This week, we had the honor and the pleasure to welcome Helga Meise in our group, for a fruitful and Ersamus-sponsored exchange of ideas – including an intervention of her in our BA-class on Romantic German female writers (awesome presentation on Sophie von La Roche’s Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim and its importance in German literary history) – and a presentation of her latest research results on the novel writer Maria Anna Sager. Now that is someone you can try googling and wikipedying as much as you want: you won’t find any trace.
As she explained it to us, it took Helga Meise no less than 30 years to reconstruct who that writer was. As Helga was working on her dissertation, she found by total chance a novel, written by a woman (“ein Frauenzimmer” says the frontispiece) in the year 1771 – significantly, the exact same year Sophie von La Roche’s Sternheim was published. The difference between both texts is all the more striking. Not only does Sager dismiss any kind of male patronizing – which was in itself a significant way of breaking with the rhetoric of female writing preceded, explained, introduced by at least one male editor in a preface or a foreword. She also invokes all the traditional elements used in these prefaces – the usefulness of the book, the style, the reader it is conceived for – but only to ironically flip them to their opposite: not a legitimation discourse, but a discourse of non-legitimation. Which is, ultimately, as we know, an interesting form of legitimation. But in 1771? The modernity of the writing, Helga Meise showed it in her further interpretation, extends to the whole novel and to the following one, published in 1774.
In order to get to know who that extraordinarily writer was, there were very few tangible elements to start the search 30 years ago. The first book was edited, as I wrote, by a “Frauenzimmer” (a lady), the second one carries the initials M.A.S. This, and the publisher, a known representative of Enlightenment in Prag, were pretty much the only two leads. With the help of colleagues who went through archives in Prag and Vienna, Helga Meise reconstructed parts of Sager’s life. But only parts, really. These will be presented in her edition of Sager in the collection “Frühe Frauenliteratur in Deutschland” (Olms Verlag, coordinated by Anita Runge). Hopefully, you will be able to read it all in a year or so.
There is no definite proof that Maria Anna Sager (whose testament carries no trace of anything connected to writing, for instance) is in fact the author of those two Pirandellian novels. Only four copies of the books are still preserved (at least in Germany and Austria – please let me know if you find a copy somewhere else in the world!). Apart from a quotation of a recension of the first book in the second one, almost none of the historical information reconstructed through the archive matches the text or gives any kind of clue as to her position and her self-understanding as a writer.
In that sense, Maria Anna Sager is a missing link between us and those two novels (which, that at least is for sure, have been written by the same person). But we need that link in order to be able to make sense out of those two novels in a publishing context where the hits were called Fräulein von Sternheim and Leiden des jungen Werthers. We need it even if it is empty. We need a mental placeholder, something to fill out our inner metadata on these texts. Why it it so? Well, in this case, it does not have so much to do with a craving for information and with the need we have to put everything in the appropriate drawer. It has to do with the fact that these novels, although published in the 1770s, seem to be written just for us, addressed to us. They are so amazingly modern that it is just unbearable to think that there was someone, back then, who was so close to us, and we know absolutely nothing about her. She could be a symbol, she could be a living memory. But she is desincarnated, even her archival, paper self does so much as not exist. So – should she have a wikipedia entry? Should she exist on the web? How? As what?
The part I personally find the most delectable is the irony of having a woman, and a woman we know nothing of, being an exemplary and, maybe (surely) in its kind, unique connection between us and the writing of the late 1770s – in spite of all the male writers of the late 18th-century constantly showing off with their despise for their contemporary readers and their hope to be writing “for future generations”. They certainly had the publishing establishment backing them up on that. But when it comes to the text, four copies are enough…