Supplementary Appendix 406.1

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi’s half-sisters,
Helene and Charlotte Jacobi [*]


Therese Huber writes concerning the Jacobi sisters to Karl August Böttiger on 17 April 1819: [1]

Whether I knew Jacobi? Very well indeed, beginning with my first marriage. In 1789 Forster and I spent several weeks with him in Pempelfort, and I eventually saw him in Munich again as well. He was a noble man, with a rich mind, but ruined by his externals, ultimately deformed, and finally crippled. Both physically and intellectually.

His two sisters, who lived with him, indeed who lived only for him, deflected every harsher wind away from him, so that during the last six years of his life they would always first instruct visitors in an anteroom concerning the things one must not mention, lest any of his sensitive, wounded areas be touched — so that finally he lived in an artificial world in which he was treated like a mentally ill person.


In 1789 his company was still quite pleasant, if always a bit precious. Delicacy of any sort he did not have — he was invariably wounded like an old maid by any signs of pure cheerfulness, southern mischievousness, delightful earthiness, as colorful sparks and lights of the spirit boldly strewn over a painting — in conversation, in thought, in writing — he was probably disposed thus by his sisters.

They were unpardonable. They wanted a writer to be not only an Apollo, but also a Joseph, and had they ever been custodians of a cabinet of antiquities, they would have bound Venus mercilessly with an apron.


The Munich joke had it that “in Jacobi’s house there is but one old woman, and that is the president himself.” But these weaknesses had been added to him artificially; he himself was noble and beneficent and selfless, and his presence and surroundings were ordered, dignified, and full of propriety. He was the most gentlemanlike [2] German scholar I knew.

Therese writes even more harshly to Karl Leonhard Reinhold on 12 February 1808 (ibid., 67):

Jacobi’s two sisters should have been forced by a police order to have committed some grievous faux pas when they were thirty years old that they might have turned out less acariâtre [3] and venomous. Especially the eldest. I have often thought about precisely such a suggestion when observing how unkind and severe some old maids can be.

This eldest sister greatly vexed me in earlier years on two counts. Once, at the beginning of my pregnancy with Claire, I spent several weeks in Pempelfort. I made no secret of the fact that I was not particularly eager to become a mother again — at the time, I was living through the most horrible period of my life, a period during which I maintained myself with hatred of every feeling — but my way of being unhappy never allowed for any long faces — at the time, at twenty-three, I could leap like a deer — and dear God! I have in the meantime lost neither the talent nor, unfortunately, the inclination to do so, something which, of course, little suits a douairière. [4]

One day while taking a walk alongside the stone bridge, I was jumping up on the ledge on one side and then down the other, moving thus alongside the two solid sisters. Then Lene says to me that I was probably just doing that to destroy my condition [induce a miscarriage]. I cannot describe the disgust this suspicion prompted me to have toward this old maid. An old maid who could even have such a thought! —

On another occasion she treated Iffland with intentional contempt because a vice had been imputed to him which a pure woman cannot understand, but which, when such a man is ill with it, she must lament. — I detest, loathe this kind of “virtue.”

Wilhelm von Humboldt writes to Caroline von Humboldt from Munich on 2 November 1808: [5] “The two sisters have remained utterly stationary, and time has passed them by without leaving a trace.”

Louise Seidler writes in her memoirs about her contact with the Jacobi household in Munich: [6]

This letter, too [her second letter of introduction from Goethe for use in Munich] ensured that I was received most cordially, not only by the old gentleman himself [Jacobi], to whom it was addressed, but also by his two sisters. Because my [Munich] hosts were intimate friends of the family, I dined at least once or twice a week there in the evening.

The company included Hofrath Thiersch, who was later to acquire such renown through his stay in Greece, and his young wife, a daughter of Superintendent Löffler from Gotha, [7] further the highly learned Friedrich Roth (later high consistory president) along with various distinguished foreigners who were passing through Munich.

The women sat on one side of an oval table, the men on the other, the latter usually engaging in more substantive conversations. I was assigned a place in the middle of the women, where Jacobi’s vivacious elder sister, Helene, who ruled the roost in the house and was especially wont to discuss economic matters in that regard. But I soon became excessively bored with these never-ending kitchen and garden discussions; in vain did I strain my ears to catch something of the men’s discussions, for the crossfire of female garrulity permitted me to profit not the least from those conversations.

So I gradually lost interest in these evenings, all the more so since the aging Jacobi was constantly being offered incense and adulation; that is to say, this otherwise so intelligent man had unfortunately acquired the weakness of ridiculous vanity.

Clemens Brentano writes to Achim von Arnim from Landshut in late October 1808: [8]

There is little or no hope for a position for Görres here. Schelling, who is in Munich, where he most assiduously and delicately flatters Madam Montgelas, doubtless opposes Görres out of sheer envy of his fame; Jacobi is also against him because of his, Jacobi’s, sister Lene, an old, villainous coffee-klatsch sister who is also Köppen’s friend; and to speak about a new philosopher here would mean acknowledging the 3000 fl. uselessness of Köppen himself.

Bettina von Arnim writes to Goethe on 18 December 1808: [9]

During all this time, I have passed nearly every evening with Jacobi: I always account it a privilege that I am permitted to see and speak with him, — but that point I have not yet reached, of being sincere with him, and showing him that love which one owes to his benevolence.

His two sisters palisade him round about; it is provoking, to be kept off from him by empty objections. He is patient even to weakness, and has no will of his own, opposed to two beings possessing the caprice and imperiousness of Semiramis. The sovereignty of women pursues him even to the President’s chair in the Academy; they wake him, they dress him, they button his underwaistcoat, they hand him medicine. Does he wish to go out? it is too raw. Will he stay at home? he must take exercise. Does he go to the Academy?

The Nymbus is trimmed, that it may show clearly. They put him on a shirt of muslin, with clean jabot and ruffs, and a fur coat lined with splendid sable, the foot-warmer is borned before: when he returns from the sitting, he must sleep a little, whether he will or no; thus it continues till evening in continual opposition, when they pull his night-cap over his ears, and put him to bed. . . .

But Lotte and Lehne forbid Jacobi contemplation as noxious, and he has more confidence in them than in his genius: when the latter presents him an apple, he asks the former whether there be no worm in it.

Despite the profound antipathy of his own Schellingian inclinations toward the “non-philosopher” Jacobi, Henrik Steffens presents an interesting characterization in his memoirs. Steffens, who made Jacobi’s personal acquaintance in Munich in 1817, also describes Jacobi’s feud with Schelling; it was in fact Jacobi himself who, after reading Steffens’ latest publication, initiated a meeting: [10]

I found Schelling’s harshness toward Jacobi completely justified. The harshness and severity of his piece contra this philosopher [11] seemed to me to render it both important and decisive; he could not have taken a gentle approach in it.

I explained to Schelling my own relationship with Jacobi. “You must visit Jacobi,” he responded, “it would not be right to miss the opportunity to make the acquaintance of a man who, after all, has played such a significant role in literature.” So I did indeed visit him, and found him together with his loyal sister, who was utterly devoted to both him and his intellect and spirit and lived solely to take care of him.

As severely as I had judged him as a philosopher and writer, as little as I had felt drawn to him during any period of my life, and as little as I, like many other scholars during this time, was able to follow his path, there was still something purely human about him that I could not so easily disregard. I could not forget that he was the first person who acquainted me with speculation by introducing me to Spinoza. And it was, after all, my own conviction that by first drawing attention to Giordano Bruno, by pointing out the more profound elements in the philosophy of Leibniz, he had exerted a positive influence on the age that in its own turn was to become so fertile.

Although this age admittedly was already experiencing its demise even at its inception, and a more powerful one had come, one against which he futilely tried to arm himself, still it was not without an element of melancholy that I beheld the defeat this not unimportant man was suffering in his old age. . . .

Jacobi had my [latest] publication lying before him. . . . Because I was familiar with him as a writer, I could easily discern that much in it had indeed found his approval, especially the way he himself was mentioned in the piece. Such acknowledgement, publicly expressed by a resolute friend and adherent of Schelling, was no doubt the more pleasing to him the more he felt not only wounded by Schelling’s attacks — for one overcomes such things — but also severely chastised, or even personally, inwardly destroyed.

He was not unfamiliar with such feelings, and as I observed him, it was clear that all this oppressed him in his old age. But what made his entire appearance both dignified and simultaneously touching was the affection of his sister. Considering how Lene had over many, many years shared everything personally with him, participating in all his research, all his disputes and feuds, and how the quiet study of a solitary scholar had here been transformed into an ongoing dialogue — one could sense how Jacobi himself had been elevated by that loyalty, indeed purified, and this pair of siblings seemed genuinely distinguished and amiable.

He seemed familiar and gentle toward me; nothing associated with his or my position was mentioned, and even when the easily flowing conversation might touch on subjects associated with these disputes, they were quickly left behind in favor of other topics. During one of my many visits, however, it did once happen that this wound to his being was inadvertently evoked from afar. A dark cloud passed across his countenance; Lene became visibly restive, I anxious and embarrassed.

Fortunately, by remembering an important passage in his piece on Spinoza that in earlier years had suddenly opened up a new perspective for me and that fit the present situation perfectly, [12] I managed to turn the conversation in a new direction. The elderly man recovered his cheerfulness, and Lene settled down. Even though I did attribute to him sufficient tenderness to have certainly tried to conceal from her the most sensitive wounds, I do think I discerned, through this fleeting incident, traces of more passionate hours that may well have occasionally disrupted their peaceful household in a disagreeable fashion.


[*] Top llustration: An attentive housekeeper ensures that her employer’s will includes her as well; from Johann Friedrich Cotta’s Taschenbuch für Damen auf das Jahr 1801 (Tübingen 1801). Back.

[1] Ludwig Geiger, Therese Huber. 1764 bis 1829. Leben und Briefe einer deutschen Frau (Stuttgart 1901), 66–67. Therese’s allusion to “the president” is to Jacobi’s position as president of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Illustrations: (1) Leipziger Taschenbuch für Frauenzimmer zum Nutzen und Vergnügen auf das Jahr 1794; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung; (2) Bell’s New Pantheon; or, Historical Dictionary of theGods, Demi-Gods, Heroes, and Fabulous Personages of Antiquity etc., 2 vols. (London 1790), illustration following 2:302. Back.

[2] Gentlemanlikeste in the original. Back.

[3] Fr., “crabby.” Back.

[4] Fr., “dowager.” Back.

[5] Wilhelm und Caroline von Humboldt in ihren Briefen, ed. Anna von Sydow, 7 vols. (Berlin, 1907), 3:6. Back.

[6] Erinnerungen und Leben der Malerin Louise Seidler (geboren zu Jena 1786, gestorben zu Weimar 1866), ed. Hermann Uhde (Berlin 1874), 167; 2nd ed. (1875), 139–40. Louise incorrectly identifies the eldest sister as Helene, who was born in 1753, whereas Charlotte was born in 1752 (Die Voreltern Jacobi: ein Gedenkbuch für die Nachkommen; [nebst] Zugabe, ed. Carl Jacobi [Hannover 1856], 124). That said, she still may be referring to Helene, who seems to have been the more dominant of the two sisters. Back.

[7] Who in 1791 had courted Caroline. Back.

[8] Achim von Arnim und die ihm nahe standen, ed. Reinhold Steig and Herman Grimm, 3 vols. (Stuttgart 1894–1904), 1:261. Back.

[9] Goethe’s Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde. Seinem Denkmal, ed. Herman Grimm, 4th ed. (Berlin 1890), 213–14; translation from Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child (Boston 1879), 189–90. Back.

[10] Was ich erlebte 8:376–90, here 386–90. Back.

[11] In Denkmal der Schrift von den göttlichen Dingen usw. des Herrn Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi und der ihm in derselben gemachten Beschuldigung eines absichtlich täuschenden, Lüge redenden Atheismus (Tübingen 1812). Back.

[12] [Über die Lehre des Spinoza in Briefen (Breslau 1785); see Caroline’s letter to Lotte Michaelis on 4 April 1786 (letter 69), note 6. Back.

Translation © 2017 Doug Stott