The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen is the third in a series of autobiographical novels by Elizabeth von Arnim which starts with her novel Elizabeth and her German Garden. The second novel The Solitary Summer I have yet to read, (or even possess) but I don’t think it really matters which order one reads these novels, they don’t follow on really in the conventional sense.
This beautifully written novel took me right away from the here and now, to another time and a place I must admit to not even having heard of. In that first and probably more famous novel, Elizabeth is content to stay in her home, delight in her garden, her children and poke gentle fun at her husband The Man of Wrath. In this novel, Elizabeth is a little older, a little more jaded perhaps, she needs a break from her home, and so we join her on a journey round an Island in the Baltic sea. Elizabeth von Arnim’s descriptions of Rügen are wonderful, and I am now keen to follow in the footsteps of Elizabeth one day and take a trip around Rügen myself.
“Round this island I wished to walk this summer, but no one would walk with me. It is the perfect way of moving if you want to see into the life of things. It is the one way of freedom. If you go into a place on anything but your own feet you are taken there too fast and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.”
In 1901 the real Elizabeth (Countess von Arnim) took a well needed break from home, children and husband to travel around Rügen with a woman friend, they travelled by horse drawn carriage, and were away about ten days. Nothing very particular happened on her holiday, nothing that the writer could weave a story out of. So, the writer invented some adventures, and some humorous characters and the novel based loosely upon her own trip, and celebrating the place she loved so much, came into being.
The Elizabeth of the novel; like the woman who created her was a woman needing a break from the domestic realities of home, having come across a map of Rügen she was determined to explore it independently of her husband. Convention dictated that Elizabeth did not travel alone, and she could find no woman friend to join her, she contented herself with her old maid Gertrud. Gertrud, at least could be trusted to be mainly silent, content with her one small bag, and her knitting, Elizabeth feels it will almost be like travelling alone. Travelling first by train to Miltzow, Elizabeth and Gertrud begin their journey, they transfer to a carriage at Miltzow, pulled by a pair of horses and driven by their coachman for the journey; August. The two women are settled in the back, hemmed in by Elizabeth’s luggage.
“The carriage was a light one of the victoria genus with a hood; the horses were a pair of esteemed at home for their meekness; the coachman, August, was a youth who had never yet driven straight on for an indefinite period without turning round once, and he looked as though he thought he were going to enjoy himself.”
During her eleven days away from home, Elizabeth has a series of memorable mini adventures, including getting left behind on the road as August drives on, unaware he has lost his passengers. In everything she does, and with everything she sees Elizabeth brings the Island of Rügen at the beginning of the twentieth century to life, its beauty, its hoteliers and sightseers, even a fisherman and his son who take the travellers and their carriage over to Vilm.
If you have ever taken a holiday in a small place, you will probably have found you see the same people over and over again, you may even run into someone you know (it’s happened to me in Devon). Like so many holiday makers, Elizabeth does meet the same people again and again, particularly the dreadfully snobbish Bishop’s wife, and her son – a very personable young man Brosy Harvey-Browne. The Harvey-Brownes turn up at regular intervals, the Bishop’s wife pushing herself more and more onto poor Elizabeth as she travels around the island.
“You must be dying for some tea,’ I interposed, pouring it out as one who should pour oil on troubled waters.
‘And you should consider,’ continued Charlotte. ‘that in fifty years we shall all be dead, and our opportunities for being kind will be over.’
‘My dear Frau Nieberlein!’ ejaculated the astonished bishop’s wife.
‘Why, it is certain,’ I said ‘You’ll only be eighty then, Charlotte, and what is eighty? When I am eighty I hope to be a gay grandame skilled in gestic lore, frisking beneath the burthen of fourscore.’
But the bishop’s wife did not like being told that she would be dead in fifty years, and no artless quotations of mine could make her like it; so she drank her tea with an offended face. “
Deciding to take advantage of some bathing machines in one place early in her tour – Elizabeth watches her unknown neighbour in the other of the two cells available for bathers. The woman enters the water from the platform and shrieks. Elizabeth is determined to do nothing so ridiculous. So, Elizabeth follows suit, and when she enters the cold water, she too shrieks, worse than that she finds herself clinging on to the unknown woman in the water. Dimly aware that she has seen the woman before, Elizabeth has no idea until later, when both women are out of the water that her fellow bather was none other than her cousin Charlotte, who she’s not seen in ten years. Charlotte is something of a bluestocking, who went to Oxford and married her Professor, a much older man, who she is now trying to evade. An early feminist Charlotte is very serious, wanting to promote the idea of female liberation, she doesn’t really appreciate Elizabeth’s wry humour, neither is she very keen on her cousin’s obvious desire to interfere in bringing her and her husband back together.
This is a truly wonderful book, Elizabeth’s vivid descriptions, astute observations and her tongue in cheek humour make this a joyful read. I adored the feeling of being in a world with an entirely different pace of life. It was absolutely what I needed.