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.