Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler.
Arthur Schnitzler was born in Vienna, Austria, in May 1862. Stemming from a prominent family of medical doctors he became a doctor himself and worked first at the Vienna General Hospital and at the General Policlinic where he focused on hypnosis and suggestions. Already during his medical studies, Arthur Schnitzler began his career as a writer that later on became his main occupation. As from 1880 he published poems, prose sketches and aphorisms. In 1888 his play, The Adventure of His Life, appeared in print, three years before it was first performed on stage. Arthur Schnitzler’s fame, however, is based on psychologically well founded plays like Anatol, Flirtation and Reigen that shocked the audience of the time with an until then unknown frankness about sexuality. The antiquated conventions of society in the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy are a topic in all of Arthur Schnitzler’s work, also in his prose like for instance in the novellas None but the Brave, Dream Story or Fräulein Else. As a writer Arthur Schnitzler was a renegade obsessed with love and death as he said himself. He was one of the great innovators of Austrian literature and during his life encountered much praise as well as open malice for it. Arthur Schnitzler died in Vienna in October 1931.
Fräulein Else, a first-person stream of consciousness narrative like None but the Brave, was first published in 1924 and received immediate public acclaim. The plot is simple. It’s 3 September 1896. The adolescent woman Else is staying in a hotel in San Martino di Castrozza in Southern Tyrol, a fashionable summer holiday resort in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire, today in Italy, with her well-to-do aunt and cousin. In the afternoon she receives a telegram from her mother informing her that her father, a lawyer and gambler, needs 30,000 guldens in order to return embezzled money and to avoid prison as well as humiliation. Since there is no other hope for the family, Else is asked to approach the rich art dealer Dorsday, a family acquaintance, present at the hotel and to make him lend her father the necessary money. The young woman follows her mother’s wishes, but Mr. Dorsday requires something in return that Else is reluctant to give: he wants her to take off her clothes and pose naked in front of him that night. The request plunges the young and inexperienced Else into a deep inner tumult. She considers all possibilities that are left to her, acquiescence, rebellion, even suicide. When a second telegram arrives from her mother in the evening telling her that the amount needed is 50,000 guldens, the young woman takes her decision. She goes down to the lobby with nothing but her fur coat on and takes it off in front of all hotel guests including Mr. Dorsday, so everybody will think that she suffered a nervous breakdown. To soothe her nerves she had taken a dose of veronal, a strong sedative and hypnotic very common at the time, or more than just one dose that shows effect when Else regains her hotel room and her bed where the story and Else’s stream of consciousness end.
The story of Fräulein Else is disturbing since it reveals the view of the world of a well-bred, sheltered and probably spoilt girl somewhere on the threshold between childhood and respectable womanhood. The character of Else is very complex and so are her thoughts and daydreams that are mingled with childish fantasies and the dawning of her still innocent sexuality. Arthur Schnitzler made Else tell her story with great mastery of language and with incredible sensitiveness. Reading the novella I often couldn’t help wondering how a man managed to know so much about a woman’s or rather a girl’s inner world. For its psychological depth Fräulein Else is often considered the best of the best among Arthur Schnitzler’s prose. The fact that there are certain parallels to a case described by Sigmund Freud (whom Schnitzler knew) in his Studies on Hysteria can’t derogate the quality of the novella.
I enjoyed reading this novella very much although it’s set in a world of yesterday, a world before the two great wars of the twentieth century and long before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Despite all it feels very modern. In any case, it’s a masterpiece of Austrian literature and it deserves being read more often than it is today.