The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim by Sophie von La Roche (1771) First German ‘Woman’s Novel’

Published in 1771, The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim is considered the first German woman’s novel. Sophie von La Roche was born in Kaufbeuren in Germany in 1730 and died in Offenbach am Main in 1807. She was the grandmother of Bettina and Clemens Brentano and the cousin of the poet and writer Christoph Martin Wieland. She had eight children, one of which, her favourite, Maximiliane, the mother of Bettine and Clemens, died at the age of 37 after having given birth to twelve children. Sophie von La Roche was very well educated and one of the earliest known German women who travelled widely and independently. She was also the first financially independent German writer. Other than novels, she also published several of her travel diaries.

All this tells us that she was very much a woman of her time but also ahead it of it, which is obvious in The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim. 

The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim is an epistolary novel and tells the story of a young woman who has lost both of her parents and is now in the care of a pastor and her greedy aunt countess Löbau.

At the beginning of the story, countess Löbau takes her niece to D. where she introduces her to the court.

Sophia who loves the countryside, hates life at court. She much prefers a more quiet, useful life. The way the courtiers kill time with shallow amusements and games, not allowing time for introspection and solitude, is painful to Sophia. Furthermore, Sophia who so likes to study and read, isn’t allowed to do so as her aunt doesn’t approve of it.

At court, Sophia immediately attracts the attention of the prince. Hoping for favours at the court, her uncle and aunt decide she should become the prince’s mistress. They do not inform Sophia of their plans and so it is rather painful to read how this gentle, intelligent woman is slowly, but steadily trapped.

A young diplomat, Lord Seymour, is also interested in Sophia and she seems to like him very much as well. Unfortunately, not knowing that she has no intention of becoming the prince’s mistress and isn’t even aware of what is going on, he distances himself from her.

Another young nobleman, the roguish Lord Darby, tries to seduce Sophia and finally manages to convince her to run off with him. She thinks he wants to help her escape the prince, but Darby’s intentions are anything but gallant.

I won’t reveal the rest of the book. Let’s just say – it’s very dramatic.

The way life at court is described, as well as the social conscience of the heroine who tries to help the poor whenever she can, was way ahead of its time. It surprised me a lot. The book openly criticises the selfishness and idleness of the upper classes. But it also wants to educate and show another, more noble way for rich and aristocratic people to treat the poor. The book is equally outspoken when it comes to the treatment of women at court. Sophia wants to be seen as a person, appreciated for her intelligence, not her looks. Even though nowadays, in our Western society, no woman is forced to marry and have one child after the other, a lot of what is described in this book, is still very recognizable. It was off-putting to read how the men treated Sophia, seeing her only as an object of lust and desire. They ogle her, undress her with their eyes, try to seduce and touch her, without any concern for her feelings and regardless of her consent. For any woman who knows these kinds of looks and unwanted advances, this could be a triggering book. While the prince is a lecher, Lord Darby sounds like a true pervert reminiscent of people like Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein. Reading about the whole plotting and scheming against Sophia was upsetting. Lord Darby and his letters made me also think of Valmont in Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons. Darby, like Valmont, enjoys the idea of seducing Sophia because she is so gentle, kind, naïve, and, above all, virtuous.

While Les liaisons dangereuses is one of my favourite books, I would lie if I said I enjoyed this. It was a bit like 2020 – painful and seemingly never-ending. I just didn’t care for the style. As it’s a typical example of a sentimental novel, a genre that was very fashionable at the time, it was overly emotional and mawkish. All this outpouring of feelings was insufferable to me. It was interesting to read it as an example of a genre, but not very enjoyable.

I know I won’t read any of her other novels but think I would enjoy to read a biography of Sophie La Roche. She must have been a fascinating woman and the ideas and thoughts that she expounds in the novel are interesting.

Has anyone else read this? How did you get along with it?

Welcome to German Literature Month X 2020

The first of November is here and it’s finally time for German Literature Month.

As you may know from our intro posts, we have two parallel programs this year. Lizzy is reading literature from all of the German Bundesländer, while I host four author weeks, including a Literature and War readalong of a newly discovered Siegfried Lenz novel – The Turncoat– on November 27.

Week 1 – November 1-7  Sophie von La Roche week

Week 2 – November 8-14 Max Frisch week

Week 3 – November 15-21 Ingeborg Bachmann week

Week 4 – November 22-28 Siegfried Lenz week

Feel free to join us or read as you please. As long as you enjoy yourself.

Here’s the link to our dedicated GERMAN LITERATURE MONTH PAGE – please do add your reviews so we can find and read them.

Time After Time by Molly Keane

Published in 1983, Time After Time, is Anglo-Irish writer Molly Keane’s second novel under her own name. Before that she published ten novels under her pseudonym M. J. Farrell. There was a break of almost thirty years between her first ten and her last three novels. The early death of her husband was the reason for that long silence. Molly Keane also wrote plays.

Time After Time is my second Molly Keane. Back in 2011, I read and reviewed Two Days in Aragon which I liked very much. At the time, I wanted to know which one to read next and several people recommended Time After Time. Now, finally, nine years later, I picked it up.

What a wild ride. Not what I expected and not how I remember Two Days in Aragon, which was far more about the end of an erabut that doesn’t mean I didn’t like Time After Time. Molly Keane is a brilliant writer. She’s sharp, witty, and has a very distinct sense of humour.

The Swifts, four siblings in their sixties and seventies, live in a ramshackle mansion, Durraghglass, that has seen better days. Their fortune is long gone and so is their youth. The only thing they seem to have in common is a love for their late mother. Because of their mother’s will, they are bound to live together under the same roof. Jasper, May and June have never been married. The oldest sister, April is a widow. If it wasn’t for her and the money she inherited from her late husband, they would have had to sell most of their land. Still, it’s obvious they have no money as the house is constantly cold and decaying.

It becomes obvious very soon that this isn’t an entirely realistic novel. Each of the four characters has a disability. Jasper is one-eyed, April is deaf, May has a hand with only two fingers, and June, the youngest, never went to school because she’s dyslexic. They each have a pet, the sisters have dogs, Jasper has a cat. Just like the siblings, the pets are at each other’s throat constantly. This isn’t a harmonious household. On the contrary. These are four, selfish eccentrics who hate each other.

The character’s eccentricities and aversions, their feelings of self-importance, made reading this so much fun. The dialogue is sharp and witty. The characters behave a lot like characters in one of those hotel novels, we all like so much. Thrown together by fate but kept together by some sort of lethargy. They could avoid each other, but no, they always eat together. And since Jasper reigns over the kitchen, together with his formidable cat, he holds a lot of power. When he wants to punish his sisters, he lets them wait for their dinner or serves something he knows they hate. The meals are, invariably, accompanied by bickering and snide remarks. Here’s a short snippet

 (. . . ) there was silence until Jasper broke it with a curious cry: “What are you doing May? Picking the cucumber out of your salad?”

“You rather forgot my ulcer – I can’t eat cucumber.”

“Can’t eat this, can’t eat that. Why must you have such a lower middle-class stomach?”

“Perhaps it has something to do with your idea of Cordon Bleu cooking?”

“It takes imagination and a reasonable digestion to appreciate good cooking.”

“You don’t usually cook cucumber, do you?” The argument drifted into silence.

Pudding time came. Baby rhubarb and rice cream with a vaporous suggestion of nutmeg.

“I hope the rhubarb isn’t too acid for your ulcer.” Jasper eyed May’s lavish helping.

“My ulcer must take its chances (. . . )”

While the book is often farcical, the characters aren’t devoid of tragedy. They are all elderly and suffer from different ailments. Even though they try to hide it as best as they can, they are very lonely. This and many other uncomfortable truths are brought out into the open when a long-lost childhood friend appears on their doorstep —cousin Leda from Vienna, who they believed had died in a concentration camp. Leda, who once was a great beauty, is now very fond of alcohol and food. But since she’s blind, she still believes she’s charming and imagines her friends to be still as young and charming as herself.

These were the submerged days that Leda’s coming rescued from a deep oblivion. Since she could not see Durraghglass in its cold decay, or her cousins in their proper ages, timeless grace was given to them in her assumption that they looked as though all the years between were empty myths. Because they knew themselves so imagined, their youth was present to them, a mirage trembling in her flattery as air trembles close to the surface of summer roads.

The safety and monotony of their days is soon gone because Leda isn’t as cute or nice as they remember her. Oh no. She’s rather diabolical and a master schemer. If they weren’t so desperate for company and flattery, they might have been able to see through her. Being gullible, they fall into her traps. By the end of the novel, the siblings must face unflattering truths about themselves and nothing is as it was before.

In her foreword Emma Donoghue compares Molly Keane to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The book combines, as she says, social comedy, grotesque descriptions and plot twists. I’m not so fond of comparisons like that, but I agree, Time After Time, has all these elements, combined with a terrific writing style, that’s very much her own. For some people these characters might be a bit over the top, but I liked them very much. They are eccentric and mean, but tragic in their own way. And, most importantly, never dull.

Announcing German Literature Month X

10 years, who would have thought it?  But here we are, and in a year when there has been plenty to be glum about, Lizzy and I thought we should buck the trend, and celebrate ten years with a bang! Hence the badge.

Thanks to all who have travelled with us thus far.  We hope you’ll accompany us again. For those who may be new to this, German Literature Month is the month for reading all things originally written in German – in whatever language you wish to read it – and then telling the world about it. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Goodreads. All good. Just use the hashtag #germanlitmonth when you share your thoughts.

Don’t have a clue what to read?  There’s a veritable database of reviews over at www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.com to help you find something appealing.

This year’s programme is a little different. Or, to be more precise, there are two programmes.

Programme 1

Unable to visit Germany this year for pandemic related reasons, Lizzy has an acute case of Fernweh, and has therefore decided on a virtual tour of Germany. One which will include all 16 Bundesländer, one way or another. Primarily through literature interwoven with memory.

Programme 2

I have decided to focus on four authors of interest, and chosen authors mean that there are weeks in which the spotlight will also  shine on Austria and Switzerland. My itinerary looks like this:

November 1-7  Sophie von La Roche

November 8-14 Max Frisch

November 15-21 Ingeborg Bachmann

November 22-28 Siegfried Lenz

The fourth week will include a Literature and War readalong of a recently discovered Lenz novel, The Turncoat. The discussion will take place on Friday 27.11.

As always, you can read as you please throughout the entire month.

We look forward to your company and discovering some scintillating German-language literature together.

Austrian Crime – Some Reasons Why You Might Like Alex Beer’s Crime Series

Alex Beer is an Austrian crime writer whose books have won many prestigious prizes. The Leo Perutz Preis and the Austrian Krimipreis, among others. Alex Beer was born in Bregenz. She lives in Vienna. The August Emmerich series is her first series. She’s now writing another one with a protagonist called Isaak Rubinstein.

I discovered her August Emmerich crime series at the book shop a while ago. Usually I don’t read historical crime, or very rarely, but the setting – Vienna after WWI – immediately caught my attention. It’s such a fascinating period. Unfortunately, they didn’t have book one at the book shop, so I picked the third in the series instead. That was a mistake, as I liked it very much, and will now have to go back and start with book one. That’s the reason, why this isn’t a proper review, as, so far, only the first in the series, The Second Rider, was translated. I’m sure it’s every bit as good as the third one though. I wish I had waited and ordered the first as some of what happens in Emmerich’s life in book three, spoils the first two books.

The main protagonists of the series are August Emmerich and his side-kick Ferdinand Winter, of the Austrian police force. Emmerich is a war veteran. Because of a war injury he’s in a lot of pain and has a tough time running or walking. Winter comes from a formerly rich family who has lost everything during the war. As he’s so good looking, women warm to him quite a bit. They are both likable, complex characters and I enjoyed their relationship very much.

While they are police detectives, they don’t shy away from bending the rules, if necessary. In book three, they also hunt a crime boss for personal reasons, which makes the series a bit of blend between a police procedural and a PI novel. The descriptions, mood, and atmosphere, all contribute to that as well.

The crime they must solve in book three, is suspenseful and so is the subplot, involving the crime boss, but that’s not what won me over. What I absolutely loved, besides the atmosphere, was the way Vienna was described. People are so poor. The city’s rife with criminals. There are hardly any goods available outside of the black market, where they cost a fortune. People are hungry, kids are starving. Antisemitism is on the rise. People already shout they want the annexation of Austria into Germany. The books, set in 1919 and 1920 respectively, show a country under shock. The massive multilingual Empire has been dissolved. All that remains is the comparatively small Austria, mourning its former glory.

While reading Joseph Roth, I got a feel for how huge the Austro-Hungarian Empire was. When you see what’s left after WWI, you can understand why so many think it’s all a very bad dream. Add to that the poverty and criminality, which make Vienna a very unsafe place, and you can imagine how desperate the people were.

Historical novels excel when they give you a feel for a period but also when they pique your curiosity and entice you to read more about a certain time and place. Alex Beer’s novels do exactly that. This was way more than an entertaining book. It’s rich in atmosphere and full of fascinating details. An excellent choice for those who like to read women/crime in translation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I’ve long been a fan of Elly Griffith’s Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, slowly reading one book after the other. There are twelve books by now, four of which I’ve read. She’s also been writing a new series, The Stephens and Mephisto mysteries. I was quite pleased to see that she’s now also writing standalone novels and since The Stranger Diaries, published last year, has gotten so much praise and was called a “modern Gothic”, I decided to read it.

The story is told from three different points of view. Clare Cassidy, a fortysomething English teacher, Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur, and Georgia or Georgie, Clare’s daughter.

Clare teaches English at a school, parts of which are located in the house of a Victorian writer. R. M. Holland was famous for his chilling short story The Stranger. In her spare time, Clare is writing a book on the author. She used to be best friends with another English teacher, Ella, but for some reason, they aren’t really close anymore. When Ella is found murdered, Clare is unsettled for many reasons, one of which is a note found next to the body. It’s a line taken from The Stranger, a short story that hardly anyone knows.

Detective Kaur instantly dislikes the tall, beautiful Clare and suspects her to either know more than she admits or to be involved in the murder. When another body is found, under even more sinister circumstances, Clare begins to fear that she and her daughter might be next.

I absolutely loved the beginning of the story, told from Clare’s point of view. I loved the setting, the mystery, the characters, but then the book switched to Detective Kaur’s point of view and while her POV is convincing, I found the book immediately lost some of its drive and most of the atmosphere. When the third narrator was introduced, Georgie, it fizzled out even more. I did not care for her parts and would have wished they’d been left out.

That said, there were still elements that made this a gripping read, I just wished, she’d told it differently. What did not work for me at all was the ending. Was it a twist? Yes. Was it believable? Absolutely not.

I’m really in two minds about this book. There’s a lot to like here but, ultimately, because of the ending, it was a disappointment. I’ll still read more of Elly Griffiths but stick to the Ruth Galloway mysteries.

Some Thoughts on Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I don’t read a lot of bestselling mainstream novels. Very often, I don’t even hear about them. But from time to time there’s a book that sells so many copies that I’m interested to find out what the fuss is all about. Especially when the premise sounds intriguing like in the case of Where the Crawdads Sing. The premise of a girl growing up on her own in the swampy marsh of Northern Carolina and becoming one with the nature that surrounds her. Delia Owens is well known as a wildlife scientist and published three nonfiction books before writing her first novel. That, too, sounded intriguing. That was also pretty much all I knew about the book when I started to read. You can imagine how surprised I was, when I discovered that there’s a dead body in the swamp at the beginning of the book. It’s only then that I became aware that the book was called a blend between love story/crime/court room drama. And that brings us right to my biggest reservation – sometimes a blend works but in this case it doesn’t. It’s neither a proper crime story, nor is it purely a love story and the courtroom part, I’m sorry to say, is ludicrous.

I did like the beginning which was mostly set in the past, in the 50s, and told the very tragic story of a small child, Kya, who was first abandoned by her mother, then by her siblings and finally also by her father, an abusive drunk. She’s only ten and decides to survive on her own, knowing very well if the authorities found out she’s been abandoned, she’d land in the foster care system. These parts not only introduce us to an amazing ecosystem but also to a way of life. It seems like the marsh is a world of its own, with its own rules, outside of society. Because Kya is intelligent and observes the world around her, she’s able to survive. She also gets some outside help from a black family, pretty much outsiders too, in this small town. She also meets a boy who teaches her to read and write, which will have very surprising consequences.

While the beginning was strong, the descriptions of the landscape so detailed that I felt like I was visiting the marsh, the book quickly went downhill after that. I had a feeling that Delia Owens had an idea for a story, a very intriguing idea, and a love for a landscape but no plot. And, so, she decided to add a crime story that then turned into a courtroom drama à la To Kill a Mockingbird.

The crime idea might not have been a bad one. There are many novels about a crime that are very successful without being really crime novels. But for me, this one didn’t work. She should have written either proper crime or searched for a plot somewhere else. The result is full of inconsistencies and lacks realism. The character development is also rather dubious, and the use of vernacular is just terrible.

You’ll be surprised to hear that despite all these reservations, I didn’t mind reading the book. I loved the way this landscape was brought to life. I found the way Delia Owens conveyed how Kya fought against her loneliness by becoming one with the flora and fauna that surrounded her believable and well done.

It’s less a bad book than a missed opportunity. This could have been very good. The question that remains is – why did this become such a major bestseller? She sold over 4million copies of the book even though the publisher only printed 23,000 copies at first. The reason might be the choice of setting. I wasn’t surprised to find out that many people who loved this novel are very interested in ecological themes. I don’t know many books where nature plays such a significant role and where the intricacies of ecosystems are shown so well. I have no doubts that Delia Owens is a very good nonfiction writer.

I hope I was able to give you an idea, especially, if, like me, you were curious about this book. Maybe, now that you’re forewarned about the flaws, you might enjoy it more. Nature lovers, people who are interested in the marshes of North Carolina, those with in an interest in ecology and specific ecosystems, will still find a lot to like here.