Supplementary Appendix 440.3

Sophie Bernhardi to Wilhelm Schlegel in Coppet: Munich, 4 January 1809 [*]

Please forgive me, my dear friend, for not having answered you immediately. The most grievous blow, one that can annihilate a mother’s heart, has come upon me, and I can see that a person does not necessarily perish from even the most severe blows. But my God, how shall I begin to tell you of my misfortune, how maintain my composure, I perish here in my misery without help or comforts or friends, for Knorring is still not here yet, and I cannot but despair. I struggle with madness day and night, and sense that it is futile.

I have endured the ultimate, the bitterest, every possible shame, every possible pain has been heaped upon me. God, I wish I could give you different news. This letter itself will be the utter end of me.

But I must relate my fate to you in an orderly fashion, even should it break my heart. I left Vienna on the explicit, urgent advice of the nuncio, who assured me that despite all promises to the contrary, the court would decide against me. [1] Indeed, I was at the point of losing my children because my enemies chose precisely the moment when the emperor and the entire court was in Hungary, and Count Rothenhann on his estates.

I wrote and told you that here I received the decision of the Berlin court of appeals, which also fixed a date for the appeal, which does not expire until just now. I spoke with legal experts, and each assured me that the decision could not be implemented before the end of the stipulated period. I hastily sent my last funds to the attorney in Berlin, from whose last letter I also see that Bernhardi has won him over, and which also convinced me that the appeal would be missed if I did not send along a considerable sum. Count Stadion spoke here with the Prussian ambassador, and Baader did the same, and he gave both his word that he was still wholly uninitiated, but that whenever he did learn something I would be alerted, and that absolutely nothing would happen quickly.

While I was using all these precautionary measures, Humboldt, during his transit here, [2] made all the arrangements for Bernhardi, and gave the minister his word that I had lost my lawsuit before each and every court. The Prussian minister here, who gave all of us his word, had already long been corresponding with Bernhardi, whom Fichte was supporting at every turn. My attorney in Berlin declared that were I not granted custody of both my children, I would immediately flee to Corsica, where the influence of Prussian laws could not touch me, and would live there under an assumed name.

This provided a legal excuse for not waiting until the appeal date passed and for supplying Bernhardi with all the necessary, valid papers, and so he journeyed here without my Berlin attorney or any other former friend being humane enough to alert me.

I was still lying in bed when the police director rang at my door. He gave me all the details, and I saw clearly that I was lost, for they had encircled me round about so thoroughly that, could I not gain a day’s time, all would be lost.

[{Der Freund des schönen Geschlechts: Ein angenehm und nützlicher Taschenkalender für das Jahr 1810; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:]


Bernhardi was already there in the house, I prostrated myself in supplication amid my utmost despair, and even the police director seemed moved, and told me that he would make a report to the minister on my behalf, and on his word of honor to my brother that nothing violent would take place, or quickly.

[Jahrbuch zur belehrenden Unterhaltung für Damen (1798); Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:]


I collected myself, sent my brother to Stadion, spoke myself with all the privy counselors, and each told me that this procedure was quite irregular and that the police must first be commissioned by the courts; an attorney was appointed, and I returned to my house, but just imagine my horror when I found my house occupied by police officials, and three in my own room who showed my the director’s orders to seize my children from me, take them to the police station, and there hand them over to Bernhardi.

The carriage was already waiting, and he wanted to depart with them immediately, and at the same time one of the officials gave my brother a billet from the director in which the latter recanted his word of honor. God stood by me such that I did not lose my composure in this horrific moment, I demanded to speak to both Bernhardi and the police director and managed to assert myself almost through violence. Since every other escape route was now lost, I made a bargain with this monster [Bernhardi]. I let him have Wilhelm, and in return he yielded Felix to me legally and formally and with no restrictions. [3]

But then I had to endure seeing him [Bernhardi] at my house almost constantly for several days, had to be told how unfair I had treated him, how he was so sorry etc. and could not air my innermost feelings for the sake of my own child [Wilhelm], for what emerged was that he was in fact loath to take him [Wilhelm] in any case, and was doing so only because of his own parents, and that I had his promise that after a period of time he intends to give Wilhelm back to me.

Well, now I have finished this terrible, horrible letter, and now I adjure you by God and everything that is sacred not to believe that I could have saved my child, for the petition enjoyed such support from the highest officials that the illegal implementation became legally binding such that every government would have had to accept it. Indeed, had I somehow managed to escape, [4] I would have had to reckon with the most shameful and outrageous pursuit.

All these horrific scenes, being forced to speak with him and be around him, now had the terrible effect of casting both me and my brother Ludwig down terribly and dangerously ill. Even on Christmas Day, when Bernhardi departed with my poor child, I lay almost lifelessly in bed. My brother took to his bed the following day, and they feared for his life. Only now have we both managed to leave our beds, and only yesterday did I see my brother again. . . .

He [Bernhardi] refused to make any and all expenditures for Wilhelm, thereby forcing me to pay considerable costs so that my poor child would not have to travel in winter uncovered, costs that now oppress me. And then he also left it to me to pay the rather considerable court costs for him having granted me custody of the other child. And not for any lack of funds himself, for my maidservant assures me that he had large sums of money with him, she noticed it while she was packing Wilhelm’s things in his suitcase. This miserliness will help me get my child back, for he [Bernhardi] will let him go for a certain price.

Oh, my dear friend, this letter has come to its end, a letter I have written amid unspeakable torments of the heart. I must see you again soon so that your loyal eyes may refresh me amid such pain. God, what shall I now do? I know nothing about Knorring, and your brother Friedrich is not even humane enough to write me a single line, and now Knorring, too, might come down sick or even die, and then the cup of my misery will be full. Please answer me quickly. My brother Friedrich, God, he should come soon lest I perish. Stay well; I can write no more.

S[ophie] Tieck


[*] Source: Krisenjahre 2:2–6. Sophie’s sometimes disjointed syntax and punctuation come to expression in parts of this letter. Back.

[1] In the custody case with August Ferdinand Bernhardi. Sophie’s destination was Munich (Thomas Kitchin, Map of Germany [ca. 1780]):



[2] On his way back from Italy. Back.

[3] Clemens Brentano wrote to J. G. Zimmer from Landshut on 19 January 1809 (Krisenjahre 3:384):

[Ludwig] Tieck is still with Madam Bernhardi in Munich, suffering from gout so horribly that it really is a pity. It is due largely to the fright caused by the sudden arrival of Bernhardi from Berlin, who barged into the house with soldiers and police to fetch his children, without whom his father intends to give him no money; he finally made do with a rather poor arrangement such that, after catching the money [from Sophie] with the worm [Wilhelm Bernhardi], promises to send the child back.

Similarly also Rahel Levin to Karl August Varnhagen von Ense from Berlin on 13 January 1809 (ibid.):

After his despairing quarrel with his wife, Bernhardi has returned from Munich, but with only one child, saying he did not have the heart to take more from her — after such a lawsuit and the whole theatrical mess! He has been taken in by her, spent several days living quite well with her, says she is living quite well there, has four domestics, in a word: all that sort of thing.

In the meantime, however, Sophie quite clearly told Felix Bernhardi something quite different about why his brother, Wilhelm, was having to leave. Felix writes to Wilhelm Schlegel on 26 January 1809 (ibid., 2:14–15):

Dearest Friend,

I am so glad you wrote me and are still fond of me and Wilhelm. He had to journey to Berlin because of our grandmother, not because of the fat gentlemen [Bernhardi] who was here. Mother was very sick and depressed and will have to visit a mineral-springs spa in Pisa. My uncle is sick and has gout pains, some days he does better, some days worse, and he is quite grumpy. I am healthy and am learning French and soon Latin and trying hard. Write Mother soon and always love

your friend Felix

Caroline reveals in her letter to Luise Wiedemann on 17 March 1809 (letter 441) that Felix apparently regularly referred to his father, August Ferdinand Bernhardi, as “that fat gentleman.” Back.

[4] E.g., to Corsica. Back.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott