The Caravaners, Elizabeth von Arnim
When I started looking for Elizabeth von Arnim's books, which was even before I finished The Enchanted April, I initially passed over The Caravaners. But when I saw a reference comparing it to Three Men in a Boat, I immediately started looking for a copy. And I'm so glad that I did!
This is the story of a holiday trip by caravan, through the southeastern counties of England, narrated by Baron Otto von Ottringel of Storchwerder, in Prussia. He and his wife Edelgard join a neighbor, the beautiful widow Frau von Eckthum, in the trip she has arranged with her sister, married to an Englishman, and various friends. Though the Baron has a low opinion of England and the English, he succumbs both to the Frau's charms and to the idea of a cheap holiday (no hotel bills! no train tickets to buy!). This August holiday is meant to be a celebration of the Baron's twenty-five years of married life. Not his silver anniversary with Edelgard; they have only been married five years. Previously married almost twenty years before his wife's death, the Baron feels entitled to all the perks of the anniversary, because after all he has been married twenty-five years. He is rather miffed that his family and friends do not take the proper view of it and express their congratulations in the form of silver coins and gifts.
By the end of the first chapter, we have a pretty clear understanding of the Baron, one that would surprise him, if he weren't so completely entrenched in his own superiority as an officer and a gentleman, and above all a German. Much of the comedy in the story flows from this, that while the Baron is telling this story, and we see everything through his eyes, he is so obtuse, unobservant, and self-centered that we can see around him, all the things that he misses, the real story of what is happening.
The tour, promising so much pleasure, soon dissolves into a plodding misery. Part of the reason is the weather, cold with unseasonable rain that turns roads and fields into mud. This was the only place where I felt a minute twinge of empathy with the Baron, because I don't like camping under those conditions either. It didn't last, though because the main source of misery is the Baron himself. He complains constantly, he expects to be waited on, he shirks his share the work of camping. He toadeats one of the party, a younger son of the Duke of Hereford, and snubs another, a socialist MP, while pursuing Frau von Eckthum (mainly by talking at her non-stop). And he berates his wife Edelgard, who begins to break out of the role the Baron and his God have laid out for her: "the plain, 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."
When Edelgard, without so much as asking her husband's permission, changes her hairstyle and shortens her skirts, when she neglects to wait on him, when she chooses to walk and talk with other members of the party, including the male ones, the Baron can hardly contain himself. Even the flimsiness of the caravan's walls, which provide no privacy, can't restrain his rebukes. And though he keeps most of his opinions of the degenerate English for the pages of his narrative, the rest of the party can hardly be in doubt of them either.
The Baron is a great comic villain. I longed to see him get his come-uppance, but at the end of his story he is stolidly ensconced once again in Storchwerder, writing his account of the trip. The only cloud on his horizon is the unaccountable failure of his superiors to promote him to colonel. He can congratulate himself, though, that his rebellious wife, as "the influence of Storchwerder presses more heavily upon her . . . shows an increasing tendency once more to find her level." I did find myself wondering where the Baron will be by 1918, and if the Baroness might possibly find herself free, or still locked into "kinder küche kirche."