Sunday, 1 December 2019

'Expiation' - Elizabeth Von Arnim

Oh, how delicious Expiation is. If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Elizabeth Von Arnim's unlikely shero Milly Bott manages to tuck into second and third helpings without needing to go anywhere near a hot plate. 

In its prime, Persephone Books, that wonderful publisher of long-lost women's fiction, issued years and years of book after book of fantastically readable, unputdownable literature by writers you often had not previously heard of but would go on to seek out in every second-hand bookshop you passed. There followed a few years of slightly tougher tomes, but I'm delighted to say that in the past year or two, almost every single Persephone Book I've read has been a treat. None more so than this delight from Elizabeth Von Arnim. 

Elizabeth Von Arnim isn't a writer I had come across before, although she has written around 20 books (of which Expiation was the one of the few not still in print) and experienced a colourful romantic life that clearly influenced her writing. 

Because in this novel, our protagonist Milly Bott is introduced to us on the day she buries her husband, Ernest, who has been killed suddenly in a road accident. But (and this isn't giving anything away because the reader finds this out in the first few pages), wealthy Ernest has written her out of his will on account of finding out that for ten years she has been having an affair with an academic named Arthur. 

Surrounding Milly's disinheritance is the wider Bott family - who see themselves as the leading lights in the fictional London suburb of Titford. The small-minded Botts are terrified that the neighbours and servants will gossip and that they will lose their social standing. They are aghast at what to do about Milly, who has been left penniless and homeless, so that they are simultaneously least inconvenienced by her and least tainted by her sins.

In this claustrophobic but sprawling social satire, we follow closely behind Milly's shoulder in the few days following Ernest's funeral. We see her escape the Botts, reunite with her long-long sister and meet again with Arthur... and through it all we quickly see we are following the one, calm, steady influence in the book, the one who remains un-rocked by the constant disturbance that is whipped up in her wake. 

The Bott brothers and their wives are hideous people, painted as caricatures who deserve everything that they bring on themselves. The outsiders (solicitors, siblings, boarding house keepers) are painted as ridiculous, pseudo-Dickensian tropes who are fresh from the boards of your local pantomime. And all the while, grieving Milly quietly goes along trying to do the right thing and atone for her indiscretion - as the novel's title suggests. 

To my mind, the absolute star of Expiation is the very elderly Bott matriarch who, encased under shawls in her bed, sees her sons and daughters-in-law for what they really are, and has the authority to send them all away when she's had enough. Bravo, Mrs Bott. 

Expiation is a thoroughly enjoyable study into the social mores of the late 1920s. It's a delightful look at the small-minded Brits who live in fear of the servants finding out who they really are (the detailed description of Mabel Bott's terror of her preposterously named butler, Mr Butler, is an absolute hoot). It's the sort of novel that hooks you in from the very first page and keeps you turning until, 362 pages later, you have breathlessly reached the end and barely paused to think. 

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