Sugar and Spice, but Not at All Nice

On the female 'twin' of a popular 19th-century collection of stories about delinquent boys who come to a horrible end

Nitsa Priluk
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Nitsa Priluk

Notable among Mark Twain's short stories for adults are "The Story of the Bad Little Boy" and "The Story of the Good Little Boy." In the first, Jim, the bad little boy, has a grand old time: He steals apples from the neighbor's tree, secretly gobbles up jam and fills the empty jar with tar, goes boating on Sunday (without drowning) - and ends up becoming one of the country's most admired legisl ators. In the second story, Jacob, the good little boy - who always obeys his parents, is never late for school, loves to read Sunday school books and takes care of a lame dog - dies in an accident. This humoristic writing challenges the genre of the didactic story that was widespread at the time, and which sets up a dichotomy between two types of children.

In 1865, the very same year that these stories were written, German author and painter Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908) published "Max und Moritz," seven tales about naughty, delinquent children who come to a horrible end (they are ground to bits in a mill and fed to the ducks). Busch also illustrated the book and is considered a founder of the art of comics. The story unfolds in a village (some claim it is Wiedensahl, where Busch was born), and the targets are all adults (the widow, the tailor, the teacher, the uncle, the baker and the farmer). Max and Moritz vandalize property and play tricks on people that cause physical and emotional damage. They have a sharp eye for their victims' special weaknesses. As expected, the children are taught a lesson: Those who are wicked must be punished. The wheels of justice continue to turn.

For decades, "Max und Moritz" was perceived as an unsophisticated story about crime and punishment. As World War II led people to look anew at traditional values, readers became more attuned to Busch's criticism of bourgeois society - a society that would casually approve the death penalty even for property crimes or disruption of public order.

In 1896, the Max and Moritz family expanded. Hulda von Levetzow (1863-1947) published a book called "Lies und Lene" in Hamburg, with illustrations by Franz Maddalena. On the cover, Lies and Lene were described as the "sisters of Max and Moritz." The subtitle was "A Buschian Tale for Young and Old in Seven Episodes." This book "hitched a ride" on the great commercial success of Busch's work, but with female protagnists and with a female audience in mind. It was a kind of answer to the question of whether girls could also be bad. "Lies und Lene" was perceived as having a more ominous message than "Max und Moritz," which made it much more difficult for readers to accept: The image of the girl in it was a very far cry from the literary feminine stereotype. After all, the double standards for men and women also exist in childhood. So while "Max und Moritz" is almost a household name in Western culture, "Lies und Lene" was sentenced to oblivion.

In 1942, the book was translated into Hebrew, and adapted, as "Ruth ve-Rina" ("Ruth and Rina") by Dr. Binyamin Klar (1901-1948), who moved the setting to Tel Aviv and Hebraized the names of all the characters, in keeping with the fashion of the day. It was published in Tel Aviv (Sinai Publishing) with the original illustrations. Remembering it from childhood, I quoted from it once or twice, but to my surprise no one understood the reference.

Today, the German original can be purchased online, but no biographical information seems to be available about the author. Searching the Internet and library card catalogs turned up nothing. Prof. Manfred Gerlach of the University of Cologne, who published an annotated edition of "Max und Moritz" (including a translation into Yiddish), was unable to help. Yes, he remembered the girls' version, he told me over the phone, but he had not researched it, as it was outside the scope of his study. At the same time, he was not surprised at the lack of data concerning Hulda von Levetzow, considering the lack of importance attributed to women writers in the 19th century.

Money and status

I now own a copy of von Levetzow's death certificate, which was discovered in the Hamburg historical archives. Von Levetzow was born in Gratz, Austria to the aristocratic von Schoenberg family. She died at the Lutheran Hospital in Pulsnitz, at the age of 84 (and 24 days, as it says on the document). Later, three small pages in Gothic script were sent to me from Germany, on which appeared the family tree of the Danish von Levetzows, whose lineage goes back to the 17th century. A family member was contacted and was happy to help. She felt a need to tell me she had read Amos Oz. More data: Ferdinand von Levetzow (1862-1893) married Hulda on April 11, 1887. Her status allowed her to engage in literary pursuits.

Klar knew German from childhood. A man of letters who researched language and literature and taught university, he was killed in the Arab attack on the convoy transporting food and supplies to beleaguered Mt. Scopus on April 13, 1948, in the War of Independence. He was buried in a mass grave in Jerusalem. His personal file at the Ministry of Defense, opened at my request, states that his widow, Margalit, died in 1994. There were no children. I dedicate this article to his memory.

"Lies und Lene" is a twin to "Max und Moritz" not only in outlook and theme. Structurally, the books are also twins. Von Levetzow carefully preserved the original format featuring a prologue, seven episodes (one for each day of the week), a concluding chapter and an epilogue. The two girls come from Bremen to spend the summer with their aunt, who lives on Norderney, an island off the North Sea coast. They are bored, but full of energy, inspiration and imagination. With malicious intent, they plan a different trick every day, and feel no remorse whatsoever. Their victims include the aunt, her maid, the aunt's spinster niece, a man on the seashore, a lady in the water, a puppy and a boat owner.

On the seventh day, Lies and Lene take out a boat without permission, are swept out to sea and get swallowed by a whale - boat and all. The punishment indicates to the reader, young or old, that such behavior is deplorable and unacceptable. In the "epilogue," a survey is taken of the individuals who were hurt by the girls' actions. Each expresses an opinion about the fate that befalls them, and all believe the punishment was a just one. The public has had its say. Nevertheless, the tale is daring in its subversive approach and rejection of social norms in portraying girls who are mean and wild.

In what way is von Levetzow's book different from "Max und Moritz"? Perhaps the most conspicuous difference is geographical: the country versus the city. "Lies und Lene" takes place in a modern urban setting at the turn of the 20th century. Girls could then go on vacation without their parents (traveling distances of 50 kilometers). The anonymous victims are chosen randomly in a public space, unlike the neighbors targeted by Max and Moritz, who live nearby. When the motive for the violence is not related to the victim, and there is no hostility to trigger it, the actions seem even more monstrous. Upsetting or hurting someone becomes a source of amusement and pleasure. The victims are of the same sex as the perpetrators: Max and Moritz choose men (apart from the widow), while Lies and Lene, in a kind of mirror image, choose women (apart from a man on the seashore). No children are harmed; the anger is always directed toward adults. Lies and Lene do not vandalize property; their interest lies solely in people. Moreover, their actions seem more reprehensible than those of Max and Moritz, who crave sweet cakes and roast chicken (which they may not have at home). Judging by Maddalena's illustrations, von Levetzow's characters seem older. Lies and Lene look around 14 or 15 years old, and are fashionably dressed, whereas Busch's cartoon illustrations are of boys that look about 8 or 9.

But the major difference is in the way the children are punished: Max and Moritz die at the hands of a scheming, vengeful adult (the farmer), who turns out to be no greater a saint than they are. In von Levetzow's book, the punishment comes from heaven, like someone falling into the pit they have dug. The girls' death at sea is a kind of accident.

Incidentally, the idea of writing a girls' version of a story about naughty boys is not von Levetzow's invention. In 1896, Julius Lutje wrote "Die Struwwelliese" ("Slovenly Lisa") as a feminine counterpart to Heinrich Hoffmann's "Der Struwwelpeter" ("Slovenly Peter," 1845).

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