One of my resolutions this year was to get back to reading some of the authors whose books I’ve been collecting but not reading. I’ve read several books by Elizabeth von Arnim but that was some years ago & I have some Virago editions on the tbr shelves. Of course, when the mood struck, I wanted to read one of her books that I didn’t own so I bought a Kindle collection of 11 of her books which seemed to be the only way I could easily get my hands on The Benefactress. It was the reviews by Leaves & Pages & The Captive Reader that led to buying the Kindle version but it’s taken me another six months & my reading resolution to get around to reading this delightful book.
Anna Estcourt is unhappily living with her brother, Peter, his wife, Susie & their daughter, Letty. Peter & Anna are financially dependent on Susie & there is little sympathy between the two women. Anna is 25, attractive but totally uninterested in society & finding a husband. She’s unhappy at home but not unhappy enough to throw herself into marriage for the sake of escape. When she inherits a property & some money in Germany from her Uncle Joachim, she is determined to live there & do good in the local community. She doesn’t know much German but sets off accompanied by Susie, Letty & Letty’s governess, Miss Leech.
Anna arrives in Pomerania to find her house & servants waiting to greet her. The land agent, Dellwig, decides that he will have no trouble pursuing his own schemes with a young Englishwoman as his mistress. The servants are willing but not very intelligent & Anna’s basic German is another barrier. Susie is disgusted with everything & when her maid revolts & wants to return home, she goes as well, leaving Letty & Miss Leech to chaperone Anna. The parson, Herr Manske, is kind & her neighbour, Axel von Lohm, was a friend of Uncle Joachim & feels protective towards his niece.
Anna makes many mistakes in her first weeks at . She asks the parson to dinner without including Herr & Frau Dellwig. She walks around unchaperoned, although she employs an impoverished noblewoman, Princess Ludwig, as housekeeper & companion. She declines to listen to Dellwig’s advice. She decides that she wants to help other women who need independence & wants to invite twelve such women to share her home. The parson is happy to help & composes a letter to put into the newspaper. However, the first three applicants are not exactly what she was expecting.
Frau von Treumann & Baroness Elmreich are snobbish women who look down on the third member of their company, Fräulein Kuhräuber. All three women are ill at ease, suspicious of Anna’s motives & disapproving of her manners, her clothing & everything about her. Anna’s basic German leads to upsets & misunderstandings. Axel von Lohm is also dubious about the antecedents of all the new inmates. There’s some family scandal in the backgrounds of both Frau von Treumann & the Baroness & nothing that Anna can do can make the three women friends with herself or each other. Plans for another nine beneficiaries are quietly dropped as Anna realises just how difficult a task she has taken on.
There are some very funny episodes such as Anna’s niece, Letty’s, interference in her aunt’s love life. Her meddling leads a young curate to imagine himself in love with Anna & that she returns his feelings. Frau von Treumann has a son, Karlchen, who she decides would be a perfect husband for Anna. Her pleas to Anna to allow Karlchen to visit her lead to several meetings where Karlchen’s comical attempts to impress Anna are completely ignored. Anna is more distressed when her friendship with Axel is changed by his proposal of marriage which she rejects. It takes a near-tragedy to open Anna’s eyes & heart to her true feelings.
I enjoyed The Benefactress very much. It’s another of those beguiling books where a house is inherited & we follow the attempts to make the house a home. There isn’t a lot of detail about new furnishings & landscaping gardens but Anna’s efforts do improve the house & by the end of the book, she has realised that her future does indeed lie in Germany. Her dreams of being a benefactress to those less fortunate than herself may be idealistic & impractical but she’s a kind-hearted young woman. She knows how miserable it is to be dependent on relatives or friends who provide the material needs of life but not the intellectual or spiritual needs. Perhaps inevitably for a book published in 1901, Anna is destined to realize that the obstacles she faces will be easier to overcome with a man by her side. Luckily she also realises that she will be happier with Axel than she could ever be on her own.