there's a book group on Goodreads of county readers, so perhaps I'll see if I can get other people to try it.

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  3. Thanks for this review! It's a book I haven't read and I just found that it's available as a free download for the Kindle. Needless to say, I now have it :-)

    Rats. I tried commenting as me on Live Journal and it came out as an anonymous commenter. I'll have to use my Google account, which makes me look like a Google blogger. Then there's the horrible letters to decipher. Wht must they make commenting so difficult?

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    1. I shall work my way through all her free-on-Kindle books now. She's very readable.

      I'm sorry it's so hard to comment, if I could find a way to make it easier reliably I would. But I did have awful trouble with spam when I didn't use the captcha thingy.

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  4. I love von Arnim but haven't seen this one before. I love your story about retrieving it from the dark bowels of your library. I've been trying to do that this week as I comb through musty secondhand bookshops in Maine. I know I have rescued some old titles that no one else is looking for--based on their cheap prices.

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    1. Thomas, rescuing old books that have been neglected is such a pleasure, isn't it!

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  5. Love the sound of this one, I'm a sucker for a Princess story and I love von Arnim, particularly The Enchanted April, both book and film.
    Have you read her book 'Christine' (written as Alice Cholmondeley)? Letters from a girl to her mother when she goes to Berlin to study music, falls in love with a Prussian aristo, and ends with the mother rushing to the German frontier in August 1914 to attempt to get her out of Germany. (Said to be based on her own daughter, Felicitas (I think).

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    1. Haven't read that one, Nicola - I've got some more queued on my Kindle, and I did have a note about Christine somewhere, but decided to read Priscilla because I could find a "proper" copy.

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