When I read classic novels, I often find myself having to put myself in the mindset of a different time, reminding myself that attitudes commonly understood to be wrong today were less well understood then. In a lot of cases that means deciding to what degree I’m willing to overlook instances of casual racism or sexism or anti-Semitism around the edges of otherwise excellent books. And sometimes, I come across books where the objectionable elements are closer to the heart of the story. That was, to some degree, the case with Love, by Elizabeth von Arnim. But, based on my limited reading of her work at this point, von Arnim is a the kind of writer (also evidenced in The Caravaners) who doesn’t seem interested in telling readers what to think or even necessarily showing her own hand. And I think that helps keep her books from seeming too altogether out of step with the times, even when the characters are having to grapple with the expectations of their era.
Published in 1925, Love is the story of two couples, both with great age differences. In the case of the main couple, Catherine and Christopher, the woman is considerably older. The secondary couple, Virginia and Stephen, involves a younger woman and an older man. You can guess which is more societally acceptable.
To my eye, both couples get off to a shaky start. Christopher falls head over heels in love with Catherine, having seen her from a distance at multiple performances of the opera The Immortal Hour. Gradually, he comes to sit near her, and eventually he follows her home. Frankly, he becomes, at best, a pest, and at worst, a stalker. He means no actual harm, but it’s unsettling. And Catherine is, at first, unsettled by it, in part because of the age difference (she is in her late 40s and he is in his 20s). but also because, having been a widow for 10 years, she seems to have no particular inclination to marry again.
Throughout their relationship, the age gap is an issue. People are confused when they see them together, making wrong assumptions about their relationship. Catherine does not have the energy of a 20-year-old, and Christopher feels hemmed in at times. The love, I think, is sincere, but it is limited. And I think von Arnim wants us to see the ambiguity of their situation. Any sense that their relationship is a scandal is treated as ridiculous (the fact that Virginia and Stephen’s marriage is considered respectable is noted more than once as a reason to accept Catherine and Christopher). But there is reason to wonder whether this particular couple has any hope of being happy together in the long term.
As a 21st-century reader, I found Virginia and Stephen’s relationship far more upsetting than Catherine and Christopher’s possibly too rash and fleeting courtship. Stephen met Virginia when she was just five years old and he was the 34-year-old curate of the parish and He “had his thoughtful eye on her from the beginning” and proposed when she was 18. Catherine was uneasy but gave her consent to the marriage, and the couple did seem very much in love. Today, of course, this would be perceived as a likely case of grooming, and, although I’m not sure von Arnim would characterize the relationship that way, she leaves readers a lot of reasons to be troubled by it. In particular, Virginia seems fully indoctrinated in Stephen and his mother’s way of doing things. When she does speak up in contradiction to either of them, it feels like a great triumph. And I think we’re meant to notice it, even if we also believe that the couple sincerely love each other in some kind of way.
There’s a lot of talk in the book about different forms of love, and I think that, regardless of what characters say about it, the book tells its own story. That love is powerful and pleasing and something to be cherished, but also powerful and pleasing and something to be cautious of. Regardless of how our understandings of love have changed over time, I think that will always be true.