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Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim

First published in 1929

2019, Persephone Books

Thanks to Sue for sending me Expiation, a reflection on social expectations and respectability, marriage, infidelity, and love's illusions. I liked the female point of view and the dry humor. Recently, Sue and I had a conversation about the book and the publisher.

Kelliebooks: I'm so glad you've introduced me to Persephone Books. I love their focus on talented but somewhat forgotten female writers.

Sue: The reason I like reading Persephone Books is that the women in them are real people. While we think we know the world that they lived in - because we have some concept of the past - our view tends to be oversimplified.

K: What did you think of Expiation?

S: It was quite fierce in a quiet way and touched me a few layers down. We are complex people! The title made me believe I was going to read a book about someone long suffering, someone giving almost to the end of their being. But that is where the story starts.

K: When the story begins, Milly's husband has just died and left her rich. At least, that's what everyone thinks before reading his will, which instead leaves her poor.

S: Don't spoil the story!

K: We learn this right at the beginning. Milly is now dependent on her dead husband's family. She decides she must either go live with her long-lost sister or marry her lover. But things don't go as she plans.

S: Milly is a quiet, loving character who has a strong sense of herself. No one seems to know this at the start of the book, including Milly, but she thinks clearly about next steps and makes good decisions, even if sometimes unconventional. So the quiet fierceness with which she follows a new path step by step surprises her family and us the reader. As much as we are rooting for her we also assume that something terrible will happen to her before the last page.

K: And?

S: No spoilers, but I will say I admired the good sense of the author and the mother-in-law, and it's a book worth reading.

K: I agree, and look forward to more books from London.

S: Sadly, Persephone Books are moving to Bath. I'll miss popping into their London store to see what's new.

K: Well, how about a trip to Bath in the Covid-free future we're all longing for?

S: A trip to Bath, or anywhere for that matter, would be nice!


Quotes and notes

Love and illusions

...what one wanted beyond everything else in the world was love, and one would do anything to get it, and if it wasn't there one invented it. The least little word, the smallest encouragement, set one off inventing love. 136

Incurable romantics, women were...eternally yapping after love, and more love, and yet more love? But only after love as they considered it ought to be, and were sure that somewhere, if they could but hit on it, it was. Naturally they never did hit on it...And the trouble with women, she thought, ...was that they insisted it should be kept up, and exactly at that pitch, and when it wasn't, they stuffed out what was left of it with their own illusions... 212

For seven years now the reading aloud had been of (boring) excavations, and she didn't suppose he would emerge from them again. 175 (At the beginning of the relationship he read poetry, then Dante in Italian)

Ecstasy can't be kept up for ever; something much better takes its place--infinitely better, she assured herself; and then sat and wondered what it was. 170

...her mind was whipped free of that foolish, long-drawn-out dream of being loved, and of trusting, and of supposing she mattered. 211

Social Expectations and Respectability

Love must either begin or end in propriety if there is to be any peace, thought Milly...

How good she looked. Mr. Jenkyns disliked her more than ever. That she should look good when she wasn't was an outrage. 150

Ah, if she ever met a sinner, how kind she would be, how uncritical! And then she reflected that perhaps she was always meeting sinners, only they had been cleverer than she had, and hadn't been found out. 152

No one in Titford...ever was divorced. It simply was unheard of. One wouldn't get a servant to stay with one. And fancy the leading family...being the one to start it and getting cut in the streets! 336

She knew in her bones that his god was respectability, and his standard bishops. 253

For sin too settles down, and becomes indistinguishable at last from virtue. Everything settles down. 171

Marriage, Men, Women

Women should shut up, or tell other women, or priests, or somebody, but not him. 225

George didn't like being kissed. He liked women who received, rather than who gave: women who waited. 235

A man... should never ask his wife what the matter is, in case she tells him. 310


The elderly Mrs Botts thinks her children's quarreling and getting emotional is a waste of time and use, if only they could be got to see it--just waste of time and emotions, poor things. But nothing would stop them once they began." 16

Milly, evasive, such an anxious compromiser at the mere scenting of a scene, such a quick giver-up in the face of demands, ... would so much rather be done than do. It seemed an outrage on something very delicate and brittle tucked away deep inside one, something that would get hurt much more by winning than by giving way, to fight. But perhaps that was a poor, abject way of looking at things. 159

She turned on herself ferociously, menacing the soft thing inside her which was trying to disgrace her. "You've got to behave," she furiously cried out to it. "You're not to start whimpering...190

Elizabeth von Arnim

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