By Erica Brown
Elizabeth von Arnim and Elizabeth Taylor wrote witty and pleasing novels concerning the family lives of middle-class girls. generally learn and loved, their paintings used to be frequently pushed aside as middlebrow. Brown argues their skilful use of comedy and irony supplied the receptive reader with subversive statement at the cruelties and disappointments of lifestyles.
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Extra resources for Comedy and the Feminine Middlebrow Novel: Elizabeth Von Arnim and Elizabeth Taylor
Bergson argues that ‘It is the part of laughter to reprove [the comic individual’s] absentmindedness and wake him out of his dream’. 36 In von Arnim’s comic world, however, the reader would be appalled if the twins were ‘broken in’ to join the virtuous residents of Clark and Acapulco in their limited and suspicious societies. Instead, the twins perform a comic wish-fulfilment for the reader, in which they say with beautiful candour all the things that we may think, but, inhibited by social restraint, are unable to say.
202) Christopher and Columbus ranges across continents, yet nothing changes; wherever they go the twins find themselves at the mercy of strictly controlled communities, like the ‘very small’ and ‘very virtuous’ Clark. 32 Despite crossing the Atlantic to the ‘land of the free’, von Arnim, like Austen, depicts a society where all members hold each other under surveillance. Virtuous village life encourages the worst kind of small-minded thinking: Von Arnim argues that if ‘nature insists on a balance’, virtuous and small lives are naturally inclined to look for evil, and this willingness to leap to the worst conclusions with ‘instantaneous agility’ is in itself a kind of evil.
While it is remarkable that von Arnim was able to transform such serious emotional material into a romantic comedy, her epistolary novel Christine (1917) fictionalized even more tragic events. In 1916, von Arnim’s daughter Felicitas, still in Germany, died from pneumonia. In Christine, this becomes a young girl’s death from pneumonia that is entirely caused by the actions of the Germans on the outbreak of war. Felicitas’s circumstances, however, were rather different. 21 Christine was published as non-fiction: it pretended to be the letters home of an English girl living in Berlin in the months leading up to the outbreak of war, and the book came complete with a preface by ‘Alice Cholmondeley’ (a quintessentially English name), the grieving mother.