The Caravaners by Elizabeth Von Arnim

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.

Simon and Claire are joining in on this readalong, but haven’t posted yet – so stay tuned for their reviews!

34 comments

  1. I could not STAND this book and had to abandon it a third of the way through. It was like being entrapped in the mind of Mr. Collins while being tied down with scratchy vines. She’s usually such an enchanting author but this time she hit every one of my “toss that book” buttons. I grant you it’s funny but as a Jewish feminist I’ll get my humor elsewhere…

    1. Diana, I can completely understand – initially I wondered whether I’d be able to continue but the sheer comedy of other people’s reactions to him – which he was oblivious to – kept me going. To create that great a loathing in a reader is a rare talent indeed! His misogyny and antisemitism are truly disgusting – so I appreciate your toss reaction!

    2. Oh, Diana, I must confess myself surprised – I’d have thought a Jewish feminist would be the ideal reader to enjoy lampooning anti-Semitic misogynists absolutely. But you never can tell!

    1. Yes, her humour is something rare indeed – her wit and wry style is just irresistible. I can’t wait to read more, and I’m glad you have The Caravaners ready and waiting!

  2. I haven’t read any of von Arnim yet, so I really appreciate the review and will look forward to reading Claire and Simon’s thoughts as well. The picture is wonderful – and the second picture of a caravan I’ve seen this week. Serendipity?πŸ™‚

    1. You have some exciting discoveries ahead of you, Susan, I promise! I think that might indeed be serendipity – someone out there wants you to read The Caravaners!πŸ˜‰

  3. Oh I love von Arnim … have read around 5 of her books but not this one which is, I think, on my Kindle now. I hope to get to it in the not too distant future.

    The thing I love most about her is her acerbic wit. She is funny but with a serious undertone. I find that irresistible – it’t why, really, I also like Jane Austen.

    1. You are exactly right – her wit is a mask for a serious message, and she doesn’t shy away from making some very radical points about male/female relations, and about her husband!

      She is very Austen-like, actually, now you mention it – it’s all about the nuances of conversation. I love her writing and I want to read everything! Read The Caravaners soon!

  4. Hahahah, when I read that quote from Baron Otto Von Ottringe it totally reminded me of Ursula’s song in The Little Mermaid — you know “The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber, they think a girl who gossips is a bore! Yes on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word and after all, dear, what is idle chatter for?”

    Also, this sounds delightful. I’ve been hearing about Elizabeth von Armin for a while now and I’ve been dragging my heels for some reason. I love a diary format! If you have a chance to return it to the library any time soon….πŸ˜€

    1. Brilliant, Jenny! Only you could draw such a comparison!πŸ˜€

      You would love her – I’m returning the Caravaners tonight so look out for it!!

  5. This sounds like a hoot, Rachel. Tongue in cheek, I shall find it sometime soon and see all about Edelgard and how she changes. I have known women who seem subservient and really aren’t, they have just learned how to manipulate their husbands to get what they want. Edelgard reminds me of them. Not a marriage I would want to be in, but, not my job to judge.

    I loved Enchanted April and think this might be another one to cozy up to.

    1. I think you’d really enjoy this Penny, though it might rile you up at the same time, so be warned! Oh yes – I am sure Edelgard was all about manipulating – Otto is so dense he wouldn’t have a clue what was going on! I hope you manage to get to it soon, and also try some other Von Arnims – knowing how much you love your gardens, I’m sure her German Garden and Solitary Summer books would be perfect for you!

  6. This seems to be a bit of a marmite book, judging by the reactions above and also judging by Claire’s first impressions. I was in the loved it camp – it seemed very much like 3 Men in a boat in some ways, and it was so different from Enchanted April. or perhaps it wasn’t – for Arnim, it always seems to be about the women, the men are subsiduary, or characters of fun, or women are just better off without them.

    1. Yes it does – I adored it but I can see why people would want to throw it across the room! I think Enchanted April has some similar themes, but she is far kinder to the husbands than she is in The Caravaners!

  7. Wonderful review, as always, which left me desperate to read this book. I was reminded of Oswald, the narrator of ‘The Treasure Seekers’, whose ideas and identity came through so strongly, even though he thought he was anonymous!πŸ™‚ He, of course, was a nice wee boy, not a chauvenistic, arrogant man.

    I have ‘Enchanted April’ just waiting to slide gently off my TBR bookcase and into my eager hands, on Friday. (1st april, of course! I have to read it in the correct month! :))

    1. Thank you Penny! I am sure you would love this -and thoroughly enjoy getting cross at Otto!

      Oh you will adore The Enchanted April – it’s such a beautiful book! I wish I had my copy with me to open on April 1st!

  8. Wait … you haven’t read Elizabeth and her German Garden yet? That’s actually the only von Arnim I’ve read, but I loved it and found a similar type of wit and an undercurrent about subordination. Plus it’s enchanting.

    Great review!

    1. No, I haven’t Laura – I know, shameful! But I WILL get around to it just as soon as I can! You should read more Von Arnim! Glad you enjoyed the review!πŸ™‚

  9. I keep looking at Von Arnim novels and wanting to read them, but haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. This review definitely makes me want to try her. This novel sounds so funny and intelligent at the same time that I think I would absolutely adore reading it. I love the idea of her narrative style. This book will definitely be going on the TBR list and Von Arnim will be going on my authors I must read soon list.

  10. How provoking! Didn’t you ever feel like throwing the book across the room? – not that I can picture you abusing a book.

    I once met a sweet German girl at a party, married to an Englishman, who discovered, due to our conversation, that normally English men don’t expect their wives to polish their shoes every day. She was continuing her mother’s practices and of course he let her. We had great fun teasing him about this fraudulent behaviour – and she adjusted her ideas of the ideal wife!

    A bit late in the day, I’m in the middle of reading The Joy of Eating. Such a rich treasure of extracts – thank you so much for the recommendation.

    1. I did at several points, yes – but I kept going, because watching Otto becoming more and more deluded was so hilarious! And yes, of course – I wouldn’t want to damage a book. Especially not a library book!

      How funny! I’m glad you were able to set the poor girl straight!! Cultural differences can be so interesting!

      I think that’s a Darlene recommendation actually, so I can’t take credit for it – but so glad you are enjoying it!πŸ™‚

  11. You did it again Rachael. You put more books on my list to find and read. I love your description of Otto and Edelgard. I always enjoy characters that are a little over the top. It reminds me of a good situation comedy on TV. The characters are great fun to read about or watch but I wouldn’t want to hang around with them. In real life they would be obnoxious but it is fun to be able to observe from a neutral position. Thanks for another review tempting me to a whole new bunch of books.

    1. Oh, I’m delighted to hear that, Janet! A situation comedy is a perfect way to describe this – though there is a rather more serious undercurrent – and I totally agree – I couldn’t stomach Otto in real life, but on paper, he is hilarious! I hope you manage to find a copy soon and enjoy it as much as I did.πŸ™‚

  12. What a wonderful review, Rachel! I shouldn’t have read it before I write my own, as I shan’t be able to live up to this… you’ve captured everything I loved about the book. SO, so different from The Enchanted April, but just as brilliant, I think.

    1. Oh, Simon! You flatter me!πŸ™‚ I can’t wait for your review – which I know will be marvellous – and I’m so glad you thought the same as me!

  13. Isn’t Simon lovely, he’s wonderful at bringing people together. Enough gushing…I adore sarcastic wit so this book sounds like it would be a fun read. But hopefully that dolt, Otto, gets his in the end! This book proved to be elusive during my recent book-finding expeditions but in the meantime, I have von Arnim’s, Love, on my shelf for when the mood strikes. Looking forward to reading your reading partners thoughts!

    1. He is indeed, bless his heart! Darlene, this would get your back up but you would love it in the end, I am certain…the English countryside setting would have you in a swoon! I have Love too…unread…I will read more Von Arnim eventually, I’ve been collecting her books like nobody’s business but not reading her…this has to change as now I am totally convinced of her magnificence!

  14. I love Elizabeth Von Armin’s books. I have read “Enchanted April,” “Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” and “Mr. Skeffington.” I agree with several of your readers, she is witty with a serious undertone and very smart about the relationships between women and men. I will now look for “The Caravaners.”

    1. I’m glad you have already discovered Von Arnim, and I’m certain that you’ll love The Caravaners as you’ve already enjoyed her other books so much. She’s such a clever writer and I so enjoy her wit – I haven’t laughed out loud while reading in quite some time! I hope you manage to read this soon and that you like it as much as I did!

  15. I read this book just before Christmas and must admit to having problems with it. It’s the first Von Arnim I’ve read where I thought she might have been a quite an unpleasent person. I also really struggled with the idea that her new friends just abandoned Edelgard to the clutches of her horrible husband. I ended up thinking that her fate would be much the same as that of the previous wife.

    Do read ‘Vera’ though to get Von Arnim at her most disturbing and German Garden her at her warmest and best.

    1. Interesting. I’m intrigued that you think this book showed how Von Arnim was an unpleasant person – I got the opposite impression. Her sense of fun and belief in independence for women shone through the most for me. Yes, Edelgard is abandoned to her fate, but she has been encouraged and equipped, and the choice is hers to resist Otto or allow herself to be under his thumb. She doesn’t have to go back to the way she was.

      I have both Vera and the German Garden awaiting me and I can’t wait to read them now!

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