The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, Elizabeth von Arnim
After The Pastor's Wife, it was quite a while before I had the urge to read Elizabeth von Arnim again. It is a very good book, but very bleak in places, and it was one of the most intense and disconcerting reading experiences I've had in a while. Lately though I've been thinking of summer books, which reminded me that I had this one still on the TBR shelves. It is an account of a summer tour the titular Elizabeth takes, eleven days on the island of Rügen in the Baltic, off the Pomeranian coast. It was nowhere near as intense as The Pastor's Wife, but it wasn't quite what I expected either, shifting from a travelogue to a domestic farce, with philosophical and sociological excursions on the side. By this time, I should be expecting the unexpected from Elizabeth von Arnim.
The book opens in Elizabeth's beloved Nassenheide in Pomerania, the setting for Elizabeth and Her German Garden (as well as its sequel, The Solitary Summer). But this summer will be different. It is blazingly hot, and there is a drought (much like Houston right now). She doesn't want to sit "watching a garden parch browner day by day beneath a sky of brass." In the schloss's library she comes across books that tell of Rügen,
an island of twists and curves and inland seas called Bodden; of lakes, and woods, and frequent ferries; with lesser islands dotted about its coasts; with bays innumerable stretching their arms out into the water; and with one huge forest, evidently magnificent, running nearly the whole length of the east coast, following its curves, dipping down to the sea in places, and in others climbing up chalk cliffs to crown them with the peculiar splendour of beeches.
Reading that, I was nearly ready to book a ticket to Rügen myself.
Elizabeth's initial plan is to enlist a woman friend to join her on a walking tour. One after another, a dozen of her friends decline, saying that "that it would make them tired and that it would be dull." She cannot go alone, for reasons of both propriety and safety, so she decides to travel by coach, taking her own driver, August, as well as her faithful maid Gertrud. This immediately sets her apart from the other tourists on the island, who arrive by train or ferry, but it ensures her independence in traveling. She can go wherever the horses take her, whenever she pleases (though to placate the Man of Wrath, left behind with the children, she has to take care not to overwork the horses).
Much of the first part of the book is travelogue: the trip to the island, the start of their tour, the villages they drive through, the surrounding countryside, and especially the sea. Elizabeth bathes wherever she can, drawn to the clear cold waters and the beautiful beaches. In between the descriptons are adventures and mishaps that reminded me a little of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men books. Like him, she points out some of the foibles of German life, particularly the tendency to build unattractive cafés right in the middle of the most picturesque sites. Elizabeth later meets two English tourists, Mrs Harvey-Browne and her son Brosy, which gives her a chance to needle the English as well. Mrs Harvey-Browne is the wife of a bishop (von Arnim seems to have had it in for Anglican bishops), which impresses her much more than it does anyone else she meets. Her son is a student of philosophy, much given to discussions of the Absolute. Elizabeth is also surprised (and somewhat dismayed) to come across her cousin Charlotte, whom she has not seen in many years. When they are joined by Charlotte's husband, the elderly but spry Professor Nieberlein, of whom the Harvery-Brownes are ardent admirers, Elizabeth sees her plans for a peaceful, solitary holiday collapsing.
More than once in her book, Elizabeth apologizes because she meant to write "a useful Guide to Rügen," but "With every page I write it grows more plain that I shall not fulfil that intention. What, for instance, have Charlotte and the bishop's wife of illuminating for the tourist who wants to be shown the way?" Though I don't think this book was ever taken for a guidebook, even at its publication in 1904, it is still a lovely introduction to the island and actually includes a lot of information. And as Elizabeth von Arnim knew very well, Charlotte and the bishop's wife add greatly to the fun of her story. Charlotte, though, is something of an uneasy character. Married at twenty to her Professor, forty years her senior, she has now become an ardent feminist, traveling around Europe on behalf of the rights of women (her married life reminds me of Ingeborg's in The Pastor's Wife). Elizabeth finds her ideas on women and marriage uncomfortable, though she can't help agreeing with some of her points. She quickly grows tired of Charlotte's stridency, however, taking refuge in the "easeful simplicity of the old conventions."
"Just to think of it gives me a headache. The only thing I know of that does not give a woman a headache is to live the life for which she was intended - the comfortable life with a brain at rest and a body wholly occupied with benevolences . . ."
The Elizabeth of this book may believe that, but Elizabeth von Arnim herself certainly didn't live a "comfortable life with a brain at rest." Was this just part of the "Elizabeth" persona, like the pretence that she was German? I am also learning to expect this ambiguity, with Elizabeth von Arnim.