Margaret E. Ward. Fanny Lewald: Between Rebellion and Renunciation. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. xii + 456 pp. $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8204-8184-5.
Reviewed by Rebecca Ayako Bennette (Department of History, Middlebury College)
Published on H-German (July, 2007)
Starting with some minor pieces that appeared in 1840 in a journal published by a relative, Fanny Lewald's literary career spanned almost half a century, producing a substantial body of work including short stories, novellas, novels, travel accounts, memoirs, and essays on contemporary social and political issues. As described in Margaret E. Ward's book, this impressive oeuvre garnered enough attention to warrant translation into multiple languages during Lewald's lifetime, and her positions held enough import to be included in contemporary debates. By the time of the Third Reich, however, interest in Lewald's writings had died out. Only in the late 1960s and 1970s did her writing gain notice again, a revival related to the women's movement and feminist scholarship.
Not surprisingly, the particular difficulties Lewald faced both as a woman and a female writer in nineteenth-century Germany and the role of gender construction in her works take center stage in Ward's analysis. Instead of attempting to rely on simple categorizations of Lewald as either unreservedly committed to female emancipation or as ultimately espousing conservative, anti-feminist views, Ward wishes to provide a nuanced interpretation of the writer's ideas. Rejecting the notion of one fixed point that could characterize the entirety of fifty years of writing, Ward draws upon Lewald's own idea that much could be learned even from simple organisms like spiders to imagine her oeuvre as a web. Just as a spider re-spins a web with shifting attention to different parts that need it, finding new ways of repairing an old thread, the particular emphases and arguments in Lewald's writing varied depending on the situation.
In particular, Ward argues against those who emphasize the extent to which Lewald can be characterized as "too male-identified" (p. 24) and "totally under the sway of" men (p. 26). Although she does not neglect examples of such behavior, Ward counters with ample cases in which Lewald clearly acted against the male-dominated norms of the period. Ward sees "a consistent tension between Lewald's sincere desire for emancipation, which she hoped to garner for herself and others by means of a reasoned rebellion against patriarchal norms, and the constant pull of middle-class propriety with its risk of advocating renunciation as an appropriate response--especially for women" (p. 17). This more nuanced, global view of Lewald can come only from paying attention to what Lewald wrote in her works in conjunction with viewing the connection of this content with her actual life, looking at "her story as much as her stories, the spider, as well as her webs" (p. 27). Here, Ward takes inspiration in a different sense from the spider analogy, drawing on Nancy K. Miller's essay on feminist literary theory, "Arachnologies." Given the importance Ward assigns to Miller's writing on gender difference, though, readers may expect a more detailed introduction to these ideas than Ward's brief paragraph on p. 25 allows.
The first three chapters of Ward's book trace the life of Lewald chronologically from birth to middle age. Chapter 1 discusses Lewald's childhood and young adult years. She was the first child born to David and Zipora Marcus in 1811. While the family's Jewish status had caused difficulties even before Fanny's birth, with David and Zipora's desire to marry almost dashed by restrictions that limited the numbers of Jews who could retain residence in a city, life in the Marcus home proved so unreligious that their eldest daughter "had to seek explicit confirmation from the Japhas, who lived just across the street, that she was, in fact, Jewish" (p. 34). Nonetheless, her family's relaxed relationship to Judaism did not shield the growing Fanny from the remaining realities of discrimination against Jews in Prussia, an experience that would later manifest itself in the attention she gave to Jewish emancipation. In 1817 Fanny began to attend a progressive school where boys and girls learned largely the same material. As she grew intellectually, she also began to yearn for more independence. Yet, clear social boundaries limited how much freedom a girl in Fanny's situation should have, and she remained obedient to her father, who continued to make decisions for all members of the Marcus family unilaterally. For Fanny, obeying her father meant ending her relationship in 1828 with Leopold Bock, a theology student whom the young girl dreamed of marrying, and converting to Protestantism in 1830. Fanny's father also made the decision a year later to change the family's name from Marcus to the non-Jewish Lewald.
Chapter 2 continues Lewald's biography from childhood obedience to open rebellion in her adult years. Lewald's refusal to accept the marriage proposal her father arranged for her in 1836 forms one of the two major turning points in this section of Ward's account. In part, Lewald's pining for a cousin with whom she had fallen in love three years earlier informed her rejection. Yet Ward indicates that Lewald's refusal stemmed from an even deeper emancipatory impulse: "fueled by the humiliation of the moment, Lewald remembers telling her father that she considered a prostitute from a poor family not half so immoral as a young women who would do the very thing [marry for financial security] he was asking of her" (p. 74). Disappointed but realizing Lewald's mind had been made up, her father dropped the issue. Lewald's decision to begin writing for publication provides the second turning point in Ward's account. Although her father attempted to dissuade her, Lewald acted on a cousin's encouragement and embarked on her career as a writer. Ward links these steps in Lewald's own emancipation with the themes of her novels written during this period by analyzing their plots. As an indication of interconnected tensions in Lewald's life and work, Ward points out that the author continued to publish her works anonymously and to fret over her father's opinion of her writing even during this stage of her life.
Chapter 3 centers on the mature Lewald, who by this point had established her ability to earn a living from her writing. Ward emphasizes that while Lewald looked to male models of literary skill and solicited critiques of her work from men, she also looked for inspiration to the works of fellow female authors such as Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Sand, and even had more direct interactions with some of them, like Bettina von Arnim and George Elliot. Personally, however, this period was dominated by Lewald's relationship with Adolf Stahr, a married man she met while traveling in Italy in 1846. Only after nine years could the two finally convince Stahr's wife Marie to agree to a divorce, allowing the two lovers to marry in 1855, which also concludes the chronological section of Ward's book.
The next three chapters are organized thematically, although at various points Ward continues to relate the events of Lewald's later life until her death in 1889. In chapter 5, Ward offers interpretations of additional works by Lewald. In chapter 6, Ward focuses on Lewald's relationships, which allowed her to exercise her mothering instinct, and also considers how Lewald dealt with her own aging and her husband's death. The most interesting of these later chapters, however, is the fourth, which squarely addresses the issue of Lewald's emancipatory thought. Ward discusses Lewald's advocacy of equal educational opportunities for women and shows that her thinking evolved to include a vital role for the state, which she justified on the basis of the female citizen's role as taxpayer. Lewald also promoted the virtues of communal kitchens as a way to allow middle-class women more freedom to undertake non-domestic roles. Yet, Lewald's emancipatory thought regarding women also took class into consideration: she often pointed to the way middle-class women kept their less privileged sisters oppressed. Moreover, for Lewald, the alleged immorality of lower-class women could not be divorced from their particular economic vulnerabilities in a patriarchal society. At the same time, Lewald's writings never fully rejected the values of traditional society. She still held the institution of marriage for women in high esteem. She argued for better women's education in part to make them better wives and mothers. Ultimately, Lewald also proved reluctant to make an argument for women's suffrage.
Ward chooses to emphasize the nuances in Lewald's writings on gender equality and also argues that after German unification, Lewald did not abandon her strong advocacy of women's emancipation, even though she ignored the topic in her published works almost completely and refrained from joining any organization devoted to the cause. Instead, Ward searches for a fuller picture from other sources. Lewald continued to decry the lack of women's rights in various diary entries long after the topic dropped from her published writings, though more conservative comments also appear. Even so, Ward sees clear, convincing evidence that Lewald's basic commitment to women's emancipation remained strong in the author's final act. In the instructions for disposing of her estate, Lewald set up a trust to fund the educational pursuits of any individual claiming descent from her father. Importantly, boys and girls held equal claim to such funds. Lewald also set up a second trust to provide women in need of financial assistance a source of funding. Here, Ward's method of examining both "her story as much as her stories, the spider, as well as her webs" suggests a different interpretation of Lewald's later views than would a focus on her published works alone.
It is when Ward most fully integrates spider and web that her book is at its best. Chapter 1, for example, gives a relatively straightforward account of Lewald's early life. Granted, the chapter's chronological organization and the fact that Lewald had not yet begun her writing career make this integration more difficult here than in subsequent chapters. Yet, more references (such as those that Ward does provide to the rising and falling fortunes of Jews in Prussia) to the larger cultural, political, and social contexts of Lewald's childhood would have helped to position her life in the history of the period. Likewise, sections of chapter 5 focus singularly on the analysis of one text without reference to the larger context of Lewald's own life, making them of somewhat limited use for an audience other than German literature specialists. The other chapters integrate this contextualization more effectively with analysis of Lewald's own literary efforts and thus prove more informative as well as more enjoyable to read. In particular, readers unfamiliar with Lewald's works will certainly benefit from the generously but judiciously quoted passages Ward includes in her text. Overall, Ward has provided readers with a valuable, nuanced English-language account of Lewald's life and work.
. "Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text, and the Critic," in Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 77-121.
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Rebecca Ayako Bennette. Review of Ward, Margaret E., Fanny Lewald: Between Rebellion and Renunciation.
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