tells the struggle of Otto von Goff, a young man in 19th
century Prussia, to be master of his own destiny against the
conventions of society, the dictates of his family, and the
strictures of his conscience. Forced by his father into
the military, a career for which he is particularly unsuited,
Otto attempts to rise above his misery with a combination of
humour, ingenuity, and rebellion. Most of Otto’s efforts
to expand his world outside the military mindset fail, and
worse, even the efforts which do bring him some measure of
relief make his overall situation worse.
Otto meets Hildegard von Puttkamer
there is a mutual
attraction, each seeing the other as the key to making all
of his and her dreams come true. Her shyness and
quietness is such a contrast from the other girls that he is
fascinated by her. He is infatuated with her delicate
prettiness, and entranced by the way she remembers what he
says. Hildegard is an heiress, giving Otto an
honourable way out of the military, since he would be
expected to run her affairs for her if they married.
Hildegard, as a timid and frail personality, sees in Otto’s
gentle and amiable nature a man who could take care of her
without terrorizing her. When he smiles at her she
falls hopelessly in love. Each being desperate to
ensure their escape from their personal torments before
anyone can stop them, they marry in 1846, as quickly as
their families will allow, which is before either has had
time to get to know the other properly.
phrase "marry in haste, repent at leisure" has rarely held
more truth. The death of Hildegard's father,
Friedrich, while Otto and Hildegard are on their honeymoon,
does not automatically make Otto into the master of the
estate, Schönwald. Instead Otto is plunged into a
court battle with Friedrich's cousin,
Puttkamer, who challenges Friedrich's Will, believing that
he should have inherited Schönwald, convinced that Otto had
influenced Friedrich in order to get Schönwald away from the
von Puttkamer family, and determined to wrest the
inheritance back for his son. Instead of the
supportive companion he had imagined Hildegard would be,
Otto finds himself married to a woman he can neither talk
with nor sleep with. He is regarded as a usurper and
interloper by Hildegard's family and treated without respect
by the von Puttkamer servants. To top it all off, his
dream of having a large family can never come true, since he
and Hildegard only manage to have one daughter,
was born in 1850.
quickly realises that Friedrich had mismanaged Schönwald
almost to insolvency. He pays no attention to what's
happening inside the house, putting all of his efforts into
bringing Schönwald back to prosperity, even when the only
way to do so is to make changes that upset everyone; the
workers, his wife, his mother-in-law and even his own
her marriage, Hildegard's life continues to be controlled by
her mother and her nanny. Her marriage was not her
escape after all. The gentleness in Otto that she had
found endearing, she now despises as weakness. Her
inability to have more than one child causes her unbearable
agony. She views the changes Otto makes in the way the
estate of Schönwald is run as sinful, and sees her cousin's
attempts to take control of Schönwald as being a return to
the way things "should" be. That her one child is a
girl is such a disappointment to Hildegard that she is
unable to have any affection for Luise and feels tormented
by the sight of her. Otto's easy, affectionate
relationship with Luise is more than inexplicable to
Hildegard; it's indecent in her eyes.
reacts to his disappointments by reaching out from himself,
broadening his horizons, having a humorous attitude, and
relentlessly seeking new ways to make his dreams come true.
Luise becomes son, daughter, and companion to him.
Hildegard reacts to her disappointments by turning inward,
taking medications, becoming steadily more and more
despairing, and blaming Otto for her dreams not coming true.
Luise becomes a constant reminder to her of what she sees as
her failure as a woman. She grows progressively more
neurotic. The delicate prettiness and quietness of her
youth turns gradually to a sharp featured drawn look of
disapproval and her voice becomes shrill.
Against this background, Prussian Yarns opens as Otto
discovers that the death of his mother-in-law,
not set him free any more than the death of Friedrich did.
After more than 13 years, he is again facing a court fight
with the von Puttkamers to prevent them from taking
Schönwald from his little family, while the von Puttkamer
servants continue to treat him as an interloper and usurper.
Hildegard is prostrate with grief over the death of her
the span of Prussian Yarns, February to September 1860, Otto
strives to be recognised as the master of Schönwald,
battling not only his in-laws in court, and the servants
loyal to them at Schönwald, but also the local customs.
Slowly over the years some of the people in the village, on
the land, and in the household have come to see that Otto's
ways have brought them more prosperity, and that he treats
them better than Friedrich did. This leaves Schönwald
in three factions: those who are loyal to the von Puttkamers,
those who are loyal to Otto, and those who don't care who
runs the estate as long as they can live where they've
always lived and support their families.
dilemma arises for Otto when he realises that in order to
control Schönwald, he must rid Schönwald of the von Puttkamer
servants. Servants in 19th century Prussian
estates were not easily put off their ancestral lands.
Many came from families that had not only been at Schönwald
longer than Otto had been alive; they'd been at Schönwald
before the von Puttkamers had arrived. The people of
the land could only be driven out for extremely serious
fortunate for Otto that the three he feels he has to remove
are not people of the land, but even so, if a number of the
senior staff are put off the estate at the same time, Otto
risks alienating those who are loyal to him, and even those
who are neutral. It's common knowledge that here have
been riots in Prussian villages, and refusal to work in the
houses and on the land where the people have been
disaffected with Lords of the Manor. Otto has no doubt
that the von Puttkamer staff would be willing to foment as
much disruption as it would take to get rid of him. He
can't risk giving them reason.
and above his need to save Schönwald without destroying it
in the process, is Otto's ethical dilemma. In order to
take care of Hildegard, the actions he needs to take put her
fragile mental health at risk. He cannot provide for
his family without Schönwald, he cannot keep Schönwald
without getting rid of the von Puttkamers, yet if he strips
away from Hildegard all of the familiar people she depends
on before she has had a chance to recover from the loss of
her mother, there is a danger he'll destroy what he is
trying to save, his family.
will he do? Will he win against Berthold and have
uncontested control of Schönwald? Or will Berthold win
and put the little family out? Will Otto be able to
win over the von Puttkamer faithful family retainers, or
will he have to get rid of them? If he gets rid of
them, will the other people then rise up against him?
Even Otto wins and deals with the faction that is against
him, how can he run Schönwald smoothly when his wife is a
significant member of that faction? At what cost would
he achieve his dreams?
will happen to Schönwald if Berthold wins? What will
happen to Berthold if he doesn't? What will happen to
Schönwald if Otto wins? What will happen to the people
and to Otto's family if he doesn't?
subplots underlying the main plot of Prussian Yarns
are the stories of the people who live and work at
Schönwald: the von Puttkamer faithful family retainers;
those loyal to Otto; and those who don't care who wins as
long as they still have bread on the table. This gives
the story more than an
Upstairs, Downstairs texture, there is also the aspect of
the villagers. The story is told of the workers and
masters alike, all dependent on the outcome of the battle
for Schönwald. These are the yarns, or stories, that
are the Prussian "yarns".
is Amalie, who had been placed in an orphanage at the age of
eight when her mother died, who grew up wanting to be a
teacher to help children like herself, and ended up as Luise's governess. She is the first person to stand
her ground against the nanny,
is Cosima, born of the unlikely union between the household
cook and the head stableman, born a little too soon after
her parents married, determined to make something of
herself. Sullen and clumsy in the beginning, by the
time the book closes Cosima has learned how to work
"upstairs" and has formed a plan for her future. No
matter how hard-done-by she feels from having been born from
scandal and despised by Frau Blücher and her minions, Cosima
feels that Luise's lot is worse, and does what she can to
help and support her. As part of her plan, Cosima
wants to learn to read and write, even though both of her
parents are illiterate. To avoid embarrassing them,
she needs to learn in secret.
is Emma, an illiterate Hungarian nomad who had gone to
Vienna to earn a living, was hired by Otto's sister and
ended up in Prussia working in the Schönwald kitchens
temporarily, who ends up married to the Schönwald stableman
and becomes the household cook, the "backbone" of Schönwald.
When her health wavers, the entire household is affected.
is Ernst, Otto's valet, who has a talent for finding out
what's going on and letting Otto know. He's as
fastidious as Otto is relaxed. He's as formal as Otto is
casual. They irritate each other, yet Ernst is devoted
to Otto, who has given him a job and a position far above
the station in life he was born into.
is Frau Blücher who had kept Hildegard alive when she was an
unwanted, premature baby, and can't let go. She will
do anything, risk anything to keep her "little lamb" safe
and happy. She fights Otto tooth and nail, convinced
that he's a wicked man who tricked Friedrich out of
Schönwald, and who is bringing Schönwald to ruin. She
is convinced that having Berthold in charge is the only way
to save Schönwald, and does everything she can to help his
cause. She believes that it's her sole responsibility
to see to it that the household is run properly after
is Frau Klemperer, the elderly governess, who is past it,
but is terrified of anyone finding out she can't keep up
with Luise, in case someone realises she's doing no work and
drawing a full salary. She is completely under Frau
is Frau Hess, the elderly housekeeper who has been unable to
fulfil her responsibilities for years. The household
has been in such a habit of working around her and
protecting her that she doesn't realise she isn't making any
decisions or keeping track of anything any more. Her
deficiencies don't become apparent until Clothild dies.
Frail and bewildered, she thinks whatever Frau Blücher tells
her she thinks.
is Frau Hiestand, Clothild's personal maid. Born to
the personal maid of Clothild's mother, she's a little slow.
She was raised with Clothild and has always been protected
by her. Clothild's death leaves her utterly bereft.
She's under Frau Blücher's thumb.
is Helmuth, the head stableman, who was widowed with three
small boys, and got involved with Emma, which was scandal
enough, but then he married her and fathered two daughters
on her. He is from the von Puttkamer staff, but
although he voices constant disapproval of Otto's "modern"
ways to Otto, he supports Otto completely in every argument
with other staff. He's ashamed of his behaviour in
seducing Emma, and views everything that happens to be a
punishment from God for his sins. He breakfasts in the
house kitchen every morning, ignoring the disapproval of the
household that the stableman is in the house, though he
takes all of his other meals in the stable kitchen where he
belongs. He's dour, grumbling and complaining about
everything. Only to the horses is he gentle and kind.
who was found on the orphanage doorstep as a
baby, who is taken in by Otto to be a companion for Luise,
and who is despised by Hildegard and the von Puttkamer
staff. As she blossoms under Amalie's care, her
puzzling family likeness to Otto's family is noticed.
is Kurt, Helmuth's son and heir, who keeps his counsel, but
in his actions is supportive of his step-mother, Emma, and
willing to help in whatever way he can to rid Schönwald of
those who tormented his step-mother and half-sisters.
is Luise, the heiress. Mistreated and neglected by
Frau Blücher and Frau Klemperer, ignored by her mother, she
has affection only from Clothild, Otto, and Emma. It's
not until Clothild dies that Otto realises how things are
for Luise in the nursery, since it was not a man's place to
have anything to do what went on in the nursery.
Realising that Hildegard was never going to do anything
about Luise's situation, Otto brings Kirsten into the house
as Luise's companion/maid, and hires Amalie. Under
Frau Blücher and Frau Klemperer Luise ran wild, off on the
fields with her dog and her pony. Under Amalie, Luise
is not only better cared for, she is better supervised, and
disciplined instead of being bullied and mistreated.
Luise is only too pleased to help Cosima, who has helped her
out of many a scrape. She comes to love Kirsten, but
maintains her friendships with Cosima and the other young
maids close to her age.
There is Scharnhorst, the butler, who is
from the von Puttkamer household, but somehow manages to
have the respect of all factions without falling in with any
of them. No one knows whether he supports Otto, or
Berthold, or is neutral.