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The Freedom of Emma Herwegh by Dirk Kurbjuweit

05/02/2024
The Freedom of Emma Herwegh by Dirk Kurbjuweit

In The Freedom of Emma Herwegh author Dirk Kurbjuweit (translated by Imogen Taylor) explores what for many readers will be a little known period of German history. That is an attempted revolution led by a group of intellectuals following a failed French Revolution in 1848. Its focus is Emma Herwegh, the wife of a German poet and political agitator against the German monarchy Georg Herwegh. The two were united in their political thought but that was not sufficient to stop Georg from finding other lovers, a situation that Emma both knew about, tolerated and in one case was complicit in.

The Freedom of Emma Herwegh is told over three distinct time periods and in three very distinct voices. The framing of the story is set in 1894 and finds Emma in her 80s, strapped for cash and entertaining a playwright called Benjamin Franklin. She tells him, over the space of a few days in order to both entertain and beg money from him, the story of the “Herzen Affair” which is the story of her husband Georg’s affair with the wife of his friend and her role in helping to facilitate it in the hope that it would wither an Georg would come back to her. All of that happened after an attempted revolution of 1848 (told from Emma’s point of view) in which Emma sent her children to family so she could ride with Georg and his troops in a failed attempt to free Germany. The third aspect of the novel, told from Georg’s point of view, takes readers back to 1842 when he was at the height of his fame as a poet and despite his communist leanings falls for Emma, the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant who has similar political views.

The Freedom of Emma Herwegh is a story of a woman who was well ahead of her time but also trapped by the structures of that time. She understands the freedoms that are being sought by the men around her and wants to be part of that political change. But as a woman she is always suspect, sent to the back of the train, and disregarded. And all the while she binds herself to Georg, her love for him causing her to abase herself while he pursues his own freedoms. In doing so it illuminates a fascinating period of world history as revolution and change swept through Europe.

Kurbjuweit has an eclectic output but his focus is always on social attitudes and change. His first book Fear was a thriller based on personal experience which delved into issues of class. The Missing was an historical novel exploring a famous German serial killer in which he reveals aspects of German society between the wars. In the Freedom of Emma Herwegh, does something similar for the mid-nineteenth century. By putting a forthright woman at the centre of his narrative, Kurbjuweit digs into the attitudes and prejudices of the time while also telling a fascinating story about a singular character.

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The Freedom of Emma Herwegh by Dirk Kurbjuweit

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The Freedom of Emma Herwegh by Dirk Kurbjuweit

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