There are any number of books dealing with how women juggle the
responsibilities of earning a living with house and home, and
raising their children, but few about how men caught in the same
pinch. If it's unusual to find a book about how a twenty-first
century man could cope with being a single parent, raising a
child, running a house, and earning a living all at the same
time, then a story about a nineteenth century man in that
situation is virtually unheard of.
Otto von Goff doesn’t know how he’s to be everything to
everyone on his estate of Schönwald. The year is 1860,
a time when houses and children were women’s work; the place
is Prussia, that bastion of stern patriarchy. Otto’s wife,
Hildegard is mentally ill, unable to run her house or raise
her child. Far from being a helpmate to Otto, she is
more of a burden to him than is their daughter, Luise.
The Cobden Treaty has been drawn up, Free Trade is affecting
Europe, and Otto knows he must take advantage of the coming
changes or else he’ll be victimised by them. To this
end he draws up an agreement with a French trader, Jean
Beaulieu whereby Otto can send his cattle to France for
sale. While Otto and Jean are inventing the
international trade agreement, Jean and three of his sons
stay at Schönwald.
Being closeted away with Jean Beaulieu renders Otto out of
touch with his household. With neither Hildegard nor
Otto at the helm, the household starts to come undone.
There is dissension in the kitchens, the housekeeping books
have been tampered with, and Hildegard is wasting away.
Unable to appear to be doing “women’s work,” Otto lets
things in the house slide, hoping everything will turn out
all right in the end. He knows he has good people
working in his household, and trusts that will be enough to
keep everything running smoothly inside the household while
he spends weeks hammering out the trade agreement.
After all, he has left Schönwald for months on end in the
past, and the place was always in good shape when he
What Otto fails to realise is that he keeps close tabs on
his stables and his land. When he’s away from
Schönwald for any length of time, he hires a bailiff to run
the estate, and the house was always run by his
mother-in-law who has now passed away. Untrained in
running the complex entity of one of the great manor houses
of the nineteenth century Prussian estates, and
inexperienced in doing so, he doesn’t notice that he’s
virtually ignoring the needs of the household and his child,
while keeping an eye on the stables and the land.
While the staff are too busy preparing the house and the
estate for winter to notice, Luise sneaks out each day to
play with Jean Beaulieu’s young sons. It is innocent
play, their crime is that all three of them are being
deceitful in order to be able to play together.
In his efforts to force Hildegard to leave her rooms, Otto
persuades her to have a garden party while he and Jean
Beaulieu are away from Schönwald for a few days to get legal
advice on their agreement and to have it notarised.
Luise and the two French boys catch a bat and let it go at
the garden party in order to rescue Luise from having to
At first Otto is amused at stories of bats breaking up the
garden party, but when he finds out Luise had deceived him
he is devastated. He cannot forgive Luise for
deceiving him while he was working so hard for her sake.
It takes him a long time to come to terms with the fact that
he would have done the same thing at her age if he’d had the
opportunity, and even longer to realise that if he had taken
care of the problem of her loneliness when he first knew
about it, it would not have reached that point.
Otto’s relationship with his daughter, although repaired,
will never be the same. It is in many ways a healthier
relationship, based more on reality and less on illusion,
but they both miss the innocence of the relationship they
once had. Otto learns to run the household without
appearing to do “women’s work” and faces the fact that he’s
never going to be able to make Hildegard get better.
Despite the fact that Otto makes every effort to take care of
his wife, he has to come to terms with the reality that she
will never be normal. The medical science of the time
did not have a diagnosis of her problems, much less
effective treatment. All he can do is pray, and keep
her out of sight, regretting that he had not to applied the
principle of “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine” to Hildegard’s
behaviour when they were first married, before it had
reached the point of no return.