Letter 26

• 26. Caroline to Julie von Studnitz in Gotha: Göttingen, 26 [–29] October 1781 (Fr.)

Göttingen, 26 [–29] October [1781]

|51| It is in the bosom of friendship, near you, my Julie, that I will pour out my lamentations, shed my tears, and seek consolation.

The day before yesterday we received a letter out of New York from an unfamiliar hand informing us that my brother was starting to recover from an extremely dangerous illness and, still too weak to write himself, had charged his friend with sending us news of him, though he himself did add a few words assuring us that he was still alive. — [1]

|52| — You, who know the intensity of my feelings and my affection for my brother, will easily judge my state of mind upon hearing this news. It utterly rent my heart. . . .

29 October

These last few days we have had an extremely interesting visit, Monsieur Nicolai from Berlin, a librarian, religious reformer, minister, favorite, and author of Sebaldus Nothanker. [2] A man who certainly seems to possess a generous measure of genius, wit, and finesse, but who despite all his savoir vivre is not able to conceal either his religious principles or the rather grand idea that he has of himself.

He does indeed present himself as a man of importance, his calling card containing nothing but the name: Frederic Nicolai. I was nonetheless very glad to see him, and indeed had the opportunity to observe him when he dined at our house. I like his Sebaldus even more than I do him, though he assured me that my brother was doing quite well at the moment.

You have doubtless already heard something about Monsieur Schlözer’s journey and his daughter, whom he is raising à la Gallizin. [3] It is true that she is a little girl with a superior intellect, and I believe it was nothing but regret at having to observe so many excellent faculties without cultivating all of them that prompted her father to give her an education. But though her education will perhaps make her famous some day, it will never make her truly happy and respected.

As he is quite rich, he has the means to execute all the bizarre projects he has planned for her. She is not to marry at all, or at least not until much later. Whether she herself will be of the same opinion, only time will tell. [4] Monsieur Heyne told Princess Gallizin here that one day it would be difficult for her to find a spouse worthy of her own daughter, of the manner in which she had brought her up; she, too, responded |53| that such was not her plan. But she did in any event give such an education to her daughter, whom she certainly would be satisfied with making happy though she herself is not. Even if her comment was not accurate, it was nonetheless well put. —

Monsieur Schlözer himself is a man with a mind so expansive, so refined, so discerning, that I am astonished to see him make such mistakes. But it is true that he makes others as well, and I fear that it is his mind itself that seduces him. He has made himself famous and rich through his political correspondence, but has also made countless enemies of the sort that makes it necessary for him to avoid several countries, among others Switzerland, so as not to be in danger. [5] . . .

He also very much runs the risk of being subjected to the vengeance of the Jesuits along the way, whom he has genuinely wronged. Yet despite the advice of all his friends, and above all of my father, he has nonetheless undertaken this journey and indeed was made even more committed to take his daughter along by all the advice to the contrary he encountered at every turn.

My father also often begs him not to publish some of the articles in his journal, but it is impossible for him not to print the truth or the satires, as harsh and malicious as they may be, and he could certainly merit the title of erster Cabinetsprediger [6] of all the princes of Germany. Nevertheless, he does not have a bad character.

Monsieur Nicolai told me he remained an extra day in Gotha to see the performance of Goethe’s play and also Madame Gotter in the role of Marianne. [7] Someone copied out an excerpt of the piece for me, but I cannot really say that the idea seems very interesting to me; the performance must establish its merit, and I very much wish to read it. |54| Have you already read Meisner’s Alcibiades, and what is your assessment of it? [8]

Recently, my dear friend, I sent you quite a panegyric for our bishop, did I not? [9] You may well have taken a bit of offense at it, and you would certainly have grounds to do so, but you know too well how enthusiastic I am, and you have probably already excused me. In the meantime, just to show you that I am indeed able to turn from my errors, though I do not take back any of the good things I said about him, I can tell you that I am also dissatisfied with him and blame him for not possessing even the most common sort of knowledge, for not wanting to learn German, for occupying himself only with the hunt, with dancing, and with the game of cricket etc. [10]

It is true that I should sooner criticize his education than him personally, but it is astonishing that English education, even the education of the children of the king himself, be so uncultured. They teach neither geography nor history nor languages, or at most only Latin. The English know about nothing but their own island and are too proud to learn about anything else; they believe themselves to be quite sufficient. In any event, our queen senses that, and spoke at length about it one day with my brother, comparing German education with education in England, much to the advantage of the former. [11] She should correct this shortcoming in her own family. — But far be it from me to blame that admirable queen! —

My brother even writes me that American women are considerably more cultivated than English women, and that one could not really love the latter without having at least the imagination of that particular Englishman who fell in love with the statue of Venus. [12] . . .


[1] For a brief and general account of Hessian participation in the American Revolutionary War, see supplementary appendix 4.1. Back.

[2] Christoph Friedrich Nicolai’s generously illustrated Enlightenment novel, Das Leben und die Meinungen des Herrn Magister Sebaldus Nothanker, 3 vols. (Berlin, Stettin 1773–76). See the remarks in the anonymous review of the translation, The Life and Opinions of Sebaldus Nothanker, trans. Thomas Dutton, vol. 1 (1796), reviewed in the Monthly Review or Literary Journal 22 (1797), 248–53, here 248–49 (orthography as in original):

Of the works of Nicolai, none has so reasonable a prospect of longevity as the history of Sebaldus Nothanker. Nearly thirty years have elapsed since it was undertaken; since the literature which it satirizes, and the manners which it describes, were prevailingly those of protestant Germany: — but the stupendous improvement, which so short an interval has effected, occasions the people of that region to cherish with exultation an honest memorial of their antient rusticity. They remember with pleasure those nationalities which civilization is effacing. They turn over with triumph a work which has preserved a lively portraiture of their former bigotry, in order to contrast it with their present liberality: a work to which, with justice, they ascribe a considerable share in accomplishing so honourable an innovation.

Philosophers will not think it uncharitable, if it be suspected that the author of this novel had in view to ridicule not merely the priestly but the Christian character, by describing in his hero a minister of the gospel who excels in all the qualities recommended in that gospel, yet is the perpetual ridicule of men of the world, the dupe of his own meek, patient, forgiving, mild, and charitable character, the butt of intolerance, the scorn of bigots, and every where the victim of his own virtues.

Sebaldus is originally induced, unwittingly to marry the castoff favourite of an officer of the court. The amiable heresy of rejecting the eternity of hell-torments, with some kindred tenets, occasions his dismission from his benefice by the presbyterian synod. His foible of interpreting the Apocalypse gets him into debt with a bookseller, who had procured for him all works on that subject.

After having encountered great difficulties, wandered in poverty and distress, been chaplain to a regiment, and editor of a Socinian magazine, he at length puts into the lottery, the number of the beast (666), gains a prize, and is thus restored with his family to comfort. Clergymen of various characters and denominations are introduced: but each, in proportion to his rank in the church and the orthodoxy of his creed, is a hypocrite, an extortioner, or a persecutor.

The amiable character of Sebaldus, which partakes much of the Parson Adams of Fielding, seems at times scarcely lifted high enough above contempt. The incidents, though probable, are thinly scattered, and feebly worked up. The pictures of manners, however, if too much dilated, are curious for their locality, and valuable for their fidelity. Knowlege of human nature, good sense, philanthropy, and moral sentiment, pervade and beautify the whole.

To open a gallery of Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki’s illustrations to the various volumes, click on the following image:


The meaning of Caroline’s use of the appositive “favorite” (Fr. favori, though Caroline spells it favorit) is uncertain; that Nicolai was the “favorite” of, e.g., some Berlin figure or patron may have been self-understood at the time. Back.

[3] From October 1781 till April 1782, August Ludwig Schlözer traveled to Italy with his eleven-year-old daughter, Dorothea, who had received a university education and was awarded an honorary doctorate at the university’s jubilee celebration in September 1787. Concerning Princess Amalie von Gallitzin, née Countess von Schmettau, see Caroline’s letter to Julie von Studnitz on 3 September 1781 (letter 25). Back.

[4] In 1792, and initially much against the wishes of her protective father, Dorothea Schlözer married Matthäus von Rodde from Lübeck, whom she had met during yet another trip with her father (W. R. Shepherd, Historical Map of Central Europe about 1786 [1926]):



[5] August Ludwig Schlözer did indeed make enemies with his influential publications. With respect to Switzerland, Caroline is referring to the incident involving Johann Heinrich Waser (see her letter to Luise Gotter in late October 1781 [letter 27]). Later, however, in the February 1784 issue of his Staatsanzeigen (Schlözer himself edited this periodical 1782–93), Schlözer would write so vehemently concerning abuses in Switzerland that Georg Christoph Lichtenberg viewed it as preaching revolution to the cantons (Lichtenberg, Briefe, 2:117), writing to Christian Gottlob Heyne in mid-February 1784:

You have probably already heard, esteemed Sir, that Schlözer had the preface to the most recent issue of his Staatsanzeigen excised. I read the printed copy yesterday evening. He is preaching outright rebellion, summoning the Swiss cantons in the strongest language to kick out their good-for-nothing government by drawing on their traditional courage and thereby to fetch happiness and justice now in Vienna and Wetzlar [as key imperial centers]. It is quite abominable. Perhaps I can secure a copy for you. No amount of money could purchase the printed copy.

Lichtenberg continues in his next letter to Heyne that month (ibid.):

You are definitely to receive a copy, Sir. It is doubtless even worse than you might imagine. If Schlözer continues to write thus, his life will no longer be secure in and near the city, and in his place I would as little go alone to Kerstlingeröder Feld as, in the emperor’s place recently, sleep in the house of a cardinal in Rome. I am even beginning to think he is repressing this material precisely so that people will want to read it. He is very clever indeed. Back.

[6] “Senior cabinet preacher,” in German in original. Back.

[7] Marianne, the female lead in Goethe’s as yet unpublished one-act play of 1776, Die Geschwister (Leipzig 1787) (premiered in Weimar on 21 November 1776), traditionally viewed as being loosely based on Goethe’s love for Charlotte von Stein.

The story involves a brother-sister relationship that turns out not to be such at all, and in the end, after Marianne receives a proposal from another — Fabrice — and feels she cannot leave her brother, Wilhelm, the latter reveals to her that she is in fact the daughter of his earlier, now deceased love Charlotte. The play ends with the two as a couple.

Here several nineteenth-century illustrations (including the character of Marianne, whose role Luise Gotter performs, and Wilhelm, whose role her husband performs) from the English translation of the play (The Brother and Sister, Goethe’s Works, trans. George Barrie, vol. 3 [Philadelphia, New York, Boston 1885], plates following pp. 211, 212, 218):





Concerning the performance, see Hans Gerhard Gräf, Goethe ueber seine Dichtungen: Versuch einer Sammlung aller Aeusserungen des Dichters ueber seine poetischen Werke, vol. 2 (Frankfurt 1904), 634:

September 17 [1781]: The amateur theater in Gotha (whose performances took place in the court theater, which had been closed in 1779), led by Gotter, gave a performance of Die Geschwister on this day; the roles of Wilhelm and Marianne were performed by the Gotter couple [i.e., by Gotter himself and Luise Gotter], that of Fabrice by Zinkeisen the Younger, the letter carrier by Perrin; the performance was repeated on 5 October.

Concerning the attendance of Friedrich Nicolai at one of these performances, see Waitz (1882), 11 [i.e., this present letter]; also (1871), 1:309&endash;10. [Caroline to Luise Gotter in late October 1781 (letter 27)].

Caroline mentions her desire to read more of the play in her letter to Luise Gotter in late October 1781 (letter 27). Back.

[8] August Gottlieb Meissner’s four-volume historical novel, Alcibiades (Leipzig 1781–88). Caroline can only be referring to the initial volume, which appeared in 1781; volume 2 did not appear until 1783. — Click on the image below to open a gallery of illustrations from all four volumes of the first two editions:



[9] See Caroline’s letter to Julie von Studnitz on 14 June 1781 (letter 23). Back.

[10] Here a hunting scene from the early eighteenth century, “Setting Out on the Hunt”; note the women also arriving in the carriage (Johann Elias Ridinger, Aufbruch zur Jagd [ca. 1718–67], Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum;JERidinger AB 1.17), and an anonymous 18th-century illustration of a game of cricket:




[11] A somewhat unexpected assessment of the two educational systems unless Caroline is comparing the educational level of the English aristocracy with the middle-class educated German rather than the German aristocracy. See W. H. Bruford, Germany in the Eighteenth Century: The Social Background of the Literary Revival (Cambridge 1935), 64–66:

The towns and the princes had taken one after the other of these [original] functions from them [the aristocracy], until only those concerned with the ownership of land were left. It might at least have happened, as it did to some extent in Italy, France and England, that the privileged and sheltered aristocracy would maintain spiritual, intellectual and artistic values in an increasingly materialistic world.

The nobility [in Germany] as a whole did not, however, contribute very much to intellectual life either creatively or by encouraging the work of others. Over and over again we are told that their badge in the first half of the century was ignorance, and in the second half they only slowly followed in the footsteps of the bourgeoisie. The phrase which Goethe uses in his notes for the continuation of Dichtung und Wahrheit about the Weimar court as he found it in 1775 is: “Gutmütige Beschränktheit, die sich zur wissenschaftlichen und literaren Kultur emporzuheben sucht” [“good-natured slow-wittedness that tries to elevate itself to the level of scholarly and literary cultivation”].

Their peers in England and France looked on them for the most part as ignorant boors, and this judgment seems to be borne out by their poor record in literature and science. The phrase put into the mouth of Oleanus in [Goethe’s play] Götz von Berlichingen: “So gelehrt wie ein Deutscher von Adel” [“as erudite, learned as a member of the German aristocracy”] hid, like so much else in the play, a contemporary reference.

It was fashionable indeed at most German courts to take a mild interest in literature, especially of the lighter kind, and as there was no German literature of general interest to speak of till late in the century, it was natural enough that French should be favoured. But German noblemen really cultivated even in French literature were rare exceptions. The majority were content if they could carry on a conversation in passable French, or at least lard their German with “French'” words, and appear not to be ignorant of popular French writers.

Almost all considered it beneath the dignity of a nobleman to desire any genuine scholarship. It was particularly difficult for women to cultivate their minds without losing in esteem. “Learned women had been made ridiculous” says the Schöne Seele [“beautiful soul“] in Wilhelm Meister, “and people could not bear even well read ones, probably because it was thought impolite to put so many ignorant men to shame.”

Of course there were brilliant exceptions at Darmstadt, Brunswick, and Weimar . . . and in encouragement of the fine arts and architecture the nobility had a better record — though here again they were no more creative than an American millionaire. The German aristocracy could not therefore have rationally defended their privileges in the eighteenth century on the grounds of their services to culture. Back.

[12] Caroline’s specfiic allusion is uncertain, though a story seems to have made the rounds at some point in Europe of an Englishman who had fallen in love with the Venus de’ Medici in Florence (recounted by Charles Godfrey Leland, trans., The Works of Heinrich Heine, vol. 1 [London 1893], 9fn1; illustration: Bell’s New Pantheon; or, Historical Dictionary of theGods, Demi-Gods, Heroes, and Fabulous Personages of Antiquity etc., 2 vols. [London 1790], illustration following 2:302):


The original story of Pygmalion is probably most familiar from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, according to which Pygmalion falls in love not with a statue of Venus, but with a statue of a beautiful woman he himself has made but whom Venus brings to life (William Smith, A Smaller Classical Dictionary of Biography, Mythology, and Geography, 11th ed. [London 1868], 347; illustration: Jean Cotelle der Ältere and Franz Ertinger [engraver], Venus erweckt die Skulptur des Pygmalion zum Leben [1689]; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur FErtinger AB 3.16):

Pygmalion, King of Cyprus. He is said to have fallen in love with the ivory image of a maiden which he himself had made, and to have prayed to Aphrodite (Venus) to breathe life into it. When the request was granted, Pygmalion married the maiden, and became by her the father of Paphus.



Translation © 2011 Doug Stott