Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Victorian Women Writers and the Other Germany: Cross-Cultural Freedoms and Female Opportunity

Linda K. Hughes

How Progressive Writers, Anna Jameson to Vernon Lee, Sought and Found An Alternative Germany.

LADY BRACKNELL German sounds a thoroughly respectable language, and indeed, I believe is so.

[Calling.] Cecily, Cecily! … intellectual pleasures await you. Your German grammar is on the table. Pray open it at page fifteen. We will repeat yesterday’s lesson.
[Coming over very slowly.] But I don’t like German. It isn’t at all a becoming language. I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson. … Horrid, horrid German!
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895

Wilde memorably captures one stereotype of things German in his play: they are serious, heavy, ponderous, unbeautiful and unsexy. If Cecily had only met Ottilie von Goethe (1796-1872), as Anna Jameson did in 1833, Cecily might have changed her mind. Goethe was multilingual, widely-read, and willing to defy conventions, by turns daring and traditional, playful and deeply intellectual, always sociable and a magnetic conversationalist. And she was intimately connected with the most famous author in Germany, her father-in-law Johann von Goethe, who had followed his son into death the year before Jameson arrived in Weimar. Through this father-in-law and her own aristocratic family, Goethe moved within a formidable network of writers, artists, composers, and other notables throughout German-speaking lands.

For Jameson, this meeting was a revelation, not only of romantic feelings for this new woman in her life but also of unsuspected cross-cultural freedoms for herself—a revelation she passed on to other progressive women in Visits and Sketches, at Home and Abroad (1834), inspiring others to follow her to Germany in successive waves. For these women, studying and speaking German was not a closing down of selfhood, as it was for Cecily, but an opening out onto new mobilities, perspectives, and writing opportunities.

This hitherto unknown story of a Germany that attracted gifted British women willing to push against social as well as national borders is the focus of Victorian Women Writers and the Other Germany: Cross-Cultural Freedoms and Female Opportunity. It is also a story of how members of one culture can engage another culture deeply and directly, negotiating differences and in the process enlarging their inner and outer worlds. I call this layered bidirectional process “cultural exchange,” and it in turn rested on a foundation of what anthropologist Mercio Pereira Gomes terms “ethnoexocentrism,” a disposition to welcome other cultures and cultural difference. As well, this book is a story of nineteenth-century women’s expanding freedoms, told slant from an alternative Anglo-German framework. It also opens a fresh window on two groups often marginalized in the nineteenth century, non-gender-conforming or queer women and Anglo-German Jewry. Below I offer highlights of each chapter, noting its specific scholarly contributions as I invite others to discover, as I did over the space of a decade, an “other” Germany that neither bored nor (despite Bismarck’s rise) threatened British outward-looking women.

Florence Nightingale sounded one of the study’s themes in the introduction when she wrote to her mother in 1850 that Germany was “oh! two centuries” ahead of England when it came to women’s freedoms and mobility (revealing in the process that she had either not read or had forgotten Jameson’s testimony of 1834). The introduction also sets the study in its scholarly, theoretical, and historical contexts, noting Anna Jameson’s theorization of “female affective cosmopolitanism” and Vernon Lee’s extolling of the virtue of admixing one’s own culture with elements from others, a “transfusion of a foreign element, correcting our deficiencies and faults.”

Chapter 1 then introduces the Germany that greeted Jameson in Weimar and the female circle into which she was drawn after meeting Ottilie von Goethe, including two women-loving women, the wealthy Sybille Mertens-Schaaffhausen, a collector and connoisseur of coins and classical artifacts who lived in Cologne, and Adele Schopenhauer, Goethe’s great friend from adolescence, daughter to novelist Johanna and sister to philosopher Arthur. Mertens-Schaaffhausen and Schopenhauer were immediately attracted to Jameson, who had fallen in love with Goethe and who carefully observed Mertens-Schaaffhausen and Schopenhauer in their relationship. Jameson’s romantic feelings for Goethe were not reciprocated; instead Goethe and Jameson entered into a devoted friendship that lasted until Jameson’s death. Jameson’s German friendship circle was about more than homoerotic attraction in any case. All four women were intensely intellectual and widely read, as well as sociable, and Schopenhauer and Goethe were poets and critics, though they confined themselves to private circulation. When not with these friends, Jameson was meeting the many leading artists and writers to whom Goethe provided introductions, travelling alone and so encountering Germany and Germans directly rather than through intermediaries. Jameson was riveted by the ground-breaking visual arts in Munich she witnessed, and perhaps even more by the Renaissance paintings she saw for the first time in Dresden, which became a Mecca for English tourists after Jameson pronounced Raphael’s Sistine Madonna a pinnacle of his art and of womanhood in paintings.

Chapter 2 looks in detail at Jameson as a writer in her three German books, Visits and Sketches, Social Life in Germany (1840), which noted that in Protestant Germany women could file for divorce on the same basis as men (a right unheard of in England), and Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838). If this last work remains a classic of Canadian literature, its “Studies” were of contemporary German literature, and most of the book was addressed to Goethe. The earlier openness to another culture Jameson had developed in Germany in fact helped prepare Jameson for receptivity and commitment to cultural exchange with women of a culture far more different from her own, the Ojibwe she met in St. Sault Marie and Canada.

Chapter 3 turns to mother-daughter relationships in Germany. Mary Howitt lived in Heidelberg with her family from 1840-1843, which inspired her trilingual children’s poetry book based on a popular German title and wrote a young adult novel about how best to engage with a foreign land and culture, an unconventional courtship novel partly inspired by an unexpected marriage proposal to Howitt’s daughter Anna Mary from a German student. Anna Mary returned to Munich in 1850 for almost two years’ art study, which generated the memoir An Art-Student in Germany (1852), yet another representation of female freedoms and opportunities in Germany. It also traced the younger Howitt’s coming to terms with cultural and religious difference in Catholic Bavaria. When William Howitt left for two years’ gold-prospecting in Australia, the Howitt mother and daughter lived together in London and continued to write, including, this chapter contends, a collaborative feminist novel: Margaret von Ehrenberg, The Artist-Wife (1853). In 1850 Anna Mary had left for Germany as an engaged woman but broke off the engagement while abroad. This is a likely back story to the novel set in Germany and England that delved into the issues of troubled marriage and married women’s careers.

Chapter 3 also turns to the German-based short stories of Elizabeth Gaskell, a long-time friend of the Howitts. These were inspired by summer sojourns in Heidelberg and by her own daughter’s traumatic broken engagement. “The Grey Woman” and “Six Weeks at Heppenheim” depict disastrous marriages committed or contemplated and display marked gender experimentation and aesthetic freedom, including a naïve bride exiled to a foreign land wed to a Bluebeard figure, a queer family of two women and a daughter, and a feminized invalid male narrator who counsels an affianced Heppenheim servant to forego her own engagement.

Chapter 4 offers a sympathetic yet revisionary perspective on George Eliot, so often seen as THE exemplar of British writers in Germany. An unquestioned iconoclast who had earlier translated David Strauss’s and Ludwig Feuerbach’s challenges to traditional Christianity and defied bourgeois norms by daring to elope with the married George Henry Lewes to Germany, Marian Evans could read German fluently but could not speak it or fully comprehend others’ spoken German when she arrived in 1854. Thus she was surprisingly dependent on Lewes, whose fluency and a German social network had been acquired during an earlier extended stay in Germany and who now took charge of all their travel arrangements and most of their social contacts. The chapter also probes Evans’s troubling representation of Jewish writer Heinrich Heine in one of her best-known Westminster Review essays, “German Wit.”

Chapter 5 juxtaposes George Eliot’s double-plotted representations of English and Jewish life in Daniel Deronda (1876), a novel that begins in Germany, with Jessie Fothergill’s double-plotted transatlantic best-seller The First Violin (1878), set entirely in Germany after short preliminary chapters in provincial England. Music and music careers play important roles in both novels, and both exhibit some indebtedness to Germano-Jewish novelist Paul Heyse. Fothergill’s novel, though, is equally in conversation with Daniel Deronda and Paul Heyse’s novel Kinder der Welt (1873) and so represents a striking instance of deep-seated Anglo-German cultural exchange. Fothergill may grant more space to romantic courtship than Eliot, but The First Violin is more radical in juxtaposing an English New Woman plot and a queer plot of homosocial German musicians. The first-person English narrator counterpoints the first-person German musician narrator—and both love the same man, the concert master of the title. Eliot’s novel was daring in its time for frankly addressing adultery in one plot strand and creating a heroic Jewish protagonist in the other. Together these novels register women writers’ greater latitude in the 1870s in handling sexuality and ethnic identity; and both are the outcome, in part, of their authors’ personal mobility and German language skills.

Chapter 6 focuses on the new cultural and social experiences open to path-breaking, college-educated, single queer women writers who spent time in Germany and translated German poetry for British readers: Michael Field (the corporate publishing signature of poet-lovers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper) and Amy Levy. Michael Field’s collaborative diary attests to their initial indifference to, then unfolding openness to Germans and German mores beyond their initial interests in German art museums and opera. It also devotes attention to Katherine Bradley’s 1875 German poetic translations in The New Minnesinger and to the challenging sexual threats faced by Edith Cooper and Amy Levy during their travels. Anglo-Jewish poet and novelist Amy Levy additionally represented specific opportunities available to a Jewish woman in Germany. As a poet she was notable for her immersion in the work of Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whose lyrics resonated so deeply with her own poetic gift and outlook. The chapter likewise devotes attention to Levy’s German translations and her fictional travel stories representing college women abroad in Germany.

Best known for her first novel, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and her depiction of tyrannical marriage in Vera, Australian-born English immigrant Elizabeth von Arnim became a German citizen upon marriage to a German count. Chapter 7 focuses on novels written during the years of von Arnim’s German citizenship, drawing upon Edward Said’s theorization of the identity and subjectivity of the expatriate intellectual to analyze the bicultural women’s experiences in Elizabeth’s Adventures in Rügen (1904), Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905), and Fraeulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther (1907). Von Arnim’s 1907 novel, furthermore, innovated a technique of subliminal narrative, a beneath-the-surface representation of evolving thoughts and emotions, in this proto-modernist epistolary novel about a German woman who accepts a privileged Englishman’s marriage proposal, is jilted, then slowly finds her way toward an independent voice and life.|

The final chapter approaches Vernon Lee as a queer Pan-European whose travel writing—her most personal—and her supernatural tales attest to the profound impact of Lee’s beloved Bernese Swiss governess Marie Schülpach on Lee’s awakening imagination and sexuality. It also offers new readings of Lee’s first sustained fiction, Ottilie (1883), set in Franconia, first as a feminist work, then as a speculative narrative of the German woman whose life and actions thread throughout Victorian Women Writers and the Other Germany, Ottilie von Goethe, the charismatic intellectual and litterateur who, despite so much original poetry and criticism in volume after volume of her private diary, devoted herself to supporting others’ writings instead.

The Nachwort (or afterword) traces the sad unraveling of the Germany that had offered such promising harbor and opportunity to progressive British women writers for decades. World War I destroyed the land of which Vernon Lee speaks in Genius Loci (1899): “The Germany I am speaking of is not the one which colonises or makes cheap goods, or frightens the rest of the world in various ways…” Fright would return with a vengeance upon the rise of Hitler. It remains worthwhile today to look back to the more constructive effect of German culture on other lands before its twentieth-century tragedies.

Victorian Women Writers and the Other Germany by Linda Hughes
Victorian Women Writers and the Other Germany by Linda Hughes

About The Author

Linda K. Hughes

Linda K. Hughes is Addie Levy Professor of Literature at Texas Christian University. She edited The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women's Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 201...

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