Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: CHRISTINE by Alice Cholmondeley (pseudonym of Elizabeth von Arnim)

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1917 

Genre: Epistolary Novel, Propaganda 

Topics: World War I, Germany, Propaganda, Love 

Review by Iris on Books

Christine claims to be a collection of letters written by Christine Cholmondeley to her mother Alice during her stay in Germany in 1914, just before the war began. Christine stays in Berlin and its surroundings to train with renowned violin teacher Kloster, as she is a promising talent. Her letters portray her difficult entry into German society, provide a commentary on German people, and feature her personal dealings with a number of people including Kloster and her eventual love interest Bernd. 

However, as the title of my post signals, these were not letters written by Christine to her mother, but instead a fictionalised account written by Elizabeth von Arnim, who made Christine and her mother up. I love Elizabeth von Arnim, and I have had all of the public domain titles of her works loaded on my ereader for years, supplemented when new ones became available. I was a little puzzled by the fact that this was published under a pseudonym, but did not really look into it. A week ago, I selected it as my next bedtime read without knowing much of the particulars about it. Thinking that anything by Von Arnim was bound to be good, so why not this one? Well, there is a reason for that pseudonym. And it is not necessarily one that will convince readers of Von Arnim’s other books. 

By page 30, I was a little puzzled: was this Elizabeth von Arnim? Then what exactly was her aim in publishing these letters as if they were written by someone else? What was she trying to achieve? The answer came through wikipedia: Christine is Von Arnim's contribution to the British war effort, by writing a propaganda-like piece that was apparantly a minor part of an elaborate effort meant to sway the US opinion in favour of joining the war.

You need not read wikipedia to notice the othering that is going on in this story. (Of course, it might be that reading wikipedia sharpened my eye and made it stand out). While in Christine individuals from different classes of the German populations are highlighted, there is a general tendency to use these individuals as depictions of ”the state of mind” of the “German population” (as is mentioned in the preface, purportedly written by Alice Cholmondeley). There is an abundance of distinctions being drawn between Christine and her surroundings as she makes observations on how “they” (the Germans) think, act, and feel. The Germans are portrayed as children, conditioned to want greatness and bloodshed for their by their government, barbaric and uncivilised to some extent denoted by their undemocratic system. At some moments, Christine seems to distinguish between the government as the perpetrators and the people as its victims, but the lines become blurred as she then continues to lament the blood lust that is rife among the people (according to her).

It is really difficult to explain what happens in the text exactly. I think some examples might explain it better. Mind you, these examples can be found on almost every few pages. I am picking some out at random. Playing on British nationalism:
“Dear England. Dear, dear England. To find out how much one loves England all one has to do is to come to Germany.”
On the Germans:
“But you know, darling mother, it makes it easier for me to harden and look ahead with my chin in the air rather than over my shoulder back at you when I see, as I do see all day long, the extreme sentimentality of the Germans. It is very surprising. They’re the oddest mixture of what really is a brutal hardness, the kind of hardness that springs from real fundamental differences from ours in their attitude towards life, and a squashiness that leaves one with one’s mouth open. They can’t bear to let a single thing that has happened to them ever, however many years ago, drop away into oblivion and die decently in its own dust…”
An example of sympathy turned into othering:
“I could hardly not cry. These cheated people! Exploited and cheated, led carefully step by step from babyhood to a certain habit of mind necessary to their exploiters, with certain passions carefully developed and encouraged, certain ancient ideas, anachronisms every one of them, kept continually before their eyes,—why, if they did win in their murderous attack on nations who have done nothing to them, what are they going to get individually? Just wind; the empty wind of big words. They’ll be told, and they’ll read it in the newspapers, that now they’re great, the mightiest people in the world, the one best able to crush and grind other nations. But not a single happiness really will be added to the private life of a single citizen belonging to the vast class that pays the bill. For the rest of their lives this generation will be poorer and sadder, that’s all. Nobody will give them back the money they have sacrificed, or the ruined businesses, and nobody can give them back their dead sons. There’ll be troops of old miserable women everywhere, who were young and content before all the glory set in, and troops of dreary old men who once had children, and troops of cripples who used to look forward and hope. Yes, I too obeyed the Kaiser and went home and prayed; but what I prayed was that Germany should be beaten—so beaten, so punished for this tremendous crime, that she will be jerked by main force into line with modern life, dragged up to date, taught that the world is too grown up now to put up with the smashings and destructions of a greedy and brutal child. It is queer to think of the fear of God having to be kicked into anybody, but I believe with Prussians it’s the only way. They understand kicks. They respect brute strength exercised brutally. I can hear their roar of derision, if Christ were to come among them today with His gentle, “Little children, love one another.”
Read as propaganda, it is really rather a smart book: it takes an almost instantly sympathetic lead character, who is a promising child with what we are given to understand is a big talent, with no reason really to want to give her mother to understand falsehood about “the Germans”, and puts her into situations in which German people are less than sympathetic towards her, and then adds a final tragedy which the mother, in the preface, reveals so as to steer the sympathies of the reader. Moreover, besides the more blatant examples of othering, there are also more subtle ones. Christine, for example, wants and has to make her own way in life, earn her own keep, and in the story the women of Germany are mostly portrayed as servants or mothers. As such, she is instantly put apart from these women, but also examplifies (perhaps?) a broader respect for the abilities of women in Britain (which I think appears often as a trope of othering as an “us” that is more emancipated than “they” are). 

The question is whether this book is still interesting to read for the contemporary reader, and I cannot give a satisfactory answer to that. It might be thought of as an interesting study into propaganda, though I think the reader would benefit from contrasting this story with other materials and/or more biographical information and context to this story. It is certainly something I wished for (are there any good Elizabeth von Arnim biographies out there?). 

There is also the rather puzzling sensation of reading some ideas about “the Germans” in a book about World War I that I mostly associate with World War II (but this might be my Dutch background given that the Netherlands were neutral during World War I and thus we learn mostly about the first war in the context of the second). There is a certain shock to seeing all these observations about a people being drilled to feel and think certain things, to want bloodshed for the greatness of their nation, and the rallying nature of massive get-together around the Kaiser.. Of course, these were Von Arnim’s ideas about the German, but it was interesting to me that apparently these ideas existed in 1917, while I associate it with the picture of Germany painted in the context of the interbellum and World War II. 

However, while these things might be of interest to the reader they did very little to make it an enjoyable read for me. As a fictional book, Christine mostly left me feeling apathetic. The othering got in the way of my enjoyment of the story. It is sad but true. I usually love Von Arnim’s style, gently humorous comfort reading with a sharp edge at times. Here, she is mostly a little too sentimental for my liking, and the sharp edge comes out much too stark on the side of prejudice, propaganda and nationalism. I admit that I was a little touched emotionally by the end of the book, and yet mostly I felt relieved that it was over, that I could put it behind me, and hopefully still read the other books by Elizabeth von Arnim that were not published under a pseudonym and without these ulterior motives, with joy.

To be fair: Christine can also be read in another light. As is noted over here, it might be interpreted as an hommage to Von Arnim's fourth daughter who died in Germany in 1916. I can see parts of that reflected in the story, and I think that, put in this light, the story becomes a little more "humane" and might also explain some of what I deemed too sentimental above; for Christine is constantly expressing so much love when writing to her mother that I quickly felt it might be a little too much to be realistic. I cannot help but keep to the opinion that this book did not exactly work for me, that I cannot read around the opinions about the Germans as they were expressed, because for me they obscure what might have been a more interesting narrative otherwise.

[I want to add that I do not think I necessarily begrudge Von Arnim for writing propaganda (though part of me wishes she hadn’t). It is more a matter of not being able to enjoy this “othering” in the contemporary context as a reader turning to Elizabeth von Arnim for enjoyment and not for a study in propaganda. I hope this makes sense and that I did not offend anyone.]

Download Christine by Alice Cholmondeley at Project Gutenberg|Girlebooks 

*cross-posted to Iris on Books