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Review: The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen describes the adventures of the Elizabeth of the title, on a holiday on the German island of Rügen, which is situated in the north-east corner of Germany and was already a popular holiday destination at the time of her visit. The author visited Rügen near the turn of the 19th century - the publication date is 1904, but in the opening chapter she writes as if this holiday had been taken some years earlier. At first it was to be a walking holiday, but she could not get any of her friends to accompany her, and so ended up taking a small horse carriage and driver, and a maid to serve as a chaperone, as her husband would not let her go alone. They circumambulated the island, following the shore as much as possible. This makes it a road trip story, a genre I love, both in fiction and non-fiction.

I decided to read it because I have booked a fare on the Norröna ferry the European mainland and will be taking my car on a journey around Germany next summer, with Rügen as one of the destinations.  I like to read about places I am going to visit, or have visited, not just as they are, but as they were. In the case of Rügen, it has been a holiday destination for a long time and it will be interesting to see how much it has changed since von Arnim was there.

After reading it, I am very much in two minds about this book. On the one hand I enjoyed the descriptions of nature and the sensations the narrator enjoyed on he journey around the island of Rügen, and on the other I was frustrated at not finding a single person in the book whom I could like. Empathise with, yes, but not like.

Elizabeth von Arnim
This book is classified as a travelogue and a memoir, but I rather think it is the same kind of semi-fiction as two of the loosely autobiographical books by the same author I read some years ago, Elizabeth and her German Garden and The Solitary Summer. This also means that she can not be trusted as a narrator, because the narrative is presented as non-fiction when it in fact has fictional elements, and so it is not the real Elizabetn von Arnim who is the narrator, but a partially or perhaps wholly fictional one.

This is important, because while this "Elizabeth" is clearly supposed to be a sympathetic character, she is such an arrogant, selfish person and class snob that it‘s hard to like her. She seems to give no thought at all as to the comfort of her servants, and in fact it is revealed at one point that her driver, Augustus, has had to sleep in the stable with the horses. This may well have been quite acceptable treatment of servants back in those days, but comes across as callous to a modern reader (to me, at least). Early on in the book she also ponders whether the Gertruds of this world (that‘s the maid‘s name) have any feelings or appreciation of beauty, and by the very act of pluralising her name casts aspersion on her right to individuality:
" the sober presence of Gertrud. I have observed that sweet smells, and clear light, and the piping of birds, all the things that make life lovely have no effect whatever on Gertruds. They apparently neither smell, nor see, nor hear them. They are not merely unable to appreciate them, they actually do not know that they are there. This complete unconsciousness of the presence of beauty is always a wonder to me."
She comes across the Harvey-Brownes, an English mother (a bishop's wife, no less, and very high in the instep) and son who are visiting Rügen, and to her vexation their paths keep crossing. Even more vexatiously, she then comes across her cousin Charlotte, a young, highly educated woman married to a much older man who is a leading light of the German intelligentsia. Charlotte is dogged by the aforementioned son, Ambrose, because he and his mother are great fans of her husband, but what they don‘t not realise is that she is estranged from him - and no wonder: he‘s one of those men who treat women like stupid, mindless creatures and values them only for their level of decorativeness. He, however, is also one of those men that can be described as an „old dear“, and so gets forgiven for it.

Photo taken at a hunting lodge in Rügen that I plan to visit.
Charlotte decides to join Elizabeth (against the latter‘s will, but courtesy stops her from protesting), and it is during their subsequent conversations that I really got to dislike Elizabeth. Charlotte is an ardent feminist who wants women to be free and break out from under when she sees as the yoke of marriage and childbearing, while Elizabeth is of the opinion that the status quo should be preserved and wants Charlotte to return to her husband.

Charlotte is rendered especially ridiculous on one occasion, when her argument for women freeing themselves from childbearing and -rearing is shot down by circumstances, and one almost hears Elizabeth‘s snigger. I rather felt that Charlotte has some valid points about women‘s rights, however stridently expressed, but she is shown to be an even more arrant class snob than her cousin when she makes derogatory remarks about servants in general and Elizabeth‘s maid in particular, without offering any solution as to what they are to do with themselves should their services no longer be required – another example of her class snobbery which shows that when she talks of women‘s emancipation, she really means just the women of the educated classes and not, for example, the servant class.

The tone of the book takes on a gently deriding, satirical tone whenever Elizabeth encounters the Harvey-Brownes, Charlotte and eventually Charlotte‘s husband, the Professor, but it is uncertain just who is being satirised: them, or her, or all of them. I hope it‘s the last, that she is satirising all the different types of people they represent, because if she intends for people to feel empathy for Elizabeth the narrator, she fails to do so.

However, despite the drawbacks and my dislike of the characters, I found it worthwhile to read this book for the descriptions of nature and places and of people in general, especially the German middle class who were holidaying on the island at the same time as Elizabeth.

P.S. I was looking at a map of Rügen, and I rather think it looks like a wondrous kind of fantastical winged beast:


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