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Undeniably, the year 1848 was one of unrest in Europe. Starting in France – once more – the spirit of revolution spread like a blaze over virtually the entire continent. The then famous and today largely forgotten German writer Fanny Lewald (1811-1889) witnessed the events during her travels. She was fascinated by what she saw and banned her impressions on paper to share them with her friend living in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. Friends convinced the author to publish the letters as chronicles of an extraordinary year in European history. The book in two volumes first came out in 1850 and was later translated into English as A Year of Revolutions. Fanny Lewald's Recollections of 1848. The latest reprint of the English edition dates from the late 1990s.
Fanny Lewald wrote the first of her twenty-one letters compiled in the book on 28 February 1848, thus just a few days after the outbreak of the revolution in Paris. On the small steamboat taking her from Oldenburg to Bremen everybody talks about the developments in France and at their arrival they learn that King Louis-Philippe fled the country and that the republic has been proclaimed. The author reports to her friend about the hopes and the worries that the latest events provoke, but she shows herself an optimist with unshakable trust in the achievements of modern society, notably the principles of freedom, equality and fraternity. The idea that someone should still be killed for being of different opinion, for having different customs or speaking a different language makes the thirty-seven-year-old sad although she considers it impossible, unthinkable even. Bremen, however, is only the first stop of her travel. Via Dusseldorf, Cologne, Aachen and Brussels she arrives in Paris. In her letter of 12 March Fanny Lewald describes the destruction that the revolution left and that is visible at every corner, and yet, she is surprised at the order all around. With amazement she observes that as a stranger, moreover a woman, she can wander through the city freely and quite safely to do sightseeing or shopping. Not even night life is impaired. The author often goes to the opera and the theatre or political discussions. She also gets a chance to meet Heinrich Heine who lives in Paris. Before long news of the revolutions in Vienna and in Berlin reach Fanny Lewald, so she decides to return to the patchwork of sovereign countries that is Germany at the time. In April 1848 she arrives in Berlin and at once becomes painfully aware of the contrast to Paris. Cheerlessness and the feeling of insecurity reign in Berlin and the atmosphere deteriorates further until she leaves again in July. From Hamburg, then Helgoland and eventually Frankfort on the Main Fanny Lewald follows the developments with increasing worry and disappointment. Upon her return to Berlin in November 1848 a coup d’état and the violent end of the revolution are imminent…
Being a collection of private letters, A Year of Revolutions. Fanny Lewald's Recollections of 1848 offers neither a concise nor a coherent account of the historical events that upset Europe. Nonetheless, it gives a vivid idea of what happened in the major cities on the continent, notably in Paris and Berlin, and how German intelligentsia felt about the revolution. Many of Fanny Lewald’s comments on events and situation are true beyond the historical context which makes the book an even more intriguing read today. Apart from that it’s also an interesting travel log.
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This review is a contribution to the
Back to the Classics Challenge 2015,
namely to the category Non-fiction Classic.