Many moons ago when I was a tender tween I happened upon Kitty, My Rib, a genuinely hagiographical account of the First Lady of Lutheranism, tidy and heartwarming as only the 1950s could manage. Much more recently at a German bookshop I found the racier title Kinder des Ungehorsams (“Children of Disobedience”) and sweated through the unfamiliar vocabulary of brewing, herb gardening, and medieval medicine for a much more realistic and rather harsher depiction of the Luthers’ world… discovering only much too late that there was an English translation. Alas. Then a few months ago a publicist for romance writer and Lutheran P.K. Jody Hedlund asked if I’d like a review copy of her new Luther and Katharina. Maybe the sheer fact that it was in easy ol’ English weakened my resolve, as I had never read a single romance novel in my life (unless you count Jane Eyre). I took the bait.
Herewith an exercise in observing the Eighth Commandment.
As I said, I am no expert in the genre of romance novel, but in reading this one I figured out a few rules of the game. One: the principals have to thoroughly dislike each other or otherwise remain estranged for most of the story. Two: They nevertheless have to provoke steamy thoughts in each other’s minds, mostly unwillingly, at least at first. Three: There has to be a threat of sexual violence from some other unworthy suitor or villain. Four: The moral of the story has to be that “being in love” trumps all other considerations.
The difficulty is that, in order to pull this off, most of what we actually know about the Luthers had to be disregarded. For example, there’s no reason to think that they ever disliked each other. A major engine of the plot in Luther and Katharina is her being a right royal snob about her social standing and him feeling inadequate as a poor miner’s son. But there’s no reason to think Katie vaunted her social status, and Luther’s family was actually pretty well off. The issue of being ex-monk and ex-nun was way more of a scandal than an upper-class lady marrying beneath her.
As for the steamy thoughts, well, one might hope they approached each other with some eagerness when it came right down to it, though Luther went on the record as saying that he didn’t marry from lust or love but did grow in time to love his wife. The novel is, however, undeterred from the fluttering stomachs and caressed cheeks that are the bread-and-butter of chaste romances.
But then there’s the need for the threat on the other side, and this is where the book really went off the rails. Yes, there was some real nastiness that took place in monasteries and convents, and former religious could suffer badly for their defection. You’d easily get the impression from this book, though, that the average abbot was an accomplished rapist spouting the lingo of submission more characteristic of contemporary cults than medieval religiosity. Katie’s Aunt Lena is depicted to have sacrificed herself to keep Katharina and other nuns unharmed, resulting in several years of PTSD-induced vacant silence—rousing out of it in the end only to stab an infiltrating toady of the aforementioned rapist abbot. Who, by the way, kidnaps Katharina sometime after her escape, whips her back to bloody shreds, and is just dropping his drawers when Mother Superior walks in and saves her. Ecumenical considerations aside, it’s clear in this aspect of the story that the demands of the genre have overwhelmed the faintest tether to actual history.
It is true that Katharina had had another suitor before she married Luther, one Jerome Baumgartner, and true that he promised to marry her but then vanished and ultimately married another, wealthier woman who also happened not to be an ex-nun. But again, there’s not a shred of evidence that he was a rake and deflowerer of virgins of the first order. It’s just that the story demanded an unworthy rival for Luther’s heart.
The moral of the story is that Martin and Katie “fell in love.” I think they probably did. I think they probably didn’t before they were married, though; and I certainly don’t think Justus Jonas saw it all along and wanted Luther to write a treatise declaring to the world that he wasn’t acting out of principle or filial duty but because “you’ve fallen in love. It’s as simple as that.”
I don’t wish to be a total curmudgeon. It’s a work of fiction, after all, and not pretending to be anything other than a romance novel. And there’s something to be said for this non-negotiable of the genre: it recognizes that if marriage is going to be for life, as the Christian faith teaches it should, and a loving one too, then there has to be some kind of free recognition and acceptance of one another by the two parties. Romance also recognizes that the threat of sexual violence haunts the existence of all women while rejecting its dehumanizing claim on them. But this particular story was really not well suited for colonization by the romance genre. By the end I felt like I was reading a book about two people who just happened to have the same names and approximate life circumstances of the famous Martin and Katharina Luther that I knew.
Maybe what depressed me most of all was that the marriage itself was not of interest. Our culture only knows how to tell exciting stories of courtship, but exciting stories of marriage are well nigh nonexistent. A courtship story had to be engineered for the Luthers because the marriage story just didn’t fit the bill. But that’s the really interesting part about them, the real Luthers: how two such strong people did find, in time, that they loved each other; shared a bed together; made children, raised them, and showed family hospitality to countless others; fought their way through a risky reformation; and became dearer to each other than anyone ever would have thought possible. That’s a more compelling love story than any number of engineered quarrels and wicked abbots.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the Editor of Lutheran Forum.