Rachel (Book Snob), Claire (Paperback Reader), and I were discussing – in the wake of Virago Reading Week, which gave so many ideas to so many of us – the fact that we hadn’t read nearly enough Elizabeth von Arnim. I think the most any of us had read was one – although all of us were pretty good at buying her novels. And so we hatched a plan to read The Caravaners (1909) together. I forget exactly how we chose that title in particular, but I’m glad we did. Rachel has already posted an exceptionally good review; Claire has stalled, I believe. I’m going for the better-late-than-never approach (since I’d foolishly agreed to post in the middle of My Life in Books week) and here are my thoughts about The Caravaners. Which, to get ahead of myself, I loved.
I’d only read The Enchanted April before (my thoughts here) which is light, bright, and sparkling and shouldn’t have worked, but did. It is all about the power of a holiday in a beautiful place to change people for the better. The Caravaners is not… or, at least, that happens quietly in the background, to a secondary character. Our narrator, chronicling his trip, is Baron Otto von Ottringe. He’s not, shall we say, a charmer. He has forthright views on the subordinate position of women, the need for the German army to quash England (I misread ‘1909’ as ‘1919’ at first, on the title page, and was rather shocked – this novel would not have been published a decade later), and basically every opinion that differs from his own being nigh-on heretical. And, naturally, it is a duty and a joy to instruct others about their errors – Otto anticipates that such instruction will be gratefully received each time.
All in all, Otto isn’t the ideal holiday companion – but the lure of the company of a pretty woman convinces him to leave Germany and go on a month’s caravaning holiday in England. It is to help celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary – his current wife Edelgard, true, has only been his betrothed for a handful of years, but when you add that to the duration of his previous marriage to Marie-Luise…
I fail to see why I should be deprived of every benefit of such a celebration, for have I not, with an interruption of twelve months forced upon me, been actually married twenty-five years? […] Edelgard seemed at first unable to understand, but she was very teachable, and gradually found my logic irresistible. Indeed, once she grasped the point she was even more strongly of the opinion than I was that something ought to be done to mark the occasion, and quite saw that if Marie-Luise failed me it was not my fault, and that I at least had done my part and gone on steadily being married ever since.You begin to see the sort of man with whom we are dealing. A lot of novelists in the early-20th century (and still today) incorporate a ridiculous character into their work. Someone whose opinions and manner are absurd but possible, and who is there to have his views held up for ridicule, or fond laughter, depending on the situation. It takes a brave author to make this kind of self-delusional character the narrator. The novel inevitably becomes two-layered: the character’s voice on top, and the reality that the author wants you to see, behind that. Perhaps the most famous example is Diary of a Nobody; my favourite is Joyce Dennys’ Economy Must Be Our Watchword. At first I thought Otto was a Pooter-esque character, but it soon become clear that he wasn’t. Pooter is absurd, but we can’t help loving him. Otto is reprehensible and obnoxious – even the most charitable reader is unlikely to develop a fondness for him. And that’s what makes The Caravaners so delicious to read – he is constantly lampooned by his own words. I know at least one reader who tossed the book aside because of Otto’s character – but I think the more you disagree with his misogynistic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, arrogant, selfish, militaristic standpoint, the more you will love watching Otto being mocked by von Arnim and naively unaware of his unpopularity. He is SO unself-aware, and yet it is somehow believable that he would be! I loved this sort of thing:
It is the knowledge that I am really so good-humoured that principally upsets me when Edelgard or other circumstances force me into a condition of vexation unnatural to me. I do not wish to be vexed. I do not wish ever to be disagreeable. And it is, I thin, downright wrong of people to force a human being who does not wish it to be so.
I haven’t even introduced you to the other members of the caravaning holiday. Frau von Eckthum is the beautiful woman whose company persuaded Otto to consider the holiday:
I know she is different from the type of woman prevailing in our town, the plan, flat-haired, tightly buttoned up, God-fearing wife and mother, who looks up to her husband and after her children, and is extremely intelligent in the kitchen and not at all intelligent out of it. I know that this is the type that has made our great nation what it is, hoisting it up on ample shoulders to the first place in the world, and I know that we would have to request heaven to help us if we ever changed it. But – she is an attractive lady.It is conversations between Otto and Frau von E which most enjoyably reveal his self-delusion. He acknowledges that his lengthy expositions on all matters political and social meet only with the iterated reply “Oh?” – but into that syllable Otto reads approval, admiration, docility, and agreement. The reader, needless to say, does not.
Other members of the party include Lord Sidge, who is entering the church (Otto is the most unashamed snob, and treats Sidge rather differently when he learns about the Lord part) and Jellaby, a Socialist. It was in his interactions with Jellaby that I had my moments of sympathy with Otto. Not on a political standpoint, I must add, but because whenever Jellaby encounters Otto in inactivity, he says “Enjoying yourself, Baron?” How infuriating that must be! I think we are supposed to love Jellaby. I could not.
I’m rabbiting on, so I’ll ignore the other characters – none of whom are as important as Edelgard, whom I’ve barely touched on. Otto’s wife starts the novel being everything that he envisages a wife should be. As the holiday continues – this is where there are shades of The Enchanted April – she becomes aware that she should be treated better. It starts with hints like this:
She had put my clothes out, but had brought me no hot water because she said the two sisters had told her it was too precious what there was being wanted for washing up. I inquired with some displeasure whether I, then, were less important than forks, and to my surprised Edelgard replied that it depended on whether they were silver; which was, of course, perilously near repartee.Ooo, perilous. During The Caravaners you constantly hope that Edelgard will escape Otto’s clutches, or at least change him for the better… I shan’t spoil for you whether or not she accomplishes that.
For those who might feel a little uncomfortable at the ridiculing of a German on English soil, perhaps I should add that von Arnim (as her name suggests) was married to a German herself – and not happily. She later referred to her husband as the ‘Man of Wrath’, and he was even sent to prison for fraud. I suspect Otto is in part a portrait of Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin, rather than an attack against the German people more generally.
The Caravaners is so, so different from The Enchanted April that I don’t now know quite how to think of Elizabeth von Arnim. An author whose writing I considered gentle and beautiful has now added satirical, witty, and biting to her arsenal. What I do know is that she is quite brilliant, and I unreservedly recommend either of those novels – and am keen to discover what’s next. Elizabeth von Arnim admirers – which should follow?
Thanks Rachel and Claire for getting me finally to read my second E von A – I had great fun! Oh, and – the title to this blog post is not from The Caravaners. Can anyone tell me where I found it?