Thursday 21 September 2023

Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

Meet Sally Pinner - the most beautiful young woman you're likely to meet. All her life Sally's looks have stopped people in their tracks, and attracted attention. Throughout her childhood she was kept quietly hidden away in the backrooms of her parents' shop, but now, as she's growing up, her widowed father doesn't know what to do to keep Sally safe from the men who flock around whenever she appears. At first he tries moving from London to a sleepy village near Cambridge, but even there the threat of her being 'discovered' by undergraduates gives him cause for alarm. 

Then one day, one of those very undergraduates, Jocelyn Luke, calls in at the shop, falls head over heels in love, and proposes. To Mr Pinner this is an ideal way to solve the issue of Sally's safety - get someone else to look after her. She and Jocelyn will marry and all will be well - but having fallen for Sally's looks Jocelyn discovers that there were perhaps other things he should have considered. Sally's conversation, education, and manner of speech are all an embarrassment to him - plus he now realises the stir that Sally creates everywhere, and that he is the one to keep such unwanted attention at bay.
Meanwhile, back in her refined but tiny home, Jocelyn's widowed mother has a not-quite romantic entanglement of her own. Her distress at hearing of her only son's marriage and the possible throwing away of his bright academic future led to her accepting a marriage proposal from her undoubtedly rich, but not quite of her class, neighbour. Can she really tolerate his free and easy manners and turns of speech?

Introduction to Sally was first published in 1926, and, although we probably think we're above such matters these days, I feel we all love a comedy which laughs at our perceptions of, and about, class - think of Henry Higgins trying to teach Eliza Doolittle to speak 'proper English', or, more recently, wannabe social-climber Hyacinth Bucket.  There's certainly more than a touch of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady in this comedy of manners as Jocelyn and his mother attempt to improve Sally's speech, but she is no Eliza Doolittle, and refuses to hear the difference between her words and theirs. Sally has her own ideas about how to behave well (a husband doesn't dump his new bride with his mother and go and live elsewhere, and he certainly shouldn't swear) and won't tolerate anyone contradicting her. 
Von Arnim is probably best known for The Enchanted April which, although it has its humorous moments and ironic observations, isn't as thoroughly funny in the way of Introduction to Sally;  from the crowds who flock to gaze adoringly at Sally, the loss of luggage from the back of the car and its subsequent retrieval, to Mr Pinner's obsession with keeping Sally 'safe' the humour ranges from sly wit to farce. As with the best comedy scriptwriters, von Arnim has the knack of highlighting the short-comings of her characters while still leading the reader to become fond of them. I think it's rather a pity that there were no follow-ups to this Introduction, for a I suspect Sally would have triumphed over prejudice every time 


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