The Austrian writer Hermynia Zur Mühlen once enjoyed a modest reputation – as a translator from English, French, and Russian into German, as an author in her own right (an autobiographical memoir and six of her novels were published in English translation in the 1930s and 40s), and as a tireless fighter against National Socialism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of social injustice. On her sixtieth birthday in 1943, the BBC aired a tribute to her and the occasion was also celebrated at a party given in her honor by the Austrian and Czech PEN clubs in London. Since her death in 1951, however, in a small suburban town north of the British capital, she has been almost completely forgotten except by a handful of dedicated scholars in the field of "Exil-Literatur" who have done their best to revive interest in her. A few of her works were republished by the Aufbau Verlag in the former DDR and by small presses in Austria, but have attracted little sustained critical attention – though it appears that an Oxford D.Phil. thesis on her – by Ailsa Wallace – will be published soon by Oxford University Press. I came upon her by accident, while searching for book illustrations by Heinrich Vogeler, a Jugendstil artist who became a Communist after World War I. Vogeler illustrated two volumes of "proletarian" fairy tales by Zur Mühlen, which, together with a collection of political fables entitled Der rote Heiland (1924), are part of the remarkable Cotsen collection of children's literature in Princeton University Library. Zur Mühlen's works are hard to come by, however. Princeton's library lacks most of the books she published during her lifetime. The same is true of other major university libraries both in this country and in Great Britain.
Hermine Isabella Victoria, Gräfin Folliot de Crenneville-Poutet, sometimes referred to as the "Red Countess," was born into an old aristocratic Viennese family on December 12, 1883. As a child, she saw little of her parents and was largely brought up by her liberal and open-minded, English-born grandmother, who instilled in her a sense of personal moral responsibility together with the unshakable conviction that all human beings are of equal worth in the eyes of God, and whom she evokes lovingly not only in a lively autobiographical memoir of 1929 but in nearly all her fictional writings. Questioning and rebellious from an early age – she herself admits that she was a "handful" as a child – she was inspired by Christian ideals of social justice and community and by romantic notions of the aristocracy as the protector of the widow and the orphan to challenge the social conditions and conventions that the adults in her world took for granted. As she grew up, the influence of her grandmother was supplemented, but never displaced, by the socialist ideas she had begun to pick up in books and through encounters with exiles from Czarist Russia. Drawn in early adolescence to idealistic, humanitarian movements and causes, she was soon moving further and further in the direction of the radical political Left. A short and unhappy marriage to Viktor von zur Mühlen, a conservative German landowner – in itself an act of revolt, inasmuch as in the eyes of the urbane Austrian Catholic Crennevilles von zur Mühlen occupied a far lower rung on the social ladder and was a Protestant to boot – ended in divorce. But not before outrage at the exploitation of native Estonian workers by the ruling German landowners, which the headstrong and sharply critical young woman observed in the course of the five years (1908-1913) she spent on her husband's remote estate in one of the Baltic provinces of the Czar, had made a confirmed socialist of her.
Incapacitated by severe and ever worsening respiratory disease, she obtained release from her oppressive environment in 1913 by being sent to a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. Here she began her literary career with a translation of an anti-war novel by the then well known and widely read Russian writer Leonid Andreyev – "the most popular, and next to Tolstoy, the most gifted writer in Russia today," according to his American translator. This was immediately followed by a translation – with an Introduction by the influential Danish critic Georg Brandes – of Upton Sinclair's King Coal (Zurich, 1918). Zur Mühlen went on to translate over seventy novels or full-length books and countless shorter texts from English, French, and Russian, including works by John Galsworthy, Harold Nicolson, Edna Ferber, and her "much adored" Jerome K. Jerome – for whom she also wrote the obituary in the Frankfurter Zeitung. Her translations of more than twenty novels and plays by Upton Sinclair in particular helped to make his works bestsellers in Germany in the 1920s and were a boon to the radical avant-garde Malik Press of Wieland Herzfelde and his better known brother, the Dada photomontage artist John Heartfield, with which she had become closely associated. (Zur Mühlen's translation of Oil!, for instance, sold more copies in Germany than in the U.S.) At Davos she also met her future life's partner, Stefan Isidore Klein, a Viennese Jew several years her junior, who had made a small reputation as a translator of literary works from Hungarian into German. In 1919 the couple settled in Frankfurt and Hermynia's literary career took off. Despite the lung disease that continued to plague her throughout her life, she was astonishingly productive – as she had to be. Having broken with both her husband and her family, she could count on no income from either source, and, despite considerable activity as a translator, Klein appears not to have had much literary or financial success. Of the two, she, in all likelihood, was the breadwinner.
In addition to innumerable translations in the 1920s and 30s and even into the 1940s, Zur Mühlen turned out half a dozen detective novels with a socially critical slant under the American-sounding pseudonym of Lawrence H. Desberry, identifying herself as their "translator" – a plausible enough disguise in view of her reputation as the translator of Sinclair and other American writers. She also produced the volumes of children's fairy tales referred to earlier, in which the exploitation of the working class was exposed and interpreted for young readers from a socialist perspective. In the 1920s the fairy tale was viewed by the German Communist Party, which Zur Mühlen had joined some time between 1919 and 1921, as an effective means of promoting the political education of the masses. Illustrated by artists like George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Heinrich Vogeler, Zur Mühlen's collections enjoyed considerable success not only in Germany but in Czech, English, French, Russian, Spanish, Yiddish, Chinese, and Japanese translations. There was even a translation into Esperanto. The fairy tales were thus both a source of much needed income and a contribution to a cause to which their author was committed. Hundreds of anecdotes and sketches written for magazines and for the feuilleton pages of newspapers – chiefly leftwing – were another important source of income. Some of these well crafted pieces were satirical, some were humorous, all were marked by sharp and honest observation and all were critical of both social injustice and individual human cruelty. Zur Mühlen continued to publish short works of this kind, even during her years of exile in England, when they appeared in the German language newspapers that catered to the refugee community. Two book-length collections of short pieces – Der rote Heiland [The Red Redeemer] in 1924 and Fahrt ins Licht. 66 Stationen. Erzählungen [Journey into the Light. 66 Stations. Short Stories] in 1936 – also attest to a special talent for the short form, as does the largely paratactic structure of her longer narratives. With one exception (Unsere Töchter die Nazinen), these do not have a strong or complex overarching plot structure; the organizing pattern tends to be chronological, with interest focused on individual scenes in which the characters are portrayed in their shifting relations to each other and to an evolving socio-political environment. The serialized form in which several of Zur Mühlen's novels first appeared can only have reinforced this tendency.
In 1929 a charming, witty, and acutely observed autobiographical memoir of the years from childhood to the end of her marriage to von zur Mühlen was serialized in the respected Frankfurter Zeitung before being taken up and published in book form at the end of the year by S. Fischer Verlag, the publisher of Thomas Mann, under the title Ende und Anfang. Karl Kraus was one of this book's early admirers. An English translation, The Runaway Countess – for which a foreword was solicited from Arthur Schnitzler – appeared a year later (New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1930). As the German title suggests, the author uses her own life experiences, presented in the form of more or less free-standing anecdotes chronologically arranged, to depict the inner moral and cultural decay (but also, in some instances, the charm and refinement) of a world – that of pre-1914 Europe, and in particular of the pre-1914 Austrian aristocracy – that came to an end, as she believed, with the Russian Revolution of 1917, the welcomed Anfang or New Beginning of the title. "Strawstwi Revoluzia!" [Hail, Revolution!] is the title, transliterated from Russian, of the last section of the book.
Several works defined by the author herself as "novels" followed soon after. Two were fictionalized narratives of her own life experiences: Das Riesenrad (Stuttgart: I. Engelhorns Nachfolger, 1932; English translation, The Wheel of Life, London: Barker, and New York: Frederick Stokes, 1933), told in the first person by its fourteen-year old heroine-narrator and concentrating on a short period of about six months, and the more expansive Reise durch ein Leben (Bern and Leipzig: Gotthelf,1933; English translation, A Life's Journey, London: Jonathan Cape,1935), told in the third person and extending over a far longer period of time from childhood through adolescence and an unhappy marriage to the threshold of disillusioned middle age. Both novels skillfully exploit and imaginatively expand on the author's own experiences in order to portray, through their heroines, the evolution of a young girl – a kind of modern female Candide – as she discovers and engages with the larger social and political world beyond the sheltered, secure, and privileged space of her childhood, which is symbolized by the magical garden of her grandmother's (A Life's Journey) or her aunts' (The Wheel of Life) villa in the Alpine resort town of Gmunden, about 130 miles from Vienna. Both novels can be viewed as belonging to the traditional German genre of the Bildungsroman – except that the leading figure is a woman instead of a man and the focus is on the social world, which the heroine discovers and unmasks, as well as on the heroine herself. Both can also be seen as critical responses to the conventional literature of the time for girls and young women, which presented their readers with an idealized view of the social world and in particular of sex and marriage, and which Zur Mühlen had subjected to stinging criticism in an article of 1919. In her two "growing-up" novels, Zur Mühlen did not shy away from topics sedulously avoided in the conventional literature: menstruation, childbirth, miscarriage, abortion, and above all, the stresses and strains of living with another person, whether in a legally and religiously authorized and institutionalized marriage relationship or in a "free" relationship outside of marriage. 1933 also saw the serial publication in the Vienna Arbeiter-Zeitung of Vierzehn Nothelfer, a detective novel with striking expressionist touches that was also a trenchant social satire and of a comic novel with many references to the current political situation, Nora hat eine famose Idee (Bern and Leipzig: Gotthelf; English translation, Guests in the House [London: Frederick Muller, 1947]), which received favorable reviews in newspapers in Berlin, Vienna, Prague, and Basel.
During the Frankfurt years, Zur Mühlen and Klein had come intermittently under police surveillance because of their Communist affiliations. After the publication of one novella – Schupomann Karl Müller (1924), in which a policeman comes to side with the revolutionaries – Zur Mühlen was even taken to court on a charge (later dropped) of high treason. In fact, the gatherings at the couple's apartment, which the authorities considered highly suspicious, appear to have been more leftwing-Bohemian than conspiratorial, and by 1931 or 1932, discouraged by the oppressiveness of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union and by the authoritarian dogmatism of the German Party itself, Zur Mühlen left the Communist Party. In her novels of the late 1930s and the 1940s her characters increasingly express doubts about the wisdom and goodness of "the masses" and even about the point of political action. The individual, however contradictory and imperfect, emerges more and more as the highest value, and the basic conditions of human existence – the fleetingness of happiness, the difficulty of relationships with others, even those we love, the persistence of malice, the sadness of aging, and the finality of death – are shown to be little affected by political change. Still, though Zur Mühlen later described herself to Hubertus Prince zu Loewenstein as having joined the ranks of the "Left Catholics," she did not trumpet her withdrawal from the Communist Party. Overcoming the pessimism, despair, and sense of isolation from common humanity that she projected convincingly on to several of her women characters and taking an active stand against injustice remained the primary imperative both of the lapsed Catholic and of the former Communist. Not surprisingly, individual Communists remain, along with truly devout Christians, among the decent and admirable characters in her fiction. In fact, the two – sincere Christians and Communists – make common cause in Unsere Töchter die Nazinen (1934, 1936) and Als der Fremde kam (1946), against the greater enemy, which for Zur Mühlen was always cruelty and inhumanity, represented in her own time in the first instance by National Socialism. In light of their political orientation and reputation, therefore, as well as Klein's situation as a Jew, the couple made the decision to leave Germany in 1933, immediately after Hitler's Machtergreifung, for their native Austria. Short of money, as always, they settled in an extremely modest pension in Vienna.
Dismayed and angered by what she saw as the blindness and indifference of her countrymen and women to developments in Germany, Zur Mühlen was especially provoked by the recommendation of a well-meaning local newspaper editor that she avoid politics and supply him with entertaining little stories and sketches. She responded by turning out one of her most politically engaged and complexly structured novels, Unsere Töchter die Nazinen, in the record time of three weeks. The contemporary situation is illuminated in this work by the interlocking first-person narratives of three women from different social classes in a small town in Southern Germany, three mothers whose daughters join the Nazi Party – a working class Social Democrat, an aristocrat, and the resentful, frustrated, and ambitious middle-class wife of a doctor whose practice has lagged far behind that of the popular and respected local Jewish doctor. The appeal of National Socialism is explained in psychological, economic, and social terms and the ultimate message of the text is that all decent people, be they Christians or Communists, working people or aristocrats, conservatives or Social Democrats, must unite in organized resistance to a fundamentally evil and inhuman regime. Serialized in a leftwing Saarbrücken newspaper in 1934 (a year before the Saar voted to rejoin the new German Reich), and published in a Norwegian translation in the same year by the Tiden Norsk Forlag in Oslo, almost immediately after its founding by the Norwegian Labor Party (Tiden Norsk was the only publishing house shut down by the Germans during the occupation of Norway), this novel could not find a publisher in Austria willing or courageous enough to take it on. To that extent the newspaper editor who had advised Zur Mühlen to produce light and amusing anecdotes and sketches was vindicated. Finally, in 1936, it was put out by the Gsur Verlag, the director of which was the strongly anti-Nazi Catholic Vice-Mayor of Vienna, only to be immediately banned by the authorities under pressure from the German Ambassador to Austria, Franz von Papen. It was not published again until the Aufbau Verlag brought it out in 1983 in the former DDR and it has never been translated into English. Even in a less overtly polemical work from this period, the novel Ein Jahr im Schatten, which appeared in 1935 in Zurich, Vienna and Prague (English translation: A Year under a Cloud [London: Selwyn and Blount, 1937]), the personal dramas of the heroine and other members of her aristocratic but no longer wealthy or influential family are increasingly overshadowed by events "up there," i.e. in Germany. With the couple's finances as fragile as ever and the German market closed to her as a result of her fearless and highly public attacks on National Socialism, Zur Mühlen had to find alternate sources of income. Resourceful and hardworking as always, she appears to have won a contract to supply Belgian radio with documentaries on prominent historical figures, for in 1937 and 1938 no fewer than eleven such documentaries by her were broadcast in Flemish – on Queen Isabella of Spain, Christopher Columbus, Louis XIV, Cardinal Richelieu, Frederick the Great, Joseph Fouché, Metternich, Florence Nightingale, Woodrow Wilson, Bethmann-Hollweg, and Lord Edward Grey.
The Anschluss in 1938 obliged Zur Mühlen and Klein to uproot once again. This time they settled in nearby Bratislava, in Slovakia, where they decided to get married. Just before they left Vienna, Hermynia came into some money from her mother's estate. To collect it in post-Anschluss Austria, however, she was required to sign an affidavit affirming that she was of pure Aryan descent. Though the couple needed the money badly, Zur Mühlen refused, as a matter of principle. With the German occupation of Bohemia and the establishment of an independent Slovak puppet state under Father Tiso in 1939, she and Klein fled to England, where they lived a penurious existence until their deaths a few years after the end of the Second World War. The small income Hermynia derived from the short pieces she wrote for the exile press, from some radio broadcasts for the BBC, and from a couple of longer works published in wartime England had to be supplemented by intermittent financial assistance from refugee agencies in Britain and the U.S.A. In addition, she suffered greatly from poor health and the lack of regular medical attention. She had apparently undergone an operation for cancer before leaving for England; the English climate aggravated her respiratory problems; and in the last months of her life, during which she rarely left the modest dwelling she occupied with Klein, she required regular injections to control chronic pain. Zur Mühlen died, seemingly of a heart attack, in Radlett, Hertfordshire, in 1951, without ever having returned to Austria. Klein died nine years later in nearby St. Albans. In the local church records the woman who had once been the spoiled "Komtesserl" of a high-ranking Austrian noble family and who had achieved some celebrity as the writer Hermynia Zur Mühlen is identified in matter-of-fact English style as "Hermyna Kleinova." She would probably have appreciated that.
The two longer works that date from this last and most difficult stage in Zur Mühlen's career are in some ways her most ambitious and impressive. They appear to have been intended as parts of a planned trilogy in which the social, political, and cultural history of Europe, and in particular of Austria and Central Europe, would be analyzed and represented by following the fortunes of the Herdegens, an old Austrian aristocratic family, through many generations and many individual fates, from the Congress of Vienna and the final defeat of Napoleon to the rise of Hitler, the Anschluss marking the end of Austrian independence, and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. Zur Mühlen may have been inspired by the success of "family novels" such as Mann's Buddenbrooks (1901) or Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga (1906-1921), but her work, albeit "cast in what is perhaps an unoriginal mould" (in the words of an otherwise very favorable contemporary review in the TLS), is far more richly informed historically and her canvas is far wider and more complex than Galsworthy's. Though the central scenes of the action are the ancestral Herdegen estate not far from Vienna ("Wohan" in Moravia in the first novel, "Korompa" in Slovakia in the second) and the family palaces in Vienna, some of the principal characters are foreigners (French, Polish, Prussian, Spanish, Swiss) who either married into the family or found refuge and employment in it; on their side, some Herdegens marry foreigners and go off to live in the land of their spouse; others marry out of their social class. The "exile" who has attachments to two or more countries – or social classes – but no longer feels completely at home in any one thus plays a pivotal role in the family saga, as well as among the secondary characters, reflecting no doubt the experience of the author herself, but at the same time multiplying the historical perspectives of the novels and presenting a paradigm of humanity as inescapably hybrid. It is "Because we are patchwork" – seemingly the title of a presumed missing component of the planned trilogy – that we are all both disconnected from an imagined "home" and potentially connected with each other, sharing the same destiny as parts of a single patchwork humanity. A cosmopolitanism rooted in the condition of the aristocracy of the Habsburg Empire opens here on to a global humanism that is no less relevant today than in the dark decade of the mid-30s to mid-40s when Zur Mühlen conceived, wrote, and published her family saga.
The first work in the trilogy – Ewiges Schattenspiel – which covers the period from the Congress of Vienna to the 1848 Revolutions, was probably written shortly before Zur Mühlen and Klein left Vienna for Bratislava, for, though it was not published in German as a book until 1996, it appeared in serialized form in the Bern newspaper Der Bund between November 1938 and March 1939. An English version, entitled We Poor Shadows, was published by Free Austrian Books in London in 1943 and again that same year by the London publisher Frederick Muller, with a second printing the following year. As the title page of this English version gives the name of the author as "Countess Hermynia Zur Mühlen" and as there is no indication anywhere that it is a translation, it has sometimes been assumed that Zur Mühlen wrote the novel in English. This is manifestly not the case. It is very likely, however, that she took an active part in translating it into English and in adapting it to the taste and interests of the English reading public. (The English version is considerably shorter than the German one and some of the detail that gives the extraordinarily rich and wide-ranging original, with its vast cast of characters, its historical density has been cut.)
The second major part of the presumed trilogy to be published after the departure from Vienna – Als der Fremde kam – is an engrossing and insightful portrait of the period from 1937 (i.e. just before the Anschluss) to the end of Austrian independence, the secession of Slovakia from the Republic of Czechoslovakia and its establishment as a fascist puppet state, and the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by German troops in March 1939. Even if the earlier parts of it were written in Bratislava, therefore, it seems virtually certain that most of it was written after Zur Mühlen and Klein arrived in England. Notwithstanding that in this case the English version – Came the Stranger (London: Frederick Muller, 1946) – preceded the German version (Vienna: Globus Verlag, 1947) and again bore no indication that it was a translation (the author is identified here too simply as "Countess Hermynia Zur Mühlen"), it is most likely that it too was originally written in German and translated – perhaps by Zur Mühlen herself – from German into English, rather than the other way round, as was at one time believed. At least one further novel, it is assumed, was intended to fill in the story of the Herdegens between 1848 and 1937. In her correspondence Zur Mühlen mentions a work to which she refers by an English title, "Because we are Patchwork" – but that, once again, in no way implies that the text itself was written in English. How far along she got with this novel is not known, and no trace of it has been found.
The following samples of Zur Mühlen's writing illustrate her work in the special literary genre of the spare, stripped-down short form – the anecdote, the character sketch, the fable, the fairy tale with a moral. An appreciation of her considerable skill as a novelist who combined a strikingly broad and rich historical sweep with sharp, Marxist-influenced insight into the dynamics of social and political change and an undogmatic (and perhaps especially feminine) sensitivity to the complexity of individual character and human relations and to the irremediable sadness of le temps perdu, of loss and death, must await republication of the long out-of-print English translations of her more ambitious literary achievements, especially the novels of her later years.