16 September 2019
Elizabeth von Arnim’s eighth novel is a sharp contrast to the sunny optimism of her first best-seller Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898) and her later hit The Enchanted April (1922, adapted several times for screen and stage, including the 1991 film).
The Caravaners (1909) is a devastating comedy about an Edwardian caravan holiday in Kent, narrated by the pompous and self-important Baron von Ottringel, a Prussian Major in the German army. His much younger wife Edelgard becomes liberated by her holiday and by the English people with whom she becomes friends, and the Baron is appalled.
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Baron von Ottringel’s narrative of pained bewilderment at the bizarre behaviour of the English people with whom he has chosen to spend a month in horse-drawn holiday caravans (they unaccountably cut the holiday short after only a week) is side-splittingly funny. We sympathise with the lady whom he pursues in a very one-sided holiday affair, and even more with Edelgard, the Baron’s long-suffering and much younger second wife, who discovers her own holiday freedoms, and becomes newly emancipated, to the Baron’s horror.
‘Elizabeth von Arnim’ was the pen-name of Mary Annette Beauchamp (1866-1941), an Australian-born British novelist and a cousin of Katherine Mansfield. Her much-loved Prussian husband, Count von Arnim, died a year after she published The Caravaners.
The novel reflects her frustration with and exasperated affection for German aristocratic society, and reveals the lost world of European social networks and crusted assumptions that disappeared forever with the First World War, only a few years after The Caravaners’ publication. It is also one of the funniest feminist novels ever written. The introduction is by the von Arnim scholar Juliane Roemhild.
‘There is so much comedy here – the Baron shamed into performing menial tasks which he sees as being beneath him, problems with horses, mud, cultural differences galore. Elizabeth von Arnim has an eye for such absurdities and reproduces them gloriously.’ – a fine review from HeavenAli
‘Perhaps the greatest achievement of this wholly delightful book is the way our view of Otto is gradually modulated as the story proceeds. At first he appears simply like a buffoon and it’s only too easy to laugh at his ridiculous views and at his total inability to understand and interpret the feelings and actions of his fellow travellers. As time goes on, though, he seems increasingly pathetic, lost and confused. Alas, he has learned nothing from his week’s holiday.’ – from Harriet Devine
‘The Caravaners comes with an excellent introduction, and useful notes at the back. It’s an entertaining and extremely funny book, as well as being evidence of von Arnim’s incredible skill as a writer.’ – Shiny New Books, September 2019
Watch our video, in which we explain why we love this novel so much, and why it is funner than P G Wodehouse.
Watch a short reading from the novel by Juliane Roemhild.
Download and read our von Arnim biography