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Expiation

by Elizabeth von Arnim
Persephone book no:

132 133 134


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William Orpen, Night, 1907

PREFACE BY VALERIE GROVE
384pp
ISBN 9781910263235

This is a first for us: a novel which has been entirely overlooked and yet is by a well-known writer. Most of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels are in print with other publishers; yet Expiation, that we publish ninety years after its first appearance, has been ignored. Why? Well, the title (a synonym for atonement) is not very catchy. The theme is faintly shocking, or was in 1929, since the book is about adultery: a 'happily married' woman has, it transpires, for years been meeting her lover once a week. (This is not a plot spoiler as the reader learns this early on.) And, although nowadays we read the novel as a satire, at the time the characters and their milieu may have seemed rather tame. After all, the Botts are the backbone of 'Titford': 'That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continuously increasing in prosperity...They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened.' (This last sentence, on p. 2 of the novel, was what deliciously and instantly convinced us that this was a book for us.)

A satire of middle-class prudery and closed-minded cruelty, what was mostly ignored in the years after Expiation’s first publication was how laugh-out-loud hilarious it is, so funny that we genuinely believe it to be much better than the more well-known books by ‘Elizabeth’ (the name she wrote under). It is also extraordinarily atmospheric and perceptive about the English: in some respects it is Forsterian (the greatest compliment we can pay). It too would make a wonderful play or film. Finally, the effects of Milly's behaviour are forensically explored and scrutinised, yet, in the end and upliftingly, the power of simple human kindness wins through.

And what did her contemporaries think? The greatest praise came from her nephew, the intelligent and civilised Sydney Waterlow (E M Forster’s friend). He told her: ‘Well, in my opinion Expiation is quite the top of your form. There is that in it which I admire most, and which I miss in all other writers practically now – power, clean and economical. There is increasing tension and excitement – and what certainty of touch.’  But the reviewers were equally enthusiastic. So in the Evening News J B Priestley admired ‘the easy writing… Every scene in this story seems to arrive almost casually, and yet not a word or a gesture is wasted. There may not be such fun in the life she shows us, but it is fun watching her show it.’ The New York Times called it ‘a very clever book, written in Elizabeth’s own delightful style, full of delicate irony, and with many capitally done scenes.’ Country Life observed: ‘Shocking words can alone describe Milly’s conduct, and yet what a sweet, generous, loving little soul the sinner has remained. The truth is that Elizabeth has achieved a most difficult thing, she has left the sin ugly and a little sordid, but made the sinner lovable.’ Finally, the feminist weekly Time and Tide thought that Elizabeth had tapped into ‘the whole of life – certainly all fiction’ which is made up of only ‘two things: love and consequences.’ In particular, Expiation is ‘a delightful, instructive study in the consequences of that kind of love... called sin.’

 

Endpaper

A 1924-5 silk and rayon used on a day dress, fabric in a private collection.


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