Kingdom of Back, illustrated by Ellen Budell
In "Kingdom of Back," we get a look at history from an oft-overlooked perspective. (Illustration by Ellen Budell, Benedictine College)

Marie Lu’s ‘The Kingdom of Back’ Is a Story of the Lost Talents of History

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is likely the most famous composer ever, but did you know he had an older sister who was just as talented as he was?

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Kingdom of Back, illustrated by Ellen Budell

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is likely the most famous composer ever, but did you know he had an older sister who was just as talented as he was?

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf explores a fictional character, Judith Shakespeare, to demonstrate the idea that a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts would have been denied the opportunity to develop her skills. Because of patriarchy and the long-standing belief that only boys should go to school, women rarely had the chance to develop their talents and be remembered by history. But Woolf didn’t need to create a fictional character to prove her point. Marie Lu’s newest book, “The Kingdom of Back,” perfectly illustrates how history has forgotten Maria Anna Mozart, the older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was just as talented at performing and composing music as her brother.

Published in March, “The Kingdom of Back” is Lu’s 11th book, but it is the first book she ever got an agent for. The book didn’t initially interest publishers, and Lu spent the last 12 years continually returning to the book to make it work. In the past, she’s written dystopian, fantasy and science fiction, including the “Legend” trilogy, “The Young Elites” trilogy and the “Warcross” duology. Although “The Kingdom of Back” has fantasy elements, it is the first time Lu has forayed into historical fiction.

The novel follows the Mozart siblings, known as Nannerl and Woferl, through their childhood years on the road and performing for various royal courts across Europe. The entire book is from Nannerl’s perspective of growing up in a society where the number of her performances are limited, and women aren’t allowed to compose. There’s a twist though: In real life, Nannerl and Wolfgang entertained themselves by imagining themselves as queen and king of a made-up world known as the Kingdom of Back. In her book, Lu reimagines Back, tying the fantasy elements to the history that she had gathered from letters and biographies.

In “The Kingdom of Back,” Nannerl is portrayed as a musician and composer who’s just as capable — if not more so — than Woferl. With time and encouragement from Woferl, she eventually goes against her father’s wishes to compose — a skill seen as undesirable in women. But because Woferl is a boy, Nannerl is constantly overshadowed by him. Their father, Leopold Mozart, dotes on Woferl, teaching him not only the harpsichord, but also the violin. Nannerl, on the other hand, is only taught the harpsichord because as a female musician, she is seen as only fit to accompany Woferl’s performance.

Frustrated by the limitations set because of her gender and afraid that she would be forgotten by the world, Nannerl makes a deal with a faery prince from the Kingdom of Back. She promises to help him regain his throne in return for her legacy to be remembered forever.

It’s not much of a spoiler alert to say that Nannerl’s wish doesn’t end up coming true. After all, if you’re reading this article, then chances are that you didn’t even know Wolfgang had a sister until now. And if you did know, then you probably didn’t know that her musical and composing talent rivaled her younger brother’s. Their father once wrote in a letter that his “little girl, although she is only 12 years old, is one of the most skilful players in Europe.”

Wolfgang also constantly looked up to the real-life Nannerl’s musical skill, and her practicing and talent may have encouraged him to go into the music field when he was younger. Unlike their father and the rest of society, Wolfgang encouraged Nannerl’s compositions. While their father never mentioned her pieces, there are multiple letters between Wolfgang and Nannerl that refer to them. In particular, in 1770, Nannerl sent one of her compositions to her brother, and he responded with, “My dear sister! I am in awe that you can compose so well, in a word, the song you wrote is beautiful.”

Unfortunately, none of her compositions survived. However, there are speculations that bits and pieces of her work are under her brother’s name. When Wolfgang was younger, Nannerl copied down and may have helped him with some of his compositions. We might never know.

Once Nannerl turned 18, she faded from the public eye. Her musical skills were once lauded across Europe, but she was no longer permitted to continue her musical career as she had reached a marriageable age. While Wolfgang continued to tour with their father, Nannerl stayed home in Salzburg with their mother.

At the end of the day, “The Kingdom of Back” is the story of a real person whose incredible talent was crushed and forgotten by the world because of the rigid confines of society. Nannerl’s sad tale is indicative of the history of composition. Male composers are seen as the norm, and it’s even more haunting considering that on the many compilations of top classical compositions playlists on YouTube, not a single piece is written by a woman.

Even today, certain people are at a disadvantage in their fields because they’re seen as less important, less valuable and less talented compared to others. This doesn’t just occur to women. It occurs to everyone who doesn’t get the extra help and exposure that someone like Wolfgang did: racial minorities, people who identify as LGBTQ, those with marginalized religious or political affiliations and more.

Lu’s “The Kingdom of Back” is what she envisioned Nannerl’s untold story to be, but it’s also a story for all the unsung people whose talents were shunned over the course of history. Nannerl had a better chance than most — she was still able to show off her skills and perform for a few years, and she’s the sister of one of the most famous composers who ever lived. Despite that, she was still forgotten. What chance would other talented people with even fewer connections and opportunities have?

Information on what Nannerl’s real life was like is few and far between, but that and the fantastical elements of the book don’t at all diminish “The Kingdom of Back.” Lu’s newest book sends a clear message about the past, present and future of our society.

How many masterpieces have been lost to the world because of discrimination? And how many more masterpieces will continue to be lost because of our inability to change?

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