- Shifting Voices: Feminist Thought and Women's Writing in Fin-de-Siècle Austria and Hungary
Our fascination with the unknown has been the source of many artistic endeavours and seems particularly pronounced during the sometimes ominous turns of centuries, for who knows what may be lurking on the other side? The uncertainties often accompanying transitions like these provide an ideal matrix for questioning the status quo, frequently leading to demands for change. While change is seldom achieved overnight and often comes at a great cost, we can see its beginnings in the (not always gradual) shifts away from the familiar toward something other. One of these shifts is at the core of Schwartz's book, and, as the title suggests, concerns the agency and perspective of women engaging in and writing about their roles in and contributions to society.
Scholars have been addressing the rise of feminism and women's writing in the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy (1867-1918) for some time now, and since the end of Communism the Hungarian side has also received some much-deserved attention. Shifting Voices contributes to the existing body of scholarship by offering the first comparative look at the topic in both constitutional parts of Austria-Hungary. Schwartz presents the participation in bourgeois women's organizations, as well as the essayistic and fictional writings of some [End Page 388] thirty individuals. The book's main focus is the women's written works, and especially the intertwining of feminist and traditional voices discernible within them, which the author analyzes with the help of theoretical approaches by Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigrid Weigel, and Jessica Benjamin.
The book takes the reader from the beginnings of a feminist discourse in Austria and Hungary via the consideration of women's roles in society (through theoretical writings about education, suffrage, and the sexual paradigm) to the concepts of feminism, misogyny, and viriphobia in the women's fictional texts, which Schwartz reads 'as a parallel phenomenon to the women's movement.' However, the final chapter entitled 'The City and Its Metaphors' seems to stand alone, not quite fitting into the book's overall structure, as it does not follow naturally from the preceding chapter. While it includes some very interesting observations about the various depictions of the city - be it Vienna, Budapest, or Berlin - and especially the conflation of its ambivalence and the femme fatale in a selection of fictional texts, the chapter would have been better placed nearer the beginning. The biggest lacuna is the lack of any discussion of the city's importance for the women's movements and the opportunities it afforded to female writers. Within this context the analysis of varying depictions - positive, negative, and ambivalent - of life in the city would have gained in complexity.
It is interesting to note that the female characters' attempts at sexual liberation within the patriarchal structures of the k.u.k. Monarchy are, for the most part, unsuccessful and in numerous cases end in the character's death, often by suicide. This is not surprising, as this is also the fate of many a female character created by male authors. While I would agree that 'self-inflicted death [is] the ultimate expression of the destruction done to the female self,' I am unconvinced by Schwartz's argument that suicide is the 'last remaining form of agency for the woman,' as its significance loses momentum when one considers the end result: women trying to undo the shackles of the patriarchal order do not get away with it, and are, ultimately and usually, undone by it.
Shifting Voices is an excellent introduction to English-speaking readers of especially the largely unknown Hungarian feminists and writers, and the biographical and bibliographical information found in the appendices is particularly useful. Equally useful would have been a comparative table of the changes in women's access to (higher) education and suffrage in Austria and Hungary, which are the topic of chapter 2, but since this is the first comparative study...