When Simon emailed and said, do you want to do an Elizabeth Von Arnim readalong? I said YES PLEASE it’s about time I read some more Elizabeth Von Arnim, after reading The Enchanted April nearly two years ago and loving it. Isn’t it awful how time flies and you do none of the things you intend on doing? I’ve managed to buy plenty of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s books, but read them? Apparently I’ve been too busy doing other things! Thankfully the New York Public Library had a copy of The Caravaners, the title we agreed upon reading, and I started it not really knowing what to expect. I found a book so hilarious and cleverly written that I am now a Von Arnim fan for life. The story of a mixed band of well to do German and English friends and acquaintances taking a caravan holiday across Kent and Sussex is narrated by one of the most wonderfully obnoxious men I have ever come across in literature – Baron Otto Von Ottringe – whose ridiculous, pompous and entirely oblivious statements of his own brilliance compared to that of his fellow travellers cannot help but leave you in stitches. Here is an example:
‘Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak, on every table, and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays, and combines being useful with being dumb.’
Otto is an officer of the Prussian Army and likes his life to be run in an orderly fashion. The way he does things is the right way, and any other way is, of course, wrong. Women were made to please and pamper men, and to be quiet when not needed by their husbands or relatives. Otto’s opinions are, according to him, completely sensible, reasonable, and practical, and anyone who opposes him is a fool or delinquent, who must surely appreciate being clearly shown the errors of their ways. Otto lives in a small German town, in a neat and tidy flat, with his young second wife Edelgard, who it is perfectly obvious Otto doesn’t love – he is incapable of such an emotion – and who is the model of Otto’s vision of the good German wife – quiet, subservient, and malleable to his will. He does not mourn his first wife, but simply views her and Edelgard as the same thing – a personage whose presence in his life is necessary to make him more comfortable. So little does he distinguish between the two as people, that on the 25th anniversary of his married life – the length of his first and second marriages together – he decides that he and Edelgard will go on a celebratory holiday. When Edelgard protests that they have not been married for 25 years, Otto soon brings her round to his opinion, and they plan a holiday to Italy. However, Frau von Eckhart, a local widowed beauty with a progressive nature and a sister married to an Englishwoman, suggests that they join her and her sister on a caravaning holiday in the English countryside instead. Otto, who is tight as a drum and fancies the pants off the good Frau, decides that, as the trip will be cheaper than going to Italy, and will enable him to flirt with the tiny footed, soft voiced Frau, that he and Edelgard will indeed join the caravaning party for a month, and so off they go.
The book is written in the form of Otto’s journal of the trip, which he intends on reading aloud to friends for entertainment. As such, his viewpoint is all we see, though his notes of how others react to him make it perfectly clear to the reader that his fellow caravaners cannot stand him. On arrival in England, the German party meets up with the English; the Frau’s sister, her husband, two male friends and two young nieces. The English men are far too lazy and effeminate for Otto’s tastes, and the Frau’s sister far too outspoken. Before long Otto is throwing his weight around and appalling everyone with his sexist, right wing, ignorant opinions, and Edelgard is rebelling under the influence of her radical German friends. On top of all this, it is perpetually cold and wet, there is no food, the caravans are not as comfortable as the publicity brochure had them believe, and no one is there to care for Otto’s needs. His grumblings, misunderstandings, attempts to improve everyone, and shock at Edelgard’s newfound independence are hilarious to read, and especially more so as he has absolutely no idea of how his pompous attitude has repelled every member of his travelling party.
Von Arnim’s writing is wonderfully witty, clever, nuanced and tongue in cheek – it merits close reading to fully appreciate its depth and humour. The characters are brought effortlessly to life and Otto especially is a divine creation – horrible, but wonderful at the same time. However, underneath the witty surface is a serious message about the subordination of women and abusive marriages, which Otto and Edelgard’s certainly is. Edelgard is belittled and bullied, and treated like a child by Otto. When she refuses to do as she is told, then she is ignored or severly reprimanded, and Otto never thinks of her comfort or happiness unless it happens to coincide with his own. While in England, under the influence of her two progressive, outspoken, educated friends, who are not hindered by husbands like Otto, Edelgard sees the light, and that she has a right to independence, and an opinion of her own. Otto is shocked and appalled by her refusal to tend to his every need, but the reader cannot help but cheer at her tart responses to Otto’s ridiculous demands. However, at the end of the holiday, the two must, of course, return home, and Otto notes that Edelgard is beginning to turn back to her old subservient ways after a few months. Initially I was horrified at this, and it gave the book a rather sour ending for me. Obviously I didn’t expect miracles, but for Edelgard to have had that freedom, only to meekly turn back to Otto and his demands, was incredibly frustrating. However, thinking on it, I wonder whether this is Von Arnim’s wit at work. Otto is so blind to anything outside of his own viewpoint that Edelgard could be subverting his authority in any number of ways without him noticing. I think her taste of independence has given her a strength Otto doesn’t see, and though he thinks she is reverting back into being the doormat he thinks all women should be, I doubt very much that is Edelgard’s intention. Von Arnim’s depiction of marriage and how damaging it can be for women is autobiographical, and I am delighted that she managed to break free. Her ability to mock Otto’s behaviour and show an alternative to submitting to a husband who is abusive is wonderful considering what she went through in her own marriage, and left me with a great respect for her as a woman. I can’t wait to read more of her books.