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Sophie von La Roche: Appearances at Lake Oneida

The German author Sophie von La Roche (1730-1807) was an exceptional woman: a writer and a polymath, who landed a bestseller with her first epistolary novel History of Lady Sophia Sternheim (1771) at a time when female writers were an absolute rarity. Her creativity proved indefatigable: after publishing a plethora of diverse texts ranging from novels to travelogues as well as editing a short-lived journal for women (Pomona for Germany’s Daughters, 1783–1784) she embarked on another unusual novel at the end of her life.

Porträt Sophie von La Roche (1730-1807) 1762

Appearances at Lake Oneida (Erscheinungen am See Oneida), published in 1797/98 and now all but forgotten, draws on La Roche’s extensive knowledge of natural history, philosophy, and then-current travelogues. It proves an innovative text at the intersection of the gender theories, and the natural sciences, colonialism, mainly tracing the fates of the congenial emigrées Carl und Emilie Wattines.

These young aristocrats, refugees from the French Revolution, arrive in the newly founded United States without any significant means but with an extensive library. This library accompanies them even to a remote island in the lake Oneida where they spend the subsequent years in almost complete isolation. Their stay on the island serves as an opportunity for them to reflect on nature, culture, and civilization and shows how they survive and indeed thrive far away from civilization. With wit, discipline, and knowledge gleaned from their beloved books they caringly transform the inhospitable island into a provisory home. In that sense, their never-tiring ingenuity with which they tackle the daily challenges are reminiscent of Daniel Defoe’s immensely popular novel Robinson Crusoe (1719).

La Roche develops unique perspectives in the text, constantly re-evaluating the role of women in particular: one memorable episode describes how Emilie Wattines, very close to giving birth at this point, swims across the lake with her husband to seek help from the tribe of the Oneidas. The nuanced inversion of gender characteristics, which casts Emilie as both a pragmatic and courageous leader on this occasion, as well as the arresting observations both Wattines make during their stay with the tribe form an enthralling climax of the novel.

The intercultural exchange, even though it leaves some room for the experience of and input from the Oneidas remains ultimately weak. During the entire time the Wattines spend with the Oneida tribe, they dither between gratitude, recognition, respect, and a specific form of – subtly and openly degrading – dismissal: even though the humanity and integrity of individual Oneida are beyond dispute, their overall ‘backward’ state causes mostly disconcertment in the protagonists.

While the novel explicitly denounces colonialism and its many horrors, it also staunchly promotes the notion of cultural hierarchies: the young couple thus believes itself lucky to hail from the ostensibly most advanced part of the world: Europe, as they perceive it.

La Roche’s innovative thoughts are throughout entangled with distinctly conservative, estatist positions which emphatically value origin and class: Emilie’s pragmatic decision to dispense with most of her clothes and swim across the lake might be an important element of the novel; La Roche herself however proved more chaste: she was scandalised by one of the images showing Emilie as a pregnant woman.

Sophie von La Roche “Erscheinungen am See Oneida”, 1797/98

Claudia Nitschke, Durham

“Erscheinungen am See Oneida” , newly edited by Claudia Nitschke and Yvonne Pietsch and published by Wehrhahn (2021)