T. W. Lyster’s Review of Cecily Sidgwick 1889

(1) Thomas William Lyster, review of Mrs. Alfred Sidgwick,
Caroline Schlegel and her Friends (London: Fisher Unwin, 1889).
The Academy: A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art 36
(July–December 1889) no. 910 New Series (Saturday, 12 October 1889), 229–31.

Here is one more added to the list of good biographies in the history of German literature which have been lately published by English scholars. The list is but a short one. Mr. Sime’s Lessing [Leipzig 1878], Miss Zimmer’s Lessing [London 1878], Mr. Nevison’s Herder [London 1884], Mr. Sime’s Goethe [London, New York 1888], and Mr. Sharp’s Heine [London 1888], are perhaps the most worthy of mention. Among them Mrs. Sidgwick’s book takes a high place. She has gone earnestly about her task, and has made good use of the best German sources for the life of Caroline Schlegel. Her industry is illuminated by a feeling for the reality of the actors in her story. She strives to set them before us as flesh and blood, suffering and enjoying, loving and hating; and, when a writer gets this difficult thing done, errors of detail must be judged leniently.

The book cannot have a better introduction than some passages from its own first chapter:

“The interest taken in Caroline depends chiefly on her connexion with celebrated persons, and especially on the part she played in encouraging the young Romantics. Her direct contributions to literature are insignificant. But she seems to have exercised a stimulating personal influence on the men around her, and to have possessed remarkable critical penetration. Moreover, the story of her life is peculiarly illustrative of the principles of the Romantic School and of the social atmosphere of her time.

“The spirit of the age towards the end of the last century was revolutionary in Germany as well as in France. . . . No one in Germany was more inclined by nature and encouraged by circumstances to share in the general ferment than Caroline. Her fate threw her into the company of the very men who were helping to carry on a war with conventional society and conventional literature, and her strongest affections and opinions weighed on their side of the fight. The deep and permanent influence she exercised on their lives and characters, the practical evidence she gave of her belief in their doctrines, the peculiar opportunity she had of making her life consistent with her theories, and the personal charm which all men who knew her were compelled to feel, are sufficient reasons, I hope, for offering a sketch of her to English readers.”

Caroline Michaelis was born at Göttingen in September 1763. She married three times: first, to one Dr. Böhmer, who died in 1788; then to A. W. Schlegel; and, lastly, to the philosopher Schelling. It may be said that the eventful, the historical portion of her life begins with 1792, when, already four years a widow, she went to Mainz to be near her friends, the celebrated Georg Forster and his wife. In that year, 1792, there were troubles for all who dwelt on the French frontier, and Caroline got into the thick of them. The few years following had a good deal of sorrow and disgrace for her; but the story is complicated, and must be sought in Mrs. Sidgwick’s pages. At length, in 1796, the poor thing found refuge in marriage with the true and kind A. W. Schlegel, who had befriended her with chivalrous devotion. After this Caroline lived for several years in Jena; and her letters are full of the chief names of Germany — Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel. But she is, above all, important because she was in the intimate confidence of the brothers Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, at the period when they are most interesting — when the So-called Romantic school of Germany was founded. Caroline’s influence on Friedrich Schlegel was all for good:

“At the request of his brother … he undertook to stand by Caroline in her troubles. The first impression she made on him was extraordinary. He could find no words to describe it. He had not known that such a woman existed. He had been willing to help her for his brother’s sake, but before he had known her three days he was ready, on his own account, to lay down his life for her. He feels himself in contact with a larger mind than his own, and a superior intellect, and he is charmed by her simplicity and her divine love of truth. Her critical acumen delights and astonishes him; her reading aloud is admirable. He soon has to take strong repressive measures in order to remain faithful to his brother. It was very difficult, he found, to see her frequently and refrain from loving her. But he made a valiant struggle to preserve his loyalty to Wilhelm, and, aided by Caroline’s indifference (she, poor soul, being occupied with other matters than the inflammable feelings of a boy nine years her junior!), he succeeded. It is an actual fact that the excellent results of their intimacy on his character and work can hardly be over-estimated. In circumstances that would have deprived most women of all beneficial influence, she rescued Friedrich from a life of debauchery and extravagance that had brought him to the verge of suicide; and perceiving, with her customary penetration, his great promise, she roused him to do work that gave him at a bound a name and a place in literature. ‘My intercourse with Caroline has been of the greatest value to me,’ he writes: ‘I am a better man through her.'”

Mrs. Sidgwick has several excellent chapters on the early years of the Romantic School in Weimar and Jena, on the relations of Goethe and Schiller with the Schlegels, on the starting of the Athenaeum and Friedrich Schlegel’s brilliant desultory efforts in literature, on Wilhelm Schlegel’s admirable work in criticism and in translation. Certainly it ought never to be forgotten by Germans that Wilhelm Schlegel at the same time was the first thoroughly good critical upholder of the name of Goethe in Germany, and the best translator into the German tongue of the plays of Shakespeare. In both these labours his wife took a deep interest, and her advice was of very great value to him.

On p. 111 there is a mistake worth correcting. Schiller’s letter to W. Schlegel was called forth, not by Friedrich Schlegel’s article on the Musenalmanach in Reichardt’s Deutschland — an article which appeared in 1796 — but by Friedrich’s attack on the Horen in May 1797. A correction on pp. 112–13 follows from this. The formal breach between Schiller and the Schlegels took place in May-June 1797. Then the Xenien were not, as Mrs. Sidgwick represents, the retaliation by which Schiller put an end to all hope of reconcilement; for, as she herself mentions, they were published in the autumn of 1796, thus preceding the declaration of hostilities by several months.

I mention here some small errors, including printer’s errors. In the preface read “Jahrbücher” for “Jahrbuch.” P. 19 read, I think, “Boie” for “Bois”; p. 21, 1780 for 1870. On p. 45, 1. 4 from bottom, insert “after” before the words, “she went to Marburg”; for on p. 50 you will find that she was at Marburg in 1789. How reconcile the statement on p. 51 that she stayed “two years longer at Marburg” with the statement on p. 52 that she left Marburg “in the summer of 1791”? On p. 71, 1. 2 from the bottom, we find that Caroline was imprisoned in Königstein until “midsummer,” 1793. On p. 73 we find that she was permitted to go to Kronenberg in “May.” On p. 119 read Agnes von Lilien, not Agnes von Lilier, and this novel was not written by Schiller’s sister, but by his sister-in-law. On p. 121 correct “Hardenburg” into “Hardenberg.” On p. 130 Mrs. Sidgwick says that Schleiermacher introduced Friedrich Schlegel to those Jewish ladies who were the best society in Berlin at that lime, namely Rahel Levin, Henriette Herz, and Dorothea Veit. I think that this is at any rate partly incorrect, and that Henriette Herz was the person who brought Schlegel and Schleiermacher together. On p. 192, last line, the “new-born year” was 1801, not 1800. On p. 231 “Würzburg” is spelt incorrectly; so are the names “Frommann” [ed. note: Caroline herself spells in “Fromman”] and “Hoffmann” when they occur. On p. 236 “1805” must be a printer’s error; no letters written in that year could have described the day of the battle of Jena. On p. 221, it is a slip to say that Hölderlin was dead in 1803. He was insane then; his body lived until 1843.

The career of Caroline Schlegel is remarkable for the constant evidence of her great personal charm. Mrs. Sidgwick writes (p. 23):

“Certainly, if the whole duty of woman is to please man, Caroline must always have fulfilled it with success. She was followed through life by a succession of enthusiastic friends and lovers; and even now that she has been long dead, the men who write of her write with that tender charity that so easily blinds itself to the faults I of a charming woman. That she was regularly beautiful is never stated. . . . But from various sources one gathers many a suggestion of her bewitching appearance. She was tall and fair and blue-eyed, and the soft grace and brightness of her manner seem to have struck every one who saw her. Her sweet face and gentle ways softened her sallies, and persuaded men of her affection, sometimes too easily. ‘She was a strange and unique being,’ her third husband wrote at her death; ‘one is bound to love her wholly, or not at all.'”

This power of charm was shown by the ease with which she gathered a little salon at Jena:

“She seems to have been blessed with that beautiful social tact rare in all countries, and certainly rare in Germany: the delicate power of assisting the persons near her to reach their highest level of talk and conduct, to contribute their best towards the general enjoyment” (pp. 108–9).

“In her presence the general talk drifted towards serious interests without losing the light and airy tone that is best in harmony with a large company. Every question of importance to her friends found fuller expression with her help. She was born with a rare aptitude for persuading those around her to give of their best” (p. 171).

The circumstances of the third marriage of Caroline illustrate well the relation of the sexes at that time. She had never loved Wilhelm Schlegel; and when Schelling came to Jena, in 1798, his powerful nature at once made its attraction felt. (It is mentioned by Gries that Schelling was one of the very few men who in personal intercourse increased the favourable impression made by their writings.) The prim egoistic Wilhelm Schlegel, with great merits, could not stand against this passionate young genius. But Schelling was at first in love with Caroline’s daughter, Auguste Böhmer. In the winter of 1799–1800 this pretty girl was approaching her fifteenth birthday, Schelling was about twenty-five, Caroline about thirty-six years old. To Caroline it was a great pleasure to think that Schelling loved her daughter, and she did her best to aid him. Yet she was self-deceived. She had herself a passion for him. The sad death of Auguste on July 12, 1800, put an end to this false state of things. Caroline was broken-hearted.

“Wilhelm Schlegel watched over her with his usual conscientiousness and kindness. If Auguste had been his own child he could not have bewailed her loss more bitterly.”

As for Schelling:

“All that autumn and winter he worked under the weight of a sorrow that over and over again drove him to think of suicide. . . . The depths of Caroline’s affectionate and womanly nature were stirred for his sake. … To comfort and uphold him had become her most pressing occupation . . . she could hardly conceal her love for him. . . . When his work is read aloud in a large company she trembles with consciousness of her peculiar interest in him; his letters give her such a shock of joy that her weak frame is prostrate after it. She counts the hours till she hears his voice and looks in his eyes again. Yet with incredible self-deception she persuades herself that this glow of passion is maternal solicitude.” “I have taken Schelling into my soul as the brother of my child.” Meanwhile Schelling assailed her “with the fire and persistence of a youthful lover,” “paid no attention to her struggles,” “clung to her lavish confessions of love, and insisted that their meaning should not be twisted to appease her conscience.”

By the spring of 1802, Caroline and Wilhelm Schlegel considered that their marriage was at an end. Steps were taken a little later to procure the divorce; and on this subject, as on all others, her husband corresponded with her lover in the friendliest tone. The divorce was finally confirmed on May 17, 1803. On June 26 Caroline was married to Schelling. In a letter to a friend she speaks as follows of her marriage with Schlegel:

“Children would have made the union between us binding; as it is, we have always considered it voluntary. … I ought to have been more prudent, and never consented to a marriage that my mother’s entreaties, rather than my own wishes, brought about. Schlegel ought always to have been merely my friend, as all his life he has been so loyally and nobly.”

Caroline’s third marriage was the fortunate event of her life. Her remaining five years were years of rest and happiness. In September, 1803, Schelling became Professor of Philosophy in Würzburg; in 1805, when Würzburg was given up by the Bavarian Government, he received an appointment in the Academy of Sciences in Munich. In September, 1809, Caroline died after a very brief dysentery at Maulbronn, whither she had accompanied Schelling for change of air. She was passionately mourned by her husband.

No attempt has been made in this review to give any specimens of Mrs. Sidgwick’s excellent critical writing; nor has it been possible to show how well she justifies the second part of the title of her book, and tells not only of Caroline, but of “her friends.” It would be good fortune for us all if Mrs. Sidgwick followed up this book by one or two others on such women as Dorothea Veit or Rahel Levin.

T. W. Lyster

(2) Anonymous review in

The Literary World. Choice Readings from the
Best New Books and Critical Reviews
20 (1889) no. 20 (28 September 1889) 321.

One of the most interesting literary biographies which has been given to us recently is that of the German woman, the wife of Schlegel and Schelling, the enemy of Schiller, the leader of perhaps the most successful salon of Germany, the friend and confidant of all the leaders of the romantic party, a woman of brilliant mind and the most charming conversational powers. It is seldom we take in hand a biography written with so much discretion and judgment as this, saying just enough, and yet giving a clear and authentic portrait of the subject. The author tells the story of Caroline Schlegel’s life in such a way as to show her to us as she was, with all her defects, and yet with her fine qualities brought out into strong relief.

Mrs. Sidgwick not only tells us about Caroline, but also about her friends, and about the conditions of society by which she was surrounded. It is quite necessary to know her environment, so different from our own, in order to understand much of her romantic and somewhat startling career. The author shows us the spirit of the romantic movement of the last years of the eighteenth century in Germany, how its leaders broke away from the customary social ties of life, discarded marriage, and sought to emancipate women from every social restriction. This tendency of the time explains much in the career of Caroline Schlegel, and why it was she was in love with many men, why she left Schlegel and soon after married Schelling, a man much younger than herself. In this way the book gives us an inside view of the romantic movement of great importance in understanding all the literary tendencies of the period. It explains much in the career of Goethe which is brought to light by none of his biographers. These romantic and revolutionary sentiments are described in such a way by Mrs. Sidgwick as to offend the taste of no one; and yet we are made to realize their full significance in relation to the social and literary life of the time.

Caroline Schlegel was a woman of much intellectual ability, for she assisted Schlegel for several years at Jena in his literary tasks, acting as his confidential adviser, writing magazine articles frequently which appeared over his name, and aiding the romantics, with the ripeness of her intellectual judgment in shaping their movement. Her salon in Jena was for several years a place of constant resort for the romantics and for the literary people of Jena and Weimar. She had a great influence over young men, and many of them gathered about her, and sat at her feet to be charmed by her brilliant thoughts and her beautiful sentiments.

In spite of her many faults, some of them sad and serious ones, we cannot help admiring Caroline Schlegel. She was a woman who would, in a different society, have been the soul of purity and delicate influence. She was a child of her time, a being of sentiment, and a being demanding love and loyalty of heart. After she had become the wife of Schelling there came a time of peace and wifely devotion. Then all that was good and womanly in her came out, and we see her as she truly was.