Academic journal article German Quarterly

Women, the Novel, and the German Nation 1771-1871: Domestic Fiction in the Fatherland

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Women, the Novel, and the German Nation 1771-1871: Domestic Fiction in the Fatherland

Article excerpt

Kontje, Todd. Women, the Novel, and the German Nation 1771-1871: Domestic Fiction in the Fatherland. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. $59.95 hardcover.

In six chapters, Kontje's study examines fifteen women's novels in the context of five historical turning-points in German history: the final years of the ancien regime, the French Revolution, the early Restoration, the Vormarz, and the Bismarck-era. By concentrating on novels that focus on "domestic" themes such as romance, marriage, and family-while simultaneously responding directly or indirectly to these political shifts-Kontje examines them as works that played a major part in shaping modern attitudes towards gender as well as national concepts. The sheer variety of responses by women, from loyalist/royalist/conservative to liberal/democratic/revolutionary, places the emphasis of the book on differentiating between individual authors rather than arriving at a single interpretation that could do justice to all of these works.

Kontje's methodological outlook is based on two premises: first, an awareness of the pejorative nature of the terms in which women's novels have traditionally been discussed, from the belittling Frauenroman to the derivative "female Bildungsroman." His discursive move in terming these works "domestic fiction" avoids some of this historical baggage, but also skillfully evokes both the "house" as the traditional domain of women's fiction, that is the domain to which women's imagination is supposed to be limited, and the national context with which their works also manifestly concern themselves. The second, and equally important, point of departure of the volume is the author's consciousness of the fact that aesthetic judgments are not made in a neutral space, that both Germany's literary canon and its national histories were constructed in a masculinist context, and that that process was well underway by the time Eugenie Marlitt, chronologically the most recent of his subjects of investigation, published her works. As a consequence, Kontje wisely rejects a "gender-neutral" approach as unworkable; his investigation concerns itself not with the methodologically questionable exploration of the "quality" of these works, but instead with the "cultural labor" they perform (16) in the establishment of a cultural and national community.

Kontje's introduction is a concise review of meanwhile well-established facts about women's changing social status in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the conditions of their writing and publishing, women's political participation, and the reception of their literature. The second chapter relates LaRoche's Sternheim to Richardson's Clarissa and Rousseau's Nouvelle Heloise; LaRoche's novel is interpreted both as a conservative paradigm for female development and as advocating a modestly reformist political agenda transferred to English soil in an expression of pessimism about the possibility of reform in a German context (40). More interesting are the chapters on women's responses to the French Revolution (on works by Caroline von Wolzogen, Friederike Helene Unger, Therese Huber and Sophie Mereau), the early Restoration (works by Caroline de la Motte-Fouque, Henriette Frolich, Karoline von Woltmann, Johanna Schopenhauer, and Annette von Droste-Hulshoff), the Vormarz (Ida Hahn-- Hahn-, Fanny Lewald and Louise Aston) and the final chapter on the Bismarck-era, dedicated to Eugenie Marlitt. …

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