What Silence Wants
A compelling historical novel about the desire to be yourself
After Kolya, about the composer Tchaikovsky, and Mrs Degas, Arthur Japin once again takes his readers back to the nineteenth century. What Silence Wants is a paean to Anna Witsen, a singer torn between her art and the mores of her time. ‘The story of a woman. How she went in search of her voice, was forced into silence, but in the end made herself heard.’
Anna Witsen grows up in an affluent family in Amsterdam. Singing is her passion, but for someone from her milieu a woman pursuing a career as a singer is inconceivable. Her father, though a great lover of the arts, only allows her to use her beautiful voice at home. It’s the late nineteenth century – a time when women are supposed to be wives and mothers and can only appear in public with a male chaperone.
Things are completely different for her brother Willem, who by dint of his gender is given every opportunity to develop his talent as an artist. He and his friends form a collective of iconoclastic writers, painters and composers who seek to usher in a new era in art and literature. Staid bourgeois morality is to make way for fire and passion. In their hunger for freedom and innovation, Anna recognises her own desire to be independent and free herself from the stifling straitjacket of her family’s expectations.
There are more changes afoot: factory workers are in revolt, the women’s movement is on the rise and the new concert hall is set to breathe new life into the musical scene in the Dutch capital. It seems to be the dawn of a new era, which gives Anna the courage to go her own way in music and in love. But when she is admitted to the Conservatory of Music, she realises her family’s tentacles reach further than she thought. Her father and sister feel that Anna needs to be put in her place and hope that having her admitted to an asylum will bring her back to her senses. In the end her determination to be in charge of her own fate is stronger than life itself.
In What Silence Wants, Arthur Japin recounts the tragic story of Anna Witsen (1855-1889), a real-life historical figure whose ambitions and rebellious nature ultimately lead to her downfall – a woman cut from the same cloth as Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Eline Vere. Her struggle also inspired Frederik van Eeden’s Van de koele meren des doods (The Cool Lakes of Death), a classic of Dutch literature. For Japin, Anna represents all the women who aren’t allowed to be who they want to be.