Baron Otto Von Ottridge, the narrator of this 1909 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, sees himself as a source of great wisdom and humor, the most interesting person at any gathering. And so, he assumes that he will have no trouble when he and his wife, Edelgard, take a vacation from journey to join a neighbor on a journey through England by horse-drawn caravan. But he has no end of trouble, much of it trouble that he isn’t even aware of.
It doesn’t take long for readers to see that the Baron is a ridiculous piece of work. Von Arnim uses his own words, completely lacking in self-awareness, to brilliantly skewer him. At first, the skewering, and the book itself, are comic in nature, often involving the kind of travel mishaps you’d expect on this kind of journey. The fact that he’s a snob who’s full of himself just makes the mishaps more hilarious.
Eventually, though, he starts to look more sinister, as you realize how his overbearing personality affects his wife. What must it be like to live with a man who openly avows this philosophy?
Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak, on every table; and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays and combines being useful with being dumb.
The good news is that the journey being Edelgard out of her shell. As their travel companions treat her as an equal member of the party, she begins to change her manner. It’s not even that they seem to go out of their way to be kind, it’s just the change of society that has an effect. But the Baron barely notices, mostly commenting on her behavior when it means she’s not at his beck and call or not putting on the perfect face of good German womanhood.
Although the marriage does provide a dark undercurrent to the story, Von Arnim plays it light the whole time by staying thoroughly inside the Baron’s ridiculous mind. It’s an impressive work of characterization that is both uncomfortable and hilarious.