February 2024 – Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife

by Francesca Pierini

(Asian University for Women, Chittagong, Bangladesh)

Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife was published in 1914 to sustained critical approval. According to von Arnim herself, it was the “least bad” of her novels (Turner 57). As was the case for most of her literary works, however, The Pastor’s Wife was forgotten for a long time. Today it may still be one of von Arnim’s lesser-known novels, but it is regarded, by critics, as a “neglected classic […] important in the history of British literature […] and the feminist novel, particularly through its portrayal of the domestic world and motherhood.3” (Turner 58)

J. E. Miller sees the novel as organized according to a tripartite narrative structure: courtship, a marriage problem, and romantic rebellion (Miller 77). Although I share Miller’s perception of the novel as a narrative divided into three parts, I see each segment as characterized by the attempted appropriation of an important part of the young heroine by each of the three main male figures. While Ingeborg’s father aims at controlling Ingeborg’s mind, her husband is mainly concerned with the “fructification” of her body. Lastly, Ingram, a friend, admirer, and renowned artist, wants to portray Ingeborg in order to capture—and frame—her spirit.

Importantly, each part of the novel also tells the story of Ingeborg’s struggle for self-preservation, each time partly successful but fundamentally doomed—as Ingeborg “mov[es] from one prison to another (Turner 60). Von Arnim tells Ingeborg’s story with compassionate humor and a fond compassion towards her heroine.


Ingeborg’s Mind

Ingeborg’s father, a bishop, envisions for the less pretty of his two daughters, a quiet and laborious life at home, working in the service of his religious practice. In order to achieve this, he teaches Ingeborg efficiency and organization, providing her with just enough mental stimuli. Ingeborg is allowed to read the Psalms, for instance, not novels. More importantly, the bishop trains Ingeborg “in acquiescence and distrust of herself” (von Arnim 46). Ingeborg is achingly aware of the uneducated quality of her thoughts:

It was very unfortunate, but she found an immense difficulty at all times in thinking. She could keep her father’s affairs in the neatest order, but not her own thoughts. There were so many of them, and they all seemed to jump about inside her and want to get thought first. They would not go into ordered rows. They had no patience. Often she had suspected they were not thoughts at all but just feelings, and that depressed her, for it made her drop, she feared, to the level of the insect world and enter the category of things that were not going to be able to get to heaven; and to a bishop’s daughter this was disquieting. (von Arnim 42)

She therefore accepts to marry Herr Dremmel, a German pastor, partly to understand herself beyond her father’s influence: “Was it possible, would it ever be possible, in her father’s presence to disassociate herself from his points of view?” (von Arnim 46)

Ingeborg’s Body

The central part of the novel takes place in East-Prussia, in Herr Dremmel’s secluded house. Contemporary readings of The Pastor’s Wife agree in affirming that Ingeborg succeeds in leaving behind oppressive familial relations only to find, in the isolation of Herr Dremmel’s house, an even more suffocating environment. Indeed, Ingeborg’s husband, entirely devoted to his work, has little time for his young bride. Herr Dremmel works, morning to dusk, to the optimization of his fields and crops. Adopting a similar approach towards his wife, he aims at “extracting” from her body as much progeny as possible.

Ingeborg resents her husband’s—as well as society’s—fixation with procreation. She is repeatedly told that children are supposed to be the crowning achievement of a woman’s life, but she perceives childbearing as very much disruptive, and “unbridled motherhood” (von Arnim 290) as possibly hostile to her health and mental equilibrium. Comparing herself to the “fruitful vine” which, in the Psalms, signifies the reward growing on the walls of a man’s house, she imagines:

[A]t first with an astonished chagrin and afterwards with resignation, swarming up to the eaves of her little home, pauseless, gapless, luxuriantly threatening to choke the very chimneys. At the beginning she deplored this uninterrupted abundance, for she could not but see that beneath it the family roof grew a little rotten, and sometimes, though she made feeble effort to keep it out, a rather dismal rain of discomfort soaked in and dimmed the brightness of things. (von Arnim 274)

After six difficult pregnancies, Ingeborg refuses to continue to sleep with Herr Dremmel. From that moment onwards, she ceases to be of any interest to him.

Ingeborg’s Spirit

Ingram is to Ingeborg a potent breath of fresh air. He brings to her secluded life a taste of culture and urbanity to which she grows very attached. Ingram repeatedly tells Ingeborg he wants to portray an “essence” within her: “Why—didn’t I tell you my picture of you is to be the portrait of a spirit?” (350). Ingram wants to seduce Ingeborg, often using his art as an excuse to win her over, but his primary objective seems to be to appropriate, one way or another, Ingeborg’s naivete, the aspect of her that mostly appeals to him—as well as irritates him—by seizing it and arresting it:

Paint you, and paint you, and paint you […] and see if I can catch some of your happiness for myself. Get at your secret […] I want to get as much of it as I can. I am dusty and hot and sick of everything. I’ll come and stay near you and paint you, and you shall make me clean and cool again. (von Arnim 248)

Nick Turner observes that “a representation of Ingeborg, frozen in the painter’s eye, preserving yet imprisoning her, is an appropriate image to conclude the pattern of relationships with male figures that the character has had” (Turner 60-61). As Ingeborg clumsily manages to rescue herself from Ingram’s selfish attempt at seducing her at the cost of ruining her reputation, the novel ends with Ingeborg returning to her husband, conceivably abandoning once and for all her aspirations of growth and autonomy.

The novel is mostly – and justly – praised for its portrayal of childbirth and motherhood. However, it is also especially clear-sighted in its depiction of patriarchal relations as constituting a complex social regime in which men were compelled to accomplish prescribed – as well as self-interested – needs and desires of personal success, and women were instrumental to their achievement.

Works Cited

Arnim, Elizabeth von. The Pastor’s Wife. London: Virago, 2000.

Maddison, Isobel. Elizabeth von Arnim. Beyond the German Garden. London: Routledge, 2013.

Maddison, Isobel. “Complementary Cousins: Constructing the Maternal in the Writing of Elizabeth von Arnim and Catherine Mansfield.” In Cristoph Ehland and Cornelia Wächter (eds), Middlebrow and Gender 1890-1945. Leiden: Brill, 2016. 79-100.

Miller, Lane Eldridge. Rebel Women: Feminism, Modernism and the Edwardian Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.

Turner, Nick. “Elizabeth von Arim’s The Pastor’s Wife: A Reassessment.” Women: A Cultural Review 28.1-2 (2017): 56-71.