Book Review: The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

Sometimes when you request a book from a publisher you really strike gold. And that is exactly what happened when I received The Caravaners from Handheld Press. I saw it on Bookish Twitter, was intrigued by the cover and it’s feminist roots and plucked up the courage to ask. I cannot thank the publishers enough for my gifted copy.

It was a joy from start to finish. I would have read it in one sitting if life and time allowed but to be honest I would have missed a treat had I done so. This intelligent and deeply humorous book is one to be savoured.

At it’s simplest level The Caravaners is the story of what occurs when Baron Otto Von Ottringel, an officer in the Prussian Army and his wife, Edelgard, join a caravanning tour of Kent in the early part of the last century. First published in 1909, it is a book that reflects the growing English/ German tension which will ultimately erupt in the First World War.

When reviewing books I find I often end with ‘the bit about the author’ but in this case I feel this information key to understanding the context and mood of the novel.

Elizabeth Von Arnim is the pen name of Mary Annette Beauchamp. Born in Australia to British parents, she was a cousin of Katherine Mansfield. Married to a Prussian, Count von Arnim, she was perfectly placed to observe the differences between the two cultures and comment on the growing feeling of German Nationalism, generated and fuelled by Kasier Wilhelm II, grandson of Queen Victoria.

At time of writing the political and cultural gulf between Britain and Germany was beginning to widen. As Germany began to build up her navy and the Kaiser appeared slowly more unpredictable and dangerous, von Arnim took further inspiration for her novel from her own experiences.

In 1907 Elizabeth von Arnim had hired two caravans and for the month of August set off to explore the Kentish countryside with a group including teenage daughters, ex tutors – E M Forster amongst the number – family and friends.

In the true spirit of the English summer it rained, quite a lot it would seem, with one of the party only recalling 3 days of sun throughout the trip. Add in the complications of horses, outdoor cooking and in this case illness and the holiday was not without it’s fair share of challenges.

But as a microcosm of rising German / English tension, the setting of a caravanning adventure is inspired. And no one could be a better guide than the pompous Baron von Ottringel.

It is the Baron who is our narrator throughout the ill fated trip. Through his eyes we see the events but his words provide an immediate and achingly funny juxtaposition with actual motivations and occurrences.

Significantly older than his long suffering wife of 5 years Edlegard, the Baron is continually bemused by the behaviour and ‘moral’ code of his English counterparts. His pomposity and nationalism is immediately representative of the Kaiser himself.

The Baron is always concerned with outward appearance. He is convinced that others are looking upon him as a great leader. Even his motivation for being persuaded to change his holiday plans are bound up in how he believes others will see him.

And then to travel through it in one of those conveyances was so distinctly original that we would be objects of the liveliest interest during the succeeding winter gaieties in Storchwerder. ‘The von Ottringels are certainly modern,’ we could already hear our friends saying to each other…We should be the centre of attention.

The Caravaners- Pg 15

Notice the us of ‘we’. This is of huge importance , for the Baron does not see his wife as anything more than an extension of himself. Edelgard is purely there for his convenience, to serve and to admire. It is her duty, her pleasure and her honour. Women in the Baron’s mind are simple creatures, subservient to men and at their best when silent and attentive.

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 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.

The Caravaners- Pg 73

Indeed the whole idea of a holiday only came about due to the Baron’s anger at his first wife for dying. Any grief he might have felt for the poor woman was rapidly consumed by his realisation that he would not reach the socially defining mark of a Silver Wedding anniversary and it acquired social standing. Therefore this tour with his second wife is actually to celebrate 25 years of marriage to his first!

The Baron swings from being chauvinistic to down right cruel. His blunt and brief reference to the death of his children, is heartless…

I myself have never been a father…that is, strictly, I was one twice, but only for so few minutes each time that they can hardly be said to count.

The Caravaners- Pg 20

And the revelation he sold his present wife’s dog upon there marriage is a further indication of the character of the man.

‘She shed tears, I remember, in quantities more suited to fourteen than twenty-four..

The Caravaners- Pg 154

So where, you may ask is the humour in this book. Take in just Baron von Ottringel alone and it seems just a rather bleak character portrait of a nasty man.

Well the humour I can is everywhere. It may be be rather dark but the humour is in the clear mismatch between the actions and reactions of the other characters and the woefully misguided interpretation of the Baron.

From the very beginning of the trip the Baron is isolated and ignored. Other characters quite literally scuttle to the four corners of the camp at his appearance.

For the Baron is entirely at sea in this tight knit community. It is a group that crosses class and gender with a refreshing level of equality and freedom and it terrifies him. He can not bring himself to associate with Browne, the young trainee Clergy man and finds the free will and outspokenness of the women in the party unbearable.

As his wife begins to rebel, lifting her skirts by a few inches, refusing to perform simple task for him and choosing to walk and talk with others, he begins to lose his grip on his carefully ordered world. Yet at no point does he look to his own behaviour to explain the changes. He is a man with a sense of his own importance but no level of self awareness.

Instead he blames his wife’s own weakness. He believes that she has allowed herself to become infected by the English company and their loose ways of living.

Therefore I had little time for reflection on the new side of her nature the English atmosphere was bringing out…

The Caravaners- Pg105

The juxtaposition of the Baron’s pompous and self assured narrative, alongside the readers interpretation of the actions of other characters is a master stroke of satire. Baron von Ottringel is perpetually seen to be misunderstanding situations, misreading characters and making a fool of himself. I found myself laughing out loud, repeatedly cringing but crucially never once feeling a modicum of sympathy.

Because at his heart Baron von Ottringel is a dangerous and cold hearted man. A man who is motivated by pride and nationalism. And when those core values are undermined, when he is challenged then his sense of reason is unstable. Buried in the narrative is a chilling reminder that this holiday is a mere snap shot in the marriage of the Baron and Edelgard. When faced with her defiance, he begins to ponder and plan his course of action…

However, a reasonable man knows how to wait. He does not, not being a woman, hasten and perhaps spoil a crisis by rushing at it. And if no opportunity should present itself for weeks, would there not be years in our flat in Storchwerder consisting solely of opportunities?

The Caravaners- pg 109

Here is a warning to the reader. When this holiday is over, as it surely will be, then someone will pay the price. In the context of The Caravaners it is likely to be Edelgard, in the wider context of Europe we can now all look back with terrible hindsight, as we neatly return to the theme of German / English tensions.

Through brilliant satire and social commentary Elizabeth von Arnim wrote a powerful warning, focusing on the changing attitudes across Europe and suggesting that trouble was not far away. How right she was.

Rachel x

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