…painting by Aleksey Savrasov, 1862
Elizabeth Von Arnim’s In the Mountains is a story about grief and the long, slow, uphill recovery from the terrible losses that war brings. In this book, the losses suffered by the main character are never explained. We only know that she was mired in darkness and despair for 5 years before we meet her in her Swiss mountain home. She has returned to her mountains to find a way to move beyond the unspeakable losses in her life, and, with courage, to find a way to “cure” herself and begin to live again.
The only thing to do with one’s old sorrows is to tuck them up neatly in their shroud and turn one’s face away from their grave towards what is coming next.
Her journey back to Life is an interesting and honest one. At first, the only thing she could do was to lie in the grass looking at the sky…for days at a time. Then, daily tasks become important. One day she organizes her books and says:
But it is impossible, I find, to tidy books without ending by sitting on the floor in the middle of a great untidiness and reading.”
She starts to keep a journal, writing for the old lady she will become, and records her thoughts and changing feelings.
I wonder why I write about these things. As if I didn’t know them! Why do I tell myself in writing what I already so well know? Don’t I know about the mountain, and the brimming cup of blue light? It is because, I suppose, it’s lonely to stay inside oneself. One has to come out and talk. And if there is no one to talk to one imagines someone, as though one were writing a letter to somebody who loves one, and who will want to know, with the sweet eagerness and solicitude of love, what one does and what the place one is in looks like. It makes one feel less lonely to think like this,–to write it down, as if to one’s friend who cares. For I’m afraid of loneliness; shiveringly, terribly afraid. I don’t mean the ordinary physical loneliness, for here I am, deliberately travelled away from London to get to it, to its spaciousness and healing. I mean that awful loneliness of spirit that is the ultimate tragedy of life. When you’ve got to that, really reached it, without hope, without escape, you die. You just can’t bear it, and you die.”
Her walks and time spent in the beauty of her mountains also help her recovery:
The whole of the walk to the larches, and the whole of the way back and all the time I was sitting there, what I felt was simply gratitude, gratitude for the beautiful past times I have had. I found I couldn’t help it. It was as natural as breathing. I wasn’t lonely. Everybody I have loved and shall never see again was with me. And all day, the whole of the wonderful day of beauty, I was able in that bright companionship to forget the immediate grief, the aching wretchedness, that brought me up here to my mountains as a last hope.
The story changes midway through the book when she meets two English sisters who were walking up her mountain to escape the heat of the city. She invites them to stay at her home, first to recover from their strenuous hike, but then to give them a safe place to stay instead of sending them back to the heat and poverty of the city below. She is forced, by having company, to leave her solitude, come out of herself and become social again. She realizes that she needs to be with people. It’s an interesting progression in her return to the land of the living, and not an easy one. The personalities of the two women are trying, and the relationship with them complicated, but she becomes very attached to both of them. And through those relationships, happiness returns to her life.
I came up my mountain three months ago, alone and so miserable, no vision was vouchsafed me that I would go down it again one of four people, each of whom would leave the little house full of renewed life, of restored hope, of wholesome looking-forward, clarified, set on their feet, made useful once more to themselves and the world.
Elizabeth Von Arnim is a writer with a huge heart, and her writing is truthful and timeless. She really has become one of my favorite authors, and I so look forward to reading more of her work.