Gabriele, with your first work “Before Autumn Comes” you successfully launched your literary career. Where did you get the inspiration for the plot of this novel?
The story is told by Sophia Mohr and Anton Auling, children from craft families in Diepholz and Münster. The two grew up in the late 18th century in a society that made it very difficult for them to realize their own life plans. Sophia in particular, as a young woman, has to overcome a lot of resistance until she finally breaks out of her parents' house and sets out on her own life.
The material in my book is based on true facts. Through a very extensive family tree that my sister Mechthild Schröer put together, I learned that my great-great-great-grandparents Anton and Sophia Auling settled in Vechta at the beginning of the 19th century. They ran a goldsmith's workshop there, which my parents continued to run in the fifth generation.
I began to wonder: Where did my great-great-great grandparents meet? Why did they settle in Vechta of all places? How did they live? What did they feel? What did they long for? What did they fight and work for? – There is nothing about this in the family tree. Nobody wrote it down and nobody can remember it.
I found that difficult to come to terms with. I didn't just want to look at the facts and figures, I didn't just want to read essays, books, tables, drawings and lists about this time, but I wanted to feel the life behind it. I wanted to understand how my ancestors lived. So stories arose in my head, stories about everyday life in Diepholz and Münster, in Vechta, Osnabrück, Bonn and Oldenburg, and I began to write them down.
With Sophia Mohr, the daughter of the wig master Arnold Mohr, and his wife Dorothea, you bring two women to the foreground of your story. What role did women play in the guild system at the end of the 18th century?
Within the guilds, women had almost no opportunity to lead a self-determined life, economically independent of men. As a rule, they depended on marriage as a provision institution.
Only in very limited cases, including Cologne, were there women's guilds and it was possible for women to complete craft training. Achieving a championship was impossible. Women were called upon to do auxiliary and manual labor when necessary, but were otherwise responsible for the household and raising children.
The only way for a woman to run a workshop was through widow's privilege. This was the right of the craftsman's widow to be able to run the business even after the husband's death or in his absence.
However, the master's widows were restricted in the length of time they were allowed to continue a workshop or were forbidden to hire journeymen. As a rule, their only option was to remarry a journeyman or master of their guild and then hand over management of the workshop to this new husband. Furthermore, a widow could submit a request to enable her son, who was perhaps still training to become a journeyman, to continue the workshop. In such cases, he could be released from certain requirements such as the number of years as a journeyman or traveling.
If there was no male successor in a craftsman's family, the daughters were usually married off to master sons from the same trade. This meant that the workshop could continue to be run in family hands.
What do you see as the impetus that your novel can provide in relation to social acceptance of women in today's working world?
Using the example of Sophia, I illustrate that throughout history, obstacles have repeatedly been placed in the way of women making self-determined decisions about their professional future, even though they can do just as good or even better work than men.
The role of women in the world of work changed again and again. When her labor was needed, she was good enough to survive on the labor market, but as soon as these requirements changed, she was pushed back to home and hearth and to raising children.
This inequality was also still rooted in my own family. My father was a master watchmaker and optician, my mother was a journeyman watchmaker. Although she completed her journeyman's examination as the state winner in Lower Saxony in the 1950s, she then decided not to acquire the master's title. In addition to working in the workshop and selling, she was responsible for taking care of the household and the children. Although my mother was a strong personality, she accepted this role. This left her with a task that was essentially impossible to complete.
However, while in her generation it was not yet common for women to learn a qualified profession, my mother attached great importance to ensuring that each of her three daughters received high-quality professional training.
Even today, despite both spouses working, most of the housework, child-rearing and social management often falls on the shoulders of women. And even today, on average, a woman still earns less than a man.
Solutions must urgently be found here that lead to equality in all areas of life - not just in the world of work - in order to relieve the burden on families and not expose women to the double or triple burden.
The action of your novel takes place in Diepholz in Hanover, in Münster, Osnabrück, Vechta and Oldenburg. How did you conduct your research when it comes to people, actions and settings?
Although my book is a fictional novel, almost all of the people who appear in it actually lived. My story adheres as closely as possible to her existing life data.
I was inspired to write this novel by my sister Mechthild Schröer. Over the years she has compiled a family tree on an internet platform that is second to none. She gave me access to this treasure trove of data. So I was able to “take a walk” in this huge pool of history, click through the generations, read entries in church records such as dates of baptism, marriage or death and view documents such as purchase certificates, court documents, photos and newspaper reports. With the help of this family tree, I delved deep into my family's “craft history”.
In addition to my school lessons, I learned about the history of my birthplace, Vechta, from a number of books. The four-volume work “Contributions to the History of the City of Vechta” deserves special mention here. My sister was also a great help to me when I had specific questions. She works voluntarily in the local library in Vechta and researched historical backgrounds for me whenever I asked.
I know the cities of Münster, Osnabrück and Diepholz as well as of course Oldenburg, where I have lived for more than forty years, from my own experience. I took part in city tours there, visited state libraries, archives and city museums and had conversations with local people.
How much did everyday work in your parents' business in Vechta contribute to the creation of this novel?
My parents' everyday work life naturally played a crucial role in the creation of my novel. I grew up in a craftsman family in the 1960s with my two sisters. My parents spent almost the entire day in the workshop or shop. We children were taught from an early age to subordinate our concerns to the company's operations. There was an armchair in the workshop that we could sit in when we had something on our minds, but that had to happen all the time. If there were customers in the store, we were not allowed to disturb them under any circumstances; we had to wait until the store was empty - which could sometimes take longer than half an hour.
Our external behavior was important. For my parents it was a catastrophe if we weren't neat and tidy around town because: “What are people supposed to say?” We never had a vacation. The business never closed because customers could go to the competition. During the holidays we children went to visit relatives and later went on camps with the Catholic youth groups.
Of course, we children were involved in the business as soon as possible. We had to help with serving in the store, help our mother with the inventory and of course also help with the household and looking after siblings and bedridden family members. At some point my parents hired a part-time household helper, which eased the situation a little.
The impressions from this time can of course also be found in my novel. Sophia and Anton grew up in craftsman families. While Anton is forbidden to work in the workshop because it is too dangerous, Sophia is involved in the wig making tasks as a child. Both are called upon to do housework and look after their siblings.
With this first novel you are announcing a five-volume family saga. What exciting developments in the lives of Sophie and Anton can the reader expect in the second volume?
I certainly don't want to give too much away here, but Sophia will be heading to Oldenburg and trying to build a life of her own there. There she meets caring people who make her life easier. She is hardworking, persistent and interested, even planning to set up her own small workshop, but she is still trapped in her role as an unmarried woman. Her brother wants to bring her back to Diepholz from Oldenburg in order to marry her, of all people, to the man she deeply hates.
Anton is currently on his journey as a journeyman. He spent a few months in Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck. Some adverse circumstances await him there with which he has to cope. He works hard at his craft, but can't resist some temptations after work. In Lübeck he even runs the risk of being dishonorably dismissed from the guild.
Of course, the love relationship between Sophia and Anton still plays a role. They only have letters to stay in touch with each other. Whether they will meet again one day is anyone's guess.
The interview was conducted by Christian Leeck. Machine translated from German.
Wuppertal, September 2023