Reviews 2014

Good Girls, Good Germans: Girls’ Education and Emotional Nationalism in Wilhelminian Germany

Good Girls, Good Germans: Girls’ Education and Emotional Nationalism in Wilhelminian Germany. Jennifer Drake Askey. Rochester: Camden House, 2013. 201 pages. $85.00 (hardback).

If we want to understand the present, we have to know the past. Jennifer Drake Askey’s Good Girls, Good Germans contributes to a broadening and deepening of our understanding of a significant period in the German history: the rise of nationalism in Germany during the late 19th century. This was during this era in which Germany emerged as a unified national state for the first time, and is thus an important epoch in the formation of German national consciousness. Drake Askey’s initial point is that an informed reading of the leisure-time literature recommended to young girls by parents, teachers and other guardians is crucial in order to understand how nationalism, middle-class ideology and forced feminine behaviour were pushed upon the lives of German girls. Focussing on the utility of leisure-time reading for girls (Mädchenliteratur) and canonised texts in schoolbooks (Lesebücher), Drake Askey seeks to answer three major questions:

  1. How are reading girls constructed by the plot of the text and the pedagogical context of their reading activity to feel themselves to be particularly “German” young women?
  2. How are texts constructed or contextualized to encourage female readers to occupy their position in German culture via identification with literary figures?
  3. Can we think of the literary landscape of girl’s literature in the late nineteenth century as a moral literary landscape in which a reader could discern habitable from inhabitable locations and thus make a decision about which corner of that landscape would be most hospitable to her? (15)

Responding these three questions, the book is divided into four chapters. The opening chapter explicates the social context and aims of gendered education in schools for girls from bourgeois and noble backgrounds (höhere Töchter) during the Wilhelminian era.

Based on the analysis of regulations of curricula and pedagogical methods, Drake Askey constructs a historical, social, and literary framework for her text analysis. She concludes that “learnedness” (35) was not the main focus of school education, and that forming a certain type of national character and social class affiliation were more important. Drake Askey’s text interpretations in the next chapters start with canonised school literature, followed by leisure-time literature (Backfischbücher) and historical novels. The primary criterion for the selection of texts for reading books (Lesebücher) was their pedagogical and ideological contribution in educating young girls to become housewives and patriotic Germans. Drake Askey exemplifies this claim with a discussion of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic poem from 1797, Hermann und Dorothea. The text was re-interpreted in the late 19th century to downplay Dorothea’s leadership in her relationship with Hermann and instead to emphasise her role as a loving housewife. Wilhelminian interpretations of the poem focussed on Dorothea’s nationalist feelings, evidenced through her admiration for the braveness of German soldiers and her outspoken antipathy towards the French. (75-81).

Drake Askey’s close-reading of texts from authors like Goethe relate to her notion of Emotional Nationalism, a term she uses to describe how “a national desire for female readers, a desire that encouraged identification of national progress and harmony with personal emotional fulfilment” (6) was produced through the reading of literature. She demonstrates that young girls were provided with a homogeneous literary palette, which promoted conservative behaviour and limited their social roles to that of a housewife and mother (Hausmutter). Drake Askey’s argumentation is compelling and well supported by characteristic illustrations of that time, taken from books and newspapers. These illustrations strengthen the recurrent thematic priorities, set for the upbringing of young girls.

According to Drake Askey, the genre of historical biography intended to highlight nationalistic behaviour in combination with female duties. In several biographies of the famous Prussian Queen Luise (1776-1810), the authors concentrate on Luise’s personal qualities, such as her self-abandonment and sense of duty towards her family and the German people. By examining the “overlapping fictional and historical narratives” (145), Drake Askey elaborates that Luise is preserved as a role model. Her education closely resembles the pedagogical ideals proscribed for young German girls during the Wilhelminian era (173). The discrepancy between the Queen’s documented agile intellect, her fondness for reading and intuition for politics and the hegemonic ideals in upbringing, where an “overeducating“ of young girls were seen as problematic, deserves a bit more explanation. Unlike other young girls of that era, Luise was given ample opportunities to develop her interests and use her power. Therefore, when reading between the lines, the well-educated Queen Luise could as well be interpreted as a figure who challenged the limited domestic opportunities for less privileged German girls and young women.

Drake Askey’s research is limited to literature for upper and middle class girls, the situation for girls from other backgrounds is omitted, presumably because girls from working class families read other kinds of literature, if they read at all. Drake Askey admits that her findings reflect her focus on a specific type of girl’s literature, which was particularly conservative (184). Somewhat frustratingly, she mentions that there were female authors who challenged the social norms but does not provide as much information about this (187). These omissions narrow the study, and there is room for future research here.

Despite this minor point of concern, Drake Askey’s book is ambitious in its goal to analyse how leisure-time literature written for young girls in the Wilhelminian Era contributed to the consolidation of conservative role models for girls and the establishment of national consciousness. Her study offers a significant contribution to our understanding of the living conditions and values of the middle classes. Her study also draws attention to a large number of children’s and young adult’s literature that might easily be overlooked because of their popular culture status. Her findings are not solely limited to German history, since similar nationalistic processes can also be observed in other countries during that period.

Corina Löwe
Linnaeus University, Sweden