German Literature Month is back with another female writer today, one whose work I’ve tried (and enjoyed) before. It’s another piece of classic G-Lit, but the bus is taking us further afield for this work – we’re off to Slovakia…
Božena was ‘Austrian’ writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s first major success. It’s set in a provincial town in Slovakia (at the time, part of the Austrian Empire), and it’s the tale of the fortunes of the family of a wine merchant, Herr Heißenstein. After his first wife dies, leaving him with a daughter but no son, he remarries in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to provide himself with a male heir. Instead, he gains another daughter, and when the old man dies, the outlook is bleak for the elder daughter with a nasty step-mother around. However, the girl does have someone on her side…
That someone is Božena, the housekeeper, an attractive woman who also happens to be rather big and strong (in my head she was a dead ringer for Xena, Warrior Princess…). Božena is hard-working and fiercely protective of Rosa, and when her poor girl passes away later in the story, the housekeeper also takes care of Rosa’s daughter, Röschen. With wicked step-mothers, gigantic housekeepers and girls named after flowers, the novel has a decided fairy-tale feel to it: but will there be a happy ending?
Despite the title of the book, the main focus (eventually) is on Regula, the younger Heißenstein daughter, and her niece, Röschen. Once the elder generation is out of the way, the story hinges on the rather plain and dull woman’s attempt to have her wealth snare her a desirable husband, all the time attempting to treat her niece as poorly as possible without affecting her public image of a kind, gracious lady. The problem is that handsome young men are more inclined to chase pretty faces than ugly purses, and Röschen is very attractive indeed…
The novel is set in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time of social unrest and revolutions:
“Die Revolution ging indessen unaufhaltsam ihren Gang. Pöbelunruhen in Wien, Bürgerkrieg in Ungarn, die Oktobertage, die Abreise der kaiserlichen Familie nach Olmütz, die Desertion der Tschechen aus dem Reichstage…”
“Meanwhile, the revolution went unstoppably on its way. Popular unrest in Vienna, civil war in Hungary, the October Days, the departure of the Imperial family for Olmütz, the desertion of the Czechs from the parliament…” (my translation)
These events have several serious consequences for the characters of the novel. For one thing, Rosa’s husband is a soldier, and he is to be sent off into these lengthy and dangerous conflicts taking place in Central Europe. In a wider sense, the unrest affects the social stability of the region, leading to the rise of the merchant classes and the poverty of nobles – a state of affairs which allows Regula to dream of her alliance.
Božena is a big personality and a great creation, even if she disappears a little from the story at times. Her strength and honesty are crucial to the plot, and even the moment of her greatest disgrace serves to push the story along, showing as it does her unswerving honesty. Despite her flaws and low standing, she is not a woman to be crossed lightly – even the men fear her for her fiery temper and her powerful presence.
There is also an impressive cast of bit parts to complement the main characters. The professor who falls in love with the plain Regula, a man who can’t help being attracted to the plain, dull head of the household, is great comic value. Božena also has a (platonic) admirer in Mansuet Weberlein, Herr Heißenstein’s right-hand man, and Weberlein is vital in holding things together when the wine merchant disowns his daughter.
As in Das Gemeindekind (The Parrish Child), the first book I tried by this writer, the story betrays constant touches of humour, especially sarcasm. A nice example of the light tone is shown in the description of Heißenstein’s first meeting with Nannette, where she:
“…enteilte mit so gleichmäßigen kleinen Schritten, daß es war, als rolle sie auf unsichtbaren Rädern über den Kies des Weges dahin.”
“…hurried away with such even little steps that it was as if she were rolling away across the gravel on invisible wheels.”
This eye for detail is constant throughout the book, although Ebner-Eschenbach can be a lot more cutting on occasion.
To be honest, Božena is not nearly as good as Das Gemeindekind though. It’s fairly predictable, and we always know where we’re going, with the plot just plodding along at one pace. The writing rarely stops to reflect on what’s happening, and the story is far too plot-driven, leaving reflection and detail aside. There’s also the rather clichéd step-mother trope, which doesn’t exactly leave us wondering where the story’s heading…
This book was written eleven years before Das Gemeindekind, and I could really see the difference and the development shown in the later work. While Božena is enjoyable in parts, it’s really a fairly slight work, one that only the purists are likely to read. Still, there’s enough in Ebner-Eschenbach’s style to have me trying another work at some point – and I’ll be looking for a later novel to see if my hunch is right 🙂
As far as I can see, Božena isn’t available in English. In fact, I’m not sure if there is anything of Ebner-Eschenbach’s work readily available in translation…