A novel entangling two stories of homosexual love between real-life historical figures! King Ludwig II of Bavaria and a young doctor charged with looking after his brother Otto at a mental asylum, and Catharina Linck, a.k.a. Anastasius Rosenstengel, and a young woman from 18th-century Halberstadt. Related in letters allegedly found in an archival file that hadn’t been opened since before the war…
This is Angela Steidele’s first novel; an early and unfinished version was nominated for the prestigious Döblin Prize, which is where I first came across it. On Thursday the writer presented the book at the same site, the Literary Colloquium Berlin, and recalled watching a Champions League match afterwards with her wife and Günter Grass. It may have been a true story, or it might even be another convincing fabrication along the lines of Rosenstengel.
As it happens, Dr Franz Carl Müller was the person who pulled Ludwig’s corpse out of Lake Starnberg after the king was certified insane, and he also researched court records on Linck for a study on the history of homosexuality. Ludwig is known to have had “a succession of close friendships with men” and Steidele uses some of his delightfully florid formulations from genuine letters in her imaginary royal missives to Müller.
A hundred and seventy-one years before Ludwig’s death, Catharina Linck was also drowned, in her case as a penalty for “sodomy”. She was raised in a Pietist orphanage, ran away, donned men’s clothing, joined the army and would have been hanged for desertion if she hadn’t revealed herself to be a woman. Under the assumed name of Rosenstengel, she had previously been a wandering prophet and later married a woman, converted to Catholicism and back to Protestantism, and was then shopped by her wife’s distrustful mother, who refused to believe her son-in-law was a man.
So the story is, Müller has collected letters concerning Rosenstengel and they’ve got muddled up with the letters he’s collected concerning Ludwig, including their private correspondence. So what we get is a blow-by-blow description (actually all pretty much safe for work) of the two romances and the surrounding political intrigues. All written in the language of the respective time in the voices of historical figures, which seems to have been a real labour of love.
At times it’s gruesome, particularly the details of nineteenth-century “treatments” for various issues considered illnesses at the time, including homosexuality. The early eighteenth century may still leave the mentally instable in comparative peace, but the accepted views on women are equally terrifying. All this is historically accurate, culled from writing of the time by the figures themselves and others.
It’s also funny. The characters really shine through, my favourite being a radical Pietist by the name of Dorothea Rosina Pott, based on a woman in Halberstadt alleged to have had contact with Linck. Pott is partial to a special herb mixture that keeps her awake longer for extra praying, and loves a good gossip and a spot of one-up-womanship with her correspondent. We also get a few amusing anecdotes (and original poems) from fag-hag extraordinaire Queen Sisi of Austria and a lot of contradicting versions of various events, related as they are by unreliable and untrustworthy witnesses with their own agendas. Plus, apparently, well-placed anachronisms to titillate the well-read reader (I didn’t spot them).
That humour gave me pause; it felt at certain points like it went too far, making the characters appear ridiculous. Part of the joke is that we see things the letter-writers simply don't get, out of naivety, bigotry or ignorance. It’s almost a cliché of creative writing teaching that fiction writers ought to be kind to their characters. And this is fiction, in its own way. Yet I imagine it must be hard to be kind to a character like Paul Julius Westphal, for example, a composite of two doctors. Prof. Carl Westphal, as we learn in the biographies at the back of the book, was the first to define homosexuality as a sickness and died of the after-effects of syphilis, and Dr Paul Julius Möbius “proved” women’s inferiority in numerous books and papers. Perhaps – if we even accept that there should be rules for writers, which is probably not a good idea anyway – we can make an exception here.
Whatever the case, Rosenstengel is a playful piece of literary fiction exploring two pretty fabulous stories. The cover is a delight in high-camp pink and gold and the physical book as a whole – maps, two-colour printing, index of persons – makes the experience even more fun. Those used to British writing might find it a harder prospect than, say, Jeanette Winterson or Sarah Waters' stories of historical gender and sexual issues. The eighteenth-century German in particular took me a while to get into, but once the code was cracked reading went smoothly enough. Translating it, though? That would take a specialist.