- Armed Ambiguity: Women Warriors in German Literature and Culture in the Age of Goethe by Julie Koser
A fascination with the woman warrior swept the German literary imagination in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and an equal fascination with the representation of such figures is currently sweeping German literary studies. Following two expansive overviews of the woman warrior in 2009 and 2010—the anthology edited by Sarah Colvin and Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, Women and Death 2: Warlike Women in the German Literary and Cultural Imagination since 1500 and Watanabe-O'Kelly's ground-breaking study Beauty or Beast? The Woman Warrior in the German Imagination from the Renaissance to the Present, respectively—Julie Koser's Armed Ambiguity takes one specific and significant point in time, the French Revolution and its immediate aftermath, and delves deeper into the complex and often contradictory representations of the woman warrior.
As Koser argues, this complexity and contradiction, this ambiguity, can be read as a strategy to "subvert or resignify dominant narratives" (16). That dominant narrative is "the discursive construction and illusionary dichotomization of 'public' and 'private' spheres predicated on myths of 'masculine' and 'feminine' ideals" (6). While the majority of the literary woman warriors in Armed Ambiguity end up dead or domesticated, Koser makes a convincing case that such an end does not negate the significance of such armed women. Their often heroic presence on the battlefield subtly calls into question their exclusion from the public sphere. Koser underlines this connection by discussing Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz at greater length in the conclusion. For von Clausewitz, warfare is politics, and Koser argues, by extension, that the inclusion and/or denial of woman's participation in warfare in literature closely echoes their inclusion in or exclusion from the public sphere.
Koser's accessible close readings of women warriors in and following the French Revolution are organized like concentric circles beginning with German press reports of historical French women fighting for freedom in 1789 and moving ever further out to increasingly fictional and ahistorical representations of the woman warrior. Central to Koser's thesis is the nineteenth-century mythification of such women in order to "make sense of and negotiate its own ambivalence toward the seemingly unsettling union of women and armed violence, more specifically of women and warfare" (5). [End Page 144]
In the innermost circle, Koser examines the warrior woman as historical player in the French Revolution and the depictions of her in contemporaneous newspaper reports. Koser's analysis of various reports of the same event, written even months after the time of the events, demonstrate the first layer of mythification in what was presented at the time as objective, journalistic writing. The discussion remains focused on a handful of articles, which allows for a closer look at the writings, but does not elucidate the total breadth and repetition of such reports. In the following chapter, the focus shifts to the mythification process of a specific, historical armed woman, Charlotte Corday, who assassinated Marat. Koser reads two journal articles written several months after Corday's execution alongside two German-language reinventions of her in the form of plays (Johann Heinrich Daniel Zschokke's Charlotte Corday oder die Rebellion von Calvados and Engel Christine Westphalen's Charlotte Corday: Tragödie in fünf Akten mit Chören). Significantly, both plays incorporate the historical Corday's actual writings, further blurring the lines of fiction and non-fiction.
The remaining three chapters figure as the ever-widening concentric circles as each chapter moves further away from the direct connection to the French Revolution and from historical women. In chapter 3, Koser addresses four texts in which the armed heroine is presented as acceptable for her defence of the "'domestic' and moral good" (77) (Benedikte Naubert's Geschichte der Gräfin Thekla von Thurn oder Scene aus dem dreyssigjährigen Kriege and Philippe von Geldern: Oder Geschichte Selims, des Sohns Amurat; Johann...