Carry Van Bruggen
Born to a strictly Orthodox family, Carry van Bruggen began breaking rules when she started an affair with socialist Kees van Bruggen before marrying him in 1904. They traveled to the East Indies, where Carry began writing articles and book reviews for local papers critiquing Dutch colonial practices. She continued writing after their return to the Netherlands in 1907, becoming especially consumed with her work after her divorce in 1917: she wrote twenty novels in fifteen years. She explored a passion for women in her writing, alongside themes of religion, assimilation, and many other constraints of bourgeois European society. Though she was dismissed by philosophers and critics as a self-taught woman, van Bruggen was still loved as a complex and thoughtful writer by her many readers.
Family and Early Career
Carry van Bruggen, who also published under the name Justine Abbing, came from an Orthodox family. She was born Caroline Lea de Haan in the town of Smilde, the Netherlands, on January 1, 1881, and spent her early years in the town of Zaandam, just north of Amsterdam. She was the third child of Izak de Haan, a cantor, and Betje Rubens, who were strictly Orthodox. She received a traditional Jewish education, but as was customary she went to a public school. Her brother, Jacob Israël de Haan (1881–1924), a homosexual poet, went to Palestine, where he was ultimately assassinated.
Carry herself transgressed the respectable code by marrying the non-Jewish socialist Kees van Bruggen (1874–1960), after a long affair conducted while he was still married. She totally abandoned religion and tradition but never stopped describing her origins in her literary work. In 1904, the year of her marriage to van Bruggen, she accompanied her husband to the Dutch East Indies, where she began writing for local newspapers. This enabled her not only to propagate her progressive opinions on colonial society, but also to review modern Dutch literature, including many Jewish writers. In 1907 the couple returned to Amsterdam, where she wrote for numerous journals and periodicals. The van Bruggens had a son and a daughter, but the marriage failed. Carry’s work was at this point focused increasingly on the limitations and boundaries of women’s lives. She herself wanted more than the mundane life of a housewife and longed for fulfillment and love. She divorced her husband in 1917 and moved to the village of Laren, where she strove to liberate herself from the burden of her background through her writing. It was the beginning of an unhappy period. Real truth, real love, and real life eluded her.
Consumed by a desire for freedom, van Bruggen was always attracted to the city. Whatever offered her freedom of any kind was welcome, but her conception of freedom gradually became less material, finally growing into a search for mental freedom. Making frequent use of autobiographical elements, much of her work describes the narrowness and tension within the Orthodox Jewish community and stresses its isolation from the non-Jewish world. In Het huisje aan de sloot (The Little House on the Canal, 1921), for example, she deals movingly with the sad fate of a Jewish family alone in a small, hostile town. In De Verlatene (The Forsaken Woman, 1910) she portrays a traditional father whose children have left him for an assimilated life in a world that is quite alien to him.
Van Bruggen fell in love several times and in 1920 married the art historian Aart Pit (1860–1944). In the years before and after her second marriage she became a well-known writer, earning her living by lecturing and writing. Her output is astonishing: more than twenty books between 1917 and 1932, plus numerous articles. In fact she exhausted herself, both physically and mentally. Her later work became more philosophical, as she sought to discover why the world was as it was. She rejected all optimistic views of society and in Prometheus (1919) looked for absolute moral understanding, while struggling to explain why she herself felt so different and so alone. Among professional philosophers her books Prometheus and Hedendaags fetisjisme (Fetishism in Our Time, 1925) were regarded as the work of a self-taught woman, but the judgement of the general public was far from negative and her independence of mind was widely admired. Already depressed, she became disillusioned by what she considered a lack of success.
Women are much present in her novels and portrayed with great love. Although most biographies have tended to assume that Carry van Bruggen’s sexuality was ambiguous, the explicit suggestion that she may have been bisexual has only recently been made. Her work is very like that of the French writer Colette (1873–1954), to whom she refers in several places. This tension might well have contributed to her isolation.
Pushing Boundaries and Battling Depression
To understand the decline of Carry van Bruggen we should not simply regard her as an ambitious writer who did not achieve the success she believed she deserved. She should rather be seen as someone who was constantly pushing boundaries. She refused to live the traditional life of a married woman, nor was she satisfied with literary conventions. She wanted to explore both with and in her writing. She may have left the restrictive Jewish tradition behind, but she never escaped it. She was always striving to be better and deeper. She was hospitalized several times for depression. Her death in 1932 in Laren occurred after a long illness that originated in an overdose of tranquilizers. Some thought it was suicide, while others believed her death was of natural causes.
Fontijn, Jan, and Diny Schouten. “Carry van Bruggen (1881-1932).” De Engelbewaarder, October 13, 1978.
Keizer, Madelon de. De dochter van een gazan. Carry van Bruggen en de Nederlandse samenleving 1900-1930 (The Daughter of a Cantor: Carry van Bruggen and Dutch Society, 1900-1930). Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2006.
Sicking, J.M.J. Overgave en Verzet. De levens- en wereldbeschouwing van Carry van Bruggen (Surrender and Resistance: The Worldview of Carry van Bruggen). Groningen: Uitgeverij Passage, 1993.
Fenoulhet, Jane. “Intimate emancipation: mystical experience in the work of Carry van Bruggen and Etty Hillesum.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 42, no. 3 (2006): 213-225.
Wolf, Ruth. Van Alles het Middelpunt (In the Center of it All.) Amsterdam: Querido, 1980.