The Price of Pioneering: Power and Paralysis in Eveline Hasler's Novels Die Wachsflugelfrau and der Zeitreisende

By Burns, Barbara | The Modern Language Review, January 2009 | Go to article overview

The Price of Pioneering: Power and Paralysis in Eveline Hasler's Novels Die Wachsflugelfrau and der Zeitreisende


Burns, Barbara, The Modern Language Review


The years 1991 and 1994 saw the publication of two historical novels by the Swiss-German writer Eveline Hasler which portrayed the influential but vexed lives of two great Swiss pioneers of the nineteenth century: Emily Kempin (1853-1901), the first German-speaking female law graduate, and Henry Dunant (1828-1910), founder of the International Red Cross and winner of the first Nobel Peace Prize. (1) Both works borrow from authentic contemporary documents such as diaries, letters, and press reports to reconstruct the experiences of the protagonists. Far from idealizing their subject, the novels are noteworthy for the manner in which the consciousness of human potential is alternately raised and subverted. In each character the channelling of highly creative energy in an altruistic cause gives way to social dysfunction and sickness of body and mind. The author probes perennial questions about the achievements and failures of visionaries living in a precarious relationship with society, illustrating the tension between personal strength and fragility, intellect and insanity. Moreover, the two works address themes that remain highly pertinent today, when European legislation regarding equal employment rights for women is in many areas still not enforced, and the world's war zones continue to produce carnage in response to which a proliferation of aid agencies work often in the most hazardous conditions.

Emily Kempin and Henry Dunant are not historical types, but rare individuals who rise above the expectations of their generation. Envisioning a transformation in society, their struggle against hidebound attitudes confronts them with the reality of larger forces with vested interests in limiting and controlling the pace of change. On one level, their stories could be read as a documentation of oppression and powerlessness, as a protest on Hasler's part against the corporate character of a political apparatus that seeks to quash the perceived maverick. (2) Both protagonists end up impoverished, institutionalized, and demented: Kempin at the age of forty-six writes letters of application for work as a domestic servant to try and escape her imprisonment in the Basle mental asylum where she dies two years later; Dunant feverishly records his memoirs from the fastness of the hospital in Heiden where he spends the last eighteen years of his life tormented by paranoia, bitterness, and physical ailments resulting from long years of hunger. On this level, indeed, the novels are disturbing. At best they allude to the notion of the prophet unwelcome in their own country, the man or woman before his or her time, and at worst they are an indictment of a so-called civilized world that instinctively rejects true proponents of equality and humanity.

Taking a balanced view, however, Hasler's novels also function as memorials to the accomplishments of two Swiss citizens who challenged the status quo and effected social change. 'History is a story', as Henry Steele Commager observes, and 'if history forgets or neglects to tell a story, it will invariably forfeit much of its appeal and much of its authority as well'. (3) Hasler's artistic licence in blurring the dividing-line between history and fiction results in a documentation of events that does not purport to be historiography, but that none the less lends dramatic life to forgotten occurrences and personages. These works are deliberately designated as novels rather than biographies, for choosing 'den kunstlerisch-intuitiven Weg', (4) as she calls it, allows her the freedom to break the chronology, to avail herself freely of direct speech and metaphor, and to supplement the historical 'facts' that she has researched with an imaginative reconstruction of the past. In so doing she broadens the spectrum of interpretation for the reader, and creates characters who not only articulate a specific set of nineteenth-century problems but also, inevitably, reflect something of the author's observation of contemporary society. …

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