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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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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,...

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