Edwardian Encounters: The Caravaners

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[Jennifer Walker, the author of this post, has just published “Elizabeth of the German Garden – A Literary Journey”]

THE CARAVANERS, by the author of “Elizabeth and her German Garden” (now known as Elizabeth von Arnim), first published in 1909 by Smith & Elder.

When Mary Beauchamp married the Count von Arnim in 1891, she had no idea that her newly-acquired German nationality would divide her life and her family for generations to come.  She had been swept off her feet by the widowed Prussian Count, some fifteen years her senior, finding at last that she was valued by him as a musically gifted and intelligent young woman.  For, on their engagement, the Count von Arnim-Schlagenthin took her straight to Bayreuth where Mary could perform Bach on the organ in the presence of Cosima Wagner.  But maybe the Count got more than her bargained for.  Mary was gifted, not only in music, but also in words, and it was by means of her writing that she managed to escape from the life proscribed for her; that of the wife of a member of the Prussian aristocracy in the latter years of the nineteenth century.

Writing as ‘Elizabeth’, she immediately established a literary reputation with her first best-selling novel, Elizabeth and her German Garden (published anonymously in 1898).  Her husband appeared in this book, gently satirised, as The Man of Wrath.  Subsequent novels built on her reputation, always featuring her uniquely humourous observations of Anglo-German relations.  Such was her reputation that by 1905, an aspiring novelist, E M Forster, was keen to meet her and arrived at Nassenheide in Pomerania (the site of the by then famous German Garden), to be employed  for six months as tutor to Mary Arnim’s older daughters.  Forster found that he shared many interests with his employer, especially the music of Wagner, and writing.

By 1905, the Countess von Arnim had produced five successful books (always published as being ‘by the author of “Elizabeth and Her German Garden”) in which she highlighted topical political and social concerns from her unique perspective, of an educated member of English society living in Prussia.  She was particularly concerned with the problems of her children’s German nationality; one of her daughters confessed to Forster (who had mischievously asked “If there is a war between England and Germany, which would you want to win?”),  that if there were ever a war between England and Germany, she “would run away as fast as she could”.

Forster’s stay at Nassenheide left its mark both on him and his employer so when, two years later, she invited him to join her in a tour by caravan around Kent, he readily agreed.  This tour, in picturesque wooden horse-drawn vehicles, took place throughout the August of 1907, one of the wettest on record.  Besides Forster, there were two other ex-tutors in the party, as well as the Countess’s three daughters, a niece and two dogs.  Their meandering route took them on a series of visits to notable literary figures known to the Countess, including Henry James.  One day, she hired a motor car to visit to her new friend, H G Wells at his home in Sandgate.  She found Wells’s stimulating conversation on the subjects of Socialism and the rights of women close to her heart, and far removed from ideas currently circulating in Prussia.

Thus the fictional tale,The Caravaners, was based on this caravan tour, was conceived; the book incorporates many of the ideas simmering in the Countess’s mind at the time.  Into this melting pot, she threw her imaginary narrator: the monstrous Prussian Baron, Otto von Ottringel of Storchwerder.  This caricature of the Prussian military consents to go only because he is greatly attracted to a near neighbour, the widow Frau von Eckthum, who will join her sister and English brother-in-law on the tour.

Thus the structure of the novel is established and sustained throughout: England and the English are seen through the eyes of a member of the Prussian military.  The effect is designed to be both comic and alarming to British readers.  As the Baron progresses through Kent, he indulges his many fantasies of how the “Prussian eagle” might “some day swoop down” and clear out the English, leaving the place clear for itself.

He is the embodiment of the Prussian authoritarianism, combining ambition for external conquest with domestic intolerance.  The essence of the comic writing lies in the way the Baron’s perceptive obtuseness in the company of the other caravaners reveals his own arrogant, pompous, lascivious and bullying nature. His desire for the domination of women (especially his wife) is equated with a desire for the domination of nations; culinary greed becomes a metaphor for greed of a territorial nature.

But the book also sets up a dichotomy between the Baron and another member of this fictitious party, the English Socialist MP, Jellaby.  As well as being a Socialist, Jellaby , like Wells, is sympathetic  to the feminist cause, and therefore represents all that the Baron most despises and detests in a man.

The Baron’s depiction of the failure of British behaviour when compared with German, says it all:

how anxiously we safeguard our honour, keeping it first of all inside these high and thick nets of rules, and then holding ourselves ready on the least approach to it to rise up and shed either our own or (preferably) somebody else’s blood in its defence.  And apart from other animals, the rabbit of Socialism, with its two eldest children the Division of Property and Free Love, is kept out most effectually by the netting.  Jellabies and their like, tolerated so openly in Britain, find it difficult to burrow beneath the careful and far-reaching insistence on forms and ceremonies observed in other countries.  Their horrid doctrines have little effect on such an armour.

But have an effect they did.  The triumph at the end of the book rests, ironically, with feminism and Socialism in the form of Jellaby, who, to the utter dismay and disbelief of the Baron, marries the delicious little widow, Frau von Eckthum.

Jennifer Walker, November 2013

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