- Armed Ambiguity: Women Warriors in German Literature and Culture in the Age of Goethe by Julie Koser
In the epilogue to this excellent study of German cultural reactions to the idea and the reality of violent women, Koser cites Marie von Clausewitz’s foreword to the work of her late husband Carl, Vom Kriege: “Es wird mit Recht befremden, dass eine weibliche Hand es wagt, ein Werk von solchem Inhalt wie das vorliegende mit einer [End Page 650] Vorrede zu begleiten” (174). Given the focus on war, the general’s wife had to work “a two-fold strategy of self-effacement and strategic authorial legitimation” (174); she needed to establish her competence and authority to speak on war and politics and also bow to the gender norms that put these very abilities in question. Mrs. Clinton comes to mind and, to the extent that Armed Ambiguity analyzes the doubleness of embracing the conventions one seeks to subvert, this is a very contemporary book that just happens to find its subject matter in the period following the upheavals of the French Revolution. This is not about men or conservatives or patriarchs promoting the usual gender stereotypes (though that is often assumed), while women and other writers seek to undermine them with female characters who go to war. It is a much more complex exercise in pinpointing the extent to which the stereotypical gender hierarchy controlled even the efforts to resist it.
A very effective example is the death of Kleist’s Penthesilea, last seen chewing on Achilles’ corpse along with her dogs, but lamented by her Amazon companions for “her grace, compassion, and tenderness, attributes seemingly at odds with the qualities she had displayed only moments before and which had horrified even the most experienced of these warring women” (3). Koser examines the years after the French Revolution as a time of almost carnivalesque variety and subversion. The rethinking and reorganization of society after the Revolution opened the doors to the depiction of unconventional women in literature and journalism but simultaneously called for their containment. Possibility bred disquietude. Initially, some notable French women joined in the warfare and revolutionary violence and Koser presents a very detailed account of the reception of their exploits in Germany. She shows us the local newspaper and journal accounts and then moves to the literature and its negotiations with women and violence, women at war. She is meticulous throughout, explaining degrees of subversion and merely apparent subversion, as she follows the phenomenon in a variety of guises.
After exploring print culture’s depictions of warring women in Chapter One, Koser gives us, in Chapter Two, a thought-provoking essay on Charlotte Corday, the reporting of her murder of Marat, and the attempts to glorify, relativize, contain, and condemn it. Koser details the subtle adjustments made by various constituencies in the image of the female assassin and the attempts to recast this image in terms of acknowledged feminine virtues. Chapter Three follows Benedikte Naubert, Goethe, and Schiller and their warlike female protagonists. Koser delivers an excellent reading of Goethe’s “Hermann and Dorothea,” a poem that, without ever acknowledging it, contrasts a strong and principled woman with a timid man who resists action. Koser uses her texts here to illustrate the various ways in which challenges to gender norms serve to reinforce and re-establish those norms.
Chapter Four brings several more important women writers into the discussion. Therese Huber, Karoline von Günderode, and Caroline de la Motte Fouqué “strategically appropriated and resignified reactionary social theories binding femininity to love in their literary portraits of the warrior woman” (114), though the constraining presence of the “feminine ideal” complicates these portrayals. This is a subtle investigation of the overtly mild challenges to gender stereotypes made by these writers with their cross-dressing woman soldiers and the methods used to incorporate traditional feminine virtues into the departure from these stereotypes. A fifth chapter focuses on Penthesilea and contests readings of the...