Caroline’s Review of Nun and Abbess in Childbed

Caroline’s Review of Nonne und Aebtissinn im Wochenbette [*]

Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1798) 23 (Saturday, 20 January 1798) 183–84.

Meissen, bei Erbstein: Nonne und Aebtissinn im Wochenbette, oder die Frucht der Schwärmerey, eine Geschichte einzig in ihrer Art. Vom Mann im grauen Rocke. 1797. 504 pages. 8vo. (1 Rthlr. 8 gr.).


Let us assure those who might react to this title by not anticipating the most edifying of stories that they are in every respect quite right. The tedium prompted by the author’s tortured, presumptuous delivery far surpasses the actual scandal and is, moreover, on quite the same level with the repugnance his vulgar scenes of a different sort and the filthy character portrayals cannot but elicit in an even halfway civilized person.

Amid all that, he does indeed give himself a treat with regard to both the liveliness of his portrayal and his morality. The first four printer’s sheets are filled with a naive-sentimental portrait of the mood of a young girl who awakens from a dream in which Father Bernhardo, whom she recently saw in a neighboring monastery, appeared to her. This is recounted wholly in the following wearying tone of a third-person monologue. Page 14:

Perhaps his saints and his masses are everything to him, and he has lost all sensibility for worldly joy. Well, then she genuinely does feel sorry for him; his taste has been totally ruined, and he is doubtless also no longer even capable of various good things; for all these things are connected like a chain (yes, indeed!), the one cannot do without the other. It is as clear as day that he has absolutely no taste now, for how otherwise could he love such a monotonous, soulless life etc. . . . No, he really does not suit her; though she, too, loves solitude, she must also have variety . . .

And page 15:

Ah, but how horrible that he has chosen that estate; if only she could understand what prompted him; how could he ever be so foolish as to lead such a cloistered life . . . But he is not always so cloistered; after all, she herself met him once out in an open field etc. . . .

After this exposition has been dispensed with, the author gets to the story itself, where we immediately have the most abominable mother enter the scene, quite notwithstanding several statements by the daughter in the previously mentioned monologue concerning her parents’ happy marriage, which lead one to expect something quite different. On page 205 we read: “‘pathetic, miserable woman!’ several here will no doubt cry out, wishing that a couple of blows from the rod of the sergeant had smacked the Madame’s exposed area.”

That the author presupposes such wishes on the part of his readers sufficiently demonstrates the extent to which he might well count on eliciting similar ones. Innocent Franziska flees into the convent from the importunities of the wicked people with whom she must deal, albeit simultaneously driven by the most ardent and lustful desire for Father Bernhardo, with whom she does indeed finally meet, finding in him an extremely worldly spiritual father. Her innocence, the author would have us believe, remains steadfast for at least a while in the face of his vile sensuality, till finally the result is childbed. We are, however, disinclined to linger very long with the more intimate circumstances involved there and will instead offer but one more sample of the author’s animated manner of writing. On page 414 Franziska, half asleep, has jumped out of her cell window and gotten hung in a tree:

. . . he [Bernhardo] must climb up; he tries, succeeds; he had never before tried anything of that sort; he scratches his hands bloody clinging to the tree bark, then grasps a branch — it breaks with a loud crack; he is in danger of his own terror making him fall; but now he must risk everything, and even should the entire convent awaken, he rescues Franziska, swings himself up now to another branch, from there to yet another, ever higher and higher — ha! now he is quite close to Franziska, climbs up on yet another — it breaks, he falls, Franziska can no longer cry out loud — but he remains ten feet lower, hanging in the branches just like Franziska, works his way back up, without resting, to stronger branches on the other side, now he is already as high as Franziska; but still close to the trunk, and Franziska is hanging between two branches far out from the trunk etc. . . . and now he swings himself stepwise out to the one — Ah, God! Help! Help! etc.

And thus does it continue for a few more pages; but weary of copying out this text, let us leave the good father here along with his story dangling quite appropriately between heaven and earth. May he serve as a warning against reading and writing such wretchedness!


[*] Approx. title: Nun and Abbess in childbed, or: the fruit of rapturous enthusiasm, a unique story. By the man in the grey coat. Back.

Translation © 2015 Doug Stott