It’s September, and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Solitary Summer has run its course with the arrival of 500 soldiers (and their horses), who are being quartered at the farm, and 30 officers (plus their servants) who are staying in the house. In addition there are other officers billeted in surrounding villages who must be invited to dinner. Actually, according to Elizabeth, ‘quartering’ is not accurate and she prefers the German word Einquartierung. Since I never studied German (I did Latin, and was very bad at it) I cannot tell you what this means, but whatever the definition, Elizabeth gives a detailed account of the disruption caused by the military visitors.
She describes the two-week event as an epidemic which ‘rages’ at the end of almost every summer:
‘… when cottages and farms swarm with soldiers and horses, when all the female part of the population gets engaged to be married and will not work, when all the male part is jealous and wants to fight, and when my house is crowded with individuals so brilliant and decorative in their dazzling uniforms that I wish I might keep a bunch of the tallest and slenderest for ever in a big china vase in a corner of the drawing-room.’
The ‘holy calm’ of her home is disrupted by the clanking of officers and the ‘grievous wailings’ of her servants, who are faced with a massive amount of extra work in the main house. And, since there is no room on the farm for all the extra men and horses, the Man of Wrath has ordered temporary sheds to be erected, to provide stables, dormitories where the soldiers can sleep, and dining rooms where they can eat.
‘Nor is it easy to cook for five hundred people more than usual, and all the ordinary business of the farm comes to a standstill while the hands prepare barrowfuls of bacon and potatoes, and stir up coffee and milk sugar together with a pole in a tub.’
I love that image of the agricultural workers boiling up vast quantities of coffee for the soldiers – and I only hope harvest was over by the time the army arrived!
Elizabeth and her husband receive six pfennigs a day for providing accommodation for a common soldier, and another six pfennigs a day for his horse, with an additional daily payment of eight pfennigs for food – the daily allowance of provisions for each man is two pounds of bread, half a pound of meat, a quarter of a pound of bacon, and either a quarter of a pound of rice or barley, or three pounds of potatoes.
There is a higher rate of pay for taking in officers – two marks fifty a day, without wine. Presumably officers, being from a higher social class, get better food, as well as enjoying the company of the von Arnims. But they create a lot of extra work:
‘The thirty we have now do not, as I could have wished, all go out together in the morning and stay out till the evening, but some go out as others come in, and breakfast is not finished till lunch begins, and lunch drags on till dinner, and all day long the dining-room is full of meals and officers, and we ceased a week ago to have the least feeling that the place, after all, belongs to us.’
They must have needed bedding as well, but Elizabeth doesn’t mention this. Did the house have that many extra beds, along with sheets, blankets and pillows, or did the officers kip on the floor, curled up in the 19th century equivalent of a sleeping bag which they (or, more likely, their servants) carried around with them?
The whole thing reminds me of one of the royal progresses when medieval and Tudor monarchs upped sticks and marched the entire court around the country, staying at other people’s castles and stately homes, generally at great expense and considerable inconvenience to their host.
All in all, Elizabeth believes herself to be a much-tried woman, and she has a point. Her soldiers, whom I assume were on some kind of manoeuvres in the area, include the ‘upper’ part of the regimental band (by this I think she means instruments with higher notes – the bass musicians are in the next village) and the men march past the window, playing their instruments, at six in the morning.
And she is kept busy all day as she organises the household, tries to keep things running smoothly, soothes the servants’ shattered nerves, makes amiable conversation with the officers, and tries to look happy. But she longs to be out in her garden, inhaling the perfume of roses and ripe fruits, enjoying the sunshine, admiring her plants, and listening to the bees and the larks.
In fact, she tells us, she prefers larks to the beautiful, charming young men who have invaded her home. She goes on to discuss the various ranks of officer (no-one lower than a colonel pleases her) and how difficult it is to talk to a lieutenant – and she recalls the visit of one such young man earlier in the year, who was especially tiresome, although he was
‘.. the most beautiful specimen of his class that I have ever seen, so beautiful indeed in his white uniform that the babies took him for an angel-visitant of the type that visited Abraham and Sarah, and began in whispers to argue about wings.’
In her final, brief ‘entry’, for October 1, Elizabeth insists she has never spent a happier summer, but admits that being solitary has not helped her soul grow. And so we love her, her head resting on the Man of Wrath’s shoulder, his arm encircling her waist. What, as she asks us, could possibly be more praiseworthy, or more picturesque?
NB: I’ve re-posted this because I had it and scheduled, and when I came to check it things were all muddled up and looked very peculiar indeed.