The White Morning

I came across a reference to this novel in John Clute’s David Langford’s “World War One” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

It’s only science fiction in the sense that all near future political thrillers are science fiction. The hopeful feminist revolution Gertrude Atherton conceived never happened, of course, and Germany’s misery did not stop even after Armistice Day. Hundreds of thousands of Germans starved to death between then and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. I’ll restrict this entry, though, to the general qualities and outlines of Atherton’s tale. The specifics of Atherton’s assumptions and perceptions and, especially, misperceptions of the war will be the subject of a future entry in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

Atherton was a famous novelist. She was an acquaintance of our old friend Ambrose Bierce.  (According to her Wikipedia entry, she carried on a “taunting” relationship with him.) She mostly wrote historical novels though she also did ghost and supernatural tales. Her “The Striding Place” still gets anthologized.

Her novels were known for being, by contemporary standards, sexually frank.  (In fact, I looked up a few phrases in Richard Spears’ Slang and Euphemism. I did not come away any more enlightened. A search on the Web of a Million Lies suggests the phrase “game of the gods” is not code for coitus but instead refers to chess.)

In later years, she undertook the rather science fictional step of undergoing radiation and “glandular” therapy. The experience was the basis of her Black Oxen which was made into an early film.

Review: The White Morning: A Novel of the Power of the German Women in Wartime, Gertrude Atherton, 1918.White Morning

There is little reason to read this novel unless you are undertaking a project like mine or want to read up on early feminist utopias. Atherton’s tone is pleasant enough. The novel is short. But it is not very memorable for the most part. It undertakes of several prejudices about “Prussianism”.

A contemporary reviewer, one Carroll K. Michener, reviewed the novel for the April 6, 1918 issue of The Bellman (coincidentally published around my part of the world: Minneapolis, Minnesota). Winding up for a plot synopsis, he recognized it had some kinship with science fiction: “It is unseemly , moreover, to laugh down even the most fanciful panacea for the present overmastering ills of the world; to do so would be to deny the firm triumphs of the many prophetic Jules Vernes of the world of fiction.”

I’m always willing to let others do the tedious plot synopsis – especially since it’s been a few months since I read the novel and my notes aren’t that extensive, so here’s more of Mr. Michener:

The overwhelming key-thought of the book, as might be expected, is feminism.  While it pleases President Wilson to find distinction between the German people and the German government, the author marks her cleavage in another direction: she sets up the proposition that Prussianism is embodied in German masculinity, and that the hope of democratic peace and Germany’s salvation lies in the hands of its women.

The book opens with what promises to be a valuable addition to the war literature designed to depict the German character. Its value for the reader has a priori attestation from the knowledge that Gertrude Atherton had more or less seven years of more or less continuous residence in Germany. The suppressed individuality of German womanhood and the blustering dominance of junker masculinity are given a forceful portrayal.

The central figure is Countess Gisela Niebuhr, who has sworn with her four sisters never to marry. From this family of feminine rebels she goes forth to various expansive adventures in self-expression, principal among them her life under an assumed name as a governess in a rich American family, and her university life in Munich.

In America the sentient womanhood of Gisela Döring overshadows for a time her militant feminism. She falls in love with a young German diplomat, the Freiherr Frans von Nettelbeck. The German social system engulfs their romance, and he goes back to Germany to wed a woman of his class and with the requisite dower, the countess being penniless after her father’s death, and maintaining even from her lover the secret of her high birth.

Returning to Germany, the countess, still in disguise, becomes a famous dramatist, and begins a subtle propaganda for overcoming the masculine overlordship of her countrymen. The war interrupts her programme and submerges it in more absorbing interests. She works heart and soul in Germany’s cause until two American women, encountering her in Switzerland on furlough from her Red Cross work, convince her that Germany is wrong and its cause lost. This is a naïve procedure, as is so much else in the book. The countess goes back to Germany resolved to rouse the women. This marvel is accomplished in the course of a few pages of writer’s magic, and “the white morning” finds the whole of Germany’s gigantic military machine inexorably in the grip of Germany’s unified, armed, embattled, uniformed millions of women; every munition factory and storehouse destroyed; the police and home guards murdered; the Kaiser a helpless prisoner in his palace: all this in a twinkling. (Ha! villain! Give me the papers!) After that how simple to proclaim a republic!

No less imaginative strain is inflicted upon the reader in another is inflicted upon the reader in another element of the climax. The countess, confronted with the difficulty of disposing of Freiherr Frans when he appears unexpectedly on the night before “the white morning” to renew the old dream of love, slays him with her little dagger; not, however, before amply renewing said dream with him. There are reasons for this; reasons that lose their force quickly when the reader has wandered far from the tenuous persuasion of the text.

Mr. Michener than lands a few blows in his final paragraph.

There are some things to add and subtract from this.

I rather liked the melodrama of Gisela’s final encounter with Freiherr:

Why, in God’s name could not he have come back into her life six months hence?

No woman should risk a sex cataclysm when she has great work to do. Nature is too subtle for any woman’s will as long as the man be accessible. And the strongest and the proudest woman that ever lived may have her life disorganized by a man if she possess the power to charm him.

… Gisela opened his shirt gently and bared his breast. She held her breath, but he slept on and she took the dagger from her belt and with a swift hard propulsion drove it into his heart to the guard. He gave a long expiring sigh and lay still. A gallant gentleman, a brave soldier, and a great lover had the honor to be the first man to pay the price of his country’s crime, on the altar of the Woman’s Revolution.

Ok, I mostly like the phrase “sex cataclysm”.

I would also add that Atherton forsakes three clichés in her plot.

First, you will note this is not some farcical pacifist feminist revolution accomplished by women denying men sex. Atherton would very probably been aware of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Modern viewers may be in favor of its notion of no peace, no sex. But, as classicist J. Rufus Fears mentioned in passing in his lecture series Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life, contemporary Greeks would have regarded any man that allowed that trick to work as a pathetic loser.

Second, Atherton’s is free of certain modern clichés. There is no one radio station, no one government building, no one computer center, or no one Death Star that needs to taken over or destroyed to bring on the revolution. Gisela has to show a great deal of executive ability to plan the simultaneous take over of many parts of the German state.  Gisela’s female recruits are not the detestable warrior babes of modern film and fiction. Yes, they are armed. Yes, they kill, but it is entirely plausible in the quite well documented context of disparities between male and female physical abilities.

Originally, I thought Atherton’s depiction of the lives of German women as over the top. However, after learning, in her afterword “An Argument for my ‘The White Morning’”, she lived in Germany and knew these sorts of German women, I will give her the benefit of a doubt.

Those interested in some of the feminist dimension of Atherton’s novel can check out an excerpt from Karsten Helge Piep’s Embattled Home Fronts: Domestic Politics and the American Novel of World War 1.

A rather annoying aspect of Atherton’s prose, particularly for a feminist, is her tendency for physiognomy to mirror the inner spirit:

She was still a handsome woman, particularly in her uniform, but the pink and white cheeks that once had covered her harsh bones were sunken and sallow. Her mouth was like a narrow bar of iron. Her eyes were half closed as if to hide the cold and deadly flame that never flickered; even her nostrils were rigid. All her hard and sensual nature, devoid of tenderness, but dissolved with sentimentality while the man who had conquered her had lived, she had centered on her lover, and with his death she was a tool to Gisela’s hand to wreak vengeance upon the powers that had sent him out of the world.

I was also amused to see a reference to the German academy which was to influence American higher education so much and lead to today’s pernicious cult of credentialism: “He had not a grain of originality or imagination, but he too was taking the course in dramatic art, and reading for that degree without whose magic letters he could not hope to take his place in the world of art to which his parts entitled him.”

Finally, it’s pretty obvious Gisela is a wish fulfillment character for Atherton. Writers sometimes bore of thinking of themselves as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. The violent revolutionary of tomorrow can be a more pleasing fantasy. The blood and barricades are so much easier to manage from the writing desk.


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