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Popular Fiction in the Age of Bismarck

E. Marlitt and her Narrative Strategies


Terry May

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.
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Afterword: E. Marlitt’s Ideological Orientation


Several problems of the critical evaluation of E. Marlitt are convincingly resolved by Tobias Klein’s demonstration that her individual fictional characters evoke representational categories of the social spectrum – the countess, the Jesuit, the parson’s wife, the craftsman, the domestic cook or housekeeper, the itinerant porcelain worker’s wife. These figures illustrate social realities in encapsulated form as the author champions middle-class industry, innovations, and independence. Far from reducing portraiture to black or white, these representational figures permit the fictional tale to address a variety of types and social stances. They function like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s three slave masters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Arthur Shelby, Augustine St. Clare, and Simon Legree; the selection of these three respresentative families permits the author’s vivid portraiture of differing ideological stances towards slavery in the old South. Exploration of the illustrative aspects of depiction proves far more productive than the dismissive denigration as “stock figures.”

Acceptance of a sketched representation, however, cannot justify transformation or inversion of the image portrayed. Klein’s hypothesis of congruence between Marlitt and sociologist A. W. Riehl’s conservative model of the “total house” shows a willingness to stretch definitions and situations in order to align Marlitt’s fictional configurations with Riehl. Conversely, Klein seems unwilling to accept Marlitt’s stretching and shifting of traditional images as signs of an altogether different philosophical orientation underlying her construction of “family,” and, symbolically, of the nation. The distinction is of paramount import, for if Klein were correct and one could justify reading Marlitt’s...

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