Her dates are exactly those of Bismarck’s Reich, and her life was one long protest against it. Countess Franziska (‘Fanny’) zu Reventlow was born in Husum in northern Germany in 1871 and died in Locarno in 1918. Born into a conservative and aristocratic family – her sister became a nun and two of her brothers were members of the German Parliament – she waged a fierce struggle against her parents throughout her adolescence. The first intellectual scene of this rebellion was her secret visits to the Lübeck Ibsen Club, where she encountered free thinkers who propounded artistic and sexual liberation. On her twenty-first birthday she finally ran away from home and her strange quest for self-fulfilment began in earnest. She danced at Carnival in a Pierrot costume. She paid house calls, whip in hand, as a dominatrix. She took acting lessons and played soubrette parts; more strikingly, she appeared as a rope dancer at south German country fairs. All the time she dreamed of a circus life, envying Frank Wedekind his attachment to the Herzog Circus.
After moving to Munich, then artistic capital of Germany, she tried to become a painter, but in fact supported herself by writing, first translations from the French, then satirical sketches, and finally novels. A brief marriage to a Hamburg assessor ended in divorce – her outrageous behaviour, he said, was ruining his career and good name – and disinheritance by her family. The birth in 1897 of her illegitimate son Rolf (she kept his father’s identity secret, saying she had given herself the child) caused chronic gynaecological problems but did not slow her erotic or literary schedule. Determined to save him from the German schools system, she educated him at home.
For the next fifteen years she was a central figure in Schwabing, then as now Munich’s bohemian quarter, and acted out the ideas which were common currency in its cafes – defiance of bourgeois convention and promotion of sexual freedom. In particular, she embodied the newly fashionable cult of Mutterrecht, the belief that there had been an older and better civilisation based on women’s rights, women’s religion and women-centred families. Her lovers were many: though constantly broke, she always managed to get rich men to pay her way to such places as Constantinople and Corfu. Her circle of acquaintance was huge: in addition to Wedekind (whose 1912 play Franziska is loosely based on her career), it included Rainer Maria Rilke (‘every morning a poem in my letterbox’, she noted with pleasure) and Max Weber (through whose intercession she contrived to have her son exempted from military service).
In 1906, at the home of Otto Gross the maverick psychoanalyst, she met Frieda Weekley, the later Frieda Lawrence, who thought she ‘had the face of a very young Madonna’. Reventlow is thus one of the conduits by which the philosophy of Schwabing penetrates English literature: DH Lawrence portrays her in Mr Noon. When she left Schwabing for the artists’ colony of Ascona in 1910, it was to enter into a farcical marriage for money with a Russian baron – an erstwhile pirate, so he claimed – whose family would only release his inheritance on the condition that he married an aristocrat. No sooner had the newly-weds divided their spoils than they lost it all in a bank collapse. She died as she had so often lived – penniless.
Reventlow was not a political feminist. Distancing herself from the women’s movement in an essay of 1899 (‘Viragines or Hetaerae’), she defined herself as a ‘hetaera’ (roughly speaking, a ‘free woman’). She wanted women to have control of their bodies, which she had fought for in her own life. Financial independence interested her less. But in her writings, as in her life, she experimented with alternative ways of life both within and outside the patriarchal society of the Wilhelmine era.
None of her work is available in English. Perhaps it should be? Candidates for translation include the clearly autobiographical novel Ellen Olestjerne, the anarchic comic fiction The Money Complex (recently filmed by Spanish director Juan Rodrigáñez) and the set of ‘amouresques’ From Paul to Pedro, as well as the wide-ranging Letters and Diaries.