Book 2 of my mini-Germanathon was written by a quinessential English author and shortlisted for the inaugural Orange prize in 1996. There appears to have been some controversy with at least one of the judges (Susan Hill) believing that Fitzgerald’s novel, a book of genius, should have won. Other judges labelled it “a thin little historical novel by a middle class middlebrow writer.”
It was my first Fitzgerald so I had no preconceptions, even if her reputation is somewhat stellar.
The novel certainly deals with the life of a genius i.e Frederick von Hardenburg, more famously known as the German poet and philosopher, Novalis, widely accredited with the founding of the German romantic movement,. The blue flower became the symbol of that movement after Novalis used it in his unfinished novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, to symbolise desire, love, and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable.
In Fitzgerald’s novel, that striving is condensed into von Hardenburg’s doomed relationship with his young child-fiancée, Sophie von Kühn. History attests to the facts, hence, no spoilers as I reveal that Sophie was merely 12 when von Hardenburg fell in love with her at first sight and 15 when she died a cruel death from tuberculosis.
Short chapters. Multiple narrators. Easy reading, yet a sense of the unfathomable as von Hardenburg, the intellectual, topples head over heels with a child 10 years his junior during a mere 15 minute meeting. She’s nothing special. Raucous and ill-refined. Speaking with a broad accent. “Never had he met a maiden of good family with so little restraint.” That would be her upbringing for the ethics of Sophie’s family is fundamentally different from the von Hardenburg’s. Laid-back v. up-tight in modern parlance.
At this point readerly sympathy lies with von Hardenburg’s confidante, Karoline, spinsterly daughter of his landlord, whose love for von Hardenburg remains unspoken and unreciprocated throughout. Yet, as Sophie sickens and undergoes the horrors of C18th medicine, the view of the uncouth maiden softens as we suffer with her. Relief as we realise that those rough edges, despised at first, provide her with a resilience that a finer maiden would have lacked.
As Sophie’s tragedy provides the narrative drive, so much more is effortlessly conveyed in Fitzgerald’s prose. A comprehensive view of C18th life in the university cities, the rural towns and the family homesteads. The straightened circumstances of aristocrats living in reduced circumstances but with renowned connections: The great and the intellectual of C18th Germany, Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, Schlegel, all appearing in these pages. And finally, the precariousness of existence and the lottery of survival as untimely death lies in wait for a whole generation of the von Hardenburgs.
All of which is told in an understated, matter-of-fact way in a novel described as a masterpiece by A.S Byatt. An informative essay by her here. Said essay raising valid points which eluded me as I read a novel. Enjoyable yet slight on first encounter. Fitzgerald’s genius perhaps a shade delicate for my more dramatic tastes. Not to worry, I shall be sampling more. I suspect the lady will grow on me.
1997 NBCC Winner