Finally I have broken my streak of disappointing novels – just in time for the new year! I remember hearing good things about this when I did some research on the internet, and after reading a quick synopsis about this book online it sounded quite interesting and appealing to me – particularly the fact that it’s a historical novel. A nice change from the dystopian and fantasy books I have been reading.
I was also quite intrigued by how the author came across the subject and idea for this novel. From what I had read about the author, she became interested in knowing more about the history of philosopher and poet Friedrich von Hardenberg after reading Hymns to the Nightand Heinrich von Ofterdingen, particularly when the latter mentioned the ‘Blue Flower’, which was an idea of profound importance to the philosopher-poets of that mind-crowded period. I don’t normally get this sort of explanation or back story to author’s so this appealed to me quite a bit.
The other element that grabbed my attention, was the fact that Penelope Fitzgerald loved writing stories and biographies of people that were outsiders or misfits – she was drawn to unsettled and imperfect characters; characters that seem profoundly lost and doomed. You can definitely see this theme permeate in this novel, and I couldn’t help but appreciate that as well.
The novel is based on true events and life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), before he became famous under the name Novalis, with his Hymns to the Nightand Heinrich von Ofterdingen(the novels that inspired the author). The novel takes place from the years from 1790 to 1797, and follows primarily the life of von Hardenberg (eldest in his family) as he finishes university and as he embarks in his professional life. We also get snippets into his siblings’ lives as well, and it plays a nice contrast to that of our main protagonist. This novel is unique in the sense that there is no real antagonist in then novel – perhaps one might argue that death takes on this role.
I absolutely loved the way that the author, Penelope Fitzgerald, really embraces the Romantic period of the day and makes an effort to keep German diction throughout and where possible – making the story feel much more authentic. She doesn’t shy away from bringing about the realities of life in that time – she dedicated paragraphs to highlighting how poor hygiene was back in these years when she talks about the washing day:
Dietmahler’s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. (1)
The novel is heavily character driven – with little actual plot taking place (you know this is fine by me!). Each character is carefully described with beautiful diction, and you can’t help but feel like you understand these characters on a deeper level.
The author also cleverly employs the role of diaries to not only fast forward, and quickly sum up days and weeks, but also to highlight the different character’s personalities. Before we don’t know much about Sophie – the apple of von Hardenberg’s eye – but after reading through her diary entries we get a sense that she’s not particularly astute, and rather a simpleton considering she is meant to be of noble standing:
Tuesday September 11
Today the painter did not come down in the morning for breakfast. My stepmother sent up one of the menservants with this coffee, but he said through the door, namely that he wished to be allowed to think.
Wednesday September 12
We began pickling the raspberries.
Thursday September 13
Today was hot and there was thunder and nothing. (149)
Fitzgerald is clearly a very talented writer and I absolutely love her writing style. She is able to paint so vividly such a wide range of sensory details. Take this sentence for example:
In her mouth was something bitter, that tasted like the waters of death. (165)
Such rich and vivid imagery and sensory details are absolutely brilliant. Especially as they are cleverly woken into the text, and not over powering. Sometimes authors can take this too far and make it feel heavy and complicated, but I think Fitzgerald chooses very wisely and poignantly the best times to sprinkle this in, which makes it stand out.
I wasn’t a massive fan of the main character, von Hardenberg, which is a shame as that’s who inspired the author to write this historical novel in the first place. I love imperfect characters that have flaws and weaknesses, but his weakness, or I should say obsession, with Sophie is very annoying, and diminishes my respect for him a little bit. I find the characters of Caroline Just, Jacob Dietmahler, Bernhard and Erasmus von Hardenberg more interesting.
Overall, I was really pleased with this novel and enjoyed reading it. The short chapters (there are only 282 pages with 55 chapter) keep you interested, as the author makes each one quite to the point. Again, thanks to the authors rich writing she can do this and get away with it I think. I would definitely recommend!