Academic journal article German Quarterly

Marlitt's World: Domestic Fiction in an Age of Empire

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Marlitt's World: Domestic Fiction in an Age of Empire

Article excerpt

This essay explores how questions of emigration and empire resonate within E. Marlitt's fiction. While she encourages her readers to remain at home and occasionally employs ethnic stereotypes to describe foreigners in the German Heimat, she also condemns religious fanaticism, resists racist bigotry, and tempers militant nationalism with moderate liberalism and understated feminism. Her works thus add nuance to the history of European imperialism by revealing the gradual intrusion of global concerns into the provincial realm of German domestic fiction.

In the little more than two decades that extended from the time of her first publications in the mid 186Os until her death in 1887, the writer known by her pen name of E. Marlitt (Friederike Henriette Christiane Eugenie John, 1825-87) became one of the most widely-read authors in Germany, and, indeed, throughout the world.1 Her novels and short fiction were all initially published in serialized form in Die Gartenlaube, a family journal whose circulation expanded dramatically when Marlitt became its featured author.2 The works were soon published in book format and distributed in multiple editions that found their way into the most obscure corners of the German Reich and to its most distant colonies abroad. Translations into English, Russian, Chinese, and nearly every modern European language extended the range of this German juggernaut still further, transforming a local bestseller into an international blockbuster.3 In the last third of the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, Marlitt's works were read wherever the German language was spoken, and also in many places where it was not.

The contrast between Marlitt's global readership and her own secluded life could hardly be more extreme.4 Born in the small Thuringian city of Arnstadt, this second child of a bankrupt businessman and penurious portrait-painter had initially aspired to a career as an opera singer. After a promising start as a chamber singer in the highest aristocratic circles of Vienna, Eugenie John suffered from crippling stage fright in her operatic debut and soon developed what may have been psychosomatic hearing problems. Deeply depressed, John was forced to abandon her career and return home to Thuringia. She spent the next decade as the traveling companion and nurse to a divorced aristocratic woman, until her own growing health problems forced her to return to her family in 1863. Marlitt's travels, which had in any case never extended beyond Southern Germany and Vienna, were over. By 1870, her growing royalties allowed her to move with her brother 's family from their cramped quarters in Arnstadt to the luxurious "Villa Marlitt" on the outskirts of town, but severe arthritis soon confined Marlitt to a wheelchair. She rarely received visitors, had no ties to her contemporary writers, and, as far as we know, only allowed herself to be photographed twice.5 She died where she was born, in Arnstadt, after a long illness and great suffering; she was never married.

How could the works of this reclusive invalid in provincial Germany resonate so strongly with the larger world? In large part the answer lies in Marlitt's skill as an author of the ever-popular genre of romance: her novels all feature young, strong-willed heroines who confront adversity and overcome hardships while falling in love with a worthy man with whom she will settle down to raise a happy family. In German intellectual circles Marlitt's name has in fact become synonymous with a kind of middle-brow Kitsch that continues to sell popular novels and to fuel romantic comedies on television and in the movies. From this perspective, Marlitt offers her readers timeless tales of suffering and love in which modern Cinderellas find their Prince Charmings with satisfying - or depressing - regularity, depending on one's willingness to enter into her fictional world.6 Such a characterization of Marlitt as the purveyor of formulaic fairy tales is nevertheless inaccurate in that it obscures her ongoing interest in contemporary politics and society/All of her novels are set in the historical present, and all address important issues of the day: we find references to political crises from the Revolution of 1848 to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71; Marlitt frequently mentions the expansion of German industry and the growing network of railroads; her novels feature decadent aristocrats who cling to privileges of the past, tasteless parvenus who have risen to become the new captains of industry, and religious zealots who spout pieties while in ruthless pursuit of personal gain. …

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