The private life of rabbits

In Agatha Christie’s short story “The Market Basing Mystery”, Hastings slightly misquotes the anonymous piece of Doggerel verse which in full reads:

The rabbit has a charming face:
Its private life is a disgrace.
I really dare not name to you
The awful things that rabbits do;

Things that your paper never prints –
You only mention them in hints.
They have such lost, degraded souls
No wonder they inhabit holes;
When such depravity is found
It only can live underground.



Mary Roberts Rinehart :: The Street of Seven Stars

The Street of Seven Stars. A Novel of Romance and Intrige.
By Mary Roberts Rinehart. First published September 1914.


Having lived in Vienna for quite a while now, I was delighted and very much impressed with the descriptions in this novel of the city in the early 20th century. I happily followed Harmony Wells and Peter Byrne on their wanderings through the gas-lighted streets of the then capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, trying to figure out — sometimes with old maps — where they were going, hearing the bells of the Stephansdom with them and obliterating from my mind the modern shopping streets and brightly electrically lighted streets of today.

This is a very remarkable novel. Mary Roberts Rinehart is often referred to as the American Agatha Christie, but that is doing an injustice to Rinehart as well as to Christie. As enjoyable as Rinehart’s crime novels are, they never reach the mastery and cunning of Christie’s polished gems. On the other hand, Rinehart wrote so much more besides crime novels, that it would be a crime to reduce her to those.

First and foremost, she was an astonishingly good journalist, and often pursued adventure to write about interesting topics. She went to Belgium at the outbreak of World War I and became the first woman war correspondent at the Belgian front. No journalists were allowed at the front, and it was as a nurse and through her contacts at the Belgian Red Cross (Like Agatha Christie, Rinehart had trained as a nurse before she became a writer) that she managed to get the proper credentials. She wanted to make the American people aware of the horrible conditions at the Belgian front — up till the appearance of her articles, they had been inundated with propaganda. Most important are her first-hand record Kings, Queens and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front (1915), where she describes the situation at the Belgian front during the first months of the war, and her novel “The Amazing Interlude” (1918). This novel gives us — as does The Street of Seven Stars — the same heady mixture of a highly romanticised story of love and suspense —about an American small-town girl who leaves home (and fiancé) to set up a soup kitchen near the Belgian lines — and the authentic scenes in London and war-torn Belgium. The events described are partly autobiographical, and the novel makes an interesting counterpoint to the all-male All Quiet on the Western Front.
In Dangerous lines (1919) Rinehart will again combine deeply romantic fiction with political analysis, this time depicting the heated debate about the entry of the USA into the Great War, and how this was to influence the lives of several families; and in A Poor Wise Man (1920) Rinehart will describe social unrest in the USA, especially the Seattle general strike of 1919.

(Unlike Agatha Christie’s, Rinehart’s nurses are humourless creatures and her nurse novels very forgettable.)


Gothic Romance or the horror of social reality?

Although this novel has all the aspects of a sensation novel — the fluffy, helpless, pale, golden-haired heroine in distress, the dark, gas-lighted streets lurking with dangers around every corner, the melodramatics and antics of heroes and heroines alike, the delightful page-turning quality — the horrors of indigence and criminality were more than real. Not the glitter and luxury of the centre of high culture and modernism, the world capital of music, the rich capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire with it’s brand-new prestigious Ringstraße — here is the Vienna where Adolf Hitler roamed the streets (he left in 1913), homeless, penniless, spending his last coins on the Opera instead of food — so uncannily like the three american music students in the Siebensterngasse: The butter had gone for opera tickets, and never was butter better spent.

This is the Vienna of the Negerdörfl, of the bloody repression of the Workers’ Revolt in Ottakring in September 1911.

When she wants to hide from social scandal and malicious gossip in the Viennese American colony, Harmony Wells goes and lives in Ottakring:20120423-090233.jpg20120423-090626.jpgWollbadgasse, where Harmony finds a place to live, and close-by Jörgerstraße (17th District) around 1910

Dramatic scenes had taken place only a few years before in this labourers’ Vorstadt (suburb). Sharp and desastrous rises in the price of food — especially bread — and ever rising rents had led to extreme poverty and desolate living conditions. An initally peaceful demonstration of up to 100.000 persons at the Parliament and Rathaus ended in barricades and heavy fighting in Ottakring — where the labourers hat gathered — burning down of public buildings and the looting of shops by the Lumpenproletariat. The army opened fire at the demonstrators. Fighting near the Gablenzgasse / Radetzky-Kaserne (where the Arbeiterheim was situated) led to four deadly victims among the workers.


Der „Notschrei“ der Arbeiterklasse. Mit Kavallerie gegen Demonstranten., ORF-online vom 16. September 2011; 100 Jahre Aufstand in Ottakring 1911-2011, Perspektiven Online

It is very likely that Hitler witnessed the huge rally on 16th September 1911 from the street. “I pondered,” he will write in Mein Kampf, “with anxious concern on the masses of those no longer belonging to their people and saw them swelling to the proportions of a menacing army. For nearly two hours I stood there watching with bated breath the gigantic human dragon slowly winding by.” (Quote from: Hitler’s Vienna: A Portrait of the Tyrant As a Young Man By Brigitte Hamann). He was certainly familiar with the disastrous living conditions in Ottakring and other working-class districts. Undoubtedly his nefarious ideas were shaped by his own experiences and observations in Vienna at this period.

Negerdörfl (“Nigger Village”)

Close-by, still in Ottakring — between Koppstraße and Gablenzgasse, near to the Schmelz and the above mentioned Radetzky-Kaserne — The so-called “Negerdörfl”, a “provisory” emergency housing settlement consisting of wooden barracks for homeless people and large families, had been build in 1911. It soon became the epitome of misery, indigence and criminality.

(For more info and pics, see the Website Das Rote Wien)

Innocent, uninformed Harmony doesn’t realise the moral and physical dangers — but Peter Byrne does. Informedness and knowledge seem to have been a male prerogative in Victorian and Puritan times, though Dr Anna Gates, a woman who has given up the “feminine” pursuits of marriage-&-children, shares fully in it in this novel: 20120423-093022.jpg

Some of the starkness and noireté, the suspense of Graham Greene’s The Third Man (1949) — avant la lettre, the decadence and the stark poverty and the ruins of the city destroyed by a second world war is creeping in here. When Harmony, now an overworked, exhausted seamstress barely surviving in Ottakring, comes to the Stadt to serve a customer at the Opera, the scene becomes surreal. When Peter and Harmony nearly meet in the luxurious Kärtnerstraße — both hungry and marked by poverty and shabbiness — we see the sparkling brightness of aristocracy and wealth in the Stadt through the weary eyes of the Lumpenproletariat. This is surely the most remarkable achievement of this melodramatic Gothic romance: this grim and desolate view of a city of which usual descriptions are — up till today — mostly drowned in Kitsch and Kaiserreich-glitter and saccharine Sisi-romanticism.

Unlike most people at the time, Mary Roberts Rinehart seems to have been aware of the seriousness of forewarnings of the First World War. Dorothy L. Sayers and two of her friends were so unaware of the international situation that they arranged to go on holiday to France in August 1914. They got stuck in France and Sayers found the experience “frightfully exciting”: “This thing is like a novel by H.G. Wells. The whole world has gone to war, and it has happened in two days!”. Agatha Christie, too, was absolutely taken by surprise: “When, in far off Serbia, an Archduke was assassinated, it seemed such a faraway incident — nothing that concerned us. After all, in the Balkans people were always being assassinated.” Nor was this an uncommon attitude — the Great War came suddenly and unexpectedly, as is described in detail The Proud Tower and The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. All the more remarkable, then, the foreshadowings of the coming war, especially embodied in the Bulgarian spy, shot at the end of the novel, when war is very definitely entering the city.

The Great War will figure largely in later crime and other novels of all three female novelists, and their works will especially explore the War’s effects on gender constructions. Rinehart was the first of them to be aware of, and report on, the disastrousness of this war.


Kaffeehaus Culture & Contemporary Magazines

Not only in the foreshadowings of the Great War and in the dark descriptions of social conditions and Lumpenproletariat, but also in the clarity of descriptions of typical Viennese scenes the novel excels, and even reminds of Karl Kraus’ satirical masterpiece Die letzten Tagen der Menschheit (started writing in 1915, first published in 1919).

The two magazines mentioned, the Simplicissimus and the Fliegende Blätter, were the leading German magazines of the time. Simplicissimus, which combined politically daring content with a bright graphic style, featured the work of German cartoonist Thomas Theodor Heine and published the work of writers such as Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. Like the satirical Fliegende Blätter, they caricatured stiff Prussians, the Church, and rigid bourgeois German morals.
Simplicissimus and Fliegende Blätter

And this is a view behind the scene of the Kaffeehaus, as it were:20120423-094122.jpg
Karl Kraus, Die letzten Tagen der Menschheit

The other important — and Austrian — magazine at the time, Die Fackel of the same Karl Kraus is not mentioned in the novel: maybe because it was a monthly magazine which appeared irregularly, and was after 1911 basically a one-man-operation:

The huge dark background of working-class horrors in Ottakring and the looming war, represented by a Bulgarian spy, and the small details of satirical magazines in Viennese bourgeois coffee-houses give this book a very special, authentic flavour, and make it into a superbly interesting first-hand document of Vienna just before the Great War. Another endearing detail: although sparsely used, Rinehart also gets the Austrian idiom right. I dont have much info about Mary Robert Rinehart’s life, but as far as I could find out, she was only a short while in Vienna. She seems to have spoken at least some German — maybe picked it up when she lived in Switzerland with her husband, around 1911.

Like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Mary Roberts Rinehart was a sharp observer of la condition féminine, changing gender constructions, and gender relationships. Unlike Agatha Christie, and more than Dorothy L. Sayers, she was an outspoken feminist and marched for women’s suffrage during this era. Her first “Tish” stories about Letitia Carberry, a strong character who often broke accepted stereotypes and is thus considered an important feminist model, predates The Street of Seven Stars. Rinehart wrote no theorethical work — like Sayers’ Are Women Human?, for example — but characters and situations in most of her novels give ample scope for reflections on the condition féminine, even if they usually end with traditional happy-ever-after-marriages. This, however, might say more about the prudent caution for the morals of the day of writer and publisher ( many of Rinehart’s stories appeared first in the Post, a midstream weekly magazine with a family audience). A vision of women’s independence and career possibilities, a potential for feminist radicalism is present, and stands in sharp contrast with sugary happy endings and marriage bells. Then again, one never expects extraordinary opinions or strong characters in the fluffy, pretty Gothic heroines — that honour goes to Marian Halcombe or, in this book, to intelligent, interesting, unmarried, cynical Dr Anna Gates. She delivers some sharp reflections on the conflict for women between career and marriage-&-children, or the heavy Victorian responsibility of women for morals and social standing — this is the American version of the Oxford academic discussions of la condition féminine that occur in Dorothy L. Sayers Gaudy Night (1936). Time stood still, it seems.

Feminist and gender issues will figure in most novels of these three female novelists, and they will all three explore the the First World War’s effects on gender constructions. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is, in her own understated way, quietly subversive and a feminist role model, gently and lady-likely poking fun at Victorian ideas of masculinity and male superiority.

In spite of sharp observations on social and women issues, these three women were far from being political radicals. How far Mary Roberts Rinehart is from being a socialist, for example, becomes clear in A Poor Wise Man (1920), a novel about social unrest in the United States. Like Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart was a conservative at heart.

There are shades of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920) in this novel — the theme of Americans in Europe, belonging to a long tradition with, for example, The Portrait of A Lady (1880-81): the culture clash, the exploration of societal morals and standards. The small American colony in Vienna, most of them known to each other, sharply condemns Harmony and Peter’s perceived “unmoral” living conditions — the woman taking the brunt of social ostracism. The situation is very reminiscent of Countess Olenka’s, and Harmony Wells shows some of the naivety and stubborn idealism of Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady.

Henry James, too, explored Gothic themes in The Turn of the Screw (1898), and brilliantly adapted some of the Otherness aspects of Gothic Romance in The Aspern Papers (1888). In this last novella James builds suspense in a way that any mystery writer would admire, and the tension is not relieved until the final page. Like Vienna in The Street of Seven Stars, Venice is described so minutiously that the city almost becomes a character in its own right: a crumbling, beautiful, mysterious place where the incredible becomes real and the strange is almost commonplace.

Siebensterngasse, the Seven Star Street of the title, is today a lively shopping street — but it still has some Gothic charm

Solid writing, a sharp quick talent for observation and details, and the well-informedness of the writer give this “Novel of Romance and Suspense” substance, and transform it into something more than a fluffy piece of melodrama. Rinehart’s simple, straightforward prose anticipates Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene in its cleanness of line. This clarity of descriptions, combined with the melodramatics of La Boheme — including the gelida manina, as Harmony, in her freezing, desolate room, has to put on cut-off gloves to be able to practise the violin — and an Edgar Wallace-like racing pace — a Bulgarian spy, a dying child, an attempted murder in the Alps — it does get wild, at times — and the realism of social conditions in Vienna around 1913, transform this page-turner-cum-tear-jerker into something more than just that. And, although sternly controlled by American morals, there is even, in the description of the demi-monde and the artists’ lifes, some of the frivolity of Alma Mahler Werfel Diary.

Siebensterngasse, around 1900

Apart from these pornosophical pleasures, I’ve been overcome by the delightful sensation of tears streaming over my face. I was in floods —literally. The Street of Seven Stars is a genuine tear-jerker and a delightful romance. Only after i’d finished it — and enjoyed it to the last tear — I was willing to admit how fluffily melodramatic it all was. It is called, I believe, the suspension of disbelief, and I have a heartfelt respect for anyone who can turn story-telling this mesmerising.

Is this a literary masterpiece? Hell, no. But if you are interested in Vienna before the first World War — or if you want a superbly entertaining Gothic tear-jerker, I strongly recommend you give The Street of Seven Stars a try.

20120423-095343.jpgJust before the outbreak of the Great War, American violinist Harmony Wells —a typical Gothic romance heroine — who is studying music in Vienna, meets Peter Byrne, an American doctor studying in Vienna to become a surgeon. Each following their dream, both almost penniless, they find a way to survive by setting up a little commune, chaperoned by Dr Anna Gates, the middle-aged feisty spinster doctor who has given up on her dream of a husband and children. Social scandal ensues in the small Viennese American colony. There are the intertwined sub-plots of Stewart, a medical student and his relationship with Marie, a very young demimondaine; a dying child; a perfidious opera-singer; a Bulgarian spy; and then some.


(finished reading 20th January 2012)


Want to read next:

Jan Cohn. Improbable Fiction. The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart.


Recommended Reading:

British Women Novelists and World War I on the Die Zeitschrift blog