Vera (1921) is the story of a toxic relationship which gradually unfolds into a full-blown tale of psychological horror, made ever more disturbing by the restrained way in which it is told.
The story revolves around the main character, the naïve, twenty-two-year-old Lucy Entwhistle, whose father has just suddenly passed away, while they were on holiday in Cornwall. On the very day of her father’s death, Lucy is approached by the forty-five-year-old Everard Wemyss, who happened to pass by, while she was in her garden, still in shock and lost in grief. Wemyss’ wife, Vera, has also recently died – albeit in strange circumstances.
Lucy and Wemyss instantly connect over her losses: they seem to have found in each other a refuge from grief and a source of support. Lucy, in particular, places herself completely under Wemyss’ guidance: she seems relieved to have found another fatherly figure in her life. She quickly falls in love with him, and, despite her father’s friends’ opposition, they marry a few months later.
However, we cannot help but notice that something is amiss. Everard’s charming ways feel tinged with a darker tone. What had seemed to be the gentle development of a romance slowly unfolds into a nightmare.
Wemyss is pathologically narcissistic: his show of care is nothing more than a desire to possess and dominate. His mood can swing between affection and cruelty in the space of a few minutes; he feels proud of humiliating others for pure entertainment and display of power – and his servants and his wife are his favourite victims.
If some of his eccentricities seemed endearing at first, they slowly develop into the very disturbing, full-blown picture of a sociopath: the piano must always be kept covered in the linen case; his birthday should always be celebrated in the same way; his books – which he never read – are to be kept always locked; and the smallest deviations from what he wants or expects make him mad. He craves for complete admiration, expects nothing less than total submission, and does not admit the slight shadow of doubt or criticism. At the same time, from the outside, he seems to be just a good, hard-working citizen.
The highlight of the novel for me was the way you slowly open up our eyes to Wemyss’ character: much like Lucy herself, we have to learn our lesson the hard way. Once our eyes are open, we cannot help but feel a lump in the throat, as we see our Lucy be thrown to the wolves, as a sacrificial lamb. You never shy away from describing her slow but steady movement from freedom to servitude; from self-awareness to total oblivion; and, finally, her pervading self-doubt and depression.
All the elements of psychological violence are there: the way Wemyss mentally tortures Lucy and, at the same time, makes her feel guilty for his behaviour, as if she deserved it; the way he blames her for never meeting his (unrealistic) expectations; the way she is constantly trying to explain away his violent behaviour; the way she slowly begins to distrust her own capacity, and completely loses her sense of self-worth; and the way Wemyss manages to alienate Lucy from all the people who truly cared for her – especially, from her aunt, Miss Entwhistle, her only relative.
He claims to be the only one who truly loves his little Lucy – even though, he says, she does not deserve it. He wants nothing less than total control. But, somehow, Lucy is always saying or doing the wrong thing, caught in an unending cycle of feeling bad about herself and asking for forgiveness.
As the story develops, the absence around which it is built becomes ever more present: Vera, the character who gives the book its titles, is always looming in the background. Gradually, we come to doubt the circumstances of her death: did she accidentally fall from the window of her drawing-room? Or did she commit suicide?
In the same vein of Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier (1938), albeit with a much darker shade, Vera is the dead wife whose presence still pervades the home where a naïve second-wife is made to inhabit. Moreover, nothing has changed in the house after her death, and life-size photograph remains in the dining room, staring at the newly-weds as they have their meals.
Much like Lucy, we gradually become obsessed with Vera, as she stares at us across the room, half-smiling. Much like Lucy, we stare back and look for an explanation, knowing that we will only be met with silence: much like our protagonist, we already know our answers, even though we don’t really want to believe them. And, as Lucy grows dimmer and dimmer, Vera, in her persistent but telling silence, seems to come ever more alive.
“One went on and on, never dreaming of the sudden dreadful day when the coverings were going to be dropped and one would see it was death after all, that it had been death all the time, death pretending, death waiting” ― Elizabeth von Arnim,
“Strange how tightly one’s body could be held, how close to somebody else’s heart, and yet one wasn’t anywhere near the holder. They locked you up in prisons that way, holding your body tight and thinking they had got you, and all the while your mind—you—was as free as the wind and the sunlight. She couldn’t help it, she struggled hard to feel as she had felt when she woke up and saw him sitting near her; but the way he had refused to be friends, the complete absence of any readiness in him to meet her, not half, nor even a quarter, but a little bit of the way, had for the first time made her consciously afraid of him.” ― Elizabeth von Arnim,
“Was there anything in the world so blackly desolate as to be left alone in grief? This poor broken fellow creature — and she herself, so lost, so lost in loneliness — they were two half drowned things, clinging together in a shipwreck — how could she let him go, leave him to himself — how could she be let go, left to herself -” ― Elizabeth von Arnim,
“‘After all,’ she said almost entreatingly, ‘what can be better than a devoted husband?’
And the widow, who had had three and knew what she was talking about, replied with the large calm of those who have finished and can in leisure weigh and reckon up: ‘None.'” ― Elizabeth von Arnim,
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 2006, 336 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1921
- My rating: 5 stars
- I read this book for Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, 20 Books of Summer & All Virago/All August.