Popular Fiction in the Age of Bismarck

E. Marlitt and her Narrative Strategies

by Terry May (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 384 Pages


E. Marlitt was a bestselling author of the late nineteenth century whose romance novels dominated the German literary market between 1865 and 1888. Her novels appeared in thirty languages, with as many as five different English translations circulating simultaneously in the United States alone. While her name is virtually absent from histories of German literature, recent scholarly studies of individual novels suggest the need to reassess her contributions.
This study is the first in English to examine E. Marlitt’s complete fiction. It situates her prose against the backdrop of women’s discourse and nineteenth-century historical developments in the German Empire. It synthesizes findings of both American and German scholarship to show how her social constructs advanced a liberal political agenda while resisting the conventional view of «natural» gender roles. The book provides a context for recognizing Marlitt’s clever use of the conventionality and acceptability of the romance genre to reposition the image of middle-class women. Her emphasis on personal autonomy, educational opportunities and new fields of professional engagement for women advanced altered images of family, class and national identity. Ultimately, this study of a popular author illuminates domestic, middle-class issues that underwent significant transformations equal to the Empire’s public developments under Bismarck’s politics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • A Note on Sources
  • Introduction: E. Marlitt Reconsidered
  • 1 Liberalism in the Early Works of E. Marlitt
  • 2 Developing Parameters: Schulmeisters Marie to Blaubart
  • 3 Das Heideprinzeßchen: The Pedagogical Process
  • 4 The Kulturkampf in the Domestic Realm: Die zweite Frau and Im Schillingshof
  • 5 E. Marlitt, Feminine Representation, and Codified Closure
  • 6 E. Marlitt’s Secondary Characters as Models and Mentors
  • Afterword: E. Marlitt’s Ideological Orientation
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

| vii →


I am indebted to Dr. Peter Uwe Hohendahl for expanding my academic orientation to include the study of popular literature and for introducing me to E. Marlitt in his remarkable DAAD seminar “The Canon and Beyond” held at Cornell University (1991).

To my former colleagues at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, I am grateful for the stimulating impetus to begin this study: Dr. Heidrun Schorcht for arranging an excursion to Marlitt’s hometown Arnstadt where we purchased several novels; Dr. Birgit Schulze for taking me to the Thüringisches Staatsarchiv Rudolstadt; and Axel Burchhardt for the gift of my first original editions of Marlitt.

I was most fortunate to enjoy the support of St John Fisher College for a sabbatical leave to conduct research at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, the Thüringisches Staatsarachiv Rudolstadt, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. I particularly wish to thank my friends and fellow faculty whose collegiality has sustained me through the years; their willingness to read and provide feedback on individual chapters has enhanced the manuscript considerably: Professors Margot Backus, Lee Chase, Kathleen Costello, Lisa Jadwin, M. J. Juppa, Judiana Lawrence, Wesley Renfro, Cara Welsh, and finally to Melissa Jadlos for exceptional research support as director of the Lavery Library.

I am grateful to Jennifer Speake, my copy editor, whose keen eye and impeccable sense of diction has enhanced the consistency and clarity of my manuscript, and to Dr. Laurel Plapp, Commissioning Editor, for her encouragement, grace, and patient support throughout the entire publication process.

My deepest gratitude to Joel N. Smith for unflagging support, patience, and encouragement to bring this project to completion.

| ix →

A Note on Sources

Textual citations in English are my own renderings of the original German of Marlitt’s texts, closely following translations of A. L. Wister published by J. P. Lippencott and Co. The original German is included throughout. Pagination refers to the unabridged versions of E. Marlitt’s Gesammelte Romane und Novellen (Leipzig: Verlag von Ernst Keils Nachfolger, 1897) unless otherwise noted, for this edition is accessible via online postings at <http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/autor/399>. Individual novels are identified in the citations with the abbreviations referencing the original German title as noted below. Numerous English-language translations of E. Marlitt cause an element of confusion because of the variation in their titles for a work. While I cannot correct the publication history, I can opt for clarity and simplicity for all who wish to read Marlitt in English. To foster this aim, I have chosen to use the English titles currently available online at <http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/search?amode=start&author=Marlitt%2C%20E.%20(Eugenie)%2C%201825-1887>.

Sources and abbreviations:

E. Marlitts gesammelte Romane und Novellen. 10 Bde., Leipzig: Verlag von Ernst Keils Nachfolger, 1897

Vol. 1 Das Geheimnis der alten Mamsell (GM) or The Old Mam’selle’s Secret

Vol. 2 Das Heideprinzeßchen (HP) or The Little Moorland Princess

Vol. 3 Reichsgräfin Gisela (RG) or Countess Gisela

Vol. 4 Im Schillingshof (SH) or In the Schillingscourt

Vol. 5 Im Hause des Kommerzienrates (HdK) or At the Councillor’s

Vol. 6 Die Frau mit den Karfunkelsteinen (FK) or The Lady with the Rubies

Vol. 7 Die zweite Frau (ZF) or The Second Wife

Vol. 8 Goldelse (GE) or Gold Elsie

← ix | x →

Vol. 9 Das Eulenhaus or The Owl’s Nest, completed after Marlitt’s death by the popular writer Wilhelmine Heimburg (Berta Behrens), is not treated in this study.

Vol. 10 Thüringer Erzählungen (TE). Citation pagination refers to the second edition. Stuttgart: Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1894. It includes:

Die zwölf Apostel or The Twelve Apostles

Blaubart or Bluebeard

Schulmeisters Marie or School Master’s Marie

Amtmanns Magd or The Bailiff’s Maid

Eugenie John-Marlitt. Ihr Leben und ihre Werke by Alfred John

| 1 →

Introduction: E. Marlitt Reconsidered

I regard any model that places personal life in a separate sphere and that grants literature a secondary and passive role in political history as unconsciously sexist. I believe such models necessarily fail to account for the formation of a modern bureaucratic culture because they fail to account for the place of women within it.

NANCY ARMSTRONG, “Some Call It Fiction:
On the Politics of Domesticity”1

E. Marlitt (1825–87) remains an enigma in the world of literary criticism. While critics, analysts of popular culture, and historians concur that she is unquestionably one of the most widely read German authors of the nineteenth century, traditional German literary histories overlook her phenomenal popularity; either they exclude her altogether, or they dismiss her novels as Trivialliteratur, that is, a trivial reinforcement of the status quo, lacking all originality, or the epitome of literary Kitsch.2 Although her novel Reichsgräfin Gisela still garnered sufficient esteem in 1920 to appear in the collection Meistererzähler der Weltliteratur (Mitteldeutsche Verlags-Anstalt in Halle),3 Marlitt’s writings, like most by women, fall victim to ← 1 | 2 → “canonical amnesia”,4 “for there is no female novelist prior to [the 1970s] who forms part of the German literary canon.”5 By the late twentieth century, even groundbreaking studies of women writers overlook this author’s literary contributions.6 When one does find mention of E. Marlitt, it is revealing that most texts repeat the same clichéd phrases penned over one hundred years ago, in spite of their glaring errors, suggesting a rather blatant perpetuation of the dominant male-centered literary establishment without the pretense of an individualized evaluation.

A striking shift of focus marks recent critical appraisals; these are less concerned with Marlitt’s failure to meet some ideal of classic literary form than with the uncontested reality of her vast readership. It is this latter factor which piques contemporary interest, a consideration of her influence upon the nineteenth-century cultural consciousness. Her novels hit the market at an opportune moment of historical change when German unification in 1871 opened up the possibility of a national audience and advances in literacy were greatly expanding the reading public. Katrin Kohl clearly identifies the historical factors:

Three developments are crucial both for Marlitt’s poetics and for the reception of her work: the rapid expansion and diversification of the readership, which had previously been confined largely to learned circles and the upper echelons of society; the increasing importance of market forces in place of court patronage as factors ← 2 | 3 → determining a writer’s success; and the inclusion of women among the writers and readers of literature.7

The publication of Marlitt’s fiction in serialized format helped catapult the family magazine Die Gartenlaube from its successful circulation of 100,000 in 1861 to a record-breaking 375,000 copies per issue in 1867.8 As the most successful German-language magazine in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Die Gartenlaube is recognized as having contributed substantially to the formulation of a national identity; it was even distributed to the German colonists in the United States, Brazil, and Australia.9 Since Marlitt’s novels are acknowledged as promoting the financial success of this singular publication, the coincidence of a record-breaking publication and readership should suffice to justify a re-examination of her fiction. If one further considers that these novels subsequently appeared in book form and circulated as pirated translations in all of the major European languages, the scope of interest expands considerably. Recognizing that the novels are still readily available today, in print as well as in online versions, one must at least question the incongruity between their alleged “triviality” and their continued contemporary appeal.

The uniquely successful family-orientated publication Die Gartenlaube has been the focus of innumerable studies on the emergence of mass culture, the construction of national identity, and the representation of bourgeois ideals during the Age of Bismarck.10 As early as 1967, Heide Radeck ← 3 | 4 → demonstrated in her dissertation the subversive nature of the journal’s claim to apolitical entertainment, addressing an editorial assertion contained within the dedication of the first issue. This maneuver “actually only served to circumvent the censors and to deflect attention from the political intent lying behind the emphasized harmlessness” [tatsächlich nur dazu diente, die Zensur zu umgehen und von dem hinter der betonten Harmlosigkeit stehenden politischen Zweck abzulenken].11 Curiously, literary criticism fails to apply the same logic to the star author of the publication, E. Marlitt. Until the advent of feminist literary theory, critical receptions generally followed gendered expectations according to which strategic planning is attributed to the male editor, while only sentimental acquiescence to norms is acknowledged in his partner in success, the female author.

Since the 1990s, the sheer volume of criticism on Marlitt published in both German and English attests to re-emerging scholarly interest in the phenomenal success of this writer whose eight novels and short stories appeared in over thirty languages during her lifetime. Biographical evidence stresses several unusual features of her personal identity formation. Friederike Henriette Christiane Eugenie John (1825–87) was the second daughter of a businessman who at one time ran a lending library of popular literature. The early support of an aristocratic patroness, the Princess Mathilde von Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, permitted the young bourgeois girl to receive an education within aristocratic circles, train as an opera singer in Vienna, observe life at court first hand, and experience the theater in the cosmopolitan centers of Munich and Vienna. Critics invariably repeat the same incorrect information that stage fright at her debut at the opera in Leipzig in 1847, singing the role of Gabriele in Das Nachtlager von Granada, terminated her career. They cite a misleading phrase in Moritz Neckar’s biographical sketch of the author, truncated from Ernst Pasqué’s reminiscence of Eugenie’s 1847 debut; Neckar falsely ← 4 | 5 → concluded that the initial shyness meant failure.12 However, Pasqué’s recollection of the 1847 event as her co-performer, not written until 1884, concludes with considerable praise for her artistry:

Angst und Aufregung raubten der armen, jungen Sängerin vollständig die Fähigkeit, ihre Stimme, ihr Talent auch nur zum kleinsten Theile geltend zu machen. (…) Doch bei unserem Duett änderte sich dies … mein leisgeflüstertes Zureden wirkte wie ein Wunder auf die arme Gabriele, und sie gab diesmal wirklich ihr Bestes. Rauschender Beifall folgte dem hübschen Ensemble-Andante. (Frankfurter Zeitung, Feuilleton 10 October 1884)13

[Fear and agitation completely robbed the poor young singer of the ability to validate her voice, her talent, even in the smallest fashion. (…) However, this altered in our duet … my softly whispered encouragement had a miraculous affect on poor Gabriele, and this time she really presented her best. Tumultuous applause followed after the pretty ensemble andante.]

The second half of the citation aligns with the historical record, which documents, however scantily, the continuation of her career. The princess arranged for Eugenie to be appointed court singer or “Hofsängerin” to practice performing at the court theater in Sondershausen. Two years later Eugenie went on tour, properly chaperoned by her mother; she performed engagements in Linz, Graz, Cracow, and Lemberg. When the Vienna Opera moved to Olmütz during the revolution, Eugenie appeared before the Emperor Franz Joseph and the Viennese court.14 On February 26, 1849, her letter to Leopoldine von Nischer-Falkenhof rejoiced in her success in Der Freischutz with curtain calls alongside the prominent tenor Josef Erl,15 ← 5 | 6 → while that of March 20, 1849 recounted a successful concert performance. The truncated version of failure from the operatic debut belies the record of the intervening years of performance.

When a hearing ailment forced the termination of Eugenie’s operatic aspirations, her patroness again offered support with a salaried position as reader, secretary, companion, aid to the children, and nurse as required. Through residence at various courts and later in Munich, she personally experienced the boundaries imposed between bourgeois and aristocratic circles in German and Austrian society.16 Her letters detail the prejudicial treatment directed against middle-class individuals when the princess preferred her services over those of aristocratic ladies-in-waiting.17 Marlitt served the princess from 1853 until 1863 when arthritic symptoms further constrained her activities.

At the age of thirty-eight, she determined to try her hand as a writer. She resigned from her position to return to her bourgeois roots in the small ← 6 | 7 → Thuringian town of Arnstadt, not as the guarantor of financial security for her extended family as a singer as she had hoped, but as a woman seeking her brother’s protection. Needlework and piano and singing lessons provided a minimal income before she dared to submit a text for publication and remuneration.18 Her initial attempt garnered encouragement, for the editor of Die Gartenlaube, Ernst Keil, responded enthusiastically to the tale Die zwölf Apostel by including the invitation to submit additional work, a gesture which softened his rejection of the co-submission Schulmeisters Marie. She debuted under the gender-neutral pseudonym E. Marlitt in 1865 with Die zwölf Apostel, and Keil modified his journalistic format to accommodate the full novel Goldelse via serialization in 1866. Several critics surmise the name to be an acronym signifying the writings from her hometown of Arnstadt, “Meine arnstädter Litteratur”.19 Her patroness, the Princess Mathilde von Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, employed a similar pseudonym, M. Dornheim, for publication of her dramatic poem, Jadwiga. Königin v. Polen, and a later collection of poetry.20 Eugenie’s gender was only revealed to the reading public after serialized publication of two novels had established a loyal readership.

By 1871, she was virtually confined to a wheelchair due to rheumatism and increasingly to a world of limited sound. As early as 1862, her letter to Leopoldine Ritter von Nischer-Falkenhof described her symptoms which limited her receptive abilities to a single conversational partner at a time, ← 7 | 8 → hearing only cacophony in a group. She particularly lamented the loss at the princess’s intellectual gatherings:

Sobald ich mich speziell mit dem Einen oder Anderen unterhalte, wobei Alle so liebenswürdig sind, mir mein Übel möglichst wenig fühlbar zu machen, dann geht mir im Gewirr der Stimmen der Faden des Gesprächs verloren und ich büße vieles ein, was für mich von höchstem Interesse sein würde.21

[As soon as I enter into conversation with one or the other, where all are so kind to make me feel my malady as little as possible, the thread of conversation gets lost in the jumble of voices and I lose a great deal which would be of greatest interest.]

The detail of the description suggests impaired auditory performance with competing acoustic signals, perhaps more readily recognizable today than at the time when Michael Kienzle presumed a psychosomatic disorder.22 Judging by letters and family annals, Eugenie enjoyed a fulfilling family life of intimate celebrations and birthday dinners for the young nephews and nieces, with few outside visitors other than her publisher and friend, Ernst Keil.23 Drawing on her unusual experience between social worlds, the author successfully conveyed the tensions between the classes in literary form and captivated the popular imagination through her representations of young women’s emancipatory struggles against both aristocratic hegemony and gendered restrictions.

← 8 | 9 →

The simultaneous circulation of three English-language translations of Marlitt attests to her nineteenth-century appeal in the United States,24 while reviews in early American magazines, Appleton’s Journal, Harper’s Magazine, Nation, and The Ladies’ Repository (a monthly periodical published by the Cincinnati Methodist Episcopal church), applauded the decorum and propriety of the “major European writer.” It is interesting that she was hailed as “one of the most renowned authors of our time,”25 while Literary World counted her among the “best continental novelists” whose works appealed directly to the “modern American woman.”26

In his summary of recent criticism on E. Marlitt, Thorsten Stegemann highlights Cornelia Brauer’s attempts to align Marlitt’s novels thematically and contextually with bourgeois realism, Eugenie Marlitt. Bürgerliche, Christin, Liberale, Autorin. Eine Analyse ihres Werkes im Kontext der “Gartenlaube” und der Entwicklung des bürgerlichen Realismus (Edition Marlitt, 2006). Stegemann acknowledges that Erika Dingeldey’s 2007 publication, Luftzug hinter Samtportieren. Versuch über E. Marlitt, presents a viable theory rejecting the long-postulated notion of the author’s “triviality,” yet he rejects as exaggerated Dingeldey’s position, which connects the Enlightenment impetus of Marlitt’s prose to erotic tension. In all fairness, he notes that Elke Liebs first argues against triviality in her 2004 article “Wer hat Angst vor Trivialliteratur? Eugenie Marlitts ruhige Revolution.” While Stegemann claims that this interpretive stance is “long overdue,” he leaves it entirely up to the reader to pursue Liebs’ “argument,” for he provides no clarification. Yet an exploration of Liebs proves illuminating. She claims that Marlitt’s fictional works should be approached via the modern notion of x← 9 | 10 → intertextuality: they cleverly make use of “proven compositional principles to produce an accepted frame,” yet introduce “astonishing ruptures” with traditional gendered images such that these are ultimately disavowed.27 The discourse strategy employs outmoded conventions, which are subtly unveiled as devoid of realistic reference to practices of her era; this indirect strategy permits her to propagate self-determination for women.28

Scholarly interest in the writings of Marlitt has built continuously over the past two decades, beginning with the more positive assessments of Herrad Schenk’s Die Rache der alten Mamsell (1986), Claudia Wilkie’s “Eugenie Marlitt vor 100 Jahren gestorben” (1987), Hans Arens’ E. Marlitt. Eine kritische Würdigung (1994), and W. A. Coupe’s Eugenie Marlitt: In Defence of a Writer of Kitsch (1996). New critical voices emerge with analytical readings of individual works: Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (1998), The Second Wife; Todd Kontje (1998), At the Councillor’s; Kirsten Belgum (2002), The Lady with the Rubies; and Charlotte Woodford (2011), Goldelse. These scholarly reflections all claim Marlitt to be a rich source of material for investigating the construction of gender values of the nineteenth century. However, as they analyze aspects of individual novels, they cannot address overall structural or thematic interconnections within the entire corpus of Marlitt’s fiction. The same lacunae appear within literary scholarship in German where even ostensibly comprehensive studies, such as Berthe Potthast’s dissertation Eugenie Marlitt (1926) and Hans Arens’ E. Marlitt. Eine kritische Würdigung (1994), limit the commentary to general plot summaries of several of her works. The glaring absence of critical analyses of the entire corpus suggests new critical avenues of investigation.


X, 384
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
prose political agenda conventionality national identity professional engagement
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. X, 384 pp.

Biographical notes

Terry May (Author)

Terrill John May completed his PhD at Cornell University and taught German and French for most of his career at St John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, where he also directed the college Foreign Study Program. His interest in E. Marlitt grew during a sojourn as a visiting guest professor at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena, Germany, near Marlitt’s hometown in Thuringia. His research interests include the ironic novel, German cinema and East German literature.


Title: Popular Fiction in the Age of Bismarck
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397 pages