1871 - Martha Summerhayes, US-American Visitor
Hanover now Prussian
The stalwart men of the Prussian army, the Lancers, the Dragoons, the Hussars, the clank of their sabres on the pavements, their brilliant uniforms, all made an impression upon my romantic mind, and I listened eagerly, in the quiet evenings, to tales of Hanover under King George, to stories of battles lost, and the entry of the Prussians into the old Residenzstadt; the flight of the King, and the sorrow and chagrin which prevailed.
For I was living in the family of General Weste, the former stadt-commandant of Hanover, who had served fifty years in the army and had accompanied King George on his exit from the city. He was a gallant veteran, with the rank of General-Lieutenant, ausser Dienst. A charming and dignified man, accepting philosophically the fact that Hanover had become Prussian, but loyal in his heart to his King and to old Hanover; pretending great wrath when, on the King's birthday, he found yellow and white sand strewn before his door, but unable to conceal the joyful gleam in his eye when he spoke of it.
The General's wife was the daughter of a burgomaster and had been brought up in a neighboring town. She was a dear, kind soul.
The house-keeping was simple, but stately and precise, as befitted the rank of this officer. The General was addressed by the servants as Excellenz and his wife as Frau Excellenz. A charming unmarried daughter lived at home, making, with myself, a family of four.
Life was spent quietly, and every evening, after our coffee (served in the living-room in winter, and in the garden in summer), Frau Generalin would amuse me with descriptions of life in her old home, and of how girls were brought up in her day; how industry was esteemed by her mother the greatest virtue, and idleness was punished as the most beguiling sin. She was never allowed, she said, to read, even on Sunday, without her knitting-work in her hands; and she would often sigh, and say to me, in German (for dear Frau Generalin spoke no other tongue), "Ach, Martha, you American girls are so differently brought up"; and I would say, "But, Frau Generalin, which way do you think is the better?" She would then look puzzled, shrug her shoulders, and often say, "Ach! Times are different I suppose, but my ideas can never change."
Now the dear Frau Generalin did not speak a word of English, and as I had had only a few lessons in German before I left America, I had the utmost difficulty at first in comprehending what she said. She spoke rapidly and I would listen with the closest attention, only to give up in despair, and to say, "Gute Nacht," evening after evening, with my head buzzing and my mind a blank.
After a few weeks, however, I began to understand everything she said, altho' I could not yet write or read the language, and I listened with the greatest interest to the story of her marriage with young Lieutenant Weste, of the bringing up of her four children, and of the old days in Hanover, before the Prussians took possession.
She described to me the brilliant Hanoverian Court, the endless festivities and balls, the stately elegance of the old city, and the cruel misfortunes of the King. And how, a few days after the King's flight, the end of all things came to her; for she was politely informed one evening, by a big Prussian major, that she must seek other lodgings -he needed her quarters. At this point she always wept, and I sympathized.
Thus I came to know military life in Germany, and I fell in love with the army, with its brilliancy and its glitter, with its struggles and its romance, with its sharp contrasts, its deprivations, and its chivalry.
I came to know, as their guest, the best of old military society. They were very old-fashioned and precise, and Frau Generalin often told me that American girls were too ausgelassen in their manners. She often reproved me for seating myself upon the sofa (which was only for old people) and also for looking about too much when walking on the streets. Young girls must keep their eyes more cast down, looking up only occasionally. (I thought this dreadfully prim, as I was eager to see everything). I was expected to stop and drop a little courtesy on meeting an older woman, and then to inquire after the health of each member of the family. It seemed to take a lot of time, but all the other girls did it, and there seemed to be no hurry about anything, ever, in that elegant old Residenzstadt. Surely a contrast to our bustling American towns.
A sentiment seemed to underlie everything they did. The Emperor meant so much to them, and they adored the Empress. A personal feeling, an affection, such as I had never heard of in a republic, caused me to stop and wonder if an empire were not the best, after all. And one day, when the Emperor, passing through Hanover en route, drove down the Georgstrasse in an open barouche and raised his hat as he glanced at the sidewalk where I happened to be standing, my heart seemed to stop beating, and I was overcome by a most wonderful feeling - a feeling that in a man would have meant chivalry and loyalty unto death.
In this beautiful old city, life could not be taken any other than leisurely. Theatres with early hours, the maid coming for me with a lantern at nine o'clock, the frequent Kaffeeklatsch, the delightful afternoon coffee at the Georgengarten, the visits to the zoological gardens, where we always took our fresh rolls along with our knitting-work in basket, and then sat at a little table in the open, and were served with coffee, sweet cream, and butter, by a strapping Hessian peasant woman - all so simple, yet so elegant, so peaceful.
We heard the best music at the theatre, which was managed with the same precision, and maintained by the Government with the same generosity, as in the days of King George. No one was allowed to enter after the overture had begun, and an absolute hush prevailed.
The orchestra consisted of sixty or more pieces, and the audience was critical. The parquet was filled with officers in the gayest uniforms; there were few ladies amongst them; the latter sat mostly in the boxes, of which there were several tiers, and as soon as the curtain fell, between the acts, the officers would rise, turn around, and level their glasses at the boxes. Sometimes they came and visited in the boxes.
As I had been brought up in a town half Quaker, half Puritan, the custom of going to the theatre Sunday evenings was rather a questionable one in my mind. But I soon fell in with their ways, and found that on Sunday evenings there was always the most brilliant audience and the best plays were selected. With this break-down of the wall of narrow prejudice, I gave up others equally as narrow, and adopted the German customs with my whole heart.
I studied the language with unflinching perseverance, for this was the opportunity I had dreamed about and longed for in the barren winter evenings at Nantucket when I sat poring over Coleridge's translations of Schiller's plays and Bayard Taylor's version of Goethe's Faust.
Should I ever read these intelligently in the original?
And when my father consented for me to go over and spend a year and live in General Weste's family, there never was a happier or more grateful young woman. Appreciative and eager, I did not waste a moment, and my keen enjoyment of the German classics repaid me a hundred fold for all my industry.
Neither time nor misfortune, nor illness can take from me the memory of that year of privileges such as is given few American girls to enjoy, when they are at an age to fully appreciate them.
And so completely separated was I from the American and English colony that I rarely heard my own language spoken, and thus I lived, ate, listened, talked, and even dreamed in German.
There seemed to be time enough to do everything we wished; and, as the Franco-Prussian war was just over (it was the year of 1871), and many troops were in garrison at Hanover, the officers could always join us at the various gardens for after-dinner coffee, which, by the way, was not taken in the demi-tasse, but in good generous coffee-cups, with plenty of rich cream. Every one drank at least two cups, the officers smoked, the women knitted or embroidered, and those were among the pleasantest hours I spent in Germany.
The intrusion of unwelcome visitors was never to be feared, as, by common consent, the various classes in Hanover kept by themselves, thus enjoying life much better than in a country where everybody is striving after the pleasures and luxuries enjoyed by those whom circumstances have placed above them.
The gay uniforms lent a brilliancy to every affair, however simple. Officers were not allowed to appear en civile, unless on leave of absence.
I used to say, "Oh, Frau General, how fascinating it all is!" "Hush, Martha," she would say; "life in the army is not always so brilliant as it looks; in fact, we often call it, over here, 'glaenzendes Elend.' "
These bitter words made a great impression upon my mind, and in after years, on the American frontier, I seemed to hear them over and over again.
When I bade good-bye to the General and his family, I felt a tightening about my throat and my heart, and I could not speak. Life in Germany had become dear to me, and I had not known how dear until I was leaving it forever.
Recollections of Army Life of a New England Woman
Reprint of the 2nd ed. (1911) Salem, Mass.