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Women's literary dreams portrayed at Bern library

Swiss writer Regina Ullmann's work remained unknown to the greater public until recently.


A travelling exhibition describing the lives of seven 19th- and 20th-century women writers in Germany has opened at Bern's municipal library. The show highlights their often-troubled lives, their difficulty gaining recognition for their work and their dysfunctional relationships with men.

The works were assembled because of the authors' ties to Munich, considered by specialists to be particularly fertile territory for literary pursuits.

One of the women is St Gallen's Regina Ullmann, a Jewish writer who travelled to the Bavarian capital in 1902 to pursue her writing career. With the support of Rainer Maria Rilke, she published stories and poems that were considered gems by contemporary critics.

Ullmann left Germany in 1933 after the Nazis came to power, and spent her final years in an old age home in St Gallen. Unfortunately for her, her work came to the public's notice only years later despite the earlier praise it encountered.

Writer studied in Zurich

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the life of Ricarda Huch. Considered Germany's best woman writer during her lifetime (1864-1947), she enjoyed a particular relationship with Switzerland.

Leaving her homeland, she was one of the first women to study history and philosophy at Zurich University, where she published a thesis on Swiss neutrality in 1892.

Her initial steps on the road to literary fame were taken in Bern's "Bund" newspaper, which put her first poems in print. The cultural editor of the daily, J.V. Widmann, was to become her mentor, publishing her first story, "Goldeninsel" (Golden Island).

The exhibition illustrates their relationship with pictures, letters, postcards and manuscripts.

Fragile creativity

This kind of material is used throughout the exhibition to describe the lives of the seven authors. What the visitor discovers is that literary success did not mean a successful life for these women.

Quite often, the difficulty of making ends meet financially, motherhood and competition from male writers ended up destroying the creative spark, or the author herself.

One of the women presented, Lena Christ, a bricklayer's daughter, became famous with her autobiography, "Memoirs of a Superfluous Woman", in 1912. Despite her success, she took her own life after two failed marriages.

Another, Emmy Hemmings, was a woman who disregarded bourgeois morality and ignored prevailing norms of feminine behaviour. The price she ultimately paid for her behaviour was poverty and loneliness though.

"The Dream of Writing: Female Writers in Munich, 1860-1960" is on view at Bern's municipal and university library until the end of October.


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