Henriette Roland Holst (I)

HRH, c. 1920

And now a very long post about the most famous woman you have never heard of.  At least, I think most of my American readers won’t know her.  In her native Holland, Henriette Roland Holst (1869–­1952) is “world famous”, or perhaps I should say she was famous, especially to an older generation now almost gone.  Back in the 1970s, in my school days in Flemish Belgium, we were taught that she was “Holland’s greatest poet” and read some of her work, which unfortunately struck me as hopelessly archaic.  We learned nothing whatsoever about her extraordinary life.  Although Holland and Flanders share of course the Dutch language, history classes in Flanders tended to ignore Dutch history after the Revolt in the sixteenth century, when the northern and southern Netherlands parted ways politically and to a certain extent also culturally.  After that, nothing much happened up there apparently, in that barren land of Calvinists, endless polders, and bad food.  And in any case, Roland Holst was a woman, which made her life by definition of no significance.

I was drawn to her again after writing on Gustav Landauer and learning that Henriette Roland Holst knew him.  It turns out she knew–knew very well—lots of people, and who! She sparred with Lenin, possibly had an affair with Trotsky (“He was imposing and magnetic”, “a luminous figure”, “a giant of intellect and will power,” she wrote), shared the stage with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and much later became one of the first Westerners to support Mahatma Gandhi and the Indonesian nationalist leader Mohammed Hatta.

This and much more I learned belatedly from a wonderful biography by Elsbeth Etty, Henriette Roland Holst 1869–1952.  Liefde is heel het leven niet (Amsterdam: Contact, 1996), whose more than 700 pages I devoured in a few evenings.  Great stuff, unputdownable, but of course in Dutch, and since there is no sign of an English translation in the foreseeable future and precious little information about her exists in English, these notes will be more extensive than usual. She deserves to be better known because of her own accomplishments and the unusual cast of characters in her life (many of whom were assassinated, it now occurs to me) but also because so much of her life reflects the tragic history of what I will call the “old radical Left” in Europe, divided and burdened by heartbreaking failures; and the difficult relationship between that old left and the alternative forces of progress informed by pacifism, the liberation movements of the non-western world, and feminism.  And as a bonus: what an impossibly complex soul she was: talented and driven, of course, but also stubborn, intolerant, unbearably bossy; and then again, brave, unselfish, heroic, generous; an enigma throughout her long, rich life.

My first post will treat her life and work until her break with communism in the 1920s; a second post will touch on the later years but also make an attempt at understanding her intellectual trajectory, her relationships with feminism and religion, and her curious marriage—the latter topic being of more than personal importance.

“I’ll Be a Poet Anyway.”

HRH, aged 15

Like many militant socialists of the time, Henriette Goverdine Anna Roland Holst–van der Schalk (“Jet” for her friends, I’ll call her HRH) came from a privileged background.  The van der Schalk family belonged to the upper echelons of the Dutch bourgeoisie: enormously wealthy, conventional, and “liberal” in the European sense, i.e. pro-business and the entrepreneurial class.  As was customary in her milieu, HRH was brought up by servants and tutors in a stifling, authoritarian atmosphere.  Her father typically ignored the exceptionally gifted but headstrong girl, while her mother, more sympathetic, suffered from poor health.  Not surprisingly, HRH rebelled while seeking refuge in poetry.  When a concerned uncle warned her at the age of twelve that at some point, she’d need to comply with her parents’ wishes and be a lady, she shrugged it off: ”I’ll be a poet anyway.”  Her father’s accidental death when she was 23 liberated her from all kinds of constraints–her ailing mother never was a match for her will power.  She immediately befriended the writer Albert Verwey and his very unconventional wife Kitty van Vloten, and the successful avant-garde poet Herman Gorter.  A year later, through the Verweys, she met the artist Richard (“Rik”) Roland Holst and fell in love.

People wrote letters in those days, and kept them.  What makes this biography so thrilling is Etty’s skilful use of hundreds of letters to evoke the sentiments and perceptions of all protagonists as if we were witnessing the events in real time.  Here is HRH, duly chaperoned of course, visiting Rik Roland Holst in his workshop in February 1893: we follow her eyes as she takes in the interior, with the flowers, the books, the Van Gogh on the wall, the smell of paint and oil thick in the air.  There they are a month later, scribbling away, implicitly sealing their engagement by dropping the formal “U” for the informal “je” when addressing each other: not done between the sexes, if you wanted to be respectable.  We even learn what the local tax official thought of the daring colors with which Roland Holst decorated their new home near Hilversum: “The memory alone makes me shudder, your honor,” the man told the mayor.  They marry in 1896.

In Search of the Blissful Life

Poster for the Workers Insurance and Deposit Bank, by Richard Roland Holst, 1912

Change was definitely in the air.  Inspired by the older Gorter, HRH and to a lesser extent Rik (who had met the aging William Morris in London) decide they have finally found the long awaited truth, that firm grounding they and others of their generation aspired to, having forsaken conventional religion as well as the sensual individualism fashionable until then: here comes socialism!  It lands with a loud thump in HRH’s poems in 1897 and pretty much stays there for more than half a century:

Fight with us, dear comrades, for the coming of the age

When no man or woman will part from life

Without having enjoyed the laughter of victory.

From the will we spawn, deeds will grow—

Our work and our feelings form the seeds,

From which will flower: the Blissful Life.

(From a Labor Day Song, composed by HRH that same year; my translation)

True, her poetry has much more to offer than this sample may suggest, but I confess that it rarely works for me.   Never mind though: from now on, she’s also a journalist, a public speaker, an activist of tremendous energy, first in the Netherlands and soon on the international scene.   She joins the SDAP (Sociaal Democratische Arbeiders Partij or Social Democratic Workers Party) and the editorial board of De Nieuwe Tijd (The New Age), the movement’s magazine that lent Dutch socialism its peculiar literary flavor, while deepening her knowledge of Marx and Engels.  Gifted with an easy pen and a clear mind that sketches issues concretely and engagingly for a variety of audiences,

HRH, 1906

she quickly becomes a leading voice in Dutch Marxism.  She’s a formidable speaker, too, a tall, imposing figure at meetings and demonstrations throughout the Netherlands.  Since she’s fluent in German, French, and English (and soon would read Russian with ease), she represents the Dutch socialists at the Paris conference of the Second International in 1900, and hosts the 1904 Conference in Amsterdam.  At the time of the failed 1905 Russian revolution, she’s become a friend of Rosa Luxemburg (who calls her “my blonde Madonna”) and Karl Kautsky, Continue reading