London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1839. In Three Volumes. 389 pages in Vol. I. Read it here.
Ed. Note: A book of the author’s “correspondence” (see below) with Karoline von Günderrode was partially translated by Sarah Margaret Fuller (free to read here) and is the subject of an excellent essay by Christa Wolf, which can be read here. Earlier this week, I reviewed the Fairy Tales and Caspar and Annerl by Clemens Brentano.
Judged strictly as belles-lettres, the correspondence between Bettina von Arnim-Brentano and J.W. von Goethe is surely among European literature’s most belle. Yet I wonder if that will be enough to satisfy most readers today, who read literature with different preconceptions and desires than people did in the Romantic period to which these letters (purportedly) belong. Today we are skeptical of beauty as the sole motive for appreciating a thing; far from our way of thought is Keats’s “beauty is truth, truth beauty”—yeah, nope, sometimes beauty is a damned lie—and it is that sort of cynicism, or as I, a supposed cynic, would prefer it called, “a hunger for realism,” that makes it difficult to enjoy literature that demands an excess of credulity on the part of the reader. The course of literature in the 19th century was towards naturalism, towards realism; pace Keats, writers and readers decided beauty and truth could be separated—and after the failure of one popular revolution after another, they kind of needed to be: The literature of the past, it was decided, contained plenteous beauty (or is that beauteous plenty?) but not nearly enough truth; or perhaps the problem was we could no longer find pure beauty beautiful; especially quaint-seeming was the Romantic tendency to collapse several things into one—beauty is truth, truth is love, love is the spirit, etc. etc.—a missed opportunity for texture, granularity; but these are all speculations as to why I didn’t (and perhaps my readers won’t) entirely enjoy these letters, despite their clear merits as what they claim to be, and as what they are.
(As what they claim to be, and as what they are—what am I saying, that these letters are fake? Well, it’s complicated. Let’s start this review by accepting these works as they present themselves and discuss the quite interesting metafictional complications further down.)
Bettina von Arnim-Brentano
In 1832, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died. Goethe had been remarkably productive, even producing Faust, Part II in the year of his death, but German society was beginning to move beyond Goethe (not necessarily by popular acclamation.) In the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna, autocracy was everywhere ascendant in Europe. All works to be published had to be approved by the censor. The spirit of Romanticism that had produced two generations of Romantics—not just Goethe, Schiller, Tieck, Novalis and de la Motte Fouqué but also Clemens Brentano (Bettina’s brother) and Achim von Arnim (Clemens’ literary collaborator and Bettina’s eventual husband)—was largely repressed now, gone along with those writers. Many of the successors of these writers had to live in exile elsewhere: A group of seven professors at Göttingen, including both Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, were banished from their professorships after criticizing the new king of Hanover for attempting to abolish the constitution. Numerous works by members of the Young Germany movement were banned by the Federal Assembly in Frankfurt in 1835.
Then, in 1835, a volume appeared that took the literary world by surprise. It was called Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child (Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde), published by one Bettina von Arnim-Brentano (heretofore known as Clemens’s sister and von Arnim’s wife.) It appears to be a collection of letters between the late great poet and Bettina dating to the years 1808-1811. Bettina is a young girl who has struck up a friendship with Frau Rath, Goethe’s mother, in the aftermath of the tragic suicide of her only friend in the whole world, Karoline von Günderrode, a canoness in a local order and a poet (we are told) of some merit. (Margaret Fuller, for one, professes Günderrode to be the more interesting of the two.) With Frau Rath’s encouragement, Bettina makes the acquaintance of Goethe, who at one time was her mother Maximiliane’s secret lover and whose work was mutually read by Bettina and Karoline in the time that they were engaged in a transformational philosophical correspondence of their own that resulted in a spiritual crisis for Bettina and suicide for her friend.
All of this forms the basis for most of the first hundred pages of Correspondence with a Child, which represents Bettina explaining the backstory to Frau Rath and slowly wending her way into Goethe’s circle. From the very first, Bettine’s style is disarming:
Dearest Frau Rath,
l have already waited long for some particular opportunity of entering upon our correspondence. Since I sailed forth from your Abraham’s-bosom, the haven of silent expectation, the stormwind has never ceased to blow and my nay-yea sort of life has, like a slow fever, robbed me of the beautiful season. How I regret the pleasant prospect which I enjoyed on the footstool at your feet! not the top of St. Catharine’s tower nor the forge of the sooty Cyclops, who guard the ”Golden Fountain” [ed. note: Frau Rath’s house] No! I mean the view of your speaking fiery glance, which expresses what the lips cannot ulter. — True, I am here in the very emporium of adventure, but the splendid net with which your motherly inspiration has encompassed me makes me indifferent to all.
Bettina’s prose is clearly the event here, the thing that makes all uncertainty about whether these letters are authentic or not, or whether Bettina was actually a “child” when she wrote them, very interesting questions but also completely besides the point. Her prose style, by itself, is worth the price of admission. It moves so swiftly, with such lightning-quick passions, that excerpts can only give a limited impression of its lightness. In this letter Bettina describes dressing up like a man while traveling around in the French-occupied territories of Germany.
Get away with your reproaches! so much I say in answer to your Postscript and no more. — Now guess what the tailor is making for me. An Adrian? No! — A Paduasoy? No!— A Boddire? No!— A Mantilla? No! — A pair of poches? No! — A hoop-petticoat? No! — A training-gown? No! — A pair of trousers? Yes! – Hurrah! (Other times are now coming) — and a waistcoat and coat too.
Tomorrow everything will be tried on; it must set well, for I have ordered all to be made full and easy; and then I throw myself into a chaise, and courier-like travel day and night through entire armies, between friend and foe; all the fortresses unbar at my approach, and thus on to Berlin, where certain business will be transacted, in which I have no concern. But then back again in all haste, and no halt till Weimar.
O Frau Rath, how then will all there look? — my heart beats violently, although I must travel till the end of April before I can come there. Will my heart have courage enough to resign itself to him? I feel as if he stood just before the door! all the veins in my head beat; ah! if I were only with you! that alone could quiet me, to see you also beside yourself with joy; or if one would give me a sleeping potion that I might sleep till I awoke in his presence! What shall I say to him? ah! he is not haughty is he? — I will relate to him everything about you and that I know he will like to hear.
If at times Bettina seems to have a girlish trepidation of Goethe, at others she seems to embrace a sort of feminine machismo about possessing Germany’s greatest writer all to herself. In one episode, Bettina dives into a fast-moving river to retrieve a hatbox full of violets Goethe had given her. She commands Frau Rath:
Pray, chatter to your son in your next letter (which by the by you can write to morrow, without first waiting an opportunity) how in the cold moonlight I swam after the bunch of violets in the band-box for a quarter of an hour, (so long it wasn’t though) and that the waves bore me like a water-nymph along (waves there were none, only shallow water which scarcely bore up the light boxes), and that my inflated clothes showed like a balloon.
What are all the frocks of his youthfull loves in comparison with my floating garments? Do not say that your son is too good for me, when I run myself into such danger for a violet! I attach myself to the epoch of sensitive romance, and come luckily on Werther, where by the bye I feel much inclined to turn Charlotte out of doors. Your Son’s taste in that “white gown with pink ribbands” is bad. I will never during my life wear a white gown, green — green — all my clothes are green!
Despite all this bravado, Bettina positively worships Goethe, in a way that was as creepy to contemporary reviewers of the time as it might be to us today. This is, after all, supposedly a “child” going into raptures about a potential meeting with an old man! A child talking about her love, spiritual and physical desire . . . for an old man. But there are a few points to make: Reviewers of the time didn’t know this, but Bettina would actually have been 22 years old at the time these letters were written. The letters to Goethe could evidence no more than—and we find this unbelievable, because whoever heard of such a thing?—an especially intense Platonic relationship between an admiring fan and an aged poet, although whatever Goethe was to Bettina, their relationship bridges the period between the suicide of Karoline von Günderrode in 1806, and Bettina’s marriage to Achim von Arnim in 1811.
Bettina’s relationship with Karoline seems more obviously erotic than anything she writes to Goethe, though their relationship is one-sided, doomed. Bettina’s last letter to Frau Rath, in which she discusses the waning days of her relationship with Karoline before the latter’s suicide, carry an immense emotional weight that some ways give context to the ecstasies she subsequently feels towards Goethe. Karoline is this otherworldly being to whom Bettina frustratingly cannot gain access:
I took a secret glance at her; her eye was raised to heaven, but its ray was broken, as though its whole fire were turned within. After I had observed her awhile, I could no longer control myself— I broke out into loud crying, I fell on her neck, tore her down to a seat, and sat upon her knee and wept many tears and for the first time, kissed her on her mouth, and tore open her dress and kissed her on the spot, where she had learned to reach the heart; [ed. note. where she had talked about stabbing herself] and I implored her with tears of anguish, to have mercy upon me, and fell again on her neck, and kissed her hands which were cold and trembling, and her lips were convulsed, and she was quite cold, stiff and deadly pale, and could not raise her voice: she said slowly, “Bettine don’t break my heart.” I wanted to come to myself and not give her pain; I smiled, cried and sobbed aloud, – but she seemed to grow more anxious: she laid herself on the sofa; then I tried to jest and to make her believe I had taken all as a joke.
But for every letter narrating exciting events, there are two or three showing a sort of wide-eyed Rousseau-ian communing with nature, a sort endless repetition of what one finds in the early part of Goethe’s Werther. When it finally comes time for Bettina to write to Goethe, her tone is rather exalted even compared to what has come before.
“Dear, dear daughter ! call me for all days, for all future time, by that one name which embraces my whole happiness. My son is thy friend, thy brother, who surely loves thee,” etc.
Such words does Goethe’s mother write to me! what right do they give me? A dam within my heart has, as it were, broken up:—a child of man, alone on a rock, surrounded by rushing storms, uncertain of itself, wavering here and there, like the thorns and thistles around it,—such am I;—such I was before I knew my master. Now I turn like the sunflower to my God, and can prove to him, by the countenance glowing with his beams, that he has pierced me. O God! dare I? and am I not all too bold?
And what shall I then? relate how the glorious friendliness, with which you met me, now exuberates in my heart,—all other life at once repressed?—how I must ever yearn towards that time, when I first felt myself well? All this avails nothing;—the words of your mother!—I am far from making claims on that which her goodness destines for me,—but these words have dazzled me; and I must, at least, satisfy the longing to let you know with what a mighty power love turns me, at every moment, towards you.
J.W. von Goethe
Goethe, for his part, keeps his letters far shorter than Bettina’s, and his tone is one of grandfatherly solicitude rather than mutual ecstasy. (Certainly someone reading these letters expecting great prose from Goethe may be disappointed; he seems as flabbergasted by Bettina’s style as we are.) A typical dispatch from Goethe runs:
My dear Child, I accuse myself that I have not earlier given thee a proof, how full of enjoyment, how refreshing it is to me, to be able to view the rich life which glows in thy heart. Be it a want in myself, that I can say to thee but little; then it is want of composure, under all which thou impartest to me. I write in haste, for I fear to tarry there, where such abundance is poured upon me. Continue to make thy home with my mother, (thou art become too dear to her, that she can miss thee,) and reckon upon my love and thanks.
On Bettina’s side of the equation, the adulation is blinding, so that it is understandable why someone in Goethe’s position would give these effusions appreciation, even if they are so heated as to make him reserved and (probably) mildly uncomfortable:
Rather be dead, than live for myself alone! But I am not so, for I am thine, because I recognize thee in all. I know that when the clouds tower up before the day-god, he soon presses them down again with glowing hand; I know that he endures no shade, but that which he himself seeks under the laurels of his own glory; (the quiet of conscience will overshadow thee,)— I know that when he bows him self over evening, he raises his golden head again at morn ing. Thou art immortal, therefore it is good to be with thee.
Bettina’s letters have so much energy that we can believe that a young person wrote them, and contemporary reviewers took them as the work of a young person. (One reviewer for the Edinburgh Review dryly noted that he much preferred Bettina in the years 1808-1811 to the much older Bettina of the 1840s; little did he know!) Yet then one reads the passages of Wertherian nature description, the very well-composed narration of events, and it slowly dawns that something about these letters seems, well, off—by which I mean artificial, planned, worked-up. And, as it turns out, there is a reason why that it: it’s because the letters we read in Correspondence with a Child were mostly not written in a heat of passion in 1808 – 1811, but as Christa Wolf points out in an outstanding essay about Bettina, they are in fact a consciously worked over piece of mostly-fiction—an epistolary novel—by a woman much older and more experienced than the “child” (or 22-year-old Bettina) who supposed wrote them. This is not to say the letters are a fraud; Bettina did in fact correspond with Goethe, but the letters we are presented with are much lengthier and with much heightened language.
Though art has long been observed to have moments of catharsis, it has been less observed that art criticism can be cathartic too. The same effects of shock and epiphany that the crisis moment of a play can bring to light can also be experienced metafictionally, when the reader comes to a powerful new understanding about the work of art as a work of art, or when a critic brings them to it. Such is the effect when someone first brings up the girl in red in Schindler’s List or shows how the alternate structures of Momento create ambiguity in the plot, calling into question the entire meaning of the movie. But the ground needs to be laid for the proper effect to take over, which is why I would advise readers to dip into Bettina von Arnim-Brentano’s two books in English translation before reading Christa Wolf’s revelatory essay, “Your Next Life Begins Today: A Letter About Bettine.”
What Wolf unlocks for the reader in her essay is a secondary level on which to understand Bettina’s letters. Wolf explains how in the intervening years between 1811 and 1835, Bettina was as yet an unpublished author living in the shadow of her siblings (her brother and husband were two of the foremost Romantic writers of their time.) Bettina lived through a tumultuous (albeit loving) marriage with the poet Achim von Arnim; the visionary Romantic of the letters lived a domestic life, struggling to raise seven children in that time period. The spirit of Romanticism had died away, Goethe’s popularity was fading, and the young students of Germany were in need of figures who could get around the censorship of the time and revive the Romantic spirit for a new age. Wolf also discusses Bettina’s later works, which are more political and even utopian in nature, promoting the cause of the poor and dispossessed in Germany, showing how Bettina’s later work connected her not only the revolutionary movement of 1848, but also to Karl Marx, who had read her books and was partly inspired by her ideas while writing his Communist Manifesto. It’s one of those great pieces of criticism that totally transforms our understanding of a literary figure.
Yet to return to my initial reaction to this book, I’m not sure how much an epistolary novel actually helps this book. A novel, after all, requires strong characters and compelling incidents, and while there are some dramatic episodes interspersed throughout, they are separated by passages of Rousseau-ian nature reflecting and what we might call pseudo-philosophical Romantic spirit-babble. The compelling incidents are often spread too thin. There are passages of exceptional beauty , but there is not as much real matter hear as is to be found in the work of the greatest letter-writers: Walpole, Savigne, and even Keats.
Post-script: Following Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child, Bettina von Arnim produced another epistolary novel based on her correspondence with Karoline von Günderrode, which was partially translated by the American critic Sarah Margaret Fuller.
I also read that Christa Wolf has produced a novel in which Karoline von Günderrode goes on a walk with Heinrich von Kleist, and the two suicides discuss the malaise that would cause them to take their own lives. (Sounds worth checking out, as Kleist is one of my favorites.)
I was originally induced to read the work of Clemens and Bettina Brentano due to their being mentioned as two favorites of Sibylle Lewitscharoff, an contemporary German author whose English-language debut, Blumenberg, I reviewed here.