Novels as Propaganda: Karen, by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1918)

This book was published in July 1918 and reprinted into the twenties so it must have been quite popular. It relates the story of an English girl who goes to attend the wedding of an old school friend in Germany in 1913. The descriptions of the family are hardly complimentary, and before long our heroine has fallen out with them. She runs into an army officer ( a count no less) whom she had been unfavourably struck by on the train, and for some reason decides she rather likes him, although this is hardly flattering to her as he is a total boor. Shortly afterwards, on her return home, she decides to marry him. The rest of the book is taken up with her observations on the general awfulness of the German character whether aristocratic like her inlaws, bourgeois Jewish like her friend, or peasant like the local serfs. Add into the mix a step son so beaten down by a dictatorial tutor that he attempts suicide on failing his exams ( a subtle comment on the German education system I suspect) the demise of the husband in a duel just before the war starts, and a touching scene with two Tommies escaped from the local POW camp despite being terrorised almost into catatonia by the brutal treatment of the camp guards, and we have a novel laden with significant social comment. Finally, aided by her maid, a withered spinster of uncertain years, our heroine escapes to Switzerland with an American diplomat whom she naturally marries. /sarcasm.

Despite the idiotic plot, it makes an absolutely fascinating read. Not a single one of the German characters has any redeeming features whatsoever. The heroine’s inlaws are arrogant snobs, her friend’s family hysterical money grubbers, and various secondary characters such as the pastor and the tutor, hate-filled manipulators, all desperate to display the superiority of the German character over that of the noble English. Even the heroine’s husband, I hesitate to refer to him as the hero, because I don’t think he is, is a man of unswerving loyalty to tradition and the greater German way. As an example of propaganda it’s marvellous, although how far it was believed at the time, I’ve no idea. It is especially curious given that the author was German herself, and I suspect that while the characters are caricatures, I think it likely that they are nevertheless recognisable ones, with a basis in reality.

A contemporary review I found online is not wildly enthusiastic, noting that

“the number of English heroines who married Prussian officers just before the war, and are now able to give a fictional representation of the state of Germany in the early days, is on the increase.”

Anyone interested in propaganda would find this interesting.


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