Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Caravaners – Elizabeth Von Arnim

I’m hoping this post will get out soon, but (and fresh after my resolutions too) my internet connection has disappeared in a puff of frustration (damn O2 and all their works,) so mostly I’ve spent Sunday trying and failing to get online.

None of which has got anything to do with Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘The Caravaners’ which I read over Christmas. So far my Von Arnim experience has generally been of the light hearted ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ sort with ‘Vera’ being a shocking exception. Reading ‘Vera’ really upset me; it had all the tension of a horror story (which on a domestic level it is) and got under my skin enough to make me fractious with the men in my life. ‘Vera’ is a version of Elizabeth’s disastrous second marriage and as disturbing an account of mental abuse as has ever come my way, ‘The Caravaners’ is partly a comedy about camping but there are undercurrents far darker than I expected to come across, many of which pre-empt the later ‘Vera’, and not all of which I felt comfortable with.

I realise I’m probably being a little bit unfair to ‘The Caravaners’ and to Elizabeth, it seems that unpleasant men were something of a feature in her life as well as her work, but the plot of ‘Vera’ partly hinges on whether a first wife has an accident or commits suicide but it turns out to be a recycled device that’s used in ‘The Caravaners’ albeit one that isn’t explored as fully here. It bothers me because for the first time in our acquaintance (2 years of novel reading) this is the first time I’ve come away with the impression of Von Arnim as a potentially really unpleasant person.

I could (and partly feel I should) be reading this as an indicator of how desperate life could be for women in unhappy marriages before divorce or even separation were realistic possibilities, and how stifling provincial life with all its carefully protected mores was, but what I came away with was an impression of savagery and vindictiveness. There are lots of funny bits too though, and some very clear sighted warnings about the gathering clouds of the First World War. (‘The Caravaners’ was published in 1909 and there are constant references to Prussia planning to go to war with England)

The tale is told by Baron Otto Von Ottringe, a stern and very German husband who is insisting on celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary because although he’s only been married to his current wife for 5 years, he’s actually as he points out been married for 25, and why should he do without the celebrations when he’s done the time? For reasons partly based on economy, partly flirtation he decides on a month long camping tour of Kent and so off the Von Ottringe’s go.

The problem is that Otto is really quite an objectionable character, he bullies his wife, is lazy, a snob, a bigot, and absolutely convinced that women exist only to attract and serve. Von Arnim constantly exposes this man’s weaknesses as she compares him to his travelling companions who slowly ostracise the Baron until he is altogether abandoned. Meanwhile his wife Edelgard blossoms into a far more independent personality much to the Baron’s consternation and dismay. A lot of it is really very funny, some of it sad, but I found myself confused by Von Arnim allowing Edelgard to begin to taste freedom only to condemn her to being buried alive again back home, and by her clearly identifying with characters who through personal dislike of the husband first take up and encourage the wife and then simply turn their back on her as well as him – to me it’s curiously unsatisfactory.

In the end though I couldn’t help but love a book which contains passages like this:

Since I am an officer and a gentleman it goes without saying that I am also a Conservative. You cannot be one without the others, at least not comfortably, in Germany. Like the three Graces, these other three go also hand in hand. The King of Prussia is I am certain in his heart passionately Conservative. So also I have every reason to believe is God Almighty. And from the Conservative point of view (which is the only right one), all Liberals are bad – bad, unworthy, and unfit; persons with whom one would never dream of either dining or talking; persons dwelling in so low a mental and moral depth that to dwell in one still lower seems almost extravagantly impossible. Yet in that lower depth, moving about like those blind monsters science tells us inhabit the everlasting darkness of the bottom of the seas, beyond the reach of light, of air, and of every Christian decency, dwells the Socialist.

And whilst I don’t precisely share the Baron’s political views I’m right behind him on the joys (or lack thereof) of camping.


  1. I've been hearing about The Caravaners a little recently. Now I've read your review I'm not sure it's a story that appeals so thank you I now have one less book to wonder whether I should read.
    ps not sure about camping either!

  2. It's got it's faults, but it's funny as well. I was expecting something more along the lines of Enchanted April, or German Garden so was surprised at the underlaying darkness. I found my copy 2nd hand and it was a bargain that I'm really pleased with - whatever mixed feelings I have about this one it's made me more intrigued by what the rest of her books have in store for me.