Letter 108

• 108. Friedrich Wilhelm and Luise Gotter to Caroline in Göttingen: Gotha, 3 November 1791

[Gotha] 3 November [17]91

|235| On a black post next to the city gates of my hometown, a black plaque bears the hospitable inscription: Be it herewith known that all beggars shall be dispatched straightaway to prison. [1]

I will grant this warning is a bit severe. But that a pretty woman slams the door in the face of a well-dressed man who seems about to approach her house, and then yells out the window, “Do not bother! I am not at home! I will not open the door!” — that is even more severe than the welcome sign posted by the Gotha police. —

The beggars end up slinking past the hard-hearted city — unless gnawing hunger drives them in at the risk of their freedom. In the latter instance, they are sometimes fortunate enough to secure lodging and something to eat and to escape the Argus-eyes of the Beggar Bailiffs. —

But it is difficult to determine how a well-dressed man might behave — or ought to behave — under such circumstances. Be he well versed in the Bible, he will not be deterred, recalling instead how it is written: “Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” [2] If he be sensitive, he will keep himself in countenance, turn slowly around, and, mumbling all the while, continue on his way.

If he has read novels and other works of wit, he will say to his companion or manservant: “Be so kind as to see whether you can slip this billet — or this calling card — into the house through a broken window pane or through a hole in the wall; [3] but take care lest you suffer the same fate as Jeannot in the comedy!” [4]

I know not whether you are indeed familiar with this perfumed hero from one of the most popular pieces of the currently most cultivated nation in Europe. Your reading material does not seem to extend much beyond Grandison. [5] All the more vividly, however, will |236| you recall that this colossus of reason did ultimately find the means to transform the sophistry of the disembodied lady Biron into soap bubbles.

. . . I kiss your cold hand and in the meantime would rather have you scold me for importunacy and indiscretion than — praise me in such a way. [6] And yet it is still not possible for me to lower my admiration for you for even a single moment.


As determined as you are to thwart our dearest wishes with all your power, my dear, wicked, and cruel Caroline, I nonetheless cannot bring myself to be offended or annoyed with you, and just as little is it possible for me to allow a letter to be mailed to you without telling you in at least one sentence how much and how eternally I will always love you despite your not inconsiderable hard-heartedness.



[1] An allusion to Josias Friedrich Löffler’s unsuccessful marital initiative with Caroline; this episode is discussed in letters 105–10, excepting 107a and 108a.

Here three contemporary engravings of beggars, including (1) just such a sign at the town gates reading “Begging forbidden, upon punishment of 5 rh.” (third frontispiece to Sächsischer Volkskalender für das Jahr 1847 [Leipzig 1847]); (2) an indication — to the left in the picture — of how the beggar came to be unable to work (“Der sinnreiche Bettler,” Göttinger Taschenkalender [1801]; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung); and (3) a well-to-do man giving alms (anonymous, Ein reicher Mann gibt einem alten Bettler eine Münze in den Hut [ca. 1776–1800]; Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. Res. A: 437):





[2] Mt. 7:7, within the broader context of Mt. 7:7–14 (NRSV): “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. . . . Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Christoph Weigel, Historia von Iesu Christi unsers Heylandes Geburt, Lebenswandel, Wunderwercken, Gleichnußreden, Leiden, Sterben, Auferstehen und Himmelfahrt: Zur Einpflanßung von Jugend auf, und state Unterhaltung Gottseelige betrachtungen auß denen heyligen Evangelisten Mattheo, Marco, Luca, und Johanne, vorgebildet [Augsburg 1695]):



[3] An allusion to the comedy with a similar name — “the hole in the door” (see illustration below) — by Gottlieb Stephanie, Das Loch in der Thüre. Ein ursprünglich deutsches Lustspiel, 2nd ed. (Vienna, Munich, 1781); illustration from Stephanie des Jüngern sämmtliche Schauspiele, vol. 6 (Vienna 1787), following op. 313:



Here an illustration of an unfaithful wife exchanging such notes through an open window with a man in uniform even with her husband and child present (“Die schlechte Hausfrau” [“the bad/unfaithful housewife”], Berlinischer Damen-Kalender auf das Gemein-Jahr 1809, Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):



[4] Johann Friedrich Jünger, Jeannot, oder wer den Schaden hat, darf für den Spott nicht sorgen. Lustspiel in einem Akt (Leipzig 1786), after the immensely popular comedy by Louis-François Archambault, Janot ou les Battus paient l’amende (Paris 1780). Rudolf Schlösser, Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter, 154, remarks concerning this passage:

The maladroit mediator Jeanot is, of course, Gotter himself, who with this subtle turn of phrase accepts responsibility for the unsuccessful courtship and adroitly and tactfully helped his friend [Caroline] get beyond the awkwardness of her own position by playfully giving the matter a touch of the ridiculous. Back.

[5] Samuel Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison in a series of letters published from the originals by the Editor of Pamela and Clarissa in seven volumes (London 1754). Gotter is alluding to Caroline’s remarks about Grandison and Henriette Byron in her letter to the Gotters on 31 October 1791 (letter 107). Back.

[6] In her letter of 31 October 1791 (letter 107), Caroline had effusively praised Gotter himself for his gracious comportment in the matter involving Löffler while she was staying with the Gotters in Gotha. Illustration: “You wanted to be the German wife of a German man” (Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Du wolltest Eines Deutschen Mannes deutsches Weib seyn [ca. 1781–83]; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur JARossmaesler WB 3.4; scene from the 1780 play Nicht mehr als sechs Schüsseln):



Translation © 2011 Doug Stott