2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner


The links below are to articles reporting on the 2020 United Kingdom’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, Maggie O’Farrell for ‘Hamnet.’

For more visit:
https://publishingperspectives.com/2020/09/maggie-ofarrell-wins-the-2020-womens-prize-for-fiction-covid19/
https://lithub.com/maggie-ofarrells-hamnet-has-won-the-womens-prize-for-fiction/
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/09/10/156444/ofarrell-wins-2020-womens-prize-for-hamnet/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/09/maggie-o-farrell-wins-womens-prize-for-fiction-with-exceptional-hamnet
https://bookriot.com/2020-womens-prize-winner/

Women Writers of 17th Century Spain


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the forgotten women writers of 17th century Spain.

For more visit:
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/madrid-exhibit-highlights-forgotten-women-writers-17th-century-spain-180975725/

Why it’s not empowering to abandon the male pseudonyms used by female writers



Portrait of the writer Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent.
Wikimedia

Eleanor Dumbill, Loughborough University

In a letter to James AH Murray in 1879, the writer ME Lewes wrote “I wish always to be quoted as George Eliot”. She perhaps would not have been pleased by a new campaign from The Women’s Prize for Fiction and its sponsor, Baileys called Reclaim Her Name campaign.

Marking the 25th anniversary of The Women’s Prize, under the bold tagline of “finally giving female writers the credit they deserve”, 25 novels have been reprinted using the real names of 26 writers who used male pseudonyms.

The scheme may have some positive outcomes, such as introducing readers to writers and works they might not have otherwise discovered. However, whether it gives female writers the credit they deserve is up for debate.

Mary Ann, Marian and George

The collection’s lead title, touted in all press coverage of its release, is George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872) – now published with the author’s name given as Mary Ann Evans. Though this was the name given to her at birth, Eliot’s “real name”, or the name by which we should refer to her, has been a matter of debate by researchers for years.

She experimented with alternative spellings like Marian and with completely different names like Polly, used her common-law husband’s surname, Lewes, for much of her literary career, and was known as Mrs Cross at the time of her death. 19th-century readers would have known exactly who to assign credit to. Her true identity was revealed shortly after the publication of her second novel, Adam Bede (1859), and at the height of her literary fame she signed correspondence ME Lewes (Marian Evans Lewes).

Portrait of writer George Eliot sitting
George Eliot.
Wikimedia

Eliot’s own consideration of the name she should be known by is as complicated a psychological and moral question as any depicted in her novels. However, her wish to be known professionally as George Eliot is resolute and clearly articulated. It helped her separate her personal and professional personas. Choosing a name to publish under is an important expression of agency and using a different name without the author’s input and consent deprives them of that agency rather than reclaiming it.

It is also important to debunk a common misconception to understand why this campaign is misguided. In George Eliot’s time, women did not have to assume male pseudonyms to be published. Writers who opted to use pen names tended to choose ones that aligned with their own genders. In fact, in the 1860s and 70s men were more likely to use female pseudonyms than vice versa. William Clark Russell, for example, published several novels under the name Eliza Rhyl Davies.

Women dominated the literary marketplace as both readers and writers for the majority of the 19th century. Of the 15 most prolific authors of the period 11 were women, according to the At the Circulating Library.

The need to project modern gender imbalances that exist in publishing today onto 19th-century authors is understandable but anachronistic.

Obscuring queerness

There are further issues with how this campaign depicts LGBTQ+ writers and its inclusion of Vernon Lee’s A Phantom Lover (1886) and Michael Field’s Attila, My Attila! (1896).

There has been much discussion among scholars concerning Lee’s gender identity, with many believing that in a 21st century setting the author may have identified as a trans man. This makes the inclusion of Lee’s birth name (also known in the trans community as a deadname) particularly troubling.

Black and White photograph of Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper.
Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper.
Wikimedia

Meanwhile, Field was the pen name for a pair of writers — Edith Cooper and Katharine Bradley. The name Michael Field represented their collaboration, with Michael representing Bradley and Field representing Cooper. Bradley’s name is misspelt (with an “e”, rather than an “a”) in the collection – another indication that this project may not have been completed with the degree of care one might expect from a literary prize. Like Lee, the pair expressed discomfort with being seen as women as authors.




Read more:
Poets and lovers: the two women who were Michael Field


Ultimately, the problem with the Reclaim Her Name project is one of agency. The writers included in the project chose the names that would be associated with their works and, in many cases, continued to use these pseudonyms after their identities had been revealed. Their reasons for choosing to write under pen names were complicated and, in some cases, we may never know why those decisions were made. One thing is clear, though: if we choose to override these decisions then we are choosing to deny a woman agency. We are not “reclaiming” names, but imposing them.The Conversation

Eleanor Dumbill, Doctoral Researcher, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 Davitt Awards Shortlists


The link below is to an article reporting on the shortlists for the 2020 Davitt Awards.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/07/17/153836/davitt-awards-2020-shortlists-announced/

2020 Davitt Awards Longlists


The link below is to an article reporting on the longlists for the 2020 Davitt Awards for the best crime books by Australian women.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/06/01/151357/davitt-awards-2020-longlists-announced/

Stella Prize 2020: a readers’ guide to the contenders



Emily McPherson College Library, Russell St, circa 1960s.
Museums Victoria/Unsplash, CC BY

Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

Words can help us imagine the world more deeply. Even as we retreat into our homes in this time of crisis, words can help us reach out to each other and pile up strength.

The Stella Prize is awarded each year to celebrate Australian women’s writing. This year’s shortlist brings together some of the best Australian writing in any genre. They are books about courage, strength, compassion and love. And they give us something of what we need – teaching us that to be alarmed is not to be cautious or careful; that to try to bear everything on one’s own is not necessarily to be strong.

These books can help us draw on our inner resources; to dig deep. Not only to find a point of calm, or, indeed, relief from boredom as the lockdown wears on – but more importantly, compassion, altruism, the capacity to cross social distances, reach out, help and support each other and our society in a time of crisis.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

When you read The Weekend you’ll probably learn some things about yourself that you didn’t know, and a few you’d rather not. This book takes a long look at women’s lives and friendships as we get old, at a time in life when everything we thought we knew – about ourselves, about our loved ones – is being thrown into doubt.


Allen & Unwin

Three grieving women gather together for Christmas to clean out the beach house that belonged to their friend Sylvie, who has died. There is Jude, a once famous restauranteur, who has spent her adult life in a love affair with a wealthy married man. Adele, a once-famous stage actress, who is newly impoverished, having just broken up with her partner Liz. She is yet to tell the others. Finally Wendy, a public intellectual in her waning years, grieving for her dead husband. Without Sylvie to balance them, tensions rise.

This book cuts like a knife through social pieties but never loses its humanity. In one particularly wicked scene, Adele conducts a “leisurely inspection” of her best friends’ washbags, casually laying bare their “private vulnerabilities”: who has constipation, who takes Valium, and who still uses age-defying face cream.

As the characters clean out the house of “depressing old things” that “nobody wanted” the tensions of grief and emotion pull them in unexpected directions. Old betrayals are unearthed, words can’t be taken back (“out it slithered in a disgusting mass”) and lives shatter.

Wood has a keen eye for the emotional havoc life wreaks, even – or especially – as we amble off into old age. Her observations are knife-sharp, often merciless, but also warm and deeply alive.

The Yield by Tara June Winch


Penguin

Language can take you deep inside experience – because words teach you not only how to speak, but also how to think and feel. A large part of Tara June Winch’s new novel is written as entries in a Wiradjuri dictionary, put together by the dictionary-maker Albert Gondiwindi. The first word – the “once upon a time for you” – is yarrany, Wiradjuri for a hickory acacia or spearwood tree, and Albert tell us “from it I once made a spear in order to kill a man”. Another word is baayanha meaning yield, which Albert calls “a funny word”. In English the word “yield” is the reaping, the things than man can take from the land”. But in Albert’s language “it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things”.

The action of The Yield centres on Albert’s granddaughter, August, who has returned to Country for her grandfather’s funeral after years in exile. Memories resurface, as August is entangled in circles of kinship, with aunties, nieces and cousins.

There are sombre notes. To August, everything is “browner, bone-drier”, and the evocative place name Massacre Plains reminds us that this is a site of invasion and violence. And then there’s the mystery of August’s missing sister, Jeddah.

The community is besieged by a mining development. Diggers roll into town, flanked by military-green Humvees. Winch charts the relationships between white activists and Indigenous rights groups, as they organise acts of resistance.

Aunty Betty and Aunt Carol Gibson get themselves locked against a fence in an act of protest. “Don’t fight back” says Mandy to August. “They can’t arrest us for sitting in”. Hours later rocks are hurled, water cannons discharge, and police squirt teargas. The past “filtered into their voices as they screamed together ‘Re-sist!‘”

Of course, Albert’s dictionary – “the old language, kept safe. Digitised. Captured forever” – is another kind of resistance. When August listens, she can hear the way “English changed their tongues, the formation of their minds”. This is also a book of hope in this resurgent language.

Here Until August by Josephine Rowe


Black Inc Books

The opening story in Josephine Rowe’s collection is called Glisk, a Scots word meaning a split second: a flash; a single instant. It’s a wonderful opening title in a short story collection that seems to telescope, stack and compress time, propelling characters across continents, through stark or solemn landscapes, or pinning them down in small towns.

Rowe’s characters are mostly fleeing grief or trauma, trying to find solace in strange lands. In Glisk, protagonist Fynn returns after working in a whiskey distillery in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The title conjures the fatal car accident that drove Fynn from Perth. But it also describes an earlier accident in which Fynn and his siblings built a raft with foam and buckets so they could journey out to an island to see the bioluminescence in the ocean. Only that time, catastrophe had been avoided.

These are wonderful stories. In Chavez, an agoraphobic young woman grieving for a dead husband, stays at home watching terrorist videos, until a neighbour asks her to look after her dog, forcing her to engage with the world. In The Once-Drowned Man a taxi driver and her passenger head for the Canadian border, engaging in an oddly uncomfortable struggle over grief and hurt.

Rowe’s stories deftly capture the fleeting and precarious moments that can shape and place us, or move us – like Fynn – towards a faltering redemption, “with the dark folding over the top of him”, all in a glisk.

There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett

Parrett’s third novel opens with an image of extraordinary dislocation, evoked through all the “little brown suitcases … on trains, and on carts” or “strapped to the top of buses” carried by people whose lives have been uprooted by war. Inside the suitcases, not just clothes and toiletries, but “all they can hold … your heart, your mind, your soul”.


Hachette

Favell’s novel tells the story of two sisters, Liska and Ludek, who are separated as teenagers, firstly by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and then by the Cold War. Ludek stays in Prague, while Liska travels to London and on to Melbourne.

Liska negotiates the problems of a second language, together with her husband’s straightened work opportunities. Ludek travels the world as a member of Prague’s Black Light Theatre, a child kept at home to ensure her return to life behind the Iron Curtain. Both raise children in vastly different worlds. Both build and sustain homes that are marked by love.

Parrett paints a picture of the sometimes troubling life lived in a communist state, coloured by vivid details of 1980s culture. The prose is lyrical, and the child’s perspective is diffuse with a kind of magic.

This is a book about strong women. It is a story about complicated family lives, longing for home, and the worlds women build – through love – for their families.

Diving into Glass by Caro Llewellyn


Penguin

Just after her 40th birthday, Caro Llewellyn – recently arrived in New York, working her dream job as director of the PEN Festival for writers – collapsed as she ran through Central Park. In hospital a few days later, her neurologist told her that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an illness associated with the central nervous system – chronic, debilitating and lifelong.

This memoir is a record of Llewellyn’s struggle not to be defined by her disability. Its title enviably encapsulates the things that glitter and shimmer and exhilarate in this book. A sense of breathless energy just leaps off the page. “I was a runner all my life,” Llewellyn writes. Not just long and short distance, but also hurdles and relay. “It didn’t matter what I ran, so long as I was spent when I crossed the finish line”.

This is a book about many things: Llewellyn’s career, the strength she draws from her charming and ingenious father who was wheelchair-bound, having been struck by polio at 20. He married twice, courting his first wife – a hospital nurse – from deep inside an iron lung. Llewellyn learned a lot from her parents, though not always strictly wise. They included, “carry on like absolutely nothing’s wrong”, “build an impenetrable wall around your weaknesses”, or best of all “no matter how impossible it seems, how long the odds, words and a good story can help you overcome every single thing stacked up against you”.

But, as Llewellyn writes, “The day my legs went numb on the running track in Central Park, every one of those lessons evaporated”. This is not a book about overcoming illness or disability. It ends – much like it starts – with Llewellyn’s gaze on the horizon, searching.

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

Jess Hill’s book is a deeply felt exploration of institutional failure. It opens with Hill standing in her backyard “hanging clothes out to dry on a stunning summer night alive with the screeching of fruit bats”, in a place where she “felt content, peaceful; safe”. Then comes the stunning realisation that many women do not get to feel safe, not at night, and not in their own backyard.


Black Inc Books

It’s 2015, a year on from the morning Australians woke up to see Rosie Batty, “a solitary woman, raw with grief” on their television screens. In front of her was “a clutch of reporters who’d barely hoped for a statement”. Batty told the media about the murder of her son – 11-year-old Luke Batty – at the hands of his father. It was the scenario she’d warned about countless times, in courts and police stations, in front of lawyers and judges and to social workers. Her pleas had been dismissed and disbelieved.

See What You Made Me Do brings together stories of domestic violence and survival from all walks of life – from the affluent neighbourhoods of Sydney’s Bible Belt to struggling remote and regional communities. Hill investigates the social and psychological causes of domestic abuse and its terrifying consequences. She talks to frontline social workers, counsellors who work the hotlines, and police.

Hill’s book maps the contours of a twisted public debate, through which the rights of children and women to safety – to feel secure, to live free from violence – are repeatedly brought up short by politics.

The Stella Prize will be announced online by Julia Gillard from 8pm (AEST) on Tuesday 14 April 2020.The Conversation

Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor in Media, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I’m a novelist – and this is why I choose middle-aged women as the heroes of my crime thrillers



Motortion Films via Shutterstock

Emily Bernhard Jackson, University of Exeter

Mystery is the bestselling genre in literature. Crime/mystery fiction, to give the genre its full title, beats inspirational, science fiction, horror and apparently even romance to take the top spot.

And why not? There’s someone for everyone in crime/mystery – elderly lady sleuths, amateur Palestinian sleuths, professional Belgian sleuths, thoughtful Scottish police officers, embittered Scottish police officers, damaged Irish police officers, weary Scandinavian police officers, former army officer detectives, amateur girl detectives, sad drunk amateur girl detectives. There’s even a detective who partners up with a skeleton.

What there doesn’t seem to be much of in mystery fiction, however, is female detectives who begin detecting in middle age (two cases in point: Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski was 32 when we began to follow her adventures, while Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta was 36). Women in the 40-to-60 range don’t get much of a showing as main characters in literature generally, so maybe it’s no surprise that they don’t show up as headliners in the mystery genre.

But it’s a surprise if you’re a woman in your 40s who is beginning to write mystery novels – which not so long ago I was. And while it’s a cliche that people write what they know, when I decided to write a mystery I entered into that cliche wholeheartedly. I started writing mysteries in my 40s – and I made my detectives two women in their 40s.

Two middle-aged American women and a dead man in a bowl of Vichyssoise.
Amazon

But while I designed my detectives in part to mirror myself, I also chose their age for entirely different reasons. For all its advances and improvements, contemporary culture remains uncomfortable, not just with middle-aged women, but to an even greater degree with contentedly single middle-aged women – and to an even greater degree than that with childless women who are childless by choice. I wanted to confront this odd aversion head on, so I made sure that between them my detectives fill all these categories.

This decision is a small one, but for me it engaged with a question I’ve long struggled with, the question of what, intellectually, literature is supposed to do. Should it report on the world as it is, or should it model the world as it might – could, should, would – be?

Angry women

Recent fiction may not have been filled with middle-aged women, but it has been filled with angry ones. It’s jam packed with dystopian models of female repression and with women and men implacably set against one other: look at Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. As I began to create my fictional world, I was troubled by the question of whether these outpourings of rage, all justified, all earned, are enough.




Read more:
Review: The Testaments – Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale


In one way this literature is unquestionably good: female rage is something else culture has assiduously avoided considering for centuries, and during those centuries women have been subjugated, silenced, used and abused in ways that deserve outpourings of anger.

The sleuths return.
Amazon

Nor is this landscape of female repression changing quickly, and there is value in forcing it before readers’ eyes. In a recent article for The Guardian about the Staunch Prize, the new award for the best crime/mystery novel that does not feature violence against women, the novelist Kaite Welsh wrote that she wouldn’t “sanitise my writing in service of some fictional, feminist utopia … my work lies in marrying my imagination with the ugly truth”. This is an important argument.

Modeling the future

But while I don’t care about the absence of feminist utopias, I do care about the absence of writing that models the future we want. What will it be like, the world we’re striving for where the playing field is level and men and women are just people being people together? I believe that we can only imagine based on what we’ve seen, and that it’s part of literature’s job to help us see what doesn’t yet exist but could.

For this reason, although I grounded my novels firmly in the present (well, Death in Paris is set in 2014 and The Books of the Dead in 2016), I made some specific choices about that present. In my books, every person in a powerful position is a woman. Department heads and doctors, sources of knowledge and implacable foes: all are female.

More importantly, as far as I was concerned, no one draws attention to that. It’s so normal as to be unworthy of note. Nor does anyone comment on the fact that both my detectives are childless, and one remains happily unmarried in her mid-40s. Both of these detectives are heterosexual, but I made that decision so I could give each a husband or boyfriend who sees them as an intellectual and emotional equal, and for whom that equality is also the norm. The women in my books have and enjoy good sex, and they have and enjoy good conversations – almost none of them about men.

My books are full of oversights and omissions, and I’m far from satisfied with them. But what I aimed to do, and am still trying to do, is to augment the justifiable depictions of anger, the honest depictions of ongoing brutality and violence against women, with a small model that allows for a morsel of hope.The Conversation

Emily Bernhard Jackson, Lecturer in English, University of Exeter

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A must-read list: The enduring contributions of African American women writers



Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen are on this short list of enduring must-read writers.
Left to right: Nobel Prize, U.S. Library of Congress, Yale archive

Nancy Kang, University of Manitoba

In Mules and Men (1935), anthropologist, creative writer and Harlem Renaissance upstart Zora Neale Hurston relays the evocative folktale “Why the Sister in Black Works Hardest.” Fatigued after the work of Creation, God casts a massive bundle onto the earth. Intrigued by the mysterious object, a white Southern woman during the antebellum era asks her husband to retrieve it. Reluctant to tote the load himself, the master instructs a slave to fetch it.

Soon wearied of the task, the slave then commands his wife to shoulder the burden. She does so, excited at the prospect of exploring the contents. When she opens the package, however, what leaps out at her and Black women for all posterity is none other than hard work.

Ann Petry (right) was interviewed after she won a fiction award for ‘The Street.’
All-American news 4 / All American news IV / All-American news reel no. 4/Library of Congress

African American women writers have tackled the hard work of representing a diverse spectrum of lived and imagined experiences, including and especially their own. This labour occurs against the backdrop of centuries-long struggles with racist oppression and gender-based violence, including — but not limited to — slavery’s culture of endemic rape, forced or interrupted motherhood, infanticide, concubinage, fractured families and egregious physical and mental abuse.

Hard work as groundwork

Renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass recalls in his 1845 slave narrative how witnessing the serial whippings of his Aunt Hester impacted him “with awful force.” He explains, “it was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle.”

These ordeals also emerge in slave narratives by women. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) emphasizes such travails. A target of relentless sexual harassment by her much-older master, Jacobs laments, “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.”

Once emancipated, African American women still faced staggering impediments when pursuing educational, entrepreneurial and employment opportunities. Political participation meant restrictions on voting rights both as women and as people of colour. Racist caricatures impugned everything from a woman’s intelligence and moral capacity to her skin color, texture of hair and body shape. Stereotypes like the docile Mammy, the Tragic Mulatta, the clownish Topsy, the oversexed Jezebel, the greedy Welfare Queen, the amoral Hoodrat and the Mad Black Woman (still prevalent today) remain testaments to a history of disrespect and erasure.

Hurston’s tale symbolizes the enduring social struggles Black women have faced living in what feminist critic bell hooks has termed white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

In addition to influential autobiographers like Maya Angelou, dramatists like Lorraine Hansberry and poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, fiction writers have consistently demonstrated how imaginative art can simultaneously inform, persuade, entertain, catalyze social change and address individual as well as collective concerns.

Here is a short list of pivotal texts by African American women from the past century. These writers are but a small sample of the artists and intellectuals whose output resisted the force of what contemporary feminist critic Moya Bailey has termed misogynoir, or the corrosive fusion of anti-Blackness and misogyny prevalent in popular culture today. These women have completed the groundwork — and hard work — of envisioning a more just, inclusive society going forward.

Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen

These novellas follow mixed-race women whose uneasy status on the colour line (including the lure of passing as white) complicates their lives in dangerous, even fatal ways. Passing is revolutionary for its depiction of homoerotic tension between two upper-middle-class Black women. Quicksand offers insight into the exoticization of African American women abroad and the contest between art and domesticity as viable avenues for a fulfilling life.


Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston

This story is the lyrical account of thrice-married Janie Crawford who finds a mature vision of love and fulfillment amid incessant gossip and a difficult family history. The all-Black township of Eatonville, Fla., and the rich “muck” of the Everglades contribute to a portrait of community health, daily striving and resolute self-awareness.


The Street (1946) by Ann Petry

This social realist novel follows single mother Lutie Johnson as she attempts to make a life for her young son in a predatory urban space. Weathering sexism, racism, classism, poverty and intense personal frustration, Lutie attempts to resist the brutality of the environment that gives the novel its loaded name.


The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison

This book is a searing portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age and eventual undoing in the years following the Great Depression. Tumultuous family dynamics, psychological trauma and incest, the quest for compassion and self-love, and the toxic myth of Black ugliness coalesce in this first novel by the Nobel Laureate and author of neo-slave narrative Beloved (1987).


Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler

Oscillating between the 1970s and the early 19th century, this science fiction odyssey (re)connects a contemporary Black woman writer and her white husband with her ancestors on a Maryland plantation. The novel is buoyed up by the dramatic tension of time travel and the juxtaposition of the pre-civil War Antebellum-era with Civil Rights-era racial attitudes, including those about interracial love and allyship.


The Women of Brewster Place (1982) by Gloria Naylor

Structured like a narrative quilt, these interconnected experiences of seven women span different generations, professions, class backgrounds and understandings of their place in the world. The eroded apartment complex that links them is the backdrop for unbearable pain as well as the promise of transformation and reconciliation.


The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker

A tale of two sisters, Celie and Nettie, this novel constellates their love and longing via letters and imagined conversations across the Atlantic. Unsparing in its critique of domestic violence and toxic masculinity, yet tender in its treatment of various human weaknesses, the novel underscores Black women’s need for self-regard and mutual care. Not only are these acts revolutionary, but they also offer a glimpse of the divine.The Conversation

Nancy Kang, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Canada Research Chair in Transnational Feminisms and Gender-Based Violence, University of Manitoba

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How two women pulled off a medieval manuscript heist in post-war Germany



Two manuscripts of the visionary, writer and composer St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) survived the Dresden bombings after a librarian stashed them in a bank vault.
(Avraham Pisarek/Deutsche Fotothek/Wikimedia), CC BY-SA

Jennifer Bain, Dalhousie University

Seventy-five years ago, in February 1945, during the Second World War, Allied forces bombed the magnificent baroque city of Dresden, Germany, destroying most of it and killing thousands of civilians.

In central Dresden, however, a bank vault holding two precious medieval manuscripts survived the resulting inferno unscathed. The manuscripts were the works of the prolific 12th-century composer, writer and visionary, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who had established a convent on the Rhine River, near Wiesbaden and 500 kilometres west of Dresden.

Hildegard Abbey, near Wiesbaden, Germany.
(Kate Helsen), Author provided

Hildegard, whose writings documented her religious visions, including a theology of the feminine and an ecological consciousness, and who practised medicinal herbology, was venerated locally as a saint for centuries. The Catholic Church only recently recognized her as one, and also designated her a Doctor of the Church.

After the Dresden bombings, the Soviet Army seized and inspected the surviving vault. The first bank official to enter the vault afterwards found it pillaged, with only one manuscript remaining. The bank could never confirm if the vault was emptied in an official capacity or if it was plundered.

The missing manuscript has not been seen in the West since. The other made its way back to its original home of Wiesbaden, on the other side of Germany, through the extraordinary efforts of two women.

This is the story of how those women conspired to return the manuscript home.

The librarian

In 1942, Gustav Struck, the director of the state library in Wiesbaden, became worried about local air raids. Following many European institutions, he decided that his library’s manuscripts needed to be sent elsewhere for safe keeping.

Hildegard receiving visions, a reproduction of an image from the ‘Scivias’ manuscript.
(Wikimedia/Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias)

Two of the library’s most valuable possessions were manuscripts of Hildegard’s works. One was a beautifully illuminated copy of Scivias, a collection of 26 religious visions. The other manuscript, known as the Riesencodex, is the most complete compilation of her works, including the visionary writings, letters and the largest known collection of her music.

Why Struck chose to store the manuscripts in a bank vault in Dresden is still a mystery, but their journey there by train and streetcar mid-war is thoroughly documented.

The manuscripts sat in the bank vault for three years until the attack on Dresden.

After the war

Immediately after the war, the Americans sacked Struck in their denazification efforts. Librarian Franz Götting took over his job.

Götting inquired about the manuscripts as soon as mail service to Dresden resumed, and learned that the Scivias manuscript was missing, either seized or plundered, but that the bank still had the Riesencodex.

Götting asked repeatedly for the Riesencodex to be returned from Dresden to Wiesbaden. The difficulty was that Dresden was in the newly formed Soviet zone, while Wiesbaden was in the American zone. (The Allies had divided Germany into four occupation zones, and similarly divided Germany’s capital city, Berlin, into four sectors.) The Soviets had issued a decree stating that all property found in German territory occupied by the Red Army now belonged to them.

Hildegard’s composition ‘O Most Noble Greenness.’

The plan

A scholar and medievalist in Berlin, however, came up with a scheme to retrieve the manuscript. Margarethe Kühn, a devout Catholic who expressed a great love for Hildegard, held a position as a researcher and editor with the Monumenta Germaniae Historica project. After the war she found herself living in the American sector of Berlin and working in the Soviet sector.

Photograph of the 12th-century ‘Risencodex’ manuscript.
(Wikimedia/Landesbibliothek Wiesbaden), CC BY

Kühn had stayed at the Hildegard Abbey for several days in March 1947 and had even explored joining the Abbey as a nun herself. She must have heard while she was there that the Riesencodex was being held in Dresden without any promise of return. She devised a plan to help.

Kühn asked Götting for permission to borrow the manuscript for study purposes. Götting asked the Soviet-run Ministry for Education, University and Science in Dresden on Kühn’s behalf. Much to the librarian’s surprise, ministry officials agreed to send the manuscript for Kühn to examine at the German Academy, a national research institute established in 1946 in Berlin by the Soviet administration.

Kühn was convinced that the bureaucrats in Dresden would not recognize the Riesencodex. She decided that when returning the manuscript, with help from the Wiesbaden librarian, Götting, she would send a substitute manuscript to Dresden, and the original to Wiesbaden.

The crossing

Kühn enacted the plan with the help of an American woman, Caroline Walsh.

How exactly Kühn and Walsh met is not known, but Caroline’s husband Robert Walsh was in the American air force and was stationed in Berlin as the director of intelligence for the European command from 1947-48.

In an interview in 1984, Robert explained that when he and Caroline were in Berlin she had “worked a great deal with the Germans and with the religious outfits over there, too.” Since the Walshes were also Catholic, it is likely that they and Kühn met through Catholic circles in the city.

Caroline’s position as the wife of a high-ranking military officer may have made it easier for her to travel across military occupation zones and sectors.

In any case, we know that Caroline travelled by train and car and delivered the manuscript in person to the Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen on March 11, 1948. The nuns notified Götting at the Wiesbaden library and returned the manuscript.

The swap

A Scivias illumination on an edition of Hildegard’s medical works.
Beuroner Kunstverlag

Götting, meanwhile, had not found a suitably sized manuscript to stand in for the large Riesencodex to trick the Soviets. He instead selected a 15th-century printed book of a similar size and had sent this to Kühn in Berlin.

It took some time for Kühn to deliver it to the Ministry for Education, University and Science in Dresden, and two further months before anyone there opened the package in January 1950. By that time, Hildegard’s manuscript was safely in Wiesbaden. But officials spotted the deception and Kühn was in trouble.

An official in Dresden wrote to the German Academy in Berlin demanding to know why they had been sent a printed book rather than the Riesencodex manuscript.

Kühn’s boss, Fritz Rörig, who received the letter was furious with her. Rörig and Götting smoothed things over with Dresden by offering another manuscript in exchange. But Rörig told Kühn that the East German police were inquiring about her, the implication being that he had reported her.

One still missing

Although she remained deeply worried for some time afterwards, Kühn never lost her job at the Monumenta nor was she arrested, despite Rörig’s threats. For the rest of her life she maintained a rare cross-border existence, living on Soviet wages in the American sector while continuing at the same job until her death in 1986, at the age of 92.

As one of many scholars who regularly consults the Riesencodex, now available online, I am enormously grateful to Caroline Walsh, and particularly to Kühn who risked her livelihood for the sake of a book.

I am not alone, however, in hoping that during my lifetime someone, somewhere will find the pilfered Scivias manuscript and return it as well.The Conversation

Jennifer Bain, Professor of Musicology and Music Theory, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.