As I mentioned in my post on Helen C Black’s Notable Women Authors of the Day, I was pleased to discover that I had downloaded Jessie Fothergill’s novel, The First Violin, from Girlebooks some time ago. Reading about the Library Association’s disapproval of this novel made me determined to read it sooner rather than later. I’m glad I did because it’s a melancholy, romantic story of love & music in a small German town in the 1870s.
May Wedderburn is the 17 year old daughter of a country vicar. She is being pursued by Sir Peter Le Marchant, the owner of the big house in the neighbourhood but she loathes him & refuses his offer of marriage. May is befriended by Miss Hallam, a woman who is thought to be eccentric because she lives an independent life. Miss Hallam is losing her sight to cataracts & she proposes to take May with her to Germany as a companion when she goes to the town of Elberthal to consult a specialist. Miss Hallam has another motive in helping May escape from the pressure to marry Sir Peter. Her own sister, Barbara, had been Sir Peter’s first wife & she died in misery & fear. Miss Hallam blamed Sir Peter & wants to save May from the same fate.
On arrival in Koln, en route for Elberthal, May becomes separated from Miss Hallam at the railway station. Knowing no German & without her purse, May is almost frantic when she is rescued by a handsome gentleman, Eugen Courvoisier, who takes charge of her for the afternoon. They visit the Cathedral, he buys her dinner & they travel on to Elberthal together by a later train. May is smitten with Eugen & he seems equally taken with her. As May settles in to the boarding house with Miss Hallam, she expects to see Eugen every day. She had made him promise to visit her so she could repay him for her expenses. However, the next time she sees him, she snubs him in a moment of confusion & surprise. On a visit to the opera, May is amazed to see Eugen taking his place in the orchestra as Concertmeister, the First Violin. Eugen sees her in the audience & is insulted by her snub. She is remorseful but, even after she discovers his lodgings & tries to apologize, he is cold & dismissive.
May has been encouraged to take singing lessons as a way of making a living when she returns to England. Her teacher is the renowned maestro Max von Francius, conductor of the town’s choir & orchestra. Von Francius is a perfectionist, a solitary man who is respected but not really liked by many, although the ladies who sing in his choir like to flutter around him. He is, however, an exceptional teacher, & soon becomes May’s friend as well as her very demanding teacher,
I understood now how the man might have influence. I bent to the power of his will, which reached me where I stood in the background, from his dark eyes, which turned for a moment to me now and then. It was that will of his which put me as it were suddenly into the spirit of the music, and revealed to me depths in my own heart at which I had never even guessed.
May’s voice is exceptional & she becomes part of Eugen’s circle as a pupil of von Francius & occasional soloist with the choir. Miss Hallam returns home after the eye specialist tells her that he cannot help her & von Francius convinces May to remain as his pupil. He finds lodgings for May in a house opposite Eugen’s rooms & May spends many lonely hours watching Eugen with his son, Sigmund, & great friend, Friedhelm Helfen.
At this point, just as I was immersed in May’s story, the next chapter begins the narration of Friedhelm Helfen. The time is now three years earlier (although, disconcertingly, there’s nothing to indicate the change of narrator or time) & we meet Helfen, a melancholy, Romantically suicidal 22 year old violinist in Elderthal’s orchestra. Eugen arrives to take up his post as Concertmeister & takes rooms in Helfen’s lodging house. Helfen is immediately taken with Eugen & his little boy & they become great friends. Helfen is looking for a family & he finds it in Eugen & Sigmund. Eugen, however, is a man with a secret. He is reserved & secretive. He never mentions his past life or loves. Where is Sigmund’s mother? Were she & Eugen married? Is she alive or dead? Helfen is too sensitive to question Eugen & Eugen makes mysterious comments about the need to one day give up Sigmund before he begins to see his father as he really is. What has Eugen done?
Three years pass. Eugen meets May &, eventually Helfen becomes aware of the connection between Eugen & the beautiful young soprano, Miss Wedderburn. Eugen remains distant & reserved about their relationship & his own past until the day he receives a mysterious letter & reveals that the time has come for Sigmund to leave him. His emotion at parting from his son is very moving but he tells Helfen nothing. The narration has moved back & forth between May & Helfen several times now so we’ve also discovered that May’s sister, Adelaide, has married Sir Peter Le Marchant & they are coming to Elderthal to visit May on their wedding tour. May is shocked by Adelaide’s looks & behaviour. Only a few months of married life with the cold, sarcastic Sir Peter have made Adelaide thin, nervous & brittle.
To a certain extent she had what she had sold herself for; outside pomp and show in plenty – carriages, horses, servants, jewels and clothes. Sir Peter liked, to use his own expression, ‘to see my lady blaze away’ – only she must blaze away in his fashion, not hers. He declared he did not know how long he might remain in Elberthal; spoke vaguely of ‘business at home’ about which he was waiting to hear… He was in excellent spirits at seeing his wife chafing under the confinement to a place she detested, and appeared to find life sweet.
Adelaide falls in love for the first time & realises just what she has sacrificed with her marriage for security & position. Jessie Fothergill’s sympathetic portrayal of Adelaide & her lover is probably what upset the Library Association so much. It’s a beautiful portrait of restrained passion.
Eugen’s past is revealed by ill-natured gossips & he & Friedhelm leave Elberthal. May falls ill; her other sister, Stella, comes out to Germany to nurse her & to take her home. May, however, cannot forget Eugen & she instinctively feels that his disgrace is unmerited.
It was bad enough to have fallen in love with a man who had never showed me by word or sign that he cared for me, but exactly and pointedly the reverse; but now it seemed the man himself was bad too. Surely a well-regulated mind would have turned away from him – uninfluenced. If so, then mine was an unregulated mind. I had loved him from the bottom of my heart; the world without him felt cold, empty and bare – desolate to live, and shorn of its sweetest pleasures… He had bewitched me… I did feel that life by the side of any other man would be miserable, though never so richly set; and that life by his side would be full and complete though never so poor and sparing in its circumstances.
Miss Hallam dies, leaving May enough money to return to Germany to study & she returns to Elberthal, hoping to find some news of Eugen & discover the truth about his past.
The First Violin is a beautiful story of love in all its forms – romantic love, loving friendship, the love of a father for his son – with a yearning melancholy at its heart. It’s not a perfect novel. The frequent changes of narration are disconcerting & sometimes rather clumsy. There are several coincidences that are a little too remarkable for belief including two occasions when Eugen saves May from peril. These imperfections don’t detract from the overall experience of reading the novel. The atmosphere of Elberthal, a small town centred on its choir & orchestra, is beautifully evoked. The students, landladies & chattering young ladies of the choir are great characters. Jessie Fothergill lived in Germany for some time. She began writing The First Violin in a boarding house in Dusseldorf & she immersed herself in German language & music. All this experience comes through in the book which is full of an intense love of music. I only wish I knew more about the great German composers. This is the kind of novel that needs its own soundtrack CD so you can listen to the relevant pieces of music as you read. The First Violin is compelling reading. I’m so glad I was able to read it. Thank you Girlebooks!