A novel which has been entirely overlooked and yet is by a well-known writer. Most of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels are in print with other publishers; yet Expiation, that we publish ninety years after its first appearance, has been ignored. Why? Well, the title (a synonym for atonement) is not very catchy. The theme is faintly shocking, or was in 1929, since the book is about adultery: a ‘happily married’ woman has, it transpires, for years been meeting her lover once a week. (This is not a plot spoiler as the reader learns this early on.) And, although nowadays we read the novel as a satire, at the time the characters and their milieu may have seemed rather tame. After all, the Botts are the backbone of ‘Titford’: ‘That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continuously increasing in prosperity…They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened.’ (This last sentence, on p. 2 of the novel, was what deliciously and instantly convinced us that this was a book for us.)
A satire of middle-class prudery and closed-minded cruelty, what was mostly ignored in the years after Expiation’s first publication was how laugh-out-loud hilarious it is, so funny that we genuinely believe it to be much better than the more well-known books by ‘Elizabeth’ (the name she wrote under). It is also extraordinarily atmospheric and perceptive about the English: in some respects it is Forsterian (the greatest compliment we can pay). It too would make a wonderful play or film. Finally, the effects of Milly’s behaviour are forensically explored and scrutinised, yet, in the end and upliftingly, the power of simple human kindness wins through.
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