Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

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Reviewed by Harriet

‘You’re really imprisoned, then’, said Carruthers, staring at her. ‘Imprisoned in your beauty’.

Salvatia Pinner, always known as Sally despite her parents’ objections, is sixteen years old. Her pretty, frail mother has just died and her grocer father is left with the problem of what to do with her. Mrs Pinner used to work in the shop, and Sally, a quiet, sweet-natured girl, would be a perfect replacement except for her one major problem: her stunning looks attract too many customers. Soon the shop is crammed with men who hardly buy anything, as they have come just for a sight of Sally.

Sally couldn’t help smiling back when anybody smiled at her, – it was her nature; and as everybody, the minute they saw her, did smile, she was in a continual condition of radiance, and the shop seemed full of light. Mr Pinner was distracted. He hired an assistant, having made money, announced his daughter had gone away to boarding school, and hid her in the back parlour. The custom dropped off and the assistant had to go. Out came Sally again and back came the custom. What a situation, thought Mr Pinner, irritable and perspiring. He was worn out keeping an eye on Sally, and weighing out coffee and bacon at the same time.

Finding a husband for Sally would solve the problem, but most of the adoring customers are obviously married men, or even members of the clergy, and religious Mr Pinner knows ‘they wished to sin with Sally, the sin of sins, with his spotless lamb’. In desperation, he moves out of London to a small village in Cambridgeshire, mostly inhabited by elderly ladies, and takes over the village shop. Surely Sally will be safe there? But then one day in March a young man comes to the door in search of petrol and catches sight of Sally: ‘“Christ “- he whispered under his breath – “Christ” -‘. 

Jocelyn Luke is a very young man, a student at Cambridge, and from the start he is determined to marry Sally. He only has £500 a year, which he considers poverty and Mr Pinner thinks is riches. Before long he gets his way, and the young couple are married. He’s been in such a hurry that he hasn’t even told his widowed mother. So how will this marriage work out?

The rest of this totally delightful 1926 novel explores that question, and in doing so has a great deal to say about the English class system and the treatment of women. Sally’s amazing beauty – which von Arnim wisely avoids describing in detail – leads people who see her to assume that she must belong to a higher social class. However, this assumption is quickly dispelled when she opens her mouth. For Sally, like Eliza Dolittle, speaks the English of the labouring classes. This is a cause of great distress to her otherwise adoring husband. Jocelyn (who Sally can’t help thinking of as Mr Luke, or Usband) spends long and fruitless hours trying to teach her to say her h’s and to break her of what he sees as common expressions such as ‘Pardon’. Sally is docile but bewildered, and remains so when Jocelyn hands her over to his mother, who promises to educate her. So begins a miserable period for Sally, as, her husband away house hunting in Cambridge, she is subjected to ceaseless drilling by Mrs Luke, who is certain of success despite all evidence to the contrary. 

The final straw for Sally comes when Jocelyn announces that he plans to return to his studies in Cambridge, only coming back to his mother’s at the weekends. Deeply shocked, she makes a strong objection: ‘it ain’t right, Mr Luke – it ain’t right. You only got to read St Mark —‘.

Jocelyn was amazed. Sally talking like this? Sally suddenly making difficulties, and having an opinion, and judging? Dragging in the Bible, too, like somebody’s cook.

When Sally holds onto her assertion that Jocelyn’s proposed absence ‘ain’t bein’ one flesh’, Jocelyn is appalled: ‘it sounded exactly as if a servant were daring to talk familiarly to him’. Needless to say the argument ends badly, with Jocelyn storming off and Sally more unhappy than ever.

Of course Eliza Doolittle did learn to speak like a lady, though Shaw ended Pygmalion on an ambiguous note as far as her future was concerned. Sally, however, does not. But von Arnim certainly finds her a happy ending, albeit rather an improbably fairytale-like one, involving a stone-deaf aristocrat and his slightly bemused but accepting family. It’s probably not what you may think from this description, but you’ll have to read the novel to find out what happens.

I came late to Elizabeth von Arnim, having tried and failed to enjoy one of her most famous novels, Elizabeth and Her German Garden. But I’ve come to love her writing over the past several years, and have reviewed several of her novels on my blog. Men who want to keep women in their place seem to be a recurring theme. In Vera (1921) this appears in a very dark way when the young heroine finds herself married to a pathological narcissist, but even in lighter novels the same theme shows itself. It does so in the extremely funny social satire The Caravaners (1909) [reviewed by Karen for Shiny here, and on my blog here], in which the middle-aged Prussian officer who narrates the novel muses on his wife’s inexplicable habit of answering back:

Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak, on every table, and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.

Whether she’s writing romance, comedy, tragedy or social satire, von Arnim is a superb writer and I’m delighted that the British Library has added this lovely novel to their Women Writers series.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Elizabeth von Arnim, Introduction to Sally (British Library, 2023). 978-0712354745, 224pp., paperback original.

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1 comment

  1. Lovely review Harriet. She *did* seem to return to the theme of controlling men, didn’t she, and I suspect that might have come from personal experience…

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