Monday, January 17, 2005

Richardson in the Grenzland

Michael Ackland, in “Henry Handel Richardson’s Years in Wilhelmine Germany: The ‘Most Cultivated Land in Europe’?”, critiques how the Australian-born author portrayed political and social tensions in the Kaiserreich.

Richardson spent a great deal of time in Germany – almost fifteen years. She studied music in Leipzig, and lived in Munich and Strasbourg with her husband, who was herself a Germanist. She took in the developing arts scene. When she settled in Britain in 1903, she positioned herself as a representative of German culture. Until she changed her opinion about Germany with the rise of Nazism in the late 1930s, Richardson took a soft-focus approach to its culture.

Ackland wonders whether or not her German culture reflected her experiences. She lived in several cities that were dominated by contentious politics. Strasbourg was a major military position, and the citizens were aware that they were always at the center of Franco-German tensions. Moreover, the Reich invested money and effort in order to turn Strasbourg as a showpiece.

Did her experiences of Strasbourg make their way into her writing? Ackland sees
an equally striking pattern of subterfuge and omission in her account of ... the new [Alsace-Lorraine].
She lived in the most Germanized part of the city, north of Centre-Ile (old city) in an area that had been built up in a few decades in order to give a new center of gravity to the city. It was a stretch between the government buildings, which included the provincial palace, the university (with the largest university library of its day), the national theater, and the provincial parliament, and the military citadel. She was “at ease in this bastion of Wilhelmine militarism.”

After reading the article, I went to Richardson’s writings to read her opinions about the arts in Alsace. I was stunned that she had so little to say. She writes to giants of European theater, but has nothing to say about the wildly popular dialect theater or Jüngste Elsaß, an art nouveau movement to develop Alsatian literature in German (many members were central to expressionist literature).


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