If I were allowed just two words to describe this novel I would say it is “charmingly delightful!”
Set during the early 20th century, Priscilla is a princess of an unmentioned German kingdom. Unlike her two sisters she is supposed to be the model of a perfect princess. But within the closed quarters of her schoolroom, Professor Fritzing instills in this royal heart, a desire for freedom, to explore their ideals. Princess Priscilla is not happy with her lot, though no one (save the professor) suspects. She dreams of escape. And escape she does, when her wedding is fixed to a prince from a neighbouring kingdom. Priscilla, her old professor and a maid flee the palace one quiet afternoon when fortune smiles upon the fugitives, and they make their way to England. From there, they find themselves in a small, happy village that possesses just the ideal cottage Priscilla has her heart set on. The rest of the story follows Priscilla’s adventures in this little village, all of them brought about through her unwitting ignorance.
The whole story is written with such a whimsical air. I simply loved Von Arnim’s style. It was such a pleasure to read – light-hearted, with a strong streak of humour and gentle satire. I found myself laughing aloud so often!
The novel is not without its didactic side; as the author herself tells us in the narrative, But Priscilla's story has taken such a hold on me, it seemed when first I heard it to be so full of lessons, that I feel bound to set it down from beginning to end for the use and warning of all persons, princesses and others, who think that by searching, by going far afield, they will find happiness, and do not see that it is lying all the while at their feet. They do not see it because it is so close. It is so close that there is a danger of its being trodden on or kicked away. And it is shy, and waits to be picked up.
And yet I could not accuse the writer of being preachy for she is most subtle in her method inspite, well, of not being subtle about her intentions. Recall that I described this novel as charmingly delightful – it was because of the writer’s very style. I have recently finished a novel by Dickens and am half way through one by Edith Wharton. Like the first, von Arnim takes the reader to a window to look through, but unlike Dickens, she does not make you feel like a stranger merely looking in, you become a part of Priscilla’s growing soul: and like Wharton, her narrative is full of satire, but unlike Wharton she does not demand that you see things the way she does; there is much food for thought.
The story itself is much reminiscent of Roman Holiday, more particularly in Princess Priscilla’s role that is much like the princess-role of Audrey Hepburn in the movie. Was the simple life a sordid life as well? Did it only look simple from outside and far away? And was it, close, mere drudging? A fear came over her that her soul, her precious soul, for whose sake she had dared everything, instead of being able to spread its wings in the light of a glorious clear life was going to be choked out of existence by weeds just as completely as at Kunitz.
Princess Priscilla is enjoying her freedom, unaware that it is the money that she has backing her up that allows her to dream. But things start getting stark ugly when she and the professor run out of every last penny they have. Herein lies one of the lessons – ideals are easy when there’s food in the stomach. He had not told Priscilla a word of his money difficulties, his idea being to keep every cloud from her life as long and as completely as possible.
The reason they seem to run out of money so quickly is because the old professor doesn’t want to burden his princess with the state of their finances. Thus, with her being wholly unaware that they are fast sinking into poverty, she gives money like it grew on trees. Lesson two – communication is the key point to anything working out successfully. "Lose it? She has stolen it. Do you not see you have deliberately made a thief out of an honest girl?"
Priscilla gazed in dismay at the avenging vicar's wife.
It was true then, and she had the fatal gift of spoiling all she touched.
"And worse than that—you have brought a good girl to ruin. He'll never marry her now."
"Do you not know the person she was engaged to has gone with her?"
And then, as a result of her free ways with money a robbery and a murder take place in the little village. Lesson number three – even among the poor money needs to be earned honestly and accordingly for free handouts are sure to lead to ruin.
I am sure, along the way, that one is bound to pick up other such little lessons that might strike one. But, you are not to be daunted by all this. You can’t be. The writer simply does not allow it. She does not judge, she does not particularly comment. As she herself says, Now how can I, weak vessel whose only ballast is a cargo of interrogations past which life swirls with a thunder of derisively contradictory replies, pretend to say whether Priscilla ought to have had conscience qualms or not? Am I not deafened by the roar of answers, all seemingly so right yet all so different, that the simplest question brings? And would not the answering roar to anything so complicated as a question about conscience-qualms deafen me for ever? I shall leave the Princess, then, to run away from her home and her parent if she chooses, and make no effort to whitewash any part of her conduct that may seem black. I shall chronicle, and not comment. I shall try to, that is, for comments are very dear to me.
But, by the situations described, you can’t help but notice that there is something didactic in all of that charming writing. Don't let that unman you though, Von Arnim is a delightful discovery - entertaining, full of life and fun, and not without a serious side.