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Catharina Felicia van Rees, Dutch author and composer, 1831-1915

By Lotte Jensen, Radboud University Nijmegen

Nowadays, Catharina van Rees is known for the fact that she was a pioneer in the Dutch women’s movement and one of the first Dutch women composers. Her life and work are of scholarly interest because they reveal much about the position of women writers and composers in the second half of the nineteenth century. Her correspondence contains a lot of information about her financial struggles, her international network of women writers, and her (troubled) relationship with the critical press.

Van Rees was born into a wealthy family in the Dutch province town Zutphen in 1831. At the age of five she could already play the piano, and by the time she was eighteen she played her own compositions. A successful performance in 1855 became a turning point in her life: her opera Les Débutants was performed in a private society and consecutively Van Rees got an invitation to be trained as a professional musician in Paris. However, her mother considered this to be beneath their position and unsuitable for women. Van Rees then dropped the idea of becoming a professional composer and turned to writing instead. Probably due to this negative experience she dedicated herself to the issue of women’s emancipation.

Her first publication appeared in 1860 in the monthly magazine De Tijdspiegel ("Mirror of the age") and was written under the pseudonym Celéstine. In this article Van Rees addressed the problem of the growing number of unmarried women and their limited possibilities in society. Ten years later, she presented a clear solution to this problem in a brochure entitled Open brief aan hare vrouwelijke landgenoten ("Open letter to her fellow-countrywomen", 1870), in which she argued for the founding of secondary schools for girls. In these years she also published her first novels, such as Twee novellen (Two novels, 1861), Zuster Catchinka ("Sister Catchinka", 1861) and Rob’s moeder ("Rob’s mother",1868).

In the late 1860s and early 1870s Van Rees lived in Bonn (Germany). She had connections with Louise Otto-Peters, chairwoman of the Allgemeine Deutsche Frauenverein, and contributed to the periodical Neue Bahnen. She also paid attention the German women’s movement in the Dutch feminist periodical Onze Roeping ("Our Call", 1870-1873). Van Rees’ ambition was to start a women’s periodical of her own, in cooperation with clergyman Jan Pieter de Keyser, but they didn’t succeed. In 1877 she edited a new series, the Bibliotheek van Nederlandse Schrijfsters ("Library of Dutch Women Authors"), the aim of which was to publish the latest novels by Dutch women authors. The lack of good manuscripts and financial problems forced Van Rees and the publisher to cancel the series.

This was only one of the many disappointments Van Rees had to face during these years. Firstly, her novels were criticised severely in the press: very negative reviews were written by M. Leopold (in 1877) and, later, by the prominent literary critic Lodewijk van Deyssel in the progressive periodical De Nieuwe Gids ("The New Guide", 1888). Van Rees claimed that these men did not understand the essence of her writings, including her plea for better education for women. She fought back by asking one of her friends, the well-known writer Elise van Calcar, to review one of her novels positively. Van Calcar immediately responded by publishing a positive review of Van Rees’ novel De familie Mixpickle (1877) in De Tijdspiegel (1877, 3, 41-44).

Secondly, she experienced obstacles in her career as a female composer. In 1875 she was asked by the president of the Republic of South Africa (Transvaal), Thomas François Burger, to write a new national anthem. He had met Van Rees when he studied theology in Utrecht and he had played the flute in her opera Les Débutants. Unfortunately, another song was officially elected as the national anthem of Transvaal. To make things worse, her song was ascribed to the well-known composer Richard Holl by Dutch literary critics.

Despite these negative experiences and obstacles Van Rees kept publishing. Between 1880 and 1893 she wrote at least nineteen novels. She also wrote several biographies (vie romancée) of famous composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Carl Maria von Weber.

Van Rees’ correspondence reveals that she wrote not only out of idealistic, but also financial motives. In the 1890s she moved back to Germany, mainly because life was cheaper there. Her health was failing, and she was less motivated to write. Nevertheless, in 1895 she published a lengthy article in De Tijdspiegel (1895, 437-441) in which she argued for women’s suffrage in the Netherlands. There is no evidence for any other publications the last twenty years of her life. She moved back to the Netherlands, where she died in Velp in 1915.


Key works

  • ‘Brief van eene geëmancipeerde vrouw aan den censor’. In: De tijdspiegel 17 (1860) I, 390-394. [Letter of an emancipated woman to the censor]
  • Open brief aan hare vrouwelijke landgenooten (Arnhem: Thieme, 1870). [Open letter to her fellow-countrywoman]
  • De Duitsche eik: historisch-romantisch verhaal (Arnhem: Thieme, 1870). [The German oak: historical-romantic novel]
  • Een koningin zonder kroon: historische roman (’s-Gravenhage: Ykema, 1873). [A Queen without a croun: historical novel]
  • Muzikale novellen (Haarlem: Kruseman & Tjeenk Willink, 1876). [Musical novellas]
  • De familie Mixciple (’s-Gravenhage: Ykema, 1877). [The family Mixciple]
  • Frederik Chopin: historisch-romantische levensschets (Amsterdam: Van Kampen, 1880). [Frederic Chopin: historical-romantic biography]
  • In Dei gloriam: historisch-romantische levensschets van Johan Sebastian Bach (Deventer: Van den Sigtenhorst, 1885). [In Dei gloriam: historical-romantic biography of Johan Sebastian bach]
  • De parel van het hof van Gelre: historisch-romantisch verhaal (Arnhem: Gouda Quint, 1887). [The pearl at the court of Gelre: historical-romantic story]

Selective list of relevant publications

  • H.P. Hogeweg-de Haart, Catharina Felicia van Rees, 1831-1915, Amsterdam 1957.
  • Lotte Jensen, ‘Naar een nieuw overzichtswerk van de eerste feministische golf? De casus Catharina van Rees (1831-1915)’, in: Jaarboek voor vrouwengeschiedenis 25 (2005), p.68-93.
  • Lotte Jensen, ‘Een Gelderse feministe: Catharina van Rees’. In: Arnhem de Genoeglijkste 27 (2007) 4, 205-209.
  • Lotte Jensen, ‘Rees, Catharina Felicia van’. In: Biografisch woordenboek van Nederland. Zesde deel. Red. K. van Berkel e.a. ’s-Gravenhage 2008, p. 397-400.
  • L. Jensen, ‘Rees, Catharina Felicia van (1831-1915)’. In: Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland. [02-02-2010]
  • Lisa Kuitert, ‘Het debâcle van een negentiende-eeuwse “vrouwenreeks”. Bibliotheek van Nederlandsche Schrijfsters’. In: Literatuur (2001) 3, 150-158.

AsK October 2011

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