Camille oder Briefe zweier Mädchen aus unserm Zeitalter. Aus dem Französischen,
trans. Johann Friedrich Jünger, 4 vols. (Leipzig 1786–87)
In her letter to Lotte Michaelis on 28 March 1787, Caroline remarks that
you are right about Camille. It is just that some things do not quite sit right with me, including the name. The first volume is and will remain boring — in the remaining, the character soars and is ennobled, and the melancholy brooding certainly exhibits ardor and elicits one’s interest.
The review of the original French version of the novel (Samuel Constant de Rebecque, Camille, ou Lettres de deux Filles de ce siècle, traduites de l’anglais sur les originaux, 2 vols. [Paris 1786]) appeared in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1786) 36 (Saturday, 11 February 1786), 296, and read in full: “We cite these letters solely in order to report that they are insufferably boring, and just in case someone might get the urge to translate them into German for us.” A later reviewer of Jünger’s German translation in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1786) 188 (Tuesday, 8 August 1786), 260, then remarked:
In its review of the French original, the A.L.Z., referred to this book as “boring” and issued a warning to the translator in this regard. Herr Jünger has now accused that reviewer of having merely thumbed through the pages of the book rather than having genuinely read it. Since Herr Jünger did indeed consider the book worthy of translation, he also considers it his duty to defend its honor, and does so with an element of zeal as if he himself were the author. . . . Herr Jünger does in any case concede the objections to which his readers might well be prompted by not a few instances of sophistry along with some rather excessively long reflections within the book. But what if precisely these instances were what bored that reviewer in the first place?”
A reviewer of Jünger’s translation in the Gothaische gelehrte Zeitungen auf das Jahr 1786 (1786) 81 (11 October 1786), 675, and (1787) Beilage zum elften Stück (7 February 1787), 91, both installments of which Caroline could conceivably have read, alludes to this exchange between Jünger and the first reviewer in the A.L.Z.:
These letters are part of that small number of excellent French novels that even a man of taste can read with contentment, and which might interest and entertain almost any reader who demands something more than the run-of-the-mill love stories and who at the same time seeks edification and entertainment for both the mind and the heart.
A beautiful and intelligent, but poor and abandoned girl comes up with a plan to win the heart and hand of a young lord, and to attain this goal engages every possible caprice and the entire spectrum of the feminine arts of deception. The story’s plot is quite simple, without entanglements or wondrous incidents, and yet the author sufficiently prevents any boredom from arising among his readers by portraying the countless, secret nuances of the human heart and by weaving into his portrayal utterly without affectation or coercion a generous and ubiquitous serving of the most subtle and refined remarks concerning human nature, feelings, passions, and manners. This present reviewer, upon finishing the second volume, was most eager to secure the final two as well, in which the story will come to its conclusion but which have not yet appeared in translation.
Although we were not yet able to compare the translation with the original, it seems faithful enough insofar as it is written in a correct, flowing, elegant style that avoids all those particular Gallicisms in which some more recent writers believe they have discovered all the charm and grace of such style. In view of the obvious and beautiful merits of this book, we found quite unexplainable the assessment made in one particular and well-known German journal. But Herr Jünger himself has answered this spiteful art reviewer quite adequately with a passage from one of Camille’s own letters [vol. 1, letter 77]: “You are like those young girls who read novels secretly; they skip the preface, usually rush through the more extensive narratives, and hasten to get to the story’s conclusion. But I cannot satisfy this sort of taste.”
[Second installment of review:] In these two volumes [viz., 3 and 4, which had appeared in the meantime], too, the author remains himself. Our interest increases from page to page, and the catastrophe has been prepared with the greatest artistic skill. The moral meaning of the whole is terrible — but true. Often the reason for our misfortune resides solely and wholly in a modest deviation from the right path; rarely does the punishment of a reprehensible person derive from that person’s primary transgression. The devious person often enough becomes entangled in a quite small thread of his own net that he neglected to connect properly with the whole. —
We have no reservations in placing this novel before all similar French products of this genre precisely where [the picaresque French novel] Gilblas [1715–35] stands amid its own — namely, at the very pinnacle. Nor do we believe doing so is excessive, if otherwise the grandest simplicity amid the grandest interest, and a profound understanding of morals and of the human heart together with the most natural and pleasant literary style be not the primary requirements of a good novel.
I would also like to draw your attention to a French novel Camille, which first saw the light of day some years ago. Perhaps you remember how we often spoke about how rarely novels portray genius. —
Well, one cannot justly deny this epithet to Camille, albeit less because of the kind of love she has than for the means she employs in attaining her goal, which is to marry her beloved, a man of higher social standing whose parents and friends reject her because of her inferior standing and disreputable lifestyle. Her motto is either to reach that goal or perish, and to this end she enlists everything a female brain can conjure. This alliance of passion — which utterly controls her — with the most subtle intrigue is what immediately caught my interest in the book; afterward I found her character so vivid, so palpably drawn from self-observation that I suspected a woman had in fact written the book; private communications confirmed that for me. You must avoid judging details here with the eye of an artist!
The German translation of the novel enjoyed sufficient success for Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki to publish accompanying illustrations this same year (1787) as “12 Blätter zu Camille oder Briefe zweier Mädchen aus unserm Zeit-Alter,” Genealogischer Kalender auf das Jahr 1788, mit Geheimhaltung der Königl. Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (Berlin 1787), also cited in Daniel Chodowiecki’s Sämmtliche Kupferstiche, ed. Wilhelm Engelmann (Leipzig 1857), no. 582, p. 308, under the rubric for 1787, since such almanacs customarily appeared during the autumn book fair for the coming year. That is, Caroline might well have seen these entertaining vignettes (click on the following image to open the gallery):
Translation © 2020 Doug Stott