III On being a Woman Writer in the Netherlands
Twenty-five years ago, in the spring of 1983, the Dutch Sinologist and professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Utrecht, Douwe W. Fokkema, delivered the three Erasmus Lectures. In these lectures he presented the major results of his research into the literary conventions of Modernism and Postmodernism, mentioning among other Modernist writers the Dutch woman writer Carry van Bruggen. One year later, back in the Netherlands, he and his co-author Elrud Ibsch published their pioneering book on European Modernism. Distinctly new in their approach to Modernism was that the authors not only analyzed the works of Joyce, Larbaud, Proust, Gide, Virginia Woolf, Italo Svevo, Robert Musil and Thomas Mann, but also explicitly inscribed three Dutch writers into the modernist canon: Menno ter Braak, Eddy du Perron, and Carry van Bruggen, the woman writer who is the central figure in these lectures. Another four years later, in 1988, Fokkema and Ibsch’s book was published in an English edition. Now, as it turned out, the chapter on Carry van Bruggen was omitted and replaced, as suggested by the editor, with one on Eliot.
This is both an amusing and a shocking example of how at the time all kinds of extra-literary considerations affected the determination of what was and what was not allowed to enter the international canon of Modernism. Carry van Bruggen was fashionable for a brief period in the 1980s in Dutch comparative literature as a Modernist author, but, for whatever reason, she was dropped from the international process of constructing the Modernist canon, which in the meantime has fortunately been entirely deconstructed. All the same, it is to the credit of Fokkema and Ibsch that they were the first in the Netherlands to recognise Carry van Bruggen as a Modernist writer.
An important theme of the Modernists is the relation between oneself and others, as well as the power relations at stake in that relationship. In my first lecture I examined that relation in the case of Carry van Bruggen in terms of her Jewish identity. I considered four of her novels in which Jewry and anti-Semitism in the Netherlands were the theme, and analysed the position that her work occupied within the debate on this theme among Jewish and non-Jewish writers and intellectuals in the Netherlands before the First World War. The second lecture concentrated on the new identity which she assumed on the eve of the First World War as a thinking woman, discussing the problems that this raised for herself and for others. She was thereby able to write her great essay on cultural history, Prometheus, which constituted her response to the experience of the First World War.
Today’s lecture follows the search of the writer Carry van Bruggen for what being a Jew and a woman meant in the postwar years. The relation of herself to others formed the theme of her last novel, Eve, of 1927. I shall concentrate on a few cultural historical aspects of this novel and on its contemporary reception. Eve immediately came to play a role in the debate conducted in the 1920s on the ‘women’s novel’ that was for the new generation of Dutch writers the symbol of the old realist literary convention that they wanted to distance themselves from. The ideas about femininity which circulated in literary criticism betrayed the same essentialism as that which we came across in the discussion of Carry van Bruggen’s Jewish identity. Now femininity was deployed as something distinctive in the construction of a new literary canon.
‘On or about December 1910 human character changed’, Virginia Woolf remarked in the well-known essay ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’, the defence of Modernism that she delivered before a puzzled Cambridge audience in 1924. She went on to explain:
All human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910.
The precise date is debatable, but she was right in pointing out a new way of looking at the world and a new conception of reality that grew rapidly in the prewar years. Carry van Bruggen’s change of sensibility can be traced in the same period in her novels The abandoned from 1910 and Helen from 1913. In the first novel, the son Daniel refused to obey the absolute truth of orthodox Jewry, in the person of his father, any longer; in Helen the girl who was growing up came into conflict with the truth that was taken for granted and presented as reality by the world around her. In both novels the realities confronting the protagonists were called into question, but at the same time the newly won insight was regarded as a loss with which neither Daniel nor Helen could live. While in these two novels Carry van Bruggen was already reasoning as she weighed up the value of different realities, in the essays that she wrote during the war she only applied the procedure of unmasking to patriotism and chauvinism. In her essay of 1919, Prometheus, she gained the insight that it was impossible to distinguish clearly between true and false, right or wrong. As a consequence, objectivity and causality could not be applied when it came to judging human actions.
To support her view of Prometheus as a Modernist work, Elrud Ibsch lists a series of Modernist elements. Carry van Bruggen’s alternative to the old dogmas and authoritarian attitudes consisted of humour, tolerance and historical awareness, which were signally lacking in the positivism that she called ‘the foundation of modern dogmatism’. But despite the calling into question of certain values, her new view of reality still made it possible to opt for a position, albeit combined with an awareness that another’s opinion was equally defensible and provisional as her own. At the end of Prometheus, referring to the story ‘Inn of Tranquillity’ by the author whom she admired so much, John Galsworthy, she wrote that even the ‘Inn of Tranquillity’
[…] is a temporary abode – and deserves its name. It is an inn, not a home – the tranquillity is the tranquillity between two storms – a brief lull between two high tides. You spend a moment there to catch your breath, but there are two doors facing one another which are always open: the door from the Past, and the door leading to the Future. There’s a strong draught in ‘the Inn of Tranquillity’.
This metaphor is strongly reminiscent of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus of 1910 which is propelled towards the future by the storm of the past.
Elrud Ibsch seems to believe that the process of shaking off the absolute truths of Jewry in Carry van Bruggen’s youth liberated her completely from her Jewish identity. In her account of the development of Carry van Bruggen to become ‘a female novelist who to a large extent thinks and writes as a Modernist’, she discusses the essays Prometheus (1919) and Contemporary fetishism (1927) as well as the novel Eve (1927), but she does not once mention the series of four Jewish collections of stories that Carry van Bruggen published between 1921 and 1924. This is no doubt connected with the purpose of the study by Fokkema and Ibsch: to describe the shared characteristics of Modernist texts. That approach required them to confine themselves to those writers who had drawn up the Modernist conventions and to the first readers to recognise and codify them. In the case of Carry van Bruggen, it was Menno ter Braak, whom Fokkema and Ibsch label as a Modernist, who was such a ‘first reader’ and who several times repeated his claim to have found a kindred spirit in the author of Prometheus and Eve, but never referred to Carry van Bruggen’s work that appeared in the period between these two works. Since the publication of the study by Fokkema and Ibsch in 1988, Modernism as a literary tendency has been replaced by a pluralistic view of the experience of modernity, which is why the term ‘Modernisms’ is now preferred. The term Modernism is no longer taken to refer to a particular period or a particular group of (primarily male) writers of the ‘generation of 1914’, as Wyndham Lewis called himself, Pound, Eliot and Joyce, who were canonised by the New Criticism in the 1920s and 1930s. Today the emphasis is on particular textual particularities with an awareness that they are closely connected with the rejection of liberal aesthetics and ethical values.
I consider that not just the 1927 novel Eve, but also the second series of Jewish books by Carry van Bruggen admit of a Modernist interpretation. Ambivalence and being an outsider were the theme of her prewar Jewish novels, and such ambivalences certainly put her on a Modernist track. Carry van Bruggen’s Jewish identity did not just play a very important role in the rise of her Modernist awareness, but it also continued to play that part. The problems connected with being different from others that characterised her first series of Jewish novels before the war, such as In the shadow and Little knitting school, were resumed after the war, though now from a very different perspective. One of Carry van Bruggen’s biographers, Ruth Wolf, strongly emphasised the different character of this second series. She wrote: ‘The phase of commiseration soaked in bitterness, the urge to demonstrate the meaning of Jewishness by means of extreme examples, is over – obliterated in her wrestling with the Prometheus motif’. According to Wolf, it was now a nostalgia for lost certainties, ‘for the irrevocably lost protection of the Jewish home’, that drove Carry van Bruggen ‘to bear witness to the richness of her old roots’. It was thus an À la recherche du temps perdu – and as in Proust’s most famous work, it is scents, colours and melodies that seem to effortlessly evoke the flood of childhood recollections for Carry van Bruggen:
She could let it come and go, she did let it come and go: when she sang she saw it, felt it, lived it, but when she stopped singing, it withdrew, as though behind a matt glass door or a closed curtain […]
And now she knows the spell …, now by singing what was sung then, or was heard then, she can recall the long forgotten things and the things that happened long ago and the deeply buried things, and the faded and discoloured things, as often and as clearly as she wants, though she does not know where they come from. […] Now she knows what to do […] to hold on for ever to what you once had.
Now that the programmatic character of The abandoned and The little Jew in particular has gone, the naturalist tendency of her prewar novels is gradually replaced by a new way of writing, in which many Modernist techniques can be distinguished. Language and style, the construction and technique of the stories, are subordinated to what goes on in the minds of the characters – which increasingly becomes the mind of the author herself. That is the only place where the coherence of the stories can be found, for hardly anything takes place in the stories, which have neither framework nor end and are only minimally supported by facts. Narrative unity is achieved by devices such as parallelism in the chapters, in the grouping of the characters, in the obsessive repetition of sentences and phrases, of images that become symbols, in the echo of the beginning at the end of the story, or in the reflection of a character’s emotional state in the landscape. Carry van Bruggen’s style of writing also uses cohesive elements to express her view of the unity of perception and vision, of thought and knowledge, and of knowing and feeling. In Little Adventures (1922), for instance, she writes: ‘The word “Norway” smells of the planks that lie on rafts in the water’. In a perceptive study of Carry van Bruggen, Jacobs writes that the mood of the characters is ‘caught up in a continuous movement of feeling, experiencing, feeling again, experiencing again, feeling differently and experiencing differently. Moving, flowing, shifting closer together or further apart, growing and dying out, everything is on the move. The unchanging being simply does not exist’.
This is well illustrated by a passage from The little house beside the water (1921):
In the dark stillness float alarming whisperings, awesome gestures, float the spoken and the unspoken, and it condenses and takes on forms and becomes an all-embracing astonishing Miracle … and the darkness whispers with a thousand different voices.
The biographers of Carry van Bruggen — Wolf and Jacobs — have little to say about the significance of her Jewishness for the second series of Jewish books that she published in the first half of the 1920s. As I have mentioned, according to Wolf, after her liberation from bitterness through the philosophical exercise that was Prometheus, the assimilated Jew Carry van Bruggen wanted ‘to bear witness to the richness of her old roots’. For Jacobs, who explicitly refers to ‘books of recollections’ but does not go into their place within the oeuvre of Carry van Bruggen as a whole, the fact that they are set in a Jewish milieu is ‘not essential’. The reviewers in the 1920s were very positive about what they regarded as a new development in her writing. They strongly preferred these books to the rest of Carry van Bruggen’s oeuvre. Readers shared their opinion. The little house beside the water, first published in 1921, went through fourteen impressions before 1940. The positive reception of this work seems to be primarily due to what on a superficial reading can be seen as their much less heavily charged character. After all, the books were intended to describe what took place in the minds of children, from the child’s — especially the girl’s — lack of consciousness to the commencement of consciousness with its fears and expectations. The themes of her prewar series of Jewish books were certainly not absent now — on the contrary. But they were woven into the stories in a much more refined way. Taken as a whole, both the concentration on the theme of the child and the apparent distance from questions of Jewishness, seemed to have taken the barb out of Carry van Bruggen’s new work.
But Jewish identity is not something that can be shaken off just like that, if at all — not even by someone who had come to found her view of the world on rootlessness, mobility and changeability. To a very large extent, the origin of that relativistic view of the world adopted by Carry van Bruggen lay in her Jewish identity, and that is in fact the main theme of this series of postwar books. It is the mental world of the little Jewish girl, who now unmistakably was Carry van Bruggen herself, that she now, after Prometheus, wanted to elaborate in prose. ‘As long as we remember something’, Carry van Bruggen was to write later in Eve, ‘we have not yet lost it, as long as we can give it a name, we still possess it.’
She put down what she now cherished in her Jewish identity in the last of this series of Jewish books, entitled Four Seasons. This book was dedicated to the memory of her brother, Jacob Israel de Haan. As I have already mentioned, as the war progressed he came more and more to sympathise with orthodox Zionism. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 had been taken as a sign of encouragement by the Dutch Zionists. Some 2,300 enthusiastic Zionists assembled at a solidarity meeting in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in February 1918. While Carry van Bruggen was strongly opposed to Zionism right from the start, De Haan triumphantly emigrated to Palestine in 1919 and was given a send off by the Dutch Zionists. However, he soon became a bitter opponent of Zionism, and started to act as a mediator on behalf of the anti-Zionist Jewish community in Palestine and the ultra orthodox Jews in the world to bridge the gap between Jews and Arabs. That led to what has been called the first modern Jewish political murder. He was shot in Jerusalem in 1924 by a Zionist, a drama that caused a major commotion and inspired Arnold Zweig to write a novel that was published in 1932.
Carry van Bruggen’s Four Seasons remembered him in the form of four stories. The two children of the gazzen (the cantor in the synagogue) from Zaandam, both born in the same year — 1881 —, had been very close to one another as they grew up. They were still in close contact with one another in the years before the First World War and shared the same interests and circle of friends. Her brother’s rigorous embracing of the orthodoxy of the Mezrachist Jews during the war alienated them from one another, and his emigration to Eretz Israel in 1919 meant a rift between brother and sister. His death was a great shock to her. Four Seasons, which was published in the year of his death, presented the Jewishness that she shared with him, the almost twin brother who had been so close to her. Each of the four seasons in this book was the pretext to illustrate one aspect of the personality of Jacob Israel de Haan: his [self-?]tormenting sympathy with the persecuted (which was so strong that he even went to visit Russian prisoners before the war, and on which Carry van Bruggen also published); his intense interest in linguistics (which she shared with him); the love of the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn (she also looked back lovingly to the warmth of the Jewish festivals); and the pride at being a descendant of the respected rabbi and scholar Heele Arjei (of which she was also proud).
Her novel Eve, which was published three years later, and is still regarded as her masterpiece, had as its theme female identity. Following on from the reflections of the little Jewish girl, whose process of growing awareness she had described in the previous Jewish series of collections of short stories, Carry van Bruggen now described the inner world of the female main character, the process of growing awareness of the adult woman. Eve was an elaboration in the form of a novel of the philosophy that had been presented in Prometheus. The novel is thus about a woman who is searching, who cannot accept dogmas, and is thereby condemned to remain an outsider; at the same time, she is the woman whose deepest desire is to achieve social, sexual and spiritual unity with others. She has to find her way between these two positions. Carry van Bruggen used the metaphor of the pendulum for this search. The pendulum swings now this way, now that, symbolising the alternating sway of the desire for unity (which in her philosophy means being absorbed by the other, a longing for death, doubt and individualism) and of the desire to be distinctive (which means a lust for life, dogmatism and collectivism).
Go outside on a night like this. Then you will feel the swing of the pendulum. Then you will be at one with everything, caught in the swing. If you swing to the left, you scorn life and tug at your chain […]. If you swing to the right, you hate death and cling to life, as animals blindly cling to life. With the animals… and the stars… you are caught up in the movement of the pendulum… and there is nothing outside that movement. Nothing.
The equilibrium that the protagonist achieves at the end of the novel is bound to be temporary: ‘She is a human being, a woman, and is not yet dead, so she continues along the road that goes upwards-downwards’. Every aspect of spiritual life crops up in this novel: aesthetic experience, intellectual thought, moral judgement, religious and mystical experience, sexuality. Eve is the account of a female change of sensibility, expressed in the novel in the way in which the female protagonist experiences the awareness of the relativity of time and distance; how she has linked her recollections with music, with names and places; how unhappy she is that she is different from the others because of her search for meaning and the comparison of words — her reflection on such terms as human being, time, space, life, death, love, sacrifice, instinct, will. Eve is the testing of Prometheus on woman’s reality — her mind and, finally now too, her body. I shall illustrate this with a single example, the description of the birth of her first child.
But suddenly I fell into the boiling oil, so deep … I can never get out of it now … and then I pushed it out … it left me … it flowed out of me … and I died … lying on my back I was dying, and raised my head and saw it lying there … so pitiful, so adorable as it lay naked in a stream of blood … driven out … and then I loved it … I loved it with such a heart-rending compassion … suffering of the whole world, a cloak that falls on you … as heavy as lead … and I died, but I was not dead …
The reception of Eve in the late 1920s was, on the whole, positive. The novel was inevitably dragged into the discussion of the ‘women’s novel’ that was raging at that time. That widely used term referred to the literature that had been written by a group of female authors born between 1870 and 1890, although the term itself went back earlier. This was a strikingly large group of women writers whose débuts were around 1900 and who continued to publish into the 1930s. It was an international phenomenon that was, of course, very closely connected with the emancipation of a group of middle-class women who tried to support themselves by writing. In the 18th and 19th centuries the novel was regarded as the genre written by and for women. Nathaniel Hawthorne spoke in this connection of the ‘damned mob of scribbling women’. The novel was the way for women to make their entry into intellectual life. Virginia Woolf offered a sociological explanation for the form and content of these novels when she remarked that:
all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion. Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting room. People’s feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes. Therefore, when the middle class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels […].
It was a new generation of critics in the Netherlands, connected with the magazines for young people that began to appear after 1916, who used the term ‘women’s novel’ mainly in an ironical and pejorative way. The attack on the alleged character of this genre clearly had a literary purpose. There was a reaction to the broad stream of novels in the naturalist-realist tradition, which were predominantly the work of women authors. These novels were accused of being extremely limited in terms of vision and content. They displayed ‘a shared confinement to a certain kind of living room problem’, wrote Menno ter Braak, applying the analysis of Virginia Woolf to discredit the Dutch women writers. An enormous gulf between the ‘women’s novel’ and ‘genuine literature’ gradually appeared in the perception of the critics.
Menno ter Braak explicitly raised the question of female authors in his review of Eve. In his view, this novel differed enormously from the work of ‘the majority of the capable Dutch women novelists’, perhaps not so much stylistically, but above all in terms of its content. Their books were preoccupied with ‘the negative picture of literature written by men’, by which he referred to negative masculinity and the restriction or complete dependence of the sex which was displayed in that work. However good they may have been, they never hinted that there was something like ‘a particularly female consciousness’. Of course, nobody could shake off his or her gender, but the problem was about how that dependence could be turned into literature. According to Ter Braak, Carry van Bruggen’s Eve had achieved that completely. Eve was a quest for self-understanding that was grounded in the conscious human being. While Carry van Bruggen had arrived at that ‘sexless’ notion in Prometheus, she had recovered her femininity in Eve. She had shown that a feminine consciousness could only exist in a feminine synthesis with the life of the senses, to which men were not always responsive. She had also shown that that feminine synthesis need not rule out consciousness at all. It was a myth, Ter Braak claimed, that a woman’s understanding was irreconcilable with a woman’s life of the senses. Eve — who was no one but Carry van Bruggen herself, as the Modernist Ter Braak recognised — was thus ‘a female-conscious novel’ by a woman who had ‘not shied away from a single consequence of thought’.
Menno ter Braak’s words of appreciation seem to include Carry van Bruggen in the new literary canon that he and Eddy du Perron were elaborating. However, although he considered Eve to be superior to the category of ‘women’s novels’, he was still unable to categorise it as a novel pur sang. He called Eve ‘the female accent’ in literature, thereby relegating the novel to the margin of ‘genuine’ literature. It could not be denied that Carry van Bruggen was a thinking and writing woman, but she was not a fellow writer on an equal footing. Years later, in 1935, Menno ter Braak returned to the subject of the ‘women’s novels’. It was a pity, he wrote, that there was no Virginia Woolf or Katherine Mansfield in the Netherlands, although Carry van Bruggen’s Eve was a good example of such a ‘female accent in literature’.
The similarities between the work of Virginia Woolf and that of Carry van Bruggen have only been discussed incidentally in Dutch literary history. Moreover, it is regrettable that the only study in the Netherlands to deal with both writers, that by Fokkema and Ibsch, has not led to a more in-depth study of Carry van Bruggen’s work in that connection. There are, after all, striking similarities in the lives and writing careers of Virginia Woolf and Carry van Bruggen which add an extra nuance to the work of the two women novelists. They were members of the same generation: Carry van Bruggen was born in 1881, Virginia Woolf a year later. Neither of them ever received a formal education, and they were both teachers for a brief period. They both wrote essays on being self-taught and on the social construction of knowledge. They both experienced the role of women as that of outsiders. They both stayed clear of the organised women’s movement, convinced as they were that the relation of women to society was about more than equal rights — it was also about their very identity as women and their dignity as human beings. The experience of the First World War marked a break in the ideas and writings of them both, due to an awareness of the fact that the war meant the end of an era. They both emphatically turned their backs on the generation of writers who symbolised that past era. Virginia Woolf regarded Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy (the Edwardians) as the bone of contention. If Woolf contrasted the external world of the Victorians with the inner world of consciousness, Carry van Bruggen may be said to have done the same, since she too explicitly rejected a previous generation of writers whom she accused of producing ‘non-spiritual and materialistic work’. There are also striking parallels in the way in which both Woolf and Van Bruggen expressed their view of writing in their prose. Virginia’ Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was published in the same year as Carry van Bruggen’s Eve. Carry van Bruggen can certainly be regarded as one of ‘The Women of 1928’, the second Modernist generation of women writers distinguished by Bonnie Kime Scott, consisting of Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes and Rebecca West.
The connection between literary text and sexuality — the question of the woman as writer — was a key theme in the work of Virginia Woolf. She claimed that women should have emancipated themselves from the male image of their sex, the model of The Angel in the House, that was the product of an ideology of the self-sacrificing, subordinate, sexless and passionless woman. The reason why women originally wrote using pseudonyms was that this enabled them ‘to free their own consciousness as they wrote from the tyranny of what was expected from their sex’. Victorian women writers were forced to make their heroines sexless creatures: the female reproductive function was taboo as a literary subject, and women were not supposed to have any sexual feelings at all. That era was now largely a thing of the past, but Virginia Woolf herself still suffered from its consequences: ‘Telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved’, she wrote. In A Room of One’s Own she wrote that the ideal woman writer was one ‘who has forgotten that she is woman’. For such a writer, men were no longer ‘the opposing faction’. The masculine and feminine elements would be as one in the ideal artist’s soul.
That is also how Carry van Bruggen saw things. In a review from 1904 she had already expressed her opinion of the phenomenon of the woman as author. She was particularly critical of the novels by women that she had recently read. That was because, she wrote, those novels were incomplete as regards form and content. Because of the great interest in everything that women wrote and did nowadays, the writing woman was simply not given the time for it. The recently emancipated women lacked sufficient education, which made them insecure. And those feelings of insecurity were then rubbed in as a ‘typically female lack of self-confidence’. Like Virginia Woolf, Carry van Bruggen grappled in her work with the model of The Angel in the House. In her eyes, the modern woman was the woman whose intellectual nature went without saying. Precisely because on this point she was strongly opposed to thinking in terms of difference, she was always to be critical of the women’s movement. In the middle of the war, in 1917, she wrote sarcastically about the movement of women for peace. If it had been hoped that the war would finally bring people insight and that they would at last face up to reality, she wrote,
the indignity and the suffering of the times have still not led us to a proper awareness of our own guilt and foolishness. And now the Ladies are going to take care of a ‘long-term peace’. Read the call to the congress, — and share my surprise at the stupidity, the complete vacuousness, the vain phrase-mongering of that text, — it is young children crying for the moon.
And in the middle of the war Carry van Bruggen wrote her essay Prometheus. Thinking in terms of a difference between the sexes had no place in the philosophy that she presented in that work. She was interested in the difference between types of people, between ‘men of fact’ and ‘men of idea’. There was no room for gender difference in that vision, because both men and women could belong to either group. One of the most successful talks that Carry van Bruggen gave in those years was entitled ‘De opheffing van de vrouw’. It took a while before the expectant audience realised that in this case the word ‘opheffing’ meant not the moral uplifting of woman, but her sublimation:
I have tried to treat everything that makes people men or women as incidental and secondary, but everything that makes men or women people as essential … thus suspending the two factors in a unity. That is what I meant by ‘the sublimation of woman’.
Her last novel was precisely about that — what makes a woman a human being. In Eve, Carry van Bruggen gave form to a female Prometheus, a woman of flesh and blood who, on the basis of her identity as a woman and as a Jew, created a view of the world in which thinking in terms of gender difference was suspended or abolished. In spite of all the respect that the keen critic Menno ter Braak had for Carry van Bruggen’s Prometheus and Eve, he failed to recognise that aspect of her work. When Carry van Bruggen died in 1932 after years of illness (she suffered from heavy depressions), he wrote a brief obituary in Forum, the magazine which many historians of literature consider her to have created. In it, he expressed his indignation at the fact that her life’s work, Prometheus, was ignored. It was not with Helen or Eve, he considered, but with Prometheus, that Carry van Bruggen had far outstripped the women writers of the Netherlands.
He had no objection to the fact that, when Annie Romein published a study of that new phenomenon, the Dutch female novelist after 1880, she discussed Carry van Bruggen’s work under the title ‘The feminine woman’. Romein wrote that she considered the work of Carry van Bruggen to be marked by ‘a triple inferiority complex: as a Jew, as a self-taught petite bourgeoise, and as a woman’. It is fortunate that Carry van Bruggen, who was more aware than any of her contemporaries that sex, race and class are not the essence of an identity, but a construction, did not live to see that remark in print.
It has been claimed that Carry van Bruggen has to be rediscovered by each successive generation in the Netherlands. For the Modernist appraisal of the literary generation of the 1930s, including Menno ter Braak, it was her 1919 essay Prometheus that was particularly important. For the generation that came after the Second World War, this essay was a point of reference in the debate on postwar nihilism. In the early 1980s not only Prometheus, but also Eve and several of her Jewish collections of stories, such as In the shadow and the Little house beside the water were reissued. The interest of this postwar generation in her work subsequently faded out; her importance was only occasionally mentioned by a few.
In these three Erasmus lectures on the history and civilisation of the Netherlands and Flanders, I have taken the work of Carry van Bruggen out of the cupboard again because the life and work of this Jewish woman writer have been a good point of entry for me to investigate what being a woman and being a Jew meant in Dutch culture and society in the period from 1900 to 1930. It has not been my intention to provide a biographical sketch of Carry van Bruggen, although her life is in need of a new biography. My aim in these lectures has been to use the work of Carry van Bruggen as a guide to show to what extent the writing of the Dutch history of this period still suffers from a strongly national approach, leading to a serious neglect of important aspects of Dutch culture from that period. That is why I have adopted an explicitly transnational approach to the work of this Jewish woman author.
In the first lecture I focused on the history of Jewry in Europe on the eve of the First World War. I showed how much the debate on Jewry and culture in Germany was echoed in the Netherlands, and to what extent Carry van Bruggen’s prewar stories and novels should be interpreted in that light. The picture that emerged was one of a Dutch historiography whose national, ‘integrational’ approach to the history of Jewry has paid little attention, if any, to the profound changes that Zionism and the international debate on Jewry and culture brought about in the Netherlands.
The second lecture was devoted to showing how much of an impact a war in which the Netherlands was neutral nevertheless made on Dutch society and culture. Carry van Bruggen’s essays are strongly marked by the experience of the First World War, and are comparable in many respects with the way in which culturally coming to terms with that war is regarded in current English and French historiography. In the light of the Dutch neutrality, the history of Dutch society and culture during the period around the First World War has always been placed in a strictly national framework, which is why the importance of a study like Prometheus has never been properly recognised.
This third lecture has been confined to the collections of short stories and to the novel Eve, Carry van Bruggen’s work of the 1920s. I have connected this work with the international Modernism of the period and made a brief comparison of her work with that of Virginia Woolf. The reception of Eve shows how the so-called ‘feminine accent’ of this novel prevented its female author from being included within the ranks of ‘genuine’, that is, male literature. In Dutch literary history the debate on the nature of Modernism only got off the ground at a relatively recent date. Once again, the reason for that should be sought in the strong national orientation of Dutch researchers, who — with a few exceptions — regarded Dutch culture as falling outside the international Modernist canon.
I know of no other Dutch woman writer in whose work the question of the significance of being a woman and a Jew, in other words the relation between identity and culture, has been considered as systematically and uncompromisingly as in that of Carry van Bruggen. As we have seen, they were both regarded as particularly problematic identities in the Netherlands during the period under review — not only by those who were Jews and women, but also by those who were neither. The Dutch debate on Jewish identity and culture has been heavily influenced by the developments that were launched by Zionism around 1900, in which the orientation of Dutch culture towards Germany was an important factor. The experience of inclusion and exclusion that accompanied the First World War — and the neutral Netherlands was no exception — was of equal importance for the debate on culture and identity. Carry van Bruggen felt her task to be the unmasking of the essentialism of identity, which was very much in vogue in her day, wherever she came across it: in language, in love, in science, in politics. She also felt that her task was not limited to that; she had to draw up a philosophy of life and the world in which the temporary nature and relativism of standpoints were to offer a counterweight to the growth of absolutism. As far as what she cherished in being a woman and a Jew was concerned, she regarded that growing absolutism as no less than life-threatening.