Caroline. Letters from Early Romanticism
Edited and translated by Douglas W. Stott
This translation is based on Caroline. Briefe aus der Frühromantik, expanded edition by Erich Schmidt, 2 vols. (Leipzig 1913), which in its own turn was based on Caroline. Briefe an ihre Geschwister, ihre Tochter Auguste, die Familie Gotter, F. L. W. Meyer, A. W. und Fr. Schlegel, J. Schelling u. a. nebst Briefen von A. W. und Fr. Schlegel u. a., edited by Georg Waitz, 2 vols. (Leipzig 1871). Erich Schmidt explains the fundamental differences between the two editions in his introduction.
The fundamental materials comprising this edition can always be accessed from the header at the top of each page and include:
- (1) A table of contents.
- (2) This project introduction outlining the project’s research context.
- (3) The letters (with an editorial introduction).
- (4) A chronology.
- (5) Biographical essays and materials along with Luise Wiedemann’s memoirs.
- (6) Dramatis personae (biograms, personal glosses).
- (7) Galleries with illustrations or photographs of people and places from the various periods of Caroline’s life.
- (8) A project bibliography.
Readers unfamiliar with Caroline may want to start with this introduction and progress to one or several of the biographical essays before beginning the letters themselves (see Biography Intro for suggestions), referring all the while to the chronology as needed for a more precise orientation and to the galleries under Caroline’s Life by Year for visual support.
- Access to the primary materials on this site is through moderated registration. See the registration page for information.
General Biographical Background
In many ways, Caroline Schelling’s circumstances were typical of those of a middle-class woman of the period (1763–1809); in many other ways, they were wholly atypical, a situation of particular interest insofar as it was largely a result of her own decisions. It is precisely her often daunting self-confidence and courage in trying to live as authentically as possible (“in defiance of gods and human beings, I am determined to be happy,” she declared) that make these letters riveting personal documents quite apart from her direct involvement in contemporaneous cultural and political events. She lived a life that was remarkable by almost any standards, and certainly by those of the late eighteenth century.
Caroline is best known for having been at the center of the early German Romantic circle in Jena (“without any exaggeration, . . . the first ‘avant-garde’ group in history,” P. Lacoue-Labarthe and J.-L. Nancy, The Literary Absolute , 8). The group included, among others, her second husband, Wilhelm Schlegel; his brother Friedrich; the latter’s future wife, Dorothea Veit (daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn); the writers Novalis, Tieck, and Hülsen; the scientists Steffens and Ritter; the theologian Schleiermacher (in Berlin); and her later husband, the philosopher Schelling. The circle had regular contact with the philosopher Fichte, with Goethe and Schiller, and, of even broader cultural significance, with an astonishing, almost bewildering range of prominent academics, journalists, booksellers, artists, and theater personalities. Virtually every figure associated with the Weimar-Jena literary period, as well as many from late eighteenth-century Berlin, either knew her personally or otherwise appears in these letters.
The daughter of the renowned Göttingen professor Johann David Michaelis, Caroline (as she is known in German literary history; concerning Caroline’s full name, see the Dramatis personae) married at twenty a local physician chosen for her by her family. Widowed four years later, she then lived with various relatives; during this period she also lost her youngest daughter. In 1792 she moved to Mainz, where her childhood friend Therese Forster was living with her husband, Georg, a sympathizer of the French Revolution. Here Caroline experienced firsthand and to a certain extent participated in the emergence of the Mainz Republic; her letters document the sometimes startling events associated with this period.
She was arrested on suspicion of sedition while attempting to flee Mainz, having been mistaken for the wife of her brother-in-law, who was a leading figure in the republic, and, later, was suspected of having been the mistress of the French commanding officer in Mainz. While imprisoned, Caroline realized that she was indeed pregnant by a French officer (some evidence suggests this relationship was not restricted merely to a single evening when Caroline—in the words of some critics—”gave herself” to a Frenchman, but was instead ongoing). If unable to secure her release before her condition was discovered, she could be sure not only, as the mistress of a French soldier, of remaining incarcerated but also, as an “unfit mother,” of losing custody of her daughter. Although her brother secured her release, in the meantime Wilhelm Schlegel, who had known Caroline from his student days in Göttingen, had provided her with the poison she insisted she would use to commit suicide to spare her daughter the inevitable shame. Although her pregnancy remained a secret to all but a handful of people until Rudolf Haym, in an article published just after the publication of the first edition of Caroline’s correspondence in 1871 by F.W.J. Schelling’s son-in-law, Georg Waitz, disclosed it based on the correspondence of Friedrich and Wilhelm Schlegel (Waitz had suppressed this information in 1871), her alleged revolutionary activities in Mainz and, especially, her incarceration at the hands of the Prussians, rendered her a permanently marked woman in society. This legacy proved to be stubbornly tenacious, even prompting the publication of a maliciously satirical play (included in this English edition).
Wilhelm Schlegel arranged for Caroline to carry the child to term under a false name in a village outside Leipzig (the child died in infancy). It was there that her closer association with the Schlegel brothers—Wilhelm and Friedrich—began (Wilhelm, living in Amsterdam at the time, had charged Friedrich, living in Leipzig, to run interference for her during this trying period; Friedrich’s letters to Wilhelm during this period are included in this edition), including her marriage to Wilhelm Schlegel in 1796 and their move to Jena, the emergence and florescence of the early Romantic group in that town, and her eventual marriage to F. W. J. Schelling in 1803 after her divorce from Schlegel. This period of the Jena Romantic circle is profusely documented by both correspondence and supplementary material.
During Caroline’s association with that Romantic circle in Jena, an episode took place that has long captivated biographers and even cultural historians: the illness and death of her only remaining child, fifteen-year-old Auguste Böhmer, in July 1800, in which Schelling was implicated as having been at least partially responsible. As Oliver Pfohlmann remarks in a review of some of the documentation of this incident, “from this episode of illness and death, a now long-forgotten scandal developed whose significance for medicine can hardly be overestimated.” That resulting bitter, often malicious public dispute is fully documented in this English edition. This episode involved Caroline’s own earlier illness and apparent cure by Schelling according to the emergent and controversial healing methods of the Scottish physician John Brown and offers a startling glimpse into the practice and perils of early nineteenth-century medicine. References to the “Brownian method,” as it was called, appear frequently in these letters, and plentiful material documents both the method and the course of Schelling’s interest in it.
One of the recurring themes in the correspondence is Caroline’s relationship with Goethe, which began quite early with the schoolgirl’s heady infatuation with the celebrity author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, extended through his serendipitous visit in Mainz just before the city was besieged by Prussian troops (in connection with which Caroline was imprisoned), then moved to Jena itself after Caroline and Wilhelm Schlegel were married in 1796—years during which Goethe, as Caroline often laconically remarks, occasionally stopped by for cordial visits during the day; reserved a loge for them in the Weimar theater; took walks with various members of the group along the Saale River in Jena; personally produced Wilhelm Schlegel’s play Ion in 1802, then Friedrich Schlegel’s play Alarcos that same year; had Caroline and Wilhelm for dinner with, for example, Herder and Wieland, during which they all toasted the great poet Klopstock; took a liking to Schelling; advised them extensively concerning the monument to be crafted for Auguste’s grave; recommended strategies in their literary feuds; personally facilitated Caroline and Wilhelm’s partial circumvention of the consistory in securing a divorce directly from Duke Karl August of Weimar in 1803 (that complete correspondence is included; see below); and later even published Caroline’s literary reviews in the Jenaische Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung after she and Schelling had left Jena for Würzburg and, later, Munich.
Within this overall context, it is worth noting that Caroline’s relationship with Schelling constitutes an extraordinary, moving, almost cinematic love story quite independent of the high-profile and highly charged cultural environment in which it emerged. That it also involved Auguste, her daughter, on a still-disputed level both before and after the latter’s death makes the story all the more intriguing and at times heartbreaking. Caroline’s correspondence with Schelling (it is probably no accident that only her letters were preserved) constitutes some of the most riveting yet enigmatic love letters ever written.
By virtue of her marriage to Schelling in 1803, Caroline’s life was also touched, directly and indirectly, by developments in the philosophy of nature and its various ramifications in other fields (most notably medicine; in Würzburg Schelling had more contact with physicians than with philosophers), as well as by the extraordinary and complex developments in European history during the period up to 1809, when she died.
Although Caroline’s love for Schelling began at an indeterminate time after his arrival in Jena in 1798 (and although residents of Jena and Weimar were certainly aware of it in its incipient stages), their closer association as a couple can be traced to her return to Jena from Braunschweig in April 1801 following the death of Auguste in July 1800. Wilhelm Schlegel had in the meantime (February 1801) taken up residence in Berlin and returned to Jena for only a brief period in the late summer and early autumn of 1801; he was himself involved in a liaison with another woman at the time (Sophie Bernhardi; I include their entire correspondence during that autumn in this edition) and was aware of Caroline’s new ties. Moreover, even during their stay in Braunschweig after Auguste’s death, he was already involved with yet another woman—Elisa van Nuys—one whom Caroline did indeed consider a serious rival (I thoroughly document this affair as well). Nevertheless, over several months in 1802 and 1803 Schelling himself, not least on Wilhelm’s behalf, facilitated the divorce between Caroline and Wilhelm; that complete correspondence is included in this English edition and includes letters documenting Goethe’s intervention and mediation. Schelling’s subsequent academic positions took him and Caroline to Würzburg in 1803, then to Munich in 1806, where my English edition’s appendices supplement the letters documenting their interest in, for example, Italian poetry improvisators and the trendy, intriguing phenomenon of dowsers and mediums.
It was during a visit to Schelling’s parents in the idyllic setting of the Maulbronn monastery school, where Schelling’s father was headmaster, that Caroline died after a three-day walking tour on 7 September 1809 at the age of forty-six, coincidentally apparently of the same illness that had taken Auguste in July 1800. Schelling provides a moving account of her last days and death and of her burial in Maulbronn, and from the letters of others and Schelling himself one can follow his own subsequent despair, which led him during an ensuing illness to stipulate not only that his complete correspondence be burned, but also that his heart be pierced with a needle to ensure his death. He did not die, of course, and as fate would have it he married, in 1812, Pauline Gotter, one of the daughters of Caroline’s lifelong friend and correspondent Luise Gotter, not without, however, first having inquiries made on his behalf by his publisher to ascertain the status of his future wife’s health, so stunned was he after losing, first, Auguste, and then Caroline. One of their daughters married Georg Waitz, who, though a constitutional historian by profession, published the first, two-volume edition of Caroline’s letters in 1871, which in its own turn provided the basis for the more comprehensive edition by Erich Schmidt in 1913, the basis of my translation.
This correspondence copiously documents intellectual and cultural life, daily life (for example, housing concerns, dealing with domestics, infant mortality), the situation of women (including such issues as divorce, property settlements, inheritance, and death from complications during childbirth), and German and European political history during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, focusing especially but not solely on the early Romantic school in Jena and, later, on Caroline’s life as affected by the scholarly career of her third husband, the philosopher F. W. J. Schelling.
These more formal scholarly considerations aside, Caroline was a remarkable, even singular woman who lived a fascinating, extraordinary life on myriad levels, and not just in connection with Jena Romanticism. Because, as Robert Richards observes in his study The Romantic Conception of Life, Caroline’s personality consisted of “a mélange of traits that make intellectual men succumb and careful women distrustful,” few people who encountered her came away indifferent, something reflected in F. W. J. Schelling’s assertion, after her death, that “one had to love her entirely or not at all.” And as one scholar has remarked, “Her letters (and life) are shocking, moving, irritating, but always in the center of the action.” The extraordinary panorama of erudite but quirky, all-too-human personalities; of sweeping historical events and lofty cultural engagements alongside vignettes of quotidian life and mundane concerns ranging from infant mortality and bed soiling (!) to rent considerations; of heated, passionate feuds over the life of the mind and of art; and of complex human relationships ranging from the maliciously hostile to the touching and poignant—all these elements and more offer the reader of these letters and documents a remarkable, riveting, and thoroughly entertaining chronicle. As Wilhelm Scherer put it in the nineteenth century, reacting to the initial publication of her letters in 1871: “Anyone interested in the literary scene and literary factions in Germany at the end of the previous and the beginning of the present century will draw a wealth of information from these volumes, and will encounter the story of a woman one cannot follow without being profoundly moved.”
In his history of German literature (Deutsche Literaturgeschichte, 15th ed. [Stuttgart 1968], 326), Fritz Martini refers to these letters as part of the “essential documentation” of early Romanticism. Wilhelm Scherer, reacting to the first (abridged) edition of the letters (1871), called her “one of the greatest epistolary geniuses Germany has produced” (Deutsche Rundschau 32 : 473), and in his discussion of all the women associated with Romanticism in his history of German literature, he resolutely concludes that “Caroline Schelling ranks first among all the literary women of the time; her graceful chatty letters are full of good sense and imagination, of refined malice and charming raillery, and their clear yet thoughtful descriptions, their charming language, and their hidden poetry raise them to the level of true works of art” (Geschichte der deutschen Literatur , 618; Eng. trans., 2 vols. [1906–8] 2:233). In the classic monograph on F. W. J. Schelling, Schellings Leben, Werke und Lehre (3rd ed., 1902), Kuno Fischer remarks similarly that “she is not merely a master, but genuinely a genius in letter writing; her letters are completely herself, always just as light and graceful and, should the moment or subject matter so dictate, also just as substantial and profound” (66).
Notes, Apparatus, and Additional Letters
I have interpreted the subtitle of the 1913 edition of Caroline’s letters very broadly. These “letters from early Romanticism” now include voluminous additional correspondence and documents not only from the early Romantic school itself, but also from virtually everyone whose correspondence or memoirs touched on Caroline’s life, including persons more directly involved in the lives and careers of her acquaintances.
It is worth repeating that such applies especially to her second and third husbands, Wilhelm Schlegel and F. W. J. Schelling, whose personal lives, professional careers, publications, disputes, appointments, and disappointments directly affected parts of her life as diverse as where she lived to what she discussed in letters; as will be seen, it similarly often largely determined her circles of friends and adversaries. The quotidian concerns, problems, and disputes (both internal and external) of the early Romantic group in Jena are exhaustively represented in correspondence and various other published pieces because such obviously concretely and dramatically affected Caroline’s life.
My guiding principle has been to include as much material as possible that throws light on Caroline’s personality, life, and letters, and on the personalities and lives of her acquaintances to the extent such illuminates Caroline or her letters, especially since such material is in almost all cases in German and is often extremely difficult to access.
The considerably expanded scope and nature of the notes and scholarly apparatus for this edition derive from the nature of Erich Schmidt’s original apparatus in the edition of 1913 and his target audience. Although Schmidt’s annotations are invaluable and are essentially included in full (I have also been able to correct some of Schmidt’s errors), they have severe limitations for English-speaking readers:
- The apparatus was prepared for specialists and historians whose educational background, as a shared cultural heritage, familiarized them both with the period itself and with many of the attendant figures and works.
- Schmidt similarly presupposed that these readers had ready access to what today, often even in Germany, are largely specialized library resources (in German, of course). My notes and apparatus will address both issues for the benefit of the English-speaking, nonspecialist reader.
Because referring English-speaking readers of a translation to materials in the original language is of questionable value, and in many instances such materials are difficult or virtually impossible to access, my main strategy for making the edition more useful to English-speaking readers has been simply to resolve Schmidt’s cross-references and allusions.
In most cases, “resolve” means including a translation of the cross-referenced material—be it a letter, an extensive passage from a memoir or a brief one from a diary, a passage from a work published at the time, lines from a play, a newspaper announcement, a literary review, a satire, a letter to the editor, in short, virtually every genre of writing common during the period. Lengthier materials are generally included in supplementary appendices lest the endnotes become too cumbersome. Concerning the general disposition of these supplementary appendices, see the appendices introduction. Concerning the kinds of materials included in those appendices, cf. the Supplementary Appendices Volume 1 and the sampling of materials in the supplementary appendices to volume 2.
This edition also includes translations of the anonymous literary reviews that can reliably (or likely) be attributed to Caroline. See the introductory pages for her literary reviews for volume 1 and for volume 2. — Another addition is the translation of extensive passages from works discussing in considerable detail Caroline’s contribution to Wilhelm Schlegel’s pioneering translation of Shakespeare.
The primary purpose of this edition is to make documentary material available rather than to provide an overall assessment of Caroline Schelling. Though elements of such an assessment have invariably entered into my choice of supplementary letters and documents and affected my decisions about annotations in the larger sense, when facing the choice of either explicating an issue or providing an original document I have generally chosen the latter.
This site will be undergoing continual change and enhancement, not least with the ongoing publication of all the letters and documents from subsequent periods. I might, however, draw visitors’ attention to an important issue I will address later, namely, that I have not yet settled on a site-compatible search function whose results are intuitively displayed and easy to scan.
That said, I welcome readers’ comments and suggestions and especially corrections of inaccuracies; similarly, please alert me as well to dead or otherwise incorrect links and to any typographical errors. Please use the contact form on this site. I appreciate any and all assistance in this regard.