‘To the good men I offer the hand of friendship, to the foes of our sex I offer resistance and annihilation!’
In the late 19th century, German women barred from their own country’s universities found an enlightened haven in Zurich. It is here that we meet law student Lilie Halmschlag, whose impassioned diary entries form much of We Women Have no Fatherland. Originally published in 1899, Ilse Frapan’s novel was a radical departure from the author’s previous work, a bold dispatch from a new realm of female self-determination. The far-sighted text draws us deep into the emotional world of its protagonist as she records her ecstatic visions and dreams. In one passage, Shakespeare’s Portia returns to court to defend a prostitute, in another we find a pageant of women heading for the ballot box – thirty years before they gained this right in Germany. Rejected by her father and her fatherland, brought low by poverty and solitude, Lilie arrives at the striking conclusion captured in the title. She abandons her studies and joins the proletariat, but never relinquishes her righteous rage: ‘I have gone underground, but I have not gone under’. Now available in English for the first time, this landmark work closely reflects the author’s own life, lending it an authentic intensity undimmed by time.
Following an early career in teaching, Ilse Frapan (1849-1908) turned to fiction in her thirties and experienced modest initial success with stories set in her native Hamburg. In 1892 she moved to Zurich to attend university, and here her life and work took a far more radical turn. Her most outspoken works addressed the new breed of female students as well as other outcasts, and she actively campaigned for women’s and children’s welfare. Relatively late in life Frapan embarked on an affair with an Armenian man twenty years her junior, and took up the cause of his country’s sovereignty. But her most profound relationship was with artist Emma Mandelbaum, her partner of many years. Their fates were entwined until the end; discovering Frapan had incurable cancer, the women chose a suicide pact rather than life apart. Ilse Frapan’s works include Hamburg Novellas, Bittersweet, The Betrayed, Work and Erich Hetebrink.
Frapan was one of the most dangerous women in Europe … under her nom de guerre, Frapan’s fearless novels were charged and impassioned – if sometimes despairing – treatises rallying for female collectivisation, liberation, suffrage and education … We Women Have no Fatherland compels the reader into the private diary of Lilie Halmschlag, a young university student modelled on the author. Written in the keenly punctuated and often impetuous hand of youth, Halmschlag elucidates her rapture with the new world as “a new dawn for humanity”.
— Julian Tompkin, The Australian
This is a novel of bubbling rage about the resilience of women. The anxiety and stress that already come with academia, exacerbated by gender oppression, climax in the epiphanic cry of the title – We women have no fatherland! Shout out to Rixdorf Editions for bringing this books and other forgotten German texts into English – their books are excellent!
– Jared, City Lights Books, San Francisco
FROM THE AFTERWORD
Lilie Halmschlag responds to her own social statelessness with an extravagant project for unmarried women in the service of humanity. The members of her imagined corps – an ‘Amazon army’ – toil for the benefit of the community rather than mere self-sufficiency, let alone the pursuit of filthy coin. This massed force, she believes, could ‘warm the cold Earth’ (she would doubtless be disappointed to discover that it is in fact hated coin that has warmed the globe, and to catastrophic effect). Lilie is clear that her place is among these ranks of unmarried women.
If we are searching for a ‘novelistic’ relationship – one of which we may expect nuance and development – the closest thing we can find is the ephemeral bond between Lilie and the narrator. Lilie’s diary only records two of the five encounters mentioned by the unnamed witness, noting on the fourth that she had seen her compatriot ‘again’. We at least discover why Lilie had seemed so distracted on their first meetings – she was waiting anxiously for a reply to her request for state assistance. The tenderness that quickly develops between the two women does not exceed the bounds of female friendship in the era, yet it would surely not be entirely off-beam to suggest their brief encounters may contain a frisson of mutual attraction. But unlike Elsa Asenijeff, Else Croner or indeed Dolorosa with her salacious Diary of a Nursemaid (1904), Frapan is not interested in exploiting the diary format’s potential for erotic and/or romantic confession.
Here the narrator’s role is to bear witness, to hear Lilie’s voice. And ‘voice’ is probably the key motif throughout the book. There are the voices of an invisible choir of women urging Lilie on, the voice of a lark stilled by grief that comes to her in a dream, the solitude that makes her a ‘stranger to my own voice’, and the voice she cannot find even when she is addressing an imaginary gathering. It is when her professor loses his voice that Lilie first ventures to a natural sciences lecture, where she encounters a new field of learning, new academic roles for women. And in light of her strikingly prophetic march of women heading to the ballot box, it is worth nothing that in German elections one does not have a vote, but rather a voice (Stimme).