“The Imperative of Desire” is book no.1 in Elena Graf’s Passing Rites historical fiction series.
The cover shows a young woman dressed in a belle époque dress reading on a rocking chair. It impersonates the main character’s biggest desire: to learn, to get educated, to have the career she loves and to become the woman she was supposed to be.
The title shows not the most important imperative in Margarethe’s life, but the one she can’t live without. She has so many unavoidable duties in her life:
- she needs to assure the inheritance of the von Stahle family, so she needs to have a husband and children
- she needs to follow her father’s and her aunt’s guidance to become an educated woman to be worth the von Stahle name
- if she wants to be successful in her career, she needs to break all the patriarchy set by most doctors being male
“Definition of imperative
1: not to be avoided or evaded: necessary
- an imperative duty
2a: of, relating to, or constituting the grammatical mood that expresses the will to influence the behavior of another
b: expressive of a command, entreaty, or exhortation
c: having power to restrain, control, and direct”
“In this case, the imperative of desire can be considered similar to philosopher Immanuel Kant’s hypothetical imperative, which in 18th century’s ethics was a rule of conduct that is understood to apply to an individual only if he or she desires a certain end and has chosen (willed) to act on that desire. Although hypothetical imperatives may be expressed in various ways, their basic logical form is: “If you desire X (or not X), you should (or should not) do Y.” The conduct urged in a hypothetical imperative may be the same as or different from that commanded by a conventional moral law. For example: “If you want to be trusted, you should always tell the truth”; “If you want to become rich, you should steal whenever you can get away with it”; and “If you want to avoid heartburn, you should not eat capsaicin.” Hypothetical imperatives are contrasted with “categorical” imperatives, which are rules of conduct that, by their form— “Do (or do not do) Y”—are understood to apply to all individuals, no matter what their desires. Examples corresponding to those above are: “Always tell the truth”; “Steal whenever you can get away with it”; and “Do not eat capsaicin.” For Kant there is only one categorical imperative in the moral realm. Nevertheless, he formulated it in two ways: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” and “So act as to treat humanity…always as an end, and never as only a means.””
The book is written at first person, from Margarethe’s point of view, which is quite good, making her more imposing.
The world spins around Margarethe von Stahle.
The main character is Margarethe von Stahle an aristocrat from an old Prussian family, an Oxford educated young female doctor with a bright future and a wonderful family, yet there’s a certain imperative of desire, which in her case would be her attraction for women.
The plot follows her life during the belle époque, through the World War 1 and during a decadent demimonde of the Weimar Republic
She is such a complex and unique character, to whom you are first intellectually attracted and rather afterwards physically.
This is an elaborated coming of age story of such an unusual girl and woman to be, a genius of her times, where she could be favored by her noble title, but flawed by her gender when she became one of the few young female surgeons in Weimar Republic Germany.
Even from a small age, Margarethe is brilliant and precocious, as her tutors and her military father and her grandaunt observe. Her grandaunt, the headmistress of a convent school (Obberoth) which the family sustains, also, helps in educating the young woman and leads her to the developing path even deeper, as encouraging her to read Ancient Greek and Latin. And then, there is also a former opera singer who became a nun which enriches Margarethe’s musical talent. Not yet knowing which career path to choose (music or medical school), she heads to Oxford following in her father’s footsteps.
Margarethe’s relationship with her mother is cold and it has some influence in her life, she is choosing the opposite of whatever her mother wanted her to be, follow her father’s advices, her grandaunt’s teachings and her own mind and partially her heart. Her mother never had any real burden on her shoulders, she was just upset she couldn’t have a son. Margarethe was the only child and the only heir and she wasn’t the typical the young aristocrat female who’s only goal in life was to produce offspring, she wanted more, she craved to be a scientist, to live an interesting life, to love women, but she has always done her duty towards her family.
England becomes her second home and the place where she evolves most. She is called Meg, an easier name to remember or “the Lady Doctor” and she makes there a lots of friends, fellow physicians (Charles Calder), role models (dr. Sauerbruch, Abrams or Abbott), her future husband Lytton and special, intelligent women in her life(Alexandra Calder, Elise Seidl, Daphne Richardson).
Also, I enjoyed Virginia Wollf’s, Vita Sackville-West’s and Mary Campbell’s involvement in the development of the story.
I liked the complexity of the plot a lot. I can’t reveal much of it because it can only be revealed all at once, poured as a waterfall. I imagined Margarethe’s character as a shining diamond with it’s rough edges, complex and imperfect, yet so pure.
This is not an easy read, nor a romance, it’s historical fiction mixed with coming of age nuances and many current and past themes touched. A wonderful read.
I recommend the whole “Passing Rites” series, especially if you don’t want an easy read, or just a romantic lesfic, but a thick plot with versatile details and exciting surprises and complex flawed characters.