The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim is perhaps best known for The Enchanted April (1922), a delightful novel in which four very different English women come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera. It’s a book I love for its wonderful sense of escapism, where lives are reassessed and transformed. There is a hint of transformation too in The Caravaners (1909), but more of that later…

First and foremost, The Caravaners is a satire of the highest order, not least because the novel’s narrator – the German baron, Otto von Ottringel – is a colossal ass; a pompous, insufferable individual with absolutely no self-awareness.

The focus here is a summer holiday, ostensibly to mark Otto’s silver wedding anniversary. (The fact that Otto has only been married to his current wife, Edelgard, for five years is somewhat irrelevant. He’s already ‘banked’ nearly twenty years of marriage to wife number one, giving him twenty-five years in total, hence the celebration.) At first, there is talk of a trip to Switzerland or Italy; but when one of the von Ottringels’ friends, the genial widow Frau von Eckthum, extols the benefits of the horse-drawn caravan, Otto and Edelgard are enticed. While Edelgard is drawn to rose-tinted visions of a bohemian experience, Otto sees the caravan holiday more in monetary terms – a relatively cheap option compared to staying in a hotel.

So, the vacation is agreed: Otto and Edelgard will accompany Frau von Eckthum on a four-week caravanning holiday through the countryside of Kent. Also joining the group are Frau von Eckthum’s sister, the perceptive Mrs Menzies-Legh, and her husband, Mr M-L; two young women whom Otto dismissively refers to as ‘fledgelings’ and ‘nondescripts’; and two Englishmen – Jellaby, a socialist MP, and Browne, who plans to go into the Church.

Right from the start, Otto is shown to be egotistical, misogynistic and conceited. He believes that a wife’s first duty is to be submissive. She must be there to tend to her husband’s every need, to be seen and not heard, to be grateful and dutiful. Opinions are permissible now and again, but only if they are likely to be met with approval.

After a time I agreed. Not immediately, of course, for a reasonable man will take care to consider the suggestions made by his wife from every point of view before consenting to follow them or allowing her to follow them. Women do not reason: they have instincts; and instincts would land them in strange places sometimes if it were not that their husbands are there to illuminate the path for them and behave, if one may so express it, as a kind of guiding and very clever glow-worm. (p. 3)

The trip itself is highly comical, especially when related through Otto’s eyes. While other members of the group take delight in the novelty of the caravans, Otto finds the conditions cramped and uncomfortable – to the point where he longs for the more civilised environment of the hotel where one can be waited on hand and foot. Mucking in with menial jobs is beneath him, leading to a plethora of amusing scenes where simple tasks such as lighting fires or washing dishes prove either baffling or bothersome.   

No shelter; no refuge; no rest. These three negatives, I take it, sum up fairly accurately a holiday in a caravan. (p. 123)

Moreover, the weather is not what Otto was expecting from an idyllic English summer, leading to battles with lashing rain, swirling winds and damp fields. Manoeuvring the caravans into camps for the night also proves something of a challenge, especially when there are narrow gates and molehills to be negotiated…

So the Elsa [the von Ottringels’ caravan] in her turn heaved away, guided anxiously by me over the mole heaps, every mole heap being greeted by our pantry as we passed over it with a thunderous clapping together of its contents, as though the very cups, being English, were clapping their hands, or rather handles, in an ecstasy of spiteful pleasure at getting broken and on to my bill. (p. 88)

There are other annoyances for Otto too, from the scarcity of proper food – cold potatoes and cabbage make all too frequent appearances on the camp menu – to the behaviour of other members of the group. Von Arnim has a lot of fun with the cultural differences between the Germans and the English here, particularly around Otto’s attitudes to Browne and Jellaby. As an officer in the Prussian army, Otto considers himself superior to most of his companions. At first, he is exceptionally curt with Browne, dismissing the aspiring pastor as a complete non-entity – a view he swiftly revises once it becomes apparent that the Englishman is in fact a Lord. As for Jellaby, he is to be roundly ostracised, especially given the radical nature of his politics.

What von Arnim does so well here is to let the reader see how Otto is perceived by those around him, even though the novel is narrated entirely through the baron’s eyes. (The narrative does include some snatches of dialogue, but these are all presented within Otto’s recollections of the trip.) Mr Menzies-Legh, for instance, finds Otto insufferable, to the point where he makes himself scarce as soon as the baron appears on the horizon. Naturally, Otto is completely oblivious to any of this…

Menzies-Legh got up and went away. It was characteristic of him that he seemed always to be doing that. I hardly ever joined him but he was reminded by my approach of something he ought to be doing and went away to do it. I mentioned this to Edelgard during the calm that divided one difference of opinion from another, and she said he never did that when she joined him. (p. 151)

As for the transformation I referred to earlier, it is Edelgard who experiences something of an awakening. Encouraged by the influence of Frau von Eckthum and Mrs Menzies-Legh, Edelgard begins to adopt a more liberated approach to life, a development that Otto notes with clear displeasure.

Besides, I was rooted to the bench by amazement at her extraordinary appearance. No wonder she was not to be seen when duty ought to have kept her at my side helping me with the horse. She had not walked one of those five hot miles. She had been sitting in the caravan, busily cutting her skirt short, altering her hair, and transforming herself into as close a copy as she could manage of Mrs Menzies-Legh and her sister. (p. 76)

Mrs Menzies-Legh is particularly perceptive when it comes to Otto’s lack of appreciation for Edelgard. While conversing with the baron, she subtly draws attention to Edelgard’s many qualities – her unselfishness, astuteness and cheerful temperament – all aspects that Otto has failed to recognise or value in his wife.

‘Look how cheerful she [Edelgard] is.’

I bowed again.

‘And how clever, dear Baron.’

Clever? That indeed was a new way of looking at poor Edelgard. I could not at this repress a smile of amusement. ‘I am gratified that you should have so good an opinion of my wife,’ I said; and wished much to add, ‘But what is my wife to you that you should take it upon yourself to praise her? Is she not solely and exclusively my property?’ (p. 177)

During the trip, there are instances when Edelgard asserts herself in front of Otto, displaying elements of Bartleby-esque behaviour in the face of petty requests. It’s a cheering sight to see, but one wonders how long this transformation can be maintained, especially once the von Ottringels return to the suffocating atmosphere of their home in Germany.

In short, The Caravaners is a brilliantly-written novel, one that casts a sharply satirical eye over such subjects as misogyny, class differences, power dynamics in marriage and Anglo-German relations during the early 20th century. Plus, of course, the delights and follies of caravanning in the inclement British weather. I absolutely loved it. 

The Caravaners is published by Handheld Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

47 thoughts on “The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. madamebibilophile

    It is so clever to have the story told from Otto’s point of view yet still show the others true feelings towards him. EvA really is extraordinarily good. I’ve not read this but it’s definitely on the list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Exactly! It’s done in such a way that let’s the reader in on the joke. So, even though the signals are somewhat indirect, we’re left in absolutely no doubt about how Otto is perceived by the other members of the group. I think you’ll have a ball with this whenever you get a chance to read it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There are some hints about that towards the end, so much so that I fear for Edelgard’s future happiness. A conscious move on von Arnim’s part, I suspect…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fabulous! It’s so cleverly done. There are some very important messages about the dynamics between husbands and wives in this novel, a point that makes me wonder how was received at the time (back in 1909)…

      Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    Interesting that she narrates from the husband’s (insufferable) pov; also that it was published just a few years before WWI (just looked it up), so those Anglo-German tensions are particularly resonant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the timing’s very interesting as anti-German sentiments were probably already apparent in Britain back then. I think von Arnim must have been living in London by the time of the novel’s publication in 1909 (following the imprisonment of her first husband for fraud in 1907).

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post Jacqui. It’s such a cleverly written book, isn’t it? As you pick out, the way she lets Otto reveal himself and lets the reader see how he’s perceived by everyone else is quite brilliant. He really is a monstrous man and I admit to having wanted to slap him at several points in the book! I did hope Edelgard would manage to retain some sense of freedom but I wonder if that would be possible in the stultifying society she was returning to… :(

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely brilliant. The precision is wonderful, and I love the way EvA lets the reader in on the joke, even though Otto remains completely oblivious to it. There’s a very impressive single-mindedness to the narrative, a clarity on the part of the author about what she is aiming to achieve with that portrait of Otto. It’s a great piece of writing!

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Super commentary on this book.

    Otto von Ottringel sounds like a great literary creation. It is something about how horrible people make such wonderful fictional creations. They can also be very funny.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I really think you would enjoy this, Brian. There’s a touch of Jane Austen about this, the combination of intelligence and wit that characterises her work.

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    Sacrilege I know since it’s Elizabeth von Arnim, but there might be a small part of me imagining this as a classic crime story with a closed circle of suspects who have been tempted to put something nasty in the Baron’s tea…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s brilliant in that respect, largely due to the subtlety of the characterisation, I suspect. Mrs M-L plays it just right – sufficiently incisive to home in on the baron’s misjudgements but suitably controlled in the way she points them out.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Fabulous review, I so enjoyed this one too. Von Arnim is so good at allowing everyone including the reader to see Otto for what he is, while portraying him as completely unaware of himself. Edelgard’s awakening is brilliant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I can’t tell you how much I loved this, especially as a pick-me-up lockdown read. As Simon indicates above, EvA judges this so cleverly. In the hands of a more ‘direct’ (or less nuanced) writer, this kind of scenario could have been overly dramatic or grotesque. Thankfully, it stops well short of that.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s terrific fun! I’m trying to think of another similarly insufferable but oblivious characters in literature. Maybe Kenneth Widmerpool from Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time? KW is more complex than the baron, but there are a few similarities, for sure.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It really is a hoot. Just the thing for a miserable, rainy day. Oh and it’s actually earlier than the 1920s. EvA’s Enchanted April was published in 1922, but The Caravaners had already been around for some 13 years by then. Caravanning Edwardian style, so to speak!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! Can you imagine anyone thinking that it would be appropriate to do this? It tells us pretty much everything we need to know about Otto from the word go.

      Reply
  7. Jonathan

    Sounds excellent. I’m sure I would like, as a character, but would hate as a person, Otto. I still haven’t read ‘Enchanted April’ even though it really appeals to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s such a hoot. I think you would likely enjoy this, Jonathan. As you say, Otto is great value on the page, but not someone you’d want to encounter in real life!

      Reply
  8. Claire (The Captive Reader)

    A wonderful review of an excellent book. I love von Arnim and delight in her skill but it’s that skill that makes this book almost too painful for me to read. Otto is insufferable and I sympathize with everyone who has to share their vacation with him but I spent the entire time I was reading this squirming with embarrassment for him. Even as awful as he is, I find the situations he obliviously finds himself in so exquisitely awkward that I can barely read them. It shows von Arnim’s talent but what a challenge it is for me to read all the way through to the end!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Yes, I can see what you mean. There’s an excruciatingly painful aspect to several of Otto’s reflections and pronouncements, largely as a result his total lack of self-awareness. What a challenge he would be to deal with in real life, especially as various attempts to counteract his pomposity seem to fall on deaf ears!

      Reply
  9. Max Cairnduff

    It sounds excellent, and very clever. I’m not familiar with Handheld Press so that’s interesting too. I’ll look out for this.

    It’s funny, I find with Enchanted April it can be hard to say quite why it works so well, since in a sense so very little happens. It’s a measure of von Arnim’s skill.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the amount of skill involved really comes through here, particularly in the way she allows the reader to see exactly how Otto is perceived by others. Even though it’s patently obvious to the reader, there’s a degree of subtlety to it, as in the passage on Otto’s interpretation of Menzies-Legh’s ‘disappearances’ above…

      As for Handheld, they’re worth a look. It’s mostly rediscovered/underappreciated gems from the past – both fiction and non-fiction. Quite a few women writers, too. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rose Macaulay and John Buchan, to name but a few.

      Reply
  10. buriedinprint

    The handling of perspective sounds quite extraordinary (and maybe a bit out of character for EvA, which I say although I do love several of her books and have long considered her a favourite). This is one that I tried last summer and just couldn’t get on with, but I knew it must be a matter of my mood, and now I am even more sure that was the case.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Timing can be a tricky thing to get right. I recall having to persevere with David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet before I was able to get into it in any depth. Oddly enough, it’s probably my favourite of his novels, but it definitely took me a while to find the ‘right’ moment. Hopefully you’ll be able to click with The Caravaners at some point in the future!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! Isn’t it funny how we can find these strange contemporary resonances in novels that are more than 100 years old? I thought the same thing as I was reading a review of Rose Macaulay’s Potterism the other day. It was published in 1920, but there are elements in the satire that still feel relevant today.

      Reply
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  12. Caroline

    This sounds terrific. Definitely something I would like to read. Wasnt her own husband a bit of an Otto? I seem to rememeber a similar character in Elizabeth and her German Garden. I haven’t read enough of her but mostly liked what I read. The Pastor’s Wife is very good too. The Enchanted April is wonderful.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think he was! Although the introduction does make it clear that the baron isn’t a direct stand-in for EvA’s first husband. I guess he’s more a representation of a particular sector of German society at the time, possibly exaggerated for effect?

      Reply

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