Friday, 2 February 2018

Book Review: The Letters Which Never Reached Him by Elisabeth von Heyking

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Since 2012 A Month of Letters Challenge is running every February and although I never participated, it inspired me past year to present only epistolary fiction for a month. I’m doing the same this February and, in addition, I’ll focus on China with a sidestep to India. The book for this week’s review is from my Longlist of 100 Novels in Letters posted a year ago for an epistolary reading challenge (I refrained from signing up this year). In the rather forgotten German classic The Letters Which Never Reached Him by Elisabeth Heyking a middle-aged woman writes a series of 65 letters to a dear friend whom she got to know and appreciate in China. As rumours of unrest in China spread and the Boxer Rebellion breaks out in June 1900, she becomes increasingly worried about her friend and realises that he is more to her than just a friend.

Baroness Elisabeth von Heyking was born Elisabeth von Flemming in Karlsruhe, Grand Duchy of Baden (today: Germany), in December 1861. With her second husband Edmund Friedrich Gustav von Heyking she moved from one diplomatic post to another from 1886 through 1903 and discovered keeping a diary of their travels as a pastime. Only in 1903, though, she made a highly successful literary debut with her – at first anonymously published – epistolary novel The Letters Which Never Reached Him (Die Briefe, die ihn nicht erreichten) that quickly became a best-seller of international acclaim. Other, much less popular books followed, namely Der Tag anderer (1905; The Day of Others), Lovers in Exile (Ille mihi: 1912), Tschun (1914), Die Orgelpfeifen (1918; The Organ Pipes), Liebe, Diplomatie und Holzhäuser (1919; Love, Diplomacy and Wooden Houses), Das vollkommene Glück (1920; The Perfect Happiness), and Weberin Schuld (1921; Weaver Guilt). Elisabeth von Heyking died in Berlin, Germany, in January 1925. The diaries from her years abroad were published posthumously under the title Tagebücher aus vier Weltteilen (1926; Diaries from Four Continents).

The first of The Letters Which Never Reached Him dates from August 1899. The nameless, already middle-aged writer has just arrived in Vancouver with her brother and replies to the letter of a dear friend in China that she found there waiting for her. Via Japan they have come from Peking where she and her brother lived for a few years and she chatters cheerfully about impressions of their short holidays in Japan and of their ship passage to Canada ending, though, on a critical tone about her arrogant and greedy fellow-Europeans who take advantage of China and her people.
“It always makes me sad to hear people talk with such evident illusions about all the wealth they intend getting out of China, when I remember the infinite, heart-breaking poverty which I have seen there, worse than anywhere else in the world. Where are all the riches to come from? But perhaps I am prejudiced, as I only know the hopelessly miserable north: possibly rubies do pave the roads in Kwangtung, […]”
The writer doesn’t expect to hear from her friend any time soon because she knows him on an expedition in remote areas of inland China and sends letter after letter for him to read at his arrival in Shanghai. As time passes, she follows her brother to Banff in the Rocky Mountains and eventually to New York where they arrive in October 1899 to pass the winter. In her letters she keeps writing freely about events, acquaintances, thoughts, common memories and interests. Spring 1900 brings increasingly alarming news from China.
“[…] He told me that since several months disturbances are going on in his province, and that they are fomented by secret societies bearing a markedly anti-foreign character. ‘We are accustomed to that,’ he said, ‘but what causes me serious uneasiness is the fact that the rioters are openly countenanced by the provincial mandarins, who in their turn seem to rely on the protection of the highest authorities in Peking. […]”
Just after the writer let her Chinese servant return home, a telegram from the family urges her to travel to Berlin to see her dangerously ill husband in the asylum where she left him years earlier. At her arrival he is dead and buried. At the time, nobody in Europe believes in a looming rebellion in China and back in New York, too, news are long contradictory. Then in June 1900 papers report of an attack on the foreign legations in Peking and increasingly worried about her dear friend the writer becomes slowly aware of her true feelings for him…

In The Letters Which Never Reached Him private ramblings of a middle-aged German woman who lives with her brother because her husband is mentally ill and who slowly realises that late in life she found – and lost – love combine with her comments on causes and events leading to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and to its violent suppression by European powers. Repeatedly the letter-writer examines American and European society, especially its female role-model that denies women to take destiny into their own hands. The author Elisabeth von Heyking could rely in everything on first-hand experience as a diplomat’s wife who lived in four continents. As a result, the story feels particularly authentic and also the letter-writing protagonist whose tone changes from relaxed to troubled appears very true to life. Of course, I read the novel’s original German edition, but checking the bibliographical data of the English translation from 1904, I found the information that it partly diverges from the original, especially at the end, and that probably it was the author herself who translated and altered the text. The language is clear and rather modern for a best-seller from just after 1900 which made it a real pleasure to read.

Reading The Letters Which Never Reached Him by Elisabeth von Heyking turned out to be unexpectedly enjoyable both from a literary as well as from a historical point of view. There don’t seem to be an awful lot of novels dealing with the Boxer Rebellion in China of 1900, even less such penned by writers of the time who actually knew country and people from personal experience. I appreciated very much the “time travel” that this classic from 1903 allowed me. It was engaging also to follow the unusual story of a late, largely unsentimental love that reveals itself to the woman concerned only gradually as she becomes aware of the growing danger that the man whom she used to consider just a dear friend runs in China. It’s a great pity that this epistolary novel is a widely forgotten classic today – and the happier I am to recommend it.

Since Elisabeth von Heyking died already in 1925, all original versions of her books are now in the public domain and most of them can be downloaded from the German Project Gutenberg site. In English I could find only The Letters Which Never Reached Him, namely at the Internet Archive.


  1. Lovely review of what sounds like an unusual and original work.

    1. Yes, indeed! I was pleasantly surprised by this epistolary novel.

  2. You have written quite an extensive and useful blog post. If you get time do visit my book review blog:
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    1. Thanks, Kevin! In fact, I put much more time and effort into my reviews than I should. Nice to see that some people do appreciate it.


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