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Reuter, Gabriele (1859–1941)

Reuter, Gabriele (1859–1941)

German novelist. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, on February 8, 1859; died in Weimar, Germany, on November 16, 1941; elder of two children and only daughter of Karl Reuter (a businessman) and Johanne (Behmer) Reuter; some schooling in Wolfenbüttel and Neuhaldensleben, Germany; never married; no children.

Began writing after father's death (1872); published first novel Glück und Geld (Happiness and Money, 1888); published Aus guter Familie (From a Good Family), her most successful novel (1895); published autobiography Vom Kinde zum Menschen (From the Child to the Person, 1922).

Gabriele Reuter wrote about the lives of ordinary, middle-class German women at the turn of the 20th century. Her books describe the psychological bondage imposed on women by the expectations of society and the resulting frustration and anguish of their lives. Although her most famous work, Aus guter Familie: Leidensgeschichte eines Mädchens (From a Good Family: The Suffering of a Young Woman), inspired extensive commentary and public debate about women's education and their role in modern society, she denied any social agenda, despite her sympathy with the women's rights movement.

Born on February 8, 1859, Reuter had an exotic childhood in Egypt where her father Karl Reuter was part of a trade delegation to the German embassy. Her mother Johanne Behmer Reuter feared that Gabriele would be ill-equipped for proper German society if she continued to live in Egypt, so in 1872 she moved her children to Wolfenbüttel so they could attend appropriate schools. They had not been long in Germany when Gabriele's father died suddenly, leaving the family without income and Gabriele without the means to a formal education.

Reuter, then 13 years old, determined that she must support her family. She had thought of going on the stage, but her father had made her promise that she would do no such thing. Her mother's family included many literary and intellectual women, among them Gabriele's great-grandmother Philippine Gatterer , one of the greatest intellects of the German Enlightenment, and Caroline Engelhard , a popular novelist of her time. With her family background in mind, Johanne suggested to Gabriele that she enter a writing contest. Although she did not win, an aunt encouraged her to continue to write, and she began submitting small pieces, many of them about Egypt, to the newspapers. One of her cousins, editor of the conservative newspaper Kreuzzeitung, helped her get published, but Reuter was not satisfied with her work and stopped writing. She spent the next few years doing household chores and caring for her ailing mother. In 1879, the two of them moved to Weimar, and Reuter—living in what was considered the intellectual center of Germany—began her informal education.

While there, Reuter associated regularly with an aunt and uncle and their friends. Her uncle introduced her to the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and to the modern paintings of Arnold Böcklin, whose work shocked the middle-class public, while her aunt provided the perfect example of a devoted, selfless, unfulfilled, and frustrated wife and mother. Reuter began working on a novel about Egypt, encouraged by her aunt who helped her to tighten and simplify her style. The period between 1887 and 1891 seemed to Reuter the turning point for her artistic and personal life. She began to seek out critics and teachers at writers' conferences, for help and encouragement. The critic Karl Frenzel told her to write from her intimate knowledge about life in Germany rather than about Egypt, where she would always be a foreigner, and anarchist John Henry Mackay, with whom she became great friends despite the enormous differences in their worldviews, urged her to escape from her family in Weimar and live her own life. She also began to read such modern writers and thinkers as Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant.

In an epiphany, Reuter understood one day that her mission was to delineate the silent sufferings of girls and women trapped by the society they lived in. Although naturalism, with its grim, detailed descriptions of the lives of the working class, was much in vogue, she recognized that she knew little of the working class and thus had no right to write about them. Middle-class life, on the other hand, was something she understood all too well. She deliberately chose to stay away from the more common dramatic and passionate depictions of middle-class women (exemplified by Flaubert's Madame Bo-vary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina). Her theme became the silent tragedy of daily life, and the focus of her energy was the work that would be Aus guter Familie. It was many years before she finished it because her priority was caring for her ill mother. In the meantime, frequent trips to Berlin brought her into the circle of naturalist writers, among them her future publisher Samuel Fischer, and it was to these writers that she first showed her book. Their misinterpretations of her themes horrified her, and she nearly destroyed the novel before deciding that she had presented the truth as she saw it. Aus guter Familie, published in 1895, proved to be a phenomenal success, going into 5 editions by 1897 and 18 editions by 1908.

Also in 1895, Reuter moved with her mother to Munich. There she met intelligent, well-spoken feminists whose concerns echoed her own. While she considered working actively in the fight for women's rights, she finally concluded that she would be better employed in dedicating herself to her writing, which was popular with the same middle-class, educated women whom feminists sought to gain as supporters. Nonetheless, she remained an advocate of the German women's movement throughout her life. In 1899, she settled with her mother in Berlin, and over the following 20 years wrote almost a book each year. Among these were Der Lebenskünstler (The Artist of Life, 1897); Frau Bürgelin und ihre Söhne (Mrs. Bürgelin and Her Sons, 1899), much admired by Thomas Mann; Ellen von der Weiden (1900), which proved popular enough to merit 65 editions; Frauenseelen (Women's Souls, 1902); Liselotte von Reckling (1904), also much praised by Thomas Mann; and Das Tränenhaus (The House of Tears, 1909), a devastating picture of a maternity house for unmarried, pregnant women scorned by society. Reuter also wrote topical essays, including Die Probleme der Ehe (The Problems of Marriage, 1907) and Liebe und Stimmrecht (Love and Suffrage, 1914). Her identification with the women's movement can also be seen in the biographies she wrote of contemporary novelist Marie Ebner-Eschenbach (1904) and of the great 19th-century writer Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1905). In 1904, Mann called Reuter "the most sovereign woman living in Germany today."

Reuter published her autobiography, Vom Kinde zum Menschen (From the Child to the Person), in 1922. The following year inflation wiped out her life savings, and she lived in a precarious financial state thereafter. She published only a children's book and a fictionalized family history during the grim years of the 1930s. The rise of Hitler at the end of her life was in sad contrast to her ideal of the fulfillment of the individual. She died in Weimar in 1941.

sources:

Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Garland, Mary. The Oxford Companion to German Literature. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Goodman, Katherine R. "Gabriele Reuter" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 66: German Fiction Writers, 1885–1913. Edited by James Hardin. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1988.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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