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The Red Countess

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Hermynia Zur Mühlen

4. Feuilletons and Fairy Tales: A Sampling

Painted on Ivory

Hermynia Zur Mühlen
Traduction de Lionel Gossman

Texte intégral

1October had turned the leaves yellow and red. In the afternoon sun their colours glowed brightly. The approaching evening had sent a gentle wind ahead as its messenger. Yellow and red leaves were swept into the pond where they sailed for a while over the grey water, like tiny boats, until they sank.

2Jane Austen stood by the pond and observed the little performance. How often she had done that in the seven years since 1809 when the three of them, the widow and her orphaned daughters — Jane, her two years older sister Cassandra, and their mother — had moved from Bath to the country at Chawton House.

3Strange that she was affected for the first time, today, by the melancholy of autumn. Until now autumn had been only a time of transition to Chawton’s cosy winter warmth, which in its turn held out the promise of spring. Today, however, she felt a leave-taking in the air and she shivered slightly. But only for a moment. Impatiently she threw back her head with its dark curls and straightened her tall slim body. A smile formed on her small mouth and danced in her hazel eyes as she chided herself for having yielded to sentimentality. For there was nothing she hated so much as exaggerated feelings. She had not tolerated them in any of the heroines of her novels. All the young females in her books were complete mistresses of their hearts.

4As she often did, she thought of these figures as if they were living creatures. Among them were several of whom she was fonder than of friends and relatives — Cassandra, the cleverest and best of sisters, excepted. Above all, Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. She had never been able to forgive anyone for not loving Elizabeth. Perhaps because there was a good deal of herself in Elizabeth — the keen eye for human weaknesses, the energy, the wit. She remembered exactly how she had written the book as a twenty-one year old in her first, beloved home, Steventon Rectory, where her father had been rector. It had come out three years ago in 1813; anonymously, of course, as a Novel by a Lady.

5Could there have been a finer pseudonym for her? Were not the “lady” and the “gentleman” her ideal — people with good manners, a solid education and culture, like her father, and a select social circle. That circle might be a trifle narrow perhaps, but it was harmonious. Only the ridiculous traits of a few arrogant aristocrats and the naïve snobbery of a small number of social climbers heightened its colour somewhat. How well she knew those people. She had spent her entire life among them. Was it not natural that they figured in all her books?

6Now the Big House on the hillside [Chawton House — L.G.] was turning red in the light of the setting sun. Even the lower lying church was touched by its wine-dark rays. On the other side of the valley the small, thickly wooded hill could be seen fading into the darkness, and the breeze had become cooler.

7Jane strode through the carefully tended garden into the house. She entered the large living-room, where her mother and Cassandra were already waiting for her. Jane loved this room, she loved the walled-up window that had once looked out on to the public road and was now transformed into a bookcase. Perhaps, she reflected — and her own thought startled her — perhaps in my books too I always walled up the window opening on to the road. The road means the larger world out there with its noise, its loud pleasures, its unconcealed tragedies. It means people and more people, people who are different from me, people passionate about politics — and I have always hated politics. It means the tragic condition of poverty in the big cities, about which I know nothing and want to know nothing — though I have never neglected our own worthy, well brought up poor. There was one time when the road reached right into our lives. That was years ago when my cousin Elizabeth’s husband was guillotined in France. But that was so far away and so much less real than my books or than a malicious smile espied in company, or a clever turn of phrase, or a gesture revealing a person’s whole character. Yes, even tragedy once came quite close — that was in 1805 — through my brother Frank who was serving in the Navy.

8In one of his letters he described Nelson’s death at Trafalgar which he had witnessed personally. How much better it is to fill up the window that looks out on to the road with books and to see out only through the other window on to the garden, on to lawns and trees and on to the high wood fence that cuts us off from others, on to the hedge of hornbeam with its delicate leaves…

9She gave her sister a smile and walked over to her writing desk. From the drawer she pulled out some small loose sheets of paper, so small they could easily be hidden if company came, sat down, and began to write. She loved working quietly in the large, handsome room, she loved to look up and see Cassandra’s gentle gaze turned on her, and the still sturdy figure of their mother, who on days when she had spent the morning working in the garden, often dozed off on the sofa in the twilight hour. These two people, along with her brothers and their children, and her work, made up her world.

10But her books too meant something different to her than to most women writers. She smiled as she thought of Fanny Burney, who was so ambitious and set such store by the judgment of others, and of that dreadful Madame de Stael whose heroines revealed their feelings so shamelessly and seemed to know of nothing but love — not a tender love respectful of the boundaries that preserve a certain distance between people, but a wild, vulgar, at times ridiculous passion. In London once, when the secret of the “Lady” who had written Pride and Prejudice was no longer a secret, an attempt had been made to bring her together with Madame de Stael. But she had explained that she could not accept an invitation to a house where she was to be welcomed, not as Jane Austen, but as the author of Pride and Prejudice. Besides, Madame de Stael had said that Miss Austen’s books were “commonplace.”

11She began to write, quickly, as was her manner. Her energetic yet fine handwriting filled one loose sheet of paper after another, until darkness forced her to stop.

12Cassandra, who sensed all the moods of her sister, did not hurry to light the lamps. She knew that Jane continued to spin out her stories in the semi-darkness and that she was not to be disturbed by a single spoken word.

13Today, however, Jane’s thoughts were not about the new novel Persuasion, on which she had been working for months. Something or other was leading her to reflect on her own life. What was it exactly? Normally, for her, the past was truly past, and she was not especially interested in her own person. Impatiently she straightened the little cap she wore. (Years ago — far too soon, according to their mother — she and Cassandra had decided to cover their curls with the headgear of elderly women.) She hated every kind of obscurity, in words as in feelings. In her books too every word had to be the mot juste, the only right one. She loved words, and she loved an orderly, clear, rather sober style, a style that — so it seemed to her — best reflected life, at least the life of her caste. Now she was tormented by the question why, today, as she stood at the pond, she had for the first time felt the sadness of autumn, why, as she thought about her books, she had suddenly felt a desire to defend them — not in the eyes of others, but in her own. She wrinkled her forehead and reflected strenuously. Everything was caused by something and until that something had been identified, one was obliged to wander around in a fog and could not find one’s way into the bright, somewhat cold, somewhat harsh light of day that, for her, was the only proper light. Why?… Her sister, only a shadowy outline in the darkness, looked over toward her, and all at once she knew what the something was. This morning, in the bedroom they shared, while Cassandra was combing her hair, she had seen, for the first time, a white strand in the dark locks, and had thought, slightly shocked: Cassy is getting old; we are both getting old. Afterwards she had laughed at her own silliness: old at forty and forty-two! How much time do we still have, how much time do I still have to write my beloved books?

14Now this thought occurred to her again and she smiled at her own silly sentimentality. I have written only five novels so far! Like a child, she enumerated them on the fingers of her left hand: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey. The smile on her finely shaped features grew broader. Dear, good Mrs. Radcliffe had forgiven her the parody of her famous book The Mysteries of Udolpho and had even laughed at it herself. It had been too tempting to make a fool of those popular horror stories with their dark dungeons, spirits, murders, cruel villains and supernaturally virtuous heroes and heroines. Real life was something altogether different, something quiet and peaceful. Even death was not too frightening when one had faith in an afterlife.

15The index finger of Jane Austen’s right hand still rested on the palm of her left hand. Suddenly she felt how skinny it was. She raised her hand and held it in front of her face, but it was too dark to make anything out and now she grasped one hand with the other a little more vigorously, a little more impatiently than was her wont. Yes, her hand is skinny, and her round face has become long and narrow. That she could see in the mirror. She always feels tired now and rather often she is visited by pains that she hides from her mother and Cassandra…

16Time — to write more books… Who knows how much time has been granted to us? It occurred to her that Cassandra, to whom she read each new chapter aloud, had said: “I don’t know what it is, Jane, but this book is different. There are none of your dear little malicious comments and gestures. Your heroine, Anne Elliot, strikes me as the most interesting of your female characters, she is gentler, more sensitive…” “Please, Cassy,” she had interrupted her sister.” I beg you, don’t tell me that Anne is sentimental.” “No, but somehow, I’m not sure how, she is more connected to life out there than your other heroines.” “I don’t understand you. Elizabeth and Elinor and Emma also fall in love, are loved, and get married. Isn’t that what happens to everyone?” Cassandra had not answered and had left the room almost in anger. Now as Jane stared at the loose sheets of paper lying in front of her, she admitted that her sister had been right. But she had been right too, for it was the first time that she had allowed feeling to have the leading role in one of her books. Perhaps the world did not consist only of country gentry, middle-class landowners, vicars, and their daughters. Perhaps, after all, there was something else, something that had remained foreign to her.

17“Cassy,” she called out in the darkness, “do you know what my books are? Little ivory pieces, two inches high, painted with such a thin brush that all my work, in the end, has only a quite slight effect.”

18“Jane,” Cassy cried out in shock. “What has got into you? What are you thinking of?”

19“I don’t know myself. Perhaps it is better to paint large pictures. Pictures that encompass everything. But I wasn’t capable of that. I could only portray the world I knew. Perhaps I was wrong not to want to get to know the other world.”

20“I don’t know what you mean, Jane,” Cassandra said uncomprehendingly.

21Jane Austen laughed, softly, gently, as a lady should laugh.

22“Forget about it, Cassy. It was just a thought. I’ve already chased it away. Light the lamps. As you well know, darkness confuses people and makes them sentimental. Do light the lamps please, quickly.”

23“Auf Elfenbein gemalt,” Die Zeit (Vienna), 16, 15 December 1948, p. 24ff/

Translator’s note

  • 1 See Annika Bautz, “The Reception of Jane Austen in Germany,” in The Reception of Jane Austen in Eu (...)

24Zur Mühlen’s interest in and knowledge of Jane Austen were unusual in the German-speaking world. Until fairly recently, Austen’s work was virtually unread and untranslated in Germany. Even academic studies of it by German scholars of English literature were extremely rare.1 Zur Mühlen may have been introduced to Austen by her Anglo-Irish grandmother, Isabella Louisa Blacker, or she may have discovered her during her years of exile in England. For obvious reasons, she must have been intrigued by Austen’s status as a woman writer whose class and gender identity was in conflict with her literary ambition and by the way she chose to resolve that conflict. But she may also have felt that she shared with Austen a peculiarly feminine way of attending to speech, gesture, and other characteristics of class and individual personality, as well as to the complexity of human relations in general. In addition, her fictional portrait of Jane Austen provided an opportunity for reflecting on the role and responsibility of the writer. Her late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century English predecessor is presented as having deliberately chosen to restrict herself, for the sake of her art, to the portrayal of the world she knew well and never left — in marked contrast to Zur Mühlen’s own decision to break out of her world in order to address a wide and varied audience on the pressing political and social issues of her time. What is an author’s obligation? Should she write finely observed, literary pieces on domestic themes, as Zur Mühlen with her novel Der Riesenrad had demonstrated she was quite capable of doing, or should she look out on to “the street, with its noise, its loud pleasures and its unconcealed tragedies” — which to Zur Mühlen had meant writing about pressing social and political problems, in particular the dangers of National Socialism — and get her readers to do likewise? Zur Mühlen’s choice was never in doubt. But she was not unaware of the sacrifices, literary as well as pecuniary, that her choice entailed. Finally, despite her political commitment, Zur Mühlen, who had struggled with ill health for most of her life, was acutely conscious of the fragility of existence and, in general, of the transitoriness of everything. In this feuilleton she projects that consciousness, not implausibly, on to her heroine. Apparently her knowledge of Austen’s biography extended to the illness of which Austen began to be aware when she was about forty, not long after she had begun work on Persuasion, and which carried her off less than two years later. In Zur Mühlen’s autobiographical memoir, Ende und Anfang, written and published in 1929, when she was in her mid-forties, there is a short passage that is quite similar in tone to the tone set at the very opening of the feuilleton. It evokes the feeling of melancholy that overcame the future writer as she watched darkness gathering over the small town of Gmunden in Austria, where, in the company of her beloved grandmother, she spent her happiest childhood years:

I loved our mountain, the pride of the little town, rising up on the opposite shore of the lake. On fine summer evenings the whole mass of stone turned pink, like the finest marble, and then, when it was already dusk all around, the Traunstein (as our mountain was called) shone forth out of the shadows like an undying flame. Gradually, however, it paled and turned cold and dead, and everything lost life and became suddenly old and joyless. At that moment, without knowing why, I felt a deep sadness. A day was dead, a day of childhood was irrevocably gone.

25The fact that this little feuilleton was published in Die Zeit, a short-lived (1948–1950), leftwing fortnightly devoted to literature and art, on the occasion of her own 65th birthday is an indication of how keen and personal Zur Mühlen’s interest in Austen was. (My thanks to Debora Vietor-Engländer for informing me about this now little-known journal.)

Notes

1 See Annika Bautz, “The Reception of Jane Austen in Germany,” in The Reception of Jane Austen in Europe, ed. Anthony Mandal and Brian Southam (London and New York: Continuum, 2007), pp. 93–116. Zur Mühlen’s feuilleton is not mentioned in this otherwise well-documented article.

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