A wet British summer in the early 1900s, a mixed party of German and English semi-aristocracy enjoying the latest holidaying craze for horse-drawn caravans. What could go wrong? Well, it could be narrated by Baron Otto von Ottringel; German of superior breeding, husband, diary writer. Otto alerts us from the very first pages as to what we’re dealing with:
“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.”
The baron is outraged by the rain, the lack of creature comforts and the indignity of preparing his own dinner and washing up. Why would you do these things, he asks, when you can get a woman to do it for you? The readiness of the (slightly too good to be true) British men to muck in and do their share is perplexing and a little bit emasculating to him. He confuses chivalry with romantic intention. Why are the men in the party bothering to talk to his wife, he wonders. Don’t they realise she is nearly thirty?
Von Arnim’s books were phenomenally successful at the time they were first published, and in writing The Caravaners (her ninth) she surely knew how to please her crowd. Apparently Virginia Woolf found her writing hilarious. But if you don’t dig the satire (I’m going with the theory that it hasn’t aged well), it’s monotonously and relentlessly all about Otto.
Katherine Mansfield touched on similar themes in her collection In a German Pension, published two years later. I’ve often wondered if those stories are a bit borderline, but in comparison the effect is definitely less spiteful. Mansfield has a lighter touch, but is also more transparent about her subjectivity. There’s something uncomfortable about the foreign buffoon narrator: it’s a sign of the times (anti-German sentiment had been on the rise since the later 1800s) that such a blatant send-up of Johnny foreigner could get into the mainstream.
While Otto’s wife Edelgard blossoms under the freedom of the holiday and the kindness of her new companions, the perplexed baron sinks into defiant misery. When the group inexplicably breaks up three weeks ahead of plan, Otto, impossibly lacking in self-awareness, has no clue that once again it’s all about him. The couple return to their home in Storchwerder, Germany, where Otto continues to work on his diary.
“…gradually as the weeks melt into months … I have observed that my wife shows an increasing tendency once more to find her level. I need not have worried; I need not have wondered how I could bring her to reason. Storchwerder is doing it. Its atmosphere and associations are very potent.”
If the joke’s on Otto, the tragedy is Edelgard.
Any Cop?: It’s a situation with plenty of opportunities for comedy, but through the heavy filter of Otto’s perception all the jokes end up in one basket.