Caroline’s Review of Julchen Grünthal

Caroline’s Review of Julchen Grünthal [*]

Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1798) 32 (Saturday, 27 January 1798) 253–56.

Berlin, b. Unger: Julchen Grünthal. Third, revised and augmented edition. 1798. small 8vo. Vol. 1. 426 pages; vol. 2: 360 pages. With title copper engraving and title vignette. (2 Rthlr.).



It has already been many years since this excellently drawn portrait from real life drew universal attention to itself, and one can assume that hardly a single reader interested in the history of the manners of our age is not already familiar with it. Although the authenticity of its original colors would already suffice to prevent it from fading, its present revision by the original, equally powerful and refined brush has in fact even further enhanced its freshness and scope.

Its extraordinary degree of excellence derives especially from the way it unites its dependence on a noble goal, namely, that of instruction and warning, with completely independent art, and the way the multifaceted nature of an intelligent understanding has mitigated with such superiority the one-sidedness invariably accompanying such a resolutely defined goal. In this respect, it resembles the work of a great master indeed that appeared recently, namely, The Nun by Diderot, whose subject matter, moreover, is also similar. [1] One can in any case maintain that the pensions in large towns can prove to be just as ruinous to the individual as can convents.

The authoress [2] guides us out of the womb of a simple existence, where one breathes the purest, gentlest of air, into the maddening circles of vanity, sensuality, and that particular sort of depravity that arises mostly in those institutions where young girls are supposed to be cultivated en masse, that is, those beings least able to tolerate being treated as if in a factory, and whose instruction and cultivation cannot come too directly from the hand of nature herself, from momentary events, and from inner experiences.

The more subtle disadvantages of such institutes are also addressed, such as how such charges are weaned from domestic tranquility and uniformity and then accustomed to incessant noise and activity and bustle — which, to be sure, can intensify to the point of passion even among quite young creatures — and familiarized with the most unnatural feelings of boredom. And who, in any case, could remain indifferent to such vivid portrayals of the enormous abuses and degeneracy to which they are so wholly exposed especially in larger towns?

The completely individual disposition of this present story notwithstanding, it could easily stand for countless others. The numbing influences of vanity, of bad examples, of the fear of the ridiculous cannot but be the same everywhere on a young disposition, whose only defense is innocent naiveté. The sources of such influence doubtless abound in all public institutions, institutions that from the outset signal their unreliability and frivolity by choosing a slippery base as their setting, where everything fosters mere show and appearance, and where a task as important and delicate as female cultivation is constantly in danger of being treated as mere glittery adornment.

The authoress cloaks all these truths behind action and life, or rather: she allows them to emerge from life and action, employing not a single extraneous or alien device to make her writing more attractive, nor the lever of passion that might elicit sympathy, nor any other accoutrements designed to entice the imagination. Our interest emerges solely from the main issue itself and remains steadfast all the way to the end despite the vehemence of an inspired portrayal and writing style that sweep the reader along.

In the newly added second volume, we believe these two elements may well be engaged to an even higher degree, exhibiting as that part does, even in a larger sense, the characteristics of a freer literary piece, moving within a broader scope and mitigating the painful impression left behind by the first, albeit without falling into an all-too-soft reestablishment of all the wrongs that have already occurred.

Although Julchen does rescue from all her aberrations the advantage of a loftier education and cultivation, just as human nature can indeed compensate for such inflicted damage, nonetheless her tears are not completely dried, something even the most beneficent hand of fate cannot always accomplish. What a lovely idea to have Julchen, just as we saw her at the beginning, to appear at the end again as the harvest queen, in a white dress with light-green ribbons, adorned with flowers, walking between her brothers and wearing the garland. [3]


The entire path she has traversed stands in a concentrated fashion before us in this moment once more, and this overview awakens the feeling that although she who has returned may well adorn herself with flowers, those flowers are in fact more festive wreaths for her friends than for her herself.

As mentioned above, no flattering secondary devices have been incorporated into this work for the sake of, as it were, decorating its primary goal. Such does not at all mean, however, that the authoress has omitted all charming details and any but absolutely minimal characterization of secondary characters and surrounding objects. The former is instead consistently implemented in both a successful and meaningful fashion, and is, moreover, precisely interwoven with the authoress’s unique stylistic mode. How otherwise could the subtle beginnings of depravity that, initially quite unnoticed, draw a soul away from the straight path, and whose progress increasingly sweeps that soul along as it nears the center of the vortex — how otherwise could such be portrayed?

Precisely here is where the authoress displays her artistry, surprising us with all sorts of comical and satirical elements, and everywhere providing the most refined, subtle perceptions. Here, too, is where the literary merits of a simple, expressive prose become vividly discernible, in which nothing is mere adornment and everything, as it were, an ongoing painter’s canvas. Such seems especially the case in Minna’s confessions. Although it is difficult to adduce specific passages when only the whole itself can completely demonstrate such an assessment, let us nonetheless cite a few if but to give the reader a taste of this artistry. In part 2, page 60, we read:

The lady’s living room into which we were led was cold and cheerless, and still damp from cleaning, which is also why the maidservant instructed us to wait on the linen-covered strips laid out on the floor. Not a trace of any female presence was to be seen in this uninviting room aside from a sofa covered with books and a mirror framed by calling cards. — My stepfather seemed a bit taken aback by this peculiar reception. And we did indeed cut a rather droll group, each of us standing across from the other on his or her linen strip: he listening for his sister’s footsteps; I, withdrawn, my Colombine in my arms, my gaze turned away from the mirror hanging across from me out of fear I might glimpse this figure that had already elicited such laughter in the house.” —

And on page 86:

It was from this time onward that I began paying such excessive attention to tone, and to consider everything to be such that deviated from the customary. The noise of the coquette with which she tried to draw everyone’s attention; the pedantry of the highbrow who with such studied countenance unloaded all her well-read knowledge; I considered every peculiarity to be just the right thing. And thus did I myself become increasingly uncertain of what I myself was supposed to be; and only long afterward, when finally I had sufficient opportunity and maturity to draw comparisons, did I find that I had been chasing — a phantom, that there is no specific “tone” in the characterless crowd, nor can there be any, and that all activity and bustle is in fact merely a convenience and whim of the moment, and that nothing stable and enduring can ever be carried out on unstable ground. —

These confessions are in general one of the superior parts of this work as far as characterization and universal applicability are concerned. They contain quite incisive observations of the sort similarly characterizing stable, healthy common sense. Yet another testimony to the unerring capacity for observation that spares not even its own favorites, a testimony similarly to the artistry of pure portrayal, is the mockery and derision the authoress allows the frivolous circle in which pious Karoline lives to pour out over her without, however, protecting her in any direct way and yet still managing to maintain her respectability. Often her purpose will not permit her to spare us quite repugnant impressions of the sort, for example, elicited by the allegedly philosophical governess Brennfeld — but then we are compensated by such pleasing portraits as that of Princess Eudoxia, or by the scenes in the house of the Russian lover, all of which are executed in an extremely pleasing fashion. [4]


That particular reading public for which normal novelists work will by no means be flattered by the rigorous moral tendency permeating this book; even less will the increasingly regnant disposition of the age be flattered by the way human moral qualities are presented as being dependent on religious faith, a dependency, moreover, which — to protect it against critique — may be understood solely as a fact of observation: to wit, that most people need an external law, not that all people need such. In any case, Julchen Grünthal will continue to be of interest to every thoughtful reader as long as there are female educational institutions, large towns, and artificial moral relationships in the broader sense.


[*] Although Wilhelm Schlegel credits himself with having reviewed this piece in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung and includes it in his enumeration of all his A.L.Z. reviews in Athenaeum (1800) in the unnumbered pages between 164 and 165 (also repr. in Sämmtliche Werke 11:239–43), Erich Schmidt, (1913), 729, believes the reviewer was more likely Caroline, without, of course, any mention of the reviewer’s name. — Footnotes are those of the present editor. — Illustrations by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki. Back.

[1] Diderot, La Religieuse (posthumous) (Paris 1797); translated by Carl Friedrich Cramer as Die Nonne (Riga 1797). Back.

[2] The author was Friederike Unger. Back.

[3] Here the frontispiece to volume 2; in the first illustration, Julchen as the harvest queen brings her father, the magistrate, the harvest garland on a pole with ribbons. Back.

[4] Here the title vignette to volume 2, with Julchen being received by, kneeling before, and kissing the hand of Princess Eudoxia, spouse of Prince Demetrius. Back.

Translation © 2013 Doug Stott