Ashley Cook, Germany and the British fin de siècle

"TuebingenUniBibliothek" by Der gestiefelte kater - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wiki-media Commons -

As well as researching and teaching the fin de siècle, I have been finding time to wander around the German university town I am currently living in. Looking at all the beautiful historic architecture – which includes many nineteenth-century buildings and statues – has made me aware of how relatively alien it all is. As a scholar born and raised in the UK, I am used to looking up at the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the fin de siècle figures of William Morris, Frederic Lord Leighton or John Everett Millais, so familiar from my scholarship, and the general cultural milieu of neo-victorianism. But instead I am now confronted by the faces of German nineteenth-century thinkers and artists – Hegel, Schelling, staring down from Tuebingen’s main University library. They seem so much more remote and distant from the late-nineteenth century as I know it, from an English perspective.

Reflecting on this caused me to wonder on whether the Victorians themselves would have felt the same – or were there connections between Britain and Germany in the literature and culture of these two great nineteenth-century European powers?

France, of course, is certainly well-represented in the Victorian fin de siècle, as the title we use to denote the period suggests. Theophile Gautier’s Lart pour lart was, in the original and in the English translation, “art for art’s sake”, the aesthetic movement’s de facto motto. The novel – and public figure – that we tend to think of when we talk of fin de siècle aestheticism, Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, draws obvious allusions to Karl-Joris Huysmans’ A Rebours, with its languid French decadent protagonist, Esseintes. The “french connection”, it seems, is everywhere apparent in avant-garde fin de siècle circles.

So what, then, of the German connection?

The influences are certainly there. Those eighteenth century philosophers that grace the library exterior, such as Hegel and Lessing, are often cited as influences on members of the Victorian avant-garde. Elizabeth Prettejohn, for instance, points out that Pre-Raphelite painter Frederic Leighton was educated in Germany, and notes that his early letters contain references to those philosophical ideas, and that Walter Pater was “profoundly versed in German and French aesthetics”.[1]

The growth and expansion of the literary fairy tale in late-nineteenth century Britain owes much to the work of Hoffmann and Goethe, who were writing kunstmärchen, or literary fairy tales, in the early years of the century. And Emma Sutton has drawn our attention to the influence of Wagner on Aubrey Beardsley’s, and other nineteenth century aesthetes, including George Bernard Shaw, George Moore and Havelock Ellis.[2] On the other side of the coin, that polemic against the deleterious effects of these new radical elements in culture, Max Nordau’s Degeneration, was of course first written in German.

So findesiècle Britain was certainly being influenced and shaped by German thought and culture. But unlike France and French culture, the German connections rarely seem to be made clear in the works themselves.

You can imagine my excitement, then, to come across the work of the extremely popular late-nineteenth century writer Elizabeth von Arnim, whose first novel openly celebrates a relationship with Germany in its title.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

Elizabeth and Her German Garden was published in 1898 – and was such a runaway success that it was reprinted 21 times before the middle of 1899. The novel takes the form of diary entries, written over the course of a year, and, while it borrows some elements from Von Arnim’s own autobiography, operates as humorous social satire.

The novel centres on Elizabeth, unhappily married, like Von Arnim herself, to a repressive and overbearing husband, known only in the novel by the epithet “The Man of Wrath”. The garden is Elizabeth’s life and work. It is both her (limited) escape from the trap of Victorian marriage, and the reflection of her mental state. It is through the metaphor of the garden that Von Armin explores Elizabeth’s experience of Germany, which becomes bound up with her sense of self. She writes:

I am beginning to think that the tenderness of tea roses is much exaggerated, and  am certainly very glad I had the courage to try them in this northern garden…


As Talia Schaffer notes, the tea rose becomes a symbol of Elizabeth herself, learning to survive alongside the flower in the “roughness and cold” of a German winter – and a man who wishes he were “uncivilised” enough to beat his wife. [3] Schaffer offers a compelling reading of the way in which Von Armin appropriates and extends the aesthetic motif of the flower – the lily, or the green carnation – to all nature, and couches her exploration of female subjectivity and experience in this aesthetic language of the garden.[4]She is also, of course also exploring what it is to be German, to experience Germany. For not only does this garden have transplanted tea roses, but it is distinctively German:

From nearly all the windows of the house I can look out across the plain, with no obstacle in the shape of a hill, right away to a blue line of distant forest, and on the  west side uninterruptedly to the setting sun—nothing but a green, rolling plain, with  a sharp edge against the sunset. […]

The close forest, its deepness and darkness hinted at by the “blue” of its line, along with the absence of the rolling hills of the English countryside, call attention to the Germanic wilderness. A later passage sees Elizabeth and “The Man of Wrath” riding through this forest, the Hirschwald. Von Armin calls attention to the smell of wet leaves on the ground, where “death and decay, so piteous in themselves” are transformed into “the means of fresh life and glory”. Elizabeth’s entrapment in a bad, decaying marriage is similarly transformed by Elizabeth into the flowering glory of her garden.

Aesthetic appreciation of the German garden is, for  both Elizabeth within the novel, and Von Arnim writing it, a way to escape the constraint of what constitutes ‘proper’ female behaviour. Arnim’s garden is an al fresco precursor to Woolf’s room of one’s own.[5]

Dearmer, Mabel. Mabel Dearmer Advertising Her Upcoming Dramatic Reading. 1894. Poster. Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library, Newark.

Von Arnim also satirises German life and temperament throughout the novel, and its sequel, The Solitary Summer (1899), contains a series of scenes depicting Germany’s increased post-unification militarism at the end of the century. This increasing militaristic consciousness worried many in Britain, and debates about the rise of Germany were expressed in periodicals like The Saturday Review, where Frank Harris declared that England and Germany were “two great, irreconcilable, opposing forces”[6] (“England and Germany”, The Saturday Review. 11 Sep 1897), something which might perhaps explain the relative scarcity of overt German references in fin de siècle literature.

Yet just as Von Arnim found creative expression and an outlet for both her aesthetic and feminist ideas, so too did many other fin de siècle writers find inspiration in Germany. Both Ella D’Arcy and George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright) whose short stories united New Woman and aesthetic themes, were educated in Germany. Mabel Dearmer, illustrator, novelist and playwright, visited Germany in 1910 (during the height of British concern over Germany’s imperial expansion). Inspired by the passion plays she saw there, on her return to England, she began writing two plays, The Soul of the World (1911) and The Dreamer (1912), and founded the Morality Play Society in 1911.[7]

After the war, in 1919, Evelyn Sharp, the suffragist, New Woman and children’s author, joined the committee of the Fight the Famine Council formed in 1919, and wrote movingly in the Manchester Guardian on the horrific physical and moral effects of the Allied blockade on young people in Germany, in a piece starkly titled “Hunger”. [8]

And it is intriguing that in terms of neo-victorian literature and culture, too, the presence of Germany crops up not infrequently. A.S Byatt’s The Childrens Book sees several of her characters travel to Germany, experiencing German anarchism and German folklore and fairy tale. Von Arnim’s novel itself was referenced in Downton Abbey when, in 2011, Matthew Crawley’s valet Molesley attempted to woo fellow servant Anna by giving her Elizabeth and her German Garden. Whether or not a novel about a doomed marriage, and a woman achieving independence through work whilst questioning both personal and national identity would be the best path to intimate romance is of course, another matter entirely.

There is, certainly, much work to do to uncover the relationship between late-nineteenth century British writers, and German culture and literature. Questioning that relationship  – and asking why it seemed to be both sought and elided at the same time – may well lead to many interesting avenues of research on national identity, selfhood and politics.


[1] Prettejohn, Elizabeth After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 5,12.

[2] Sutton, Emma. Aubrey Beardsley and British Wagnerism in the 1890s. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[3] Schaffer, Talia. The Forgotten Female Aesthetes. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000). p. 68.

[4] Schaffer. pp. 64-70.

[5] Indeed, Von Armin did influence the modernist innovations of Woolf’s contemporary,

Katherine Mansfield. Mansfield was Von Armin’s younger cousin, and as well as adoring her aunt, she was also profoundly influenced in her youth by Elizabeth and her German Garden. See de Charms, Leslie. Elizabeth of the German Garden. (New York: Doubleday, 1958), pp. 218-25.

[6] Harris, Frank. “England and Germany”, in The Saturday Review. 11 Sep 1897.

[7] Maltz, Diana. “Mabel Dearmer”, The Yellow Nineties Online.

[8] Sharp also travelled to Germany five times – once in 1920, and twice in both 1923 and 1931 – to report on the Weimar Republic. Her reporting was striking for its humanism and compassion toward a country and a people that were only recently ‘the enemy’.

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