First published in 1808, this novella bears all the hallmarks of an operatic drama, so unless you are prepared to read this as an historic piece it might come hard to you the modern reader, but if you set aside modern life, mores, social behaviours and expectations and accept it as a creation of its times, it becomes a strange and almost compelling tale to read.

The Marquise of O- is a widow with young children, but has vowed never to marry again. War breaks out and during it she is persuaded to go to the citadel defended by her father. When it is overrun by the enemy she is first threatened with being ravished by the troops, but then is rescued by an unknown invading young gentleman/officer – Count F. She is grateful to this saviour. He is required to move on with the army and is reported dead in a later engagement. Sometime later en route to another mission he returns and apparently besotted proposes to the Marquise. He has no parents or close family so both the Marquise (and her father) decide they need more time to think on this. They try and persuade him to finish his embassy. He wants an immediate yes and his behaviour becomes more erratic. He is persuaded to leave.

It then appears that the Marquise is pregnant and claims not to know the father. After a row with her father she returns to her property and posts a letter in a newspaper saying she will marry the father of her child if he presents himself. Her family is furious. They try and trick her into naming the father and a rift develops. A letter arrives from the “father” and he is asked to meet her at her father’s house. Misunderstandings, family arguments, rifts, bizarre and extreme emotions and actions follow. Eventually the Marquise agrees to marry, goes through a church ceremony, separates from her husband and has the child. Later she will be reconciled to the father – the Count – and life goes on.

Reading this tale is like watching a slow car crash. Everybody is in a place they do not want to be, they seem to be acting in extreme ways that accord with their own concepts of personal honour – none of which are in accord with those of their closest family. Their actions and reactions seem instead of resolving the issue to create wider and wider ripples of chaos. The histrionics and melodrama while maybe appropriate to opera seem otherwise bizarre, ridiculous and unlikely. Then gradually everybody compromises and it all seems to filter into nothing. Behind all the fuss and histrionics nobody seems to be able to cut through the issues and create something lasting and positive – it seems to happen eventually by accident. Is the oddity in the actions – or in the scale of response before life settles? But within this tale it is hard to see real people so sympathy for them can be slight. See what you think.

Hilary White 3/3

The Marquise of O- by Heinrich von Kleist
Pushkin Press 9781782275299 pbk Aug 2019