The Marquise of O—, by Heinrich von Kleist

Trigger warning for references to rape.

The only good thing I can say about Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O— is that it’s short. Originally published in 1808, this book is very much a product of its time. Modern readers will, at best, describe this book as problematic and unfeminist. Others, like me, will call it rape apologia. I picked this book up because I had hoped it would tell me an unusual story of a woman taking charge of her circumstances. The ending of this story put paid to that hope by doubling down on shame and keeping up appearances.

Julietta, the eponymous Marquise, is a widow with two children, living with her brother and parents in M—. M— is attacked by a troop of Russians one day as part of what I’m pretty sure are the Napoleonic Wars. In the attack, Julietta is assaulted by Russians, then rescued by Count F—, who is described in heroic and dashing terms. Nothing is explicit in this section of the book, but we know what happened (even if Julietta does not) because the Marquise finds herself pregnant. When the pregnancy is confirmed by a doctor and a midwife, Julietta’s father throws her out of the house and tries to take her children away from her. All of this happens while Count F— is trying to get Julietta to marry him, claiming that he is passionately in love with her.

All of my sympathy in this book is with Julietta. Count F— throws up red flag after red flag while he pursues Julietta in spite of her many refusals. A little background reading in Wikipedia revealed that The Marquise of O— is an example of a genre trope that has rightly be abandoned to history: the forced seduction. I hoped and hoped that Julietta would be allowed to live independently, free of the social conventions that push her into marrying her rapist. Von Kleist, apparently, was not brave enough to break those social conventions even in fiction.

I do not recommend this book. Leave it to history’s bookshelf, way at the back, behind all the better books that don’t try to turn rape into a love story.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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