- The Red CountessFour Stories
The Austrian writer Hermynia Zur Mühlen once enjoyed a considerable reputation—as a translator from English, French, and Russian into German, as an author in her own right (an autobiographical memoir and five of her novels were published in English translation in the 1930s and 1940s), and as a tireless fighter against National Socialism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of social injustice. On her sixtieth birthday in 1943, the BBC aired a tribute to her and the occasion was also celebrated at a party given in her honor by the Austrian and Czech PEN clubs in London. However, since her death in 1951 in a small town north of London, she has been almost completely forgotten except by a handful of dedicated scholars in the field of "Exil-Literatur" who have done their best to revive interest in her. A few of her works have been republished, by the Aufbau Verlag in the former DDR and by small presses in Austria, but have attracted little sustained critical attention.
I came upon her by accident, while searching for book illustrations by Heinrich Vogeler, a Jugendstil artist who became a communist after the First World War. Vogeler illustrated two volumes of "proletarian" fairy tales by Zur Mühlen, [End Page 59] which, luckily for me, form part of the remarkable Cotsen collection of children's literature donated to Princeton University Library a decade ago. Having read those tales and been impressed by the crispness of the author's narrative technique and the elegant simplicity of her language, I became curious and read whatever other works by her I could lay hands on. These were not easy to come by, it should be said. Even Princeton lacks most of the books that Zur Mühlen published during her lifetime.
Hermine Isabella Victoria, Gräfin Folliot de Crenneville-Poutet, sometimes referred to as the "Red Countess," was born into an old aristocratic Viennese family on December 12, 1883. As a child, she saw little of her parents and was largely brought up by her liberal and open-minded, English-born grandmother, who instilled in her a sense of personal moral responsibility together with the unshakable conviction that all human beings are of equal worth in the eyes of God, and whom she evokes lovingly in her autobiographical memoir and in nearly all her fictional writings. Questioning and rebellious from an early age (she herself admits that she was a "handful" as a child), she was inspired—by Christian ideals of social justice and community and by romantic notions of the aristocracy as the protector of the widow and the orphan—to challenge the social conditions and conventions that the adults in her world took for granted. As she grew up, the influence of her grandmother was supplemented, but never displaced, by the socialist ideas she had begun to pick up in books and through encounters with exiles from tsarist Russia.1 Drawn in early adolescence to idealistic, humanitarian movements and causes, she was soon moving further and further in the direction of the radical political Left. A brief and unhappy marriage to Victor von zur Mühlen, a conservative Prussian Junker—in itself an act of revolt inasmuch as, in the eyes of the urbane Austrian Catholic Crennevilles, von zur Mühlen occupied a far lower rung on the social ladder and was a Protestant to boot—ended in divorce. But not before outrage at the exploitation of native Estonian workers by the ruling German landowners—which the headstrong and sharply critical young woman observed in the course of the five years (1908–13) she spent on her [End Page 60] husband's remote estate in one of the Baltic provinces of the tsar—had made a confirmed socialist of her.
In Davos, Switzerland, where she was sent in 1913 in the hope that the pure Alpine air would improve her fragile health, she began her literary career by producing a translation of an antiwar novel by the then widely read Russian writer Leonid Andreyev ("the most popular, and next to Tolstoy, the most gifted writer in Russia...