Books Magazine

Karen by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1918)

By Erica

Review by Kath R:

Karen, an young English girl, daughter of a widower, goes to Germany for the wedding of a school-friend.  She falls out with the temperamental family and returns to England.  On her return she decides to marry a German army officer, a count she has met on the train, who is also a distant cousin of her friend’s family and who has proposed to her before she left Germany.  She returns to Germany to live with his family, including a stepson, his parents, the stepson’s tutor, along with her maid, a salt of the earth English woman.

Most of the rest of the story is taken up with her observations on the German character – stubborn, rigid, anti-Semitic humourless, excessively patriotic, war-mongering. Some of the scenes she describes have comic elements, whilst others are tragic.

Spoiler alert

Her husband is killed in a duel, following an argument with a drunken relative she escapes via Switzerland to England and marries an American professor she has met whilst on holiday with her husband.

Although the summary suggests that the plot borders on the ludicrous, I enjoyed this book.

The characters of the German people in the story are all thoroughly unpleasant. They are all caricatures.  Her in-laws are arrogant snobs who make absurd generalisations about Jewish people. The bourgeois family of her school friend are money grabbing and argumentative. (I think the author betrays some of her own anti-Semitism in her portrayal of them.) Her step-son’s tutor is a bully who is desperate to show the moral superiority of the German race over the English and who drives his charge to attempt suicide.

The writer’s descriptions are so excessive that they  amuse the reader in the way that Elizabeth von Arnim does in ‘the Caravanners’ when she describes her husband’s behavior.

The reason I enjoyed the book was that although the characterisation borders on the ludicrous, the book is well-written – the plot is such that you want to carry on reading. Karen is portrayed as an independent-minded young woman who is allowed by her academic father to go to Germany on her own – she does note however that her mother would have not permitted the visit had she still been alive.

A 21st century reader will, I am sure see the novel as propaganda written to remind the British of 1918 what they were up against in the war; one wonders whether her readers would have believed in the characters at the time it was written.

I would read something else by this author.

There is another blogger’s review of Karen here.


Karen by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1918)

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