We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.
This is not your fault or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed into the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father and the celebrated chronicle of my brother.
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
I am an expat author. My home is everywhere and nowhere. A wanderer, I have lived in many different places, from Minnesota, my birthplace, with its rustling marshes haunted by the cries of redwing blackbirds, to Bavaria with its dark forests and dazzling meadows and pure streams where otter still live, to my present home in the haunted moorlands of Pendle Witch country in Lancashire, England. My entire adult life has been a literal journey of finding myself in the great world.
For as long as I remember, I longed to be a writer. As a novelist I am on a mission to write women back into history. To tell the neglected, unwritten stories of women like my pioneering foremothers who emigrated from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in the 1860s to break the prairie soil of southern Minnesota.
To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover their buried truths, we must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. We must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks. My heroine’s journey, in other words, is about reclaiming the lost heroines of history. My quest is to give voice to ancestral memory of that lost motherline.
When I sat down and did the research, I discovered every epoch had its radical voices, movers and shakers, extraordinary women who rocked the establishment. Think of Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I of England, Aphra Benn, Anne Bonny the Pirate Queen, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Parks, to name a few.
But the women who stand out in history and claim their power are often the most maligned—or else their accomplishments are trivialized or dismissed.
As a case in point, I present Alma Schindler Mahler (1879-1964), the heroine of my new novel Ecstasy. She was one of the most controversial women in the twentieth century. Her husbands and lovers included composer Gustav Mahler, Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius, artist Oskar Kokoschka, and poet Franz Werfel. But she was her own woman to the last, polyamorous long before it was cool. Although she was also a composer in her own right, most commentators, including some of her own biographers, ignore this and focus instead on how she “failed” to be the ideal woman for the great men in her life. Alma, like Lilith, is demonized as a man-destroying monster. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s observation that well-behaved women seldom make history could have been written about Alma.
I have long idolized Gustav Mahler and own multiple recordings of each of his symphonies and song cycles. I fell in love with both his music and the entire mythos surrounding him. For me, his character arc is that of the perfect tragic hero who met his untimely death at the age of fifty with courage and nobility. Yet as deeply as I admire Mahler, I would not want to be his wife.
Some Mahlerites blame Alma for his downfall. Despite the fact that Mahler died of a hereditary heart condition, they appear to believe that Alma’s adulterous affair with Walter Gropius hastened Mahler’s demise.
Yet Mahler loved Alma as passionately as some of his fans seem to hate her. We can feel Alma’s indelible presence in his music from his Fifth Symphony onward. His most tender adagios are declarations of his devotion to her. In his tenth and final symphony, we can literally hear his heart breaking for her. He scrawled on the score, “To live for you, to die for you, Almschi.”
How could one woman could inspire such emotional extremes? The deeper I delved into Alma’s story, the more complex and compelling she became.
As a young woman, Alma Maria Schindler was a most accomplished pianist—her teacher thought she was good enough to study at Vienna Conservatory. However, Alma didn’t want a career of public performance. Instead she yearned to be a composer. Her lieder, composed under the guidance of her mentor and lover, Alexander von Zemlinsky, are arresting, emotional, and highly original and can be compared with the early work of Zemlinsky’s other famous student, Arnold Schoenberg.
But the odds were stacked against her. In turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna, women who strived for a livelihood in the arts were mocked as the “third sex”—the fate of Alma’s friend, the sculptor Ilse Conrat. When a towering genius like Mahler asked Alma to give up her composing career as a condition of their marriage, she reluctantly succumbed.
Yet underneath it all she was still that questing young woman who yearned to compose symphonies and operas. Shortly before her marriage, twenty-two-year-old Alma wrote in her diary, “I have two souls: I know it.” Born in an era that struggled to recognize women as full-fledged human beings, Alma experienced a fundamental split in her psyche—the rift between herself as a distinct creative individual and herself as an object of male desire. The suppression of her true self to become the woman Mahler wanted her to be was unsustainable and inhuman. Eventually the authentic Alma erupted out of this false persona.
What emerged was a woman far ahead of her time, who rejected the shackles of condoned feminine behavior and insisted on her sexual and creative freedom. Alma eventually returned to composing and went on to publish fourteen of her songs. Three other lieder have been discovered posthumously. Now her work is regularly performed and recorded.
Like unconventional women throughout history, Alma to this day faces a backlash of misinterpretation and outright condemnation. She was complex, transgressive, ambitious, and often perplexing.
Paradoxically it was Alma’s transgressiveness that taught me the most profound lesson about claiming my own power as a woman in male-dominated society. Delving into Alma’s complexities allowed me to embrace all the shadows and light in my own character. For Alma was neither a “good” woman nor a “bad” woman, but a woman who insisted on being fully human, whatever the cost. A woman who recognized that pure and impure, faithful and loose, madonna and whore are simply poisonous projections used to deny women their full expression of being. Alma was not any one color, dark or light. She was the whole spectrum. So it is with all of us. Every woman contains the totality, the heights and the depths.
This is why Alma deserves to be the center of her own story. She was not only a composer but what in German is called a Lebenskünstlerin, or life artist—she pioneered new ways of being as a woman that was in itself a work of art. May we all be life artists on our heroine’s journey.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her novel Ecstasy, drawn from Alma Mahler’s heroine’s journey, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website: http://www.marysharratt.com