The real Emma Herwegh lived an extraordinary life in a world very different to our own. The daughter of a prosperous merchant, she embroiled herself in the struggles to create a democratic Germany, alongside her husband, the poet Georg Herwegh, and her lover Felice Orsini, who was eventually guillotined for trying to kill Napoleon III.
Dirk Kurbjuweit’s novel, newly translated by Imogen Taylor, centres on a vanished milieu of radical intellectuals – Ludwig Feuerbach, Arnold Ruge, Mikhail Bakunin, Carl Vogt and others – who are probably best remembered today as philosophical antagonists of the young Karl Marx. In this telling, Marx sleazily invites the Herweghs to join him in a household governed by the libertarian mores of Charles Fourier.
The daring collection Gedichte eines Lebendigen (Poems of a Living Man) wins Georg Herwegh wild popularity among Europe’s progressive intelligentsia. Emma marries him for his idealism but soon discovers his vanity and self-absorption. When King Friedrich Wilhelm IV offers the famous poet an audience, an overawed Georg shows the monarch a fawning deference – and then frets that his obsequiousness has ruined his radical image.
The revolution of 1848 breaks out with Georg obsessing about the crustaceans on which – like some 19th-century Jordan Peterson – he’s basing a new social theory, and the more militant Emma must goad him into joining the uprising.
The book unfolds across multiple time periods, a suitably dialectical structure through which we encounter simultaneously Emma’s initial passion for Georg, her heartbreak at his infatuation with Natalie Herzen, the wife of the Russian revolutionary Alexander, and Emma’s philosophical resignation as, at the end of the century, she looks back on her career.
“No one understands why I had to be his slave,” she muses in her old age, “why I put up with all that I did … That’s how it was in those days; the only way to emancipation was through love … I was able to achieve things – political things – because I had a political husband and later a political lover. There was no other way.”
The novel tells an instantly recognisable story of a talented woman surrounded by men who justify their selfishness with grand rhetoric and theories. Perhaps because of that familiarity, it’s less successful in capturing the flavour of its era. Today, we struggle to imagine poets not merely as unacknowledged legislators but as romantic pin-ups in a time in which the formulation of now banal ideas, such as a democratic franchise, required not just courage but genuine intellectual effort. Almost despite itself, The Freedom of Emma Herwegh depicts its bourgeois revolutionaries through a layer of irony that distances us from the real achievements of Emma and her peers.
Text, 368pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "The Freedom of Emma Herwegh".
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