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In the labyrinths of female friendship

· Books ·

“She jerked her wet hair out of her eyes as she climbed the stairs. It kept on getting into them and making her stumble. Vera would help her. Vera never was beaten. Vera had had 15 years of not being beaten, before – before she had that accident”. This is one of the key scenes in Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel, on sale in [Italian] bookshops in the new translation by Sabina Terziani for Fazi. It was first published in 1921 and is considered the masterpiece of this English writer, Vera has as its main character the very young Lucy who, a few months after the death of her beloved father, has married the recently-widowed 40-year-old Everard Wemyss. However appearances are deceptive and the first cracks are already revealed during their honeymoon: the man who seemed to be a solid and caring saviour proves – through an unmasking which von Armin handles with great mastery – to be a torturer. Everard is a man incapable of dialogue (“There’s only one way of looking at a thing, and that’s the right way”, he would repeat), who speaks through rhetorical questions, does not admit of complexity and nuances (he divides “everything into two categories only, snow-white and jet-black”), and he buys expensive books solely to put them on show. He is offset by the women in the novel: Miss Entwhistle, Lucy’s aunt, the seemingly insignificant little old lady whose sin will be to reveal herself as “a real and autonomous individual […] who made herself respected”; Lucy, who is so ingenuous and faint-hearted that she at first seems annoying, is instead capable of giving a form and place to the creeping psychological violence to which she has fallen prey; and lastly Vera. Seventeen years before Daphne du Maurier’s more famous Rebecca came out, Everard’s first wife is in fact the true driving force of this novel. In a crescendo of friendship and female power based on the portrait of the deceased wife which the young woman finds hanging on the walls of the villa, Vera will gradually reveal herself to Lucy. “In her idea of her, too, she was absent-minded and not very intelligent; indeed she was rather troublesomely unintelligent, doing obstinate, foolish things […]. This Vera was certainly intelligent. You couldn’t have eyes like that and be a fool”. From the moment that she succeeds in discerning a Vera different from the person who emerges from her husband’s words, Lucy in fact is able to acquire an awareness of what is happening to her, which is not a consequence of her own shortcomings but rather the expression of a violent and dangerous mind.

A novel of disconcerting topicality, Vera is constructed wisely, with that narrative tone – polished and light, sombre but ironic – which is the hallmark of von Armin’s works. Her books are also autobiographical: indeed this text was written after the author’s disastrous marriage with Earl Russell, the well-known philosopher’s elder brother, whom Elizabeth von Arnim did not hesitate to leave. 

Silvia Gusmano




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 19, 2019