- 1 Jennifer L. Shepherd, “The Art of Modern Living and the Making of English Middlebrow Culture at the (...)
1Was Elizabeth von Arnim an aesthetic writer? Scholars and critics have claimed her as an Edwardian, a middlebrow author, a popular bestselling writer and a satirist of acerbic wit.1 By including her in her seminal work The Female Forgotten Aesthetes (2000) Talia Schaffer has encouraged readers to look at von Arnim’s early works from yet another and, as it turns out, very fruitful perspective.
- 2 Talia Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Charlot (...)
- 3 Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes 64.
- 4 Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes 65.
2Schaffer suggests that Elizabeth, the diarist of Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898), who was von Arnim’s first and most enduringly famous heroine (so famous in fact that von Arnim later appropriated the name for herself), was an aesthetic character. According to Schaffer, von Arnim’s autobiographically inspired account of a wayward countess living on a remote estate near the Baltic Sea shows that the author belonged to a younger generation of writers who has “internalized aesthetic discourse, whereas the older women writers accessed aestheticism primarily through descriptive passages.”2 Schaffer observes in these younger authors a “shift from seeing aestheticism as a fashion in gowns, flowers, and homes to seeing it as a fruitful source for new literary techniques.”3 Accordingly, in her work von Arnim employed “some of the major aesthetic tropes,” but followed “a different trajectory of aesthetic influence, one rooted in stylistic play rather than descriptions of aesthetic objects.” In Schaffer’s reading, von Arnim was one of several female authors who “stylized and abstracted aesthetic discourses into nonrealist modes of writing. They helped pull aesthetic fantasias and epigrams into twentieth-century modernism.”4
3In her analysis Schaffer relies on the well-explored narrative of Aestheticism as a precursor to Modernism. Yet, so far, most of the scant scholarship on von Arnim has placed her in the vicinity of the middlebrow. It is a classification that is as persuasive as it is problematic. Persuasive in that von Arnim’s works fit in well with several of the formal and thematic markers of middlebrow literature. Writing for a big market and relying on sales in order to support her five children and finance her own comfortable lifestyle, von Arnim’s writing shows that, in spite of her sincere admiration of various Modernist writers, she was at times more concerned with her financial rather than her cultural capital. Her comical dissections of the power relationships between men and women remained safely moored in the tradition of realism. And her dissatisfaction with the literary tradition of the happy end did not lead her to embrace Modernist narrative experiments. However, discussing von Arnim, particularly her early works, as part of middlebrow literature is problematic to a degree, not least because she was a well-established writer before the term “middlebrow” was even coined and most of the writers usually associated with middlebrow literature are at least twenty years her junior.
- 5 Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace. Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. (Stanford, Calif. (...)
4While attempts at subsuming von Arnim under the Modernist paradigm are problematic, her works lend themselves to readings in both aestheticist and middlebrow contexts. This, in turn, opens up more general questions of the trajectory of aestheticism into the 20th century. Following Regenia Gagnier’s and Jonathan Freedman’s lead,5 aestheticism’s investment in commodity culture and consumerism have been brought into focus. Current attempts at developing a gendered understanding of aestheticism seem to support a partial redefinition of aestheticism as a non-elitist literary, social and artistic movement. Accordingly, it is surprising that even recent publications seem to continue the predominant reading of aestheticism as an exclusive precursor to literary Modernism. In her introduction to Women and British Aestheticism (1999) Kathy Psomiades points out that
- 6 Kathy Alexis Psomiades and Talia Schaffer eds., Women and British Aestheticism. (Charlottesville, L (...)
Much of the early work on aestheticism was done form the perspective of modernism, so it is not surprising that the two central critical narratives that still structure our discussions should have so much to do with modernist anxieties. In the first critical narrative aestheticism signals the moment at which art begins to contemplate its separation from everyday life. In the second critical narrative, which details the relation between art object and commodity, aestheticism signals art’s increasing involvement with commodity culture and consumerism. . . . Both narratives look back from modernism and locate in aestheticism one or the other side of a modernist great divide between art and mass culture.6
5Psomiades’ observations are over ten years old, yet they are still valid. Although the aesthetic links between aestheticism and bourgeois culture, consumerism and art as a commodity have been traced with great care, the connections between aesthetic writing and non-modernist literature still need to be explored further.
- 7 Ann Ardis, “Netta Syrett’s Aestheticization of Everyday Life: Countering the ‘Counterdiscourse’ of (...)
- 8 Ardis, “Netta Syrett’s Aestheticization of Everyday Life.” Women and British Aestheticism 246.
- 9 Ibid.
- 10 Ibid.
6Ann Ardis has made a first attempt in her discussion of Netta Syrett’s novel Anne Page exploring Syrett’s insular aestheticism, which “values the ‘simple,’ ‘natural’” beauty of English cottage garden flowers and is fully compatible with life in a Warwickshire village in contrast to “a continental brand of aestheticism” that is “associated with bohemianism and decadence”.7 According to Ardis, “Syrett presented female aestheticism to a middlebrow reading public: a reading public with a more sophisticated appreciation of aesthetics than modernist dismissals of realism might suggest.”8 She notes “the subtlety with which [Syrett’s] middlebrow realist novels talk back to a high-culture discourse of aesthetics”9 and argues that “a great deal of work still [needs] to be done” to explore this “different way that aestheticism traveled into the twentieth century.”10
7In this article I would like to trace the meandering path on which the fin-de-siècle ideal of aesthetic femininity travelled into the twenties and thirties in von Arnim’s works. After exploring Elizabeth’s uneasy choice between aestheticism and feminism in von Arnim’s earliest works, I will look at the relationship between artist and model in The Pastor’s Wife (1914) and close with an examination of the biting satire on the devastating effects of commodified femininity von Arnim offers in her later novels, Love (1925), Jasmine Farm (1934) and Mr. Skeffington (1936). These novels can be read as bitter meditations on the challenges ageing women have literally to “face”.
- 11 Freedman, Professions of Taste 6.
8Considering Jonathan Freedman’s contention that the love of contradictions or paradoxes is a central marker of aesthetic writing, Elizabeth is an aesthetic heroine par excellence. He claims that aesthetic literature is defined by “the desire to embrace contradictions, indeed the desire to seek them out the better to play with the possibilities they afford. . . . The result,” he concludes, “is a complicated vision, which seeks to explore the experience of fragmentation, loss, and disintegration without necessarily giving up the possibility of reuniting these shards.”11 Elizabeth shows the typical ambivalence of the reclusive aesthete who withdraws from the world while bemoaning her lack of friends. Freedman’s comments also seem to adumbrate Elizabeth’s contradictory stances towards the women’s movement. The garden diaries are as charming as they are tense. They hold in delicate balance a mounting sense of feminist dissatisfaction on the one hand and a strong reluctance to give up the pleasures of aesthetic withdrawal for a life of confrontation and suffragette campaigning on the other.
- 12 Schaffer, The Forgotten Female Aesthetes 69.
9Elizabeth—sprightly, witty and capricious—leads a full, yet unfulfilled life: she is the mistress of a large country estate and a mother of three little girls trapped in a frustrating marriage with an overbearing husband. Accordingly, she escapes into the garden and adjacent woods whenever she can. As Schaffer explains, “The prettiness of von Armin’s [sic] prose is a deliberate strategy . . . and it offers female readers a new, genteel, charming way of evading their problems, perhaps accounting for the novel’s remarkable popularity.”12
- 13 Psomiades “Introduction.” Women and British Aestheticism 2.
- 14 “In much female aesthetic writing, a sharp worldly New Woman confronts a gracious lovely lady. Thes (...)
10Yet, the Elizabeth diaries are not just an escapist reading pleasure. They also include an increasingly direct critique of both a particular brand of intellectually domineering male chauvinism on the one hand and a grace- and joyless New Woman feminism on the other. Psomiades has pointed out that the “apparently incompatible positions” advocated by aesthetic women writers “indicate just how useful aestheticism could be for women with mixed emotions about contemporary cultural and political movements and for women who found the strong political stance of the New Women novels foreign to their feelings.”13 Indeed, von Arnim’s early stance with regard to the woman question is a typical example of aesthetic unease with political feminist engagement. As is typical for aesthetic novels,14 in von Arnim’s works the aesthetic protagonist is repeatedly contrasted with New Woman characters.
- 15 Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden (London: Macmillan, 1898) 153.
11Elizabeth and Her German Garden includes a long and confused discussion about the woman question between Elizabeth’s husband, to whom she refers as the The Man of Wrath, Elizabeth’s close friend and alter ego Irais and Minora, an unwelcome houseguest. The names of these characters are not accidental. Irais is angry and Minora is the belittling caricature of a New Woman: a superficially emancipated girl, who rides a bicycle and dabbles in travel writing. Her personal lack of grace is mirrored in her physical appearance. Minora neglects her bony hands “with chilly-looking knuckles, ignored nails, and too much wrist.”15 Not surprisingly, Minora is rather helpless in the debate about women. Her most relevant contribution refers to women’s natural vocation as caregivers and nurses, a commonplace conservative argument far removed from contemporary demands for political and legal equality. The Man of Wrath, on the other hand, approves of the German legal classification of women alongside idiots and children, not because women are mentally inferior, but because they generally act irresponsibly and childishly. The discussion culminates in his damning statement:
- 16 Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden 141–142.
It is useless to tell her [woman] she is man’s victim, that she is his plaything, that she is cheated, down-trodden, kept under, laughed at, shabbily treated in every way—that is not a true statement of the case. She is simply the victim of her own vanity, and against that, against the belief in her own fascinations, against the very part of herself that gives all the colour to her life, who shall expect a woman to take up arms?16
12These castigations of women’s vanity are in accordance with von Arnim’s lifelong impatience with feminine weakness. On the whole, the argument is a reflection of von Arnim’s own ambivalence and frustration with the Woman Question.
- 17 Usborne, Elizabeth 87.
- 18 Elizabeth von Arnim, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (London: Macmillan, 1904) 110.
- 19 Von Arnim, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen 107–108.
- 20 Von Arnim, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen 111.
13However, von Arnim’ views on the Woman Question became more pronounced when she met the feminist Maude Stanley, a relative of von Arnim’s second husband, Francis Russell. “This formidable and fascinating older woman” was a key-figure in the London Girl’s Club movement. For a while, von Arnim was “in complete thrall to this severe woman and heeded her advice as if it were Holy Writ.”17 Elizabeth’s stance on the woman question develops together with von Arnim’s own views. In the third and last of the diaries, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904), the protagonist takes a break from her family and goes travelling on an island in the Baltic Sea. There she runs into her cousin Charlotte Nieberlein, who is, much like Elizabeth, on a constant flight from her chauvinist husband. Charlotte is a frustrated academic who married the eminent professor Nieberlein on the misunderstanding that she would be her husband’s intellectual partner, not his recreational toy. In her misery, she has become a feminist zealot who writes pamphlets and imposes her views on anybody willing to lend an ear. Charlotte’s harrowed life has left its marks on her face, which is “thin and its expression of determination made it look hard. . . . Angles had everywhere taken the place of curves.”18 In spite of her ironic dismissal of Charlotte’s zeal, Elizabeth is much impressed with her cousin’s fortitude and finds Charlotte’s personal engagement very touching. Her comments on Charlotte’s feminism are noticeably more sympathetic than her acerbic castigations of Minora’s skin-deep liberation. “Yes,” she admits, Charlotte “was right, nearly always right, in everything she said, and it was certainly meritorious to use one’s strength, and health, and talents as she was doing, trying to get rid of mouldy prejudices.”19 Charlotte acts as Elizabeth’s feminist conscience, and in answer to her cousin’s stern questions Elizabeth wonders uneasily: “What had I been doing with my life? Looking back into it in search of an answer it seemed very spacious, and sunny, and quiet. There were children in it, and there was a garden, and a spouse in whose eyes I was precious; but I had not done anything.”20 In Elizabeth in Rügen von Arnim projects the dire consequences of what would happen if Elizabeth “did anything” about her feminist dissatisfaction onto her cousin. In spite of Elizabeth’s farcical attempt at reuniting the estranged Nieberleins, Charlotte files for divorce. After this book, Elizabeth’s literary tightrope dance of semi-feminist, self-ironic mockery must have seemed inadequate to von Arnim and she abandoned her heroine. Only a few years later, the author herself separated from her husband Henning von Arnim-Schlagenthin, the blue-print of The Man of Wrath.
- 21 Von Arnim, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen 107.
- 22 Shepherd, “Marketing Middlebrow Feminism” 113.
- 23 Von Arnim, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen 111.
14In von Arnim’s early reflections on the Woman Question an aesthetic rejection of feminist engagement overlaps with middlebrow levelheadedness. Jennifer Shepherd attributes Elizabeth’s reluctance to subscribe to a New Woman activism to the deep-seated middlebrow distrust of extremes. Elizabeth’s mockery of “the ridiculousness of cropped hair and extremities clothed in bloomers”21 is motivated by both a middlebrow refusal to be taken in by “feminist fanaticism and faddishness”22 and an aesthetic concern over losing one’s looks in excessive campaigning. Cultivating the self and a garden may not change the world, yet it makes the world a more beautiful place. Accordingly, Elizabeth defiantly sums up her aesthetic reservations: “And if I could point to no pamphlets or lectures, neither need I point to a furrow between my eyebrows.”23
15In her novel The Pastor’s Wife von Arnim revisits the clash between aestheticism and female self-determination from a different angle. The protagonist Ingeborg is a young English woman transplanted to the sandy fields of Pomerania when she marries the German pastor Robert Dremmel, who is more interested in his agricultural experiments than in his wife. Ingeborg is starved for attention and intellectual stimulation in the isolated village of Kökensee. When her body is exhausted from a “career of unbridled motherhood”, her husband loses interest in her completely and treats her like a sisterly housekeeper rather than a wife. Ingeborg meets the famous painter Ingram and eventually goes away with him on the assumption that she would be instrumental in the creation of a masterpiece, while Ingram is mostly interested in seducing her. After having briefly met several years earlier, their paths cross again at a pond near Kökensee where Ingeborg is punting and the holidaying Ingram is sketching. Although he doesn’t recognise Ingeborg, he immediately recognises her value as a model:
- 24 Elizabeth von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife (London: Smith, Elder, 1914) 337–38.
For an instant he stared motionless, while she, holding her paddle out of the water, stared equally motionless at him. Then he seized his sketching book and began furiously to draw. She was out in the sun and had no hat on. Her hair was the strangest colour against the background of water and sky, more like a larch in autumn than anything he could think of. She seemed the vividest thing, suddenly cleaving the pallors and uncertainties of reeds and water and flecked northern sky. . . .
“Sit still,” he shouted.
“But I want to talk.”
She sat still, watching him, unable to believe her good fortune.24
- 25 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 373.
- 26 Kathy Alexis Psomiades, Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism (Stanf (...)
16Ingram savours Ingeborg’s beauty and liveliness like a tonic against his boredom. He is an aesthete who for years has tried “at all costs to dodge boredom, to get tight hold of anything that promised to excite him, squeeze it with diligence till the last drop of entertainment had been extracted, and then let it go again considerably crumpled.”25 To him Ingeborg’s innocent liveliness and complete lack of self-consciousness are a fresh source of artistic inspiration and an interesting romantic challenge. The aesthete has found his match in a model whose surface is as enticing as her depth is unfathomable. To him she is “the feminine figure, a creature [of] inaccessible psychological depth and tangible material surface”:26
- 27 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 348.
“I’m going to stay and paint you. . . . Paint you and paint you, and paint you,” said Ingram, “and see if I can catch some of your happiness for myself. Get at your secret. Find out where it all comes from.”
“But it comes from you—at this moment it’s all you—”
“It doesn’t. It’s inside you. And I want to get as much of it as I can. I’m dusty and hot and sick of everything. I’ll come and stay near you and paint you, and you shall make me clean and cool again.”27
- 28 Psomiades, Beauty’s Body 3.
- 29 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 341.
- 30 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 378.
17In Ingram’s eyes Ingeborg embodies exactly the functional ideal which Psomiades has so aptly summarised as the “conjunction of material body and immaterial soul [that] helps keep the feminine art object both attractive to potential purchasers and independent of all that might compromise her—she is in the world yet not of it.”28 Indeed, more than once Ingram marvels at Ingeborg: “You do live? . . . You’re not just a flame-headed little dream that will presently disappear again?”29 He promises to immortalise her radiant physical and spiritual beauty in a painting which will be “the crowning work of my life, . . . a thing of living beauty throughout the generations, . . . the Portrait of a Lady that draws the world to look at it during all the ages after we are dead”.30
- 31 Psomiades, Beauty’s Body 3.
18Both, Psomiades and Freedman contend that late nineteenth-century aestheticism was the last period during which the split between bourgeois mass culture and high art had not yet taken place, although the commodification of art was becoming increasingly a problem in the eyes of the aesthetic connoisseur. Femininity, according to Psomiades, “constitutes the aesthetic solution to the contradictory nature of the aesthetic in bourgeois culture”.31 She describes the relationship between aesthetics, money and sex in the process of commodifying art:
- 32 Psomiades, Beauty’s Body 104.
Sexual exchange adds to the other motives for consuming objects the motive of erotic desire. . . . it is associated with all that is most elevated and transcendent, but provides more immediate gratification than does pure contemplation. For a while at least, embodied femininity is an intermediate term between the art object and the commodity object; sexual exchange an analogy for aesthetic exchange.32
- 33 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 345.
- 34 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 343.
- 35 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 343.
19In her description of Ingeborg’s and Ingram’s meeting at the pond, von Arnim draws together the interlinked discourses of the aesthetic, the economic and the sexual in art and hints at the tragic misunderstanding on which the relationship between Ingeborg and Ingram is based. At first, Ingram’s proposition to paint Ingeborg seems to reiterate the traditional association of art and aesthetic value. Ingeborg believes that the great man must live “in beauty”. “You make it,” she assures him, “You pour it over the world”.33 Therefore, glory must be his: “And Berlin’s got two of your pictures. Bought for the nation,” she reminds him. “Yes, it has. And haggled till it got them a dead bargain,”34 Ingram replies, thereby introducing financial value of art to the equation and proving his professionalism about what in her eyes should be a holy vocation. From here it is only a step to the inevitable third element, sex. As it turns out, Ingram has already done a portrait of Ingeborg’s sister, which he considers rather good for its veracity: “It was exact. It was the living woman. It was a portrait of sheer, exquisite flesh.”35 Needless to say, the portrait caused a scandal and an affair between painter and model is hinted at.
20Both von Arnim and Psomiades explore the relationship between artist and model within the emotional framework of narcissism. In fact, von Arnim’s work is a disarming portrait of The Artist as Narcissist. However, fourteen years into the twentieth century, models seem to have lost some of their pliability. Ingram readily admits to being “a parasite”, yet is stunned when Ingeborg raises objections against leaving her husband in order to sit for him:
- 36 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 376–77.
The world and the centuries were to be enriched . . . and it was the duty of those persons who were needful to the process to deliver themselves, their souls and their bodies, up to him in what he was convinced was an entirely reasonable sacrifice. . . . And now he had found this,—this thing . . . , this little hidden precious stone . . . and she was putting forward middle-class obstacles, Philistine difficulties, ludicrous trivialities—Robert, in short—to the achievement of it.36
21Although Ingram manages to persuade Ingeborg to go on a short trip to Italy, they never reach Ingram’s studio in Venice, the Mecca of aesthetic art appreciation, and he does not succeed in seducing her. The collaboration between artist and model breaks down when Ingeborg, quite unwittingly, refuses to acknowledge the sexual element necessary to Ingram in the creation of his “masculine high art”. Ingeborg’s dream of visiting the city of Gothic architecture turns into a nightmare of Gothic horror when Ingram turns from being her suitor into being her captor. She manages to flee at the last moment and return to Robert, who, as it turns out, was too busy to have noticed her absence much. Although saved from disgrace, her life and her dreams are shattered and the great artwork never gets painted.
- 37 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 334–35.
- 38 The novel also contains harrowing descriptions of pregnancy, the experience of giving birth and chi (...)
22While Ingeborg is not easily commodified—she is rather like a flint stone than a precious gem in this respect—the traditional concept of the great work of art and the idea of the canon are not discredited in von Arnim’s satire. On the contrary, Ingram sees himself in a line with the great painters of the past and his works are obviously conventional enough to be feted by the academy and to be bought by museums. Neither von Arnim’s comments on art, nor the style of her writing betray any affiliation with the modernist project and its rhetoric of the new and unprecedented. Instead, Ingeborg herself is full of cultural aspirations. She has subscriptions “to The Times, Spectator, Clarion, Hibbert Journal and the rest” and tries to read “Herbert Spencer’s First Principles, for she felt she would like to have some principles, especially first ones”.37 She generally lacks the self-assurance to form individual aesthetic judgments, let alone avant-garde ones. Just as Ingeborg’s attitudes towards art and literature are essentially middle-class, the novel itself is middlebrow. Von Arnim’s satire is a bleak offshoot of the comedy of manners. Her criticism of gender relationships is certainly radical,38 yet her narrative style is realist and the end of the novel remains cautious.
- 39 Like Ingeborg, who suffers from morning sickness terribly, Elizabeth is weary of food and the disab (...)
23The Pastor’s Wife is interesting in yet another respect because it continues an issue central to von Arnim’s works: the self-alienation of women from their bodies. Already Elizabeth curses the social constraints forced on her when she is not allowed to dig and weed her garden herself.39 In von Arnim’s works, heaven is depicted as a place where gender is concealed and accordingly no longer an issue. On the difficult question of the wardrobe of angels, Elizabeth advises her eldest child that angels wear dresses:
- 40 Von Arnim, Elizabeth and her German Garden 60.
“Are they girlies?”
“Don’t boys go into the Himmel?”
“Yes, of course, if they’re good.”
“And then what do they wear?”
“Why, the same as all the other angels, I suppose.”
She began to laugh, looking at me sideways as though she suspected me of making jokes. “What a funny Mummy!” she said, evidently much amused.40
- 41 Von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife 359.
- 42 Psomiades, Beauty’s Body 7.
- 43 Von Arnim. The Pastor’s Wife 210.
24The dream of simply being able to disregard one’s gender is also evident in The Pastor’s Wife where a complete lack of self-awareness immunises Ingeborg against Ingram’s aggressive courtship. Her naivety and innocence are increasingly irritating to Ingram, who is incapable of bringing “the faintest trace of selfconsciousness [sic] into her eyes. What can be done, he thought, with a woman who will not be selfconscious?”41 In his frustration, he compares her to a choir-boy since a person who will not blush under his gaze must clearly be a boy. Androgyny is a common trope in aestheticism and usually identified as an indirect way of expressing homoerotic desires. Hovering between the genders, the originally male body is enriched with feminine mystery and softness. It acts as “a gateway to a private realm of aesthetic experience waiting within; masculinity, feminized, can be loaded with secret depths.”42 By contrast, in von Arnim’s works de-gendering the female body acts as a release from precisely these confusing depths. Ingeborg likes her own body best when she can simply forget about it and is greatly disconcerted by the mysterious and disturbing changes she experiences during her repeated pregnancies: “She who had never thought of her body, who had found in it the perfect instrument for carrying out her will, was forced to think of it almost continuously. It mastered her.”43
- 44 Elizabeth von Arnim, The Jasmine Farm (London: Heinemann, 1936) 10.
25The problem of controlling the body gains more urgency as von Arnim’s heroines age together with their author. In Love, Catherine, a widow and mother of a grown daughter, falls in love with Christopher, a young man who could be her son. Needless to say, the odd couple soon runs into trouble. It is significant that Catherine loses her preternaturally young looks at precisely the moment she falls in love for the first time in her life. In Jasmine Farm the ageing Lady Midhurst tries to keep up a semblance of youthful looks: “the way she would henna her hair, when plainly it ought to have been grey long ago, and instead of letting it wither quietly, do up her face and put red stuff on her lips and nails”44 indicates that Daisy Midhurst holds on not only to her fading beauty but also to the hurt inflicted on her by her long-deceased philandering husband. The novel tells the story of her reconciliation with her past and the growing insight that her own sexual coldness might have contributed to her marital problems. Her age becomes apparent when together with her resentment she can finally let go of her makeup. In the novel, Daisy is mirrored by another flower-named character, Rosie. This young woman is exquisitely pretty and gets the greatest enjoyment out of her looks and fashionable clothes. However, the male attention she receives for her efforts is mostly just cumbersome to her, who prefers to gain her self-assurance from a look in the mirror. Fanny, the protagonist of Mr. Skeffington, faces a similar problem as Daisy. The ageing socialite and professional beauty has lost the last remnants of her looks due to an illness. The novel follows her on a string of visits to her former admirers whom she consults in order to find the solution to a pressing problem: she is haunted by the ghost of her long-divorced husband, Mr. Skeffington. He, too, had been a chronic philanderer and Fanny, it is emphasised, never let any of her admirers beyond her bedroom doors afterwards. In the end, she and Skeffington are reunited. However, the former Jewish business magnate is now a broken man and torture by the Nazis has blinded him. He will never see Fanny’s changed looks.
26Preserving their looks is vital for these protagonists in order to maintain their social positions as professional beauty, hostess and love object. They use their bodies as a currency, which pays for social recognition, financial security and even love. All of them have married to their financial advantage and even Rosie, who stands on a much lower rung of the social ladder than Daisy, Fanny or Catherine, uses her beauty to have admirers pay for her lunch. Feminine beauty is preserved and treasured like an aesthetic commodity of considerable social and financial exchange value. It is a corporeal marker of a particular social status, similar to furs, pearls and a house in Mayfair.
- 45 Psomiades, Beauty’s Body 8.
- 46 Elizabeth von Arnim, Mr. Skeffington (London: Heinemann, 1940) 19.
- 47 Psomiades, Beauty’s Body 8.
27Quoting Rita Felski, Psomiades argues that “[t]ied so closely to commodity culture through bourgeois women’s role in consumption, femininity becomes, as the century progresses, increasingly visible ‘as an ensemble of signs.’”45 With progressing age, this “ensemble of signs” is put on every morning like clothes or jewellery and will eventually lose all traces of individuality. After one of her beauty treatments, Fanny looks in the mirror and wonders: “Certainly, she was more presentable . . . But she looked curiously like the other women who go to beauty parlours. Their faces all, after treatment, seemed to have on exactly the same mask.”46 Joan Riviere’s concept of femininity as masquerade crosses paths with aestheticism when Psomiades argues that “through its obsessive insistence on reading and rereading the signs of femininity” aestheticism “is both part of the process through which femininity becomes visibly artificial and part of the response to that process.”47
- 48 Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995) 20.
- 49 Von Arnim breaks with this taboo when she explicitly writes about beauty parlours and in Love offer (...)
28Although Felski has claimed that “[l]ike the work of art, woman in the age of technological reproduction is deprived of her aura; [because] the effects of industry and technology [...] help to demystify the myth of femininity as a last remaining site of redemptive nature,”48 I argue that femininity in von Arnim’s novels acquires a different kind of mystique instead. Where femininity is treated like a commodity, it will inevitably take on what Marx famously called the “enigmatical character” of commodities. Like all commodities, enigmatic femininity draws its mysterious attraction from a fetishist economy of desire, which, according to Freud, is based on concealment and the dissociation of cause and effect, or, in Marxist terms, the dissociation of use and exchange value. This includes that ideally the aesthetic commodity has lost all traces of the human labour that went into creating the impression of artistic perfection. The desired object is completely dissociated from its origin. With regard to femininity, the mask-like face and stereotypical markers of youthful beauty are not supposed to show natural idiosyncrasies, the signs of ageing or the daily effort of recreating a particular feminine representation.49
- 50 Psomiades, Beauty’s Body 3.
- 51 Psomiades, Beauty’s Body 111–12.
29As it turns out, not only looks but also the act of looking are crucial in the contemplation of both femininity and aestheticism. Psomiades also discusses femininity in the context of concealment. As explained earlier, she assigns femininity a central role in the “difficult and vexed relations between the categories of the aesthetic and the economic in bourgeois culture,” which are “represented and covered over by erotic relations.”50 According to her analysis the dominant gaze of the narcissist artist keeps the female model firmly fixed in place. However, Psomiades also portrays narcissism as a way for the female subject of art to step out of this particular heterosexual economy. In Swinburne’s poem “Before the Mirror (Verses written under a Picture)”, narcissism offers a way for the female subject to gain a degree of independence: the beautiful girl gazes at herself in the mirror and thus creates an autonomous space.51 According Psomiades, the narcissist gaze is powerful enough to place the woman, and by extension femininity, either in or out of the bourgeois nexus of aesthetics and economics.
- 52 Von Arnim, The Jasmine Farm 89.
- 53 Von Arnim,The Jasmine Farm 61.
- 54 Von Arnim,The Jasmine Farm 72.
30However, I would like to argue that in von Arnim’s novels the fetishist gaze keeps the female protagonists in and out of the heterosexual economy at the same time. Fannie’s, Daisy’s, Rosie’s and Catherine’s lives are closely bound up with men, in fact they define themselves according to their relationship with men as wives, mistresses and mothers. Their self-image depends to a large degree on the value attributed to their femininity. In all cases their beauty also covers and conceals the economic character underlying the emotional transactions by which they sustain their social roles. However, the fetishist desire they arouse also allows them to remain aloof since by definition fetishist lust is based on admiration and gazing rather than physical possession. Accordingly, Daisy, Fanny and Rosie may sleep alone, as is their declared wish. Daisy’s ageing admirer and close friend Mr. Torrens will express the acme of his passion in a hand kiss since “[n]o desire roused by Daisy had ever gone further than being almost uncontrollable.”52 In fact, Rosie compares Daisy’s sterile charm with a hospital.53 Mr. Torrens, who then “refreshed himself by gazing at the entrancing curve of [Rosie’s] little nostril, and the way a small tendril of soft hair wantoned about her ear,”54 soon has to learn that he will make no further progress with Rosie either. Similarly, Fanny will gracefully receive eulogies but not embraces, as is pointed out repeatedly. Catherine, too, has never been in love and for the longest time she is amused rather than aroused by Christopher’s ardent courtship. The novels focus on the moment when love, illness or age forces the female protagonists out of their emotional tableau vivant.
31Von Arnim implicitly reiterates the aesthetic understanding of beauty as a fragile and precious gift in constant need of protection from life’s ungovernable and unrefined forces. However, these forces, as it turns out, are destructive as well as liberating. Increasingly, von Arnim’s novels are propelled forward by a desire for reconciliation and acceptance. Although she cannot find a happy ending for Catherine and Christopher, von Arnim tries to provide kindly for Daisy and Fanny. Both make peace with their age and their past and find a new role in life. Daisy continues to live without men and Fanny will nurse her crippled husband. Nevertheless, these slightly laboured happy endings remain the weakest part of the plot because von Arnim cannot offer a convincing alternative to aesthetic femininity. Neither novel ends in a sexually and emotionally fulfilled relationship between a man and a woman of similar age.
32Von Arnim was a great satirical chronicler of female dissatisfaction and unfulfilled relationships. Her concept of femininity was strongly informed by aesthetic ideals. Like many women of her generation, she wrestled with an ideal of womanliness that her novels reveal to be precarious, stifling, sterile and ultimately unsustainable. Elizabeth finds it impossible to join the feminist cause for aesthetic reasons while Ingeborg is almost destroyed by the ruthless narcissism of the aesthetic Ingram. Von Arnim’s later heroines find themselves caught in a barren emotional economy of aesthetic fetishist desire and withdrawal. The novels show the pervasiveness of aesthetic ideals during the pre- and inter-war years in England. In the early twentieth century, aesthetic femininity does not necessarily mean white lilies and green velvet anymore. Von Arnim’s novels engage with the aesthetic legacy beyond the craze for home decoration, aesthetic commodities or decadent fads and fashions, although all these have their place in middlebrow culture and literature and are worth further exploration. Instead, her works show how the ideal of aesthetic womanliness survives in the commodification and accompanying fetishist mystification of female beauty.