Any more intimate acquaintance with the classic-romantic epoch [in German literature] was previously provided by three considerable masses of documents: the Goethe Archives in Weimar (largely already examined); the mighty manuscript collection of Karl August Varnhagen von Ense in the Berlin State Library, individual parts of which have already been put to good use notwithstanding the whole still awaits a more thorough assessment; and the extensive literary estate and manuscripts of A. W. Schlegel in Dresden.
Although this latter collection, from which the most important publication of source material concerning the history of early Romanticism was drawn, namely, Oskar Walzel’s publication of Friedrich Schlegel’s letters to his brother August Wilhelm (Berlin 1890), was for decades subjected to unscrupulous exploitation, nonetheless a systematic examination of the collection several years ago was able to provide rich new discoveries (Körner, ).
At the same time, that examination disclosed a regrettable gap. The years 1804–1812, which were so decisive for the revolutionary transition of Early Romanticism from the unbridled freedom of its beginnings to the rigid bonds of its later period, that is, the true “years of crisis” of the entire movement, were represented by not a single document, which is also why Walzel’s collection remained silent concerning this entire period. It has hitherto remained the most obscure period within the entire course of Romanticism.
The fear that the documents otherwise missing from the Dresden collections were out of reach of posterity forever, however, has in the meantime proven not to be true at all. They were merely lost, and a fortunate bit of chance has now brought them to light. A visit to Coppet on Lake Geneva, the renowned exile of Madame de Staël, undertaken for the purpose of searching for A. W. Schlegel’s correspondence with his lady employer, yielded not those particular documents, but rather a wholly unexpected, different treasure.
[Carte des environs du lac de Genève (n.d.); here as “Copet”:]
[Frontispiece of Chateau Coppet from Körner’s Krisenjahre vol. 1:]
In the Coppet archives, which otherwise house only the literary estate of the great French lady, two mighty cartons were found containing all the letters and accompanying materials A. W. Schlegel received between 1804 and 1812. Before departing on his adventurous flight before Napoleon in late May 1812, a journey that would ultimately take him to Sweden by way of Austria and Russia, this housemate, traveling companion, friend, and literary advisor of Madame de Staël carefully organized and sealed all his literary materials, including his letters, manuscripts, and other correspondence — the possibility, and certainly not the date, of any return to Coppet was, after all, wholly uncertain.
When after the death of his lady friend he returned to his homeland of Germany, he gradually retrieved all his papers in his new house in Bonn, from which they ultimately landed in the Saxon State Library in Dresden. By some bit of chance, those two cartons alone remained behind in Coppet.
Schlegel himself mentions them explicitly in letters to August von Staël on 31 May 1819 and 24 July 1820. We know not whether he later simply forgot about them or for some unknown reason left them there. In any case, the seal he affixed in the spring of 1812 was not broken until the present editor [i.e., Josef Körner himself] did so in August 1929. . . .
Although the Coppet correspondence as such does not really commence until mid-1804 [after Wilhelm left Berlin in the entourage of Madame de Staël], one exception is the sequence likely representing the most significant as far as scope is concerned, and the strangest and most private of the entire collection given its content, namely, the correspondence with Sophie Bernhardi-Tieck.
The present editor must confess to committing a grave indiscretion in publishing this material insofar as Schlegel explicitly stipulated that these packets were to be burned unopened after his death. Historical scholarship, however, doubtless has a certain right to reveal the secret these materials contain, one that not only adds an important new chapter to the life story of A. W. Schlegel himself, but also and especially illuminates an important figure of the Romantic circle who has hitherto remained partially obscured, an unequivocally remarkable if doubtless not entirely likable woman who may well captivate the historian less than the interpreter of human nature.
Sophie is unquestionably the most problematic figure readers will encounter in the otherwise undeniably colorful company appearing in this epistolary collection: a vampire-woman who sucks the blood dry of everyone who comes close to her, including her husbands, brothers, and friends; a crafty liar who bends everything to her interpretation and everything to her advantage, and who was demonstrably able to manipulate everyone around her into believing these fairy tales. The almost impenetrable web of love, lies, and deception into which she ensnared poor Schlegel cannot be disentangled here, and the reader is referred instead to the text and commentary.
Both sides of this remarkable correspondence are presented here, since the lady’s missives preserved in Coppet could fortunately be complemented by A. W. Schlegel’s own letters, which in both form and content are extraordinarily captivating in their own turn and which have been preserved by descendants of the addressee [i.e., they were not originally in the Coppet collections but have been published here along with those Coppet materials].
Alongside its particular biographical value, this in part extremely intimate correspondence also possesses more general significance for intellectual, cultural, and moral history insofar as it illustrates in a surprising and certainly not particularly pleasant fashion the lax private morality of the Romantic circle, which startled even Ludwig Tieck — by no means a prude person himself — when he first arrived in Jena during the autumn of 1799. His perception was quite on the mark at the time when, with reference to the ethical reforms envisioned by the circle as just proclaimed by Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde, he remarks: “All these people really do need to pay more attention to things insofar as they all claim to scorn morality and because it is according to their own behavior that their doctrine fails and is being judged as false” [letter 257c].
The disclosure of Schlegel’s adulterous love affair with Tieck’s sister, Sophie, allows or even demands a reexamination of the current assessment of Caroline’s marital infidelity, for which extremely mitigating considerations have already been presented in a different context [see Körner’s article on Caroline’s Rival: Minna van Nuys). At the same time, it becomes clear that petty human factors ruptured and dispersed or at least hastened the rupturing and dispersal of the Romantic alliance to a far greater degree than did ideal intellectual antagonisms, namely, the quarrel involving Caroline in the case of the Jena circle, and the Bernhardi divorce in the case of the Berlin circle.
What prompted A. W. Schlegel to abandon his German homeland in the spring of 1804, give up his position of literary leadership, and follow Madame de Staël into Swiss exile was likely not least the serious disappointment in his love relationship with Sophie, who, after managing to persuade him he had fathered her youngest child (though she obviously knew better), had sacrificed him for a younger lover, with whom she then absconded. . . .
[*] Josef Körner, Krisenjahre, 1:xiv, xvi–xvii. The collection included two cartons containing over two thousand letters in forty separate packets left behind by Wilhelm Schlegel in Coppet on Lake Geneva.
Photograph of Coppet in 1913: frontispiece to Léandre Vaillat, Les demeures célèbres: Le Château de Coppet (Paris 1913). Back.
Translation © 2015 Doug Stott