Letter 72a

• 72a (was 65). Caroline to Lotte Michaelis in Göttingen: Clausthal, late 1786 [*]

[Clausthal] Wednesday after dinner [late 1786]

|136| It always grieves me in a peculiar way when I am without a plan, in either the larger or narrower sense; I cannot bear to knit even a single stitch without both the enthusiasm and the genuine anticipation of actually finishing the project |137| and afterward being able to think, “I really have accomplished something” — I really am quite capable of genuinely deliberating what I want to do, what the best thing to do is, and then of putting forth the effort to make it so. If I am without purpose, I am like those who are accustomed to lacing themselves up from sunrise to sunset and who without their stays do not quite know what to do with their body.

If I am then plagued with the additional thorn in the flesh of intending to do something I do not particularly like, and yet which I do not really have the power to coerce — and — may your compassion take this to heart — if I also have no other pleasant, desperate means in the house apart from reading, embroidery, etc., then I am but a miserable creature who indifferently sees the morning light peeking through the curtains and then in the evening goes to bed unsatisfied by the day. [1]

And now, having presented this, my own daily canter and trot for your perusal, I now come to its dismal application, namely, that precisely such has been my case for three days now. My errands were done, and others, such as preparations for a certain infant baptism, [1a] I simply did not yet want to undertake because I knew I would be interrupted both yesterday and today. I intended to write one letter — woe, woe, and thrice woe to those who want to do such a thing; it was supposed to be to Madam Offeney, and my heart was an inhospitable island. Although the beginning is indeed lying there already, it is a thing that would sooner make you want to run away, I cannot write it except in a fit of epistolary mania, when I rush to get letters off by the dozen.

I had nothing else to read. My Gustav was also absolutely used up and exhausted; [2] I am loath to part with him, having passed so many enjoyable hours with him. I hope you have not forgotten me to Meyer; I am expecting much this time. I would very much like to have the following book if the library has it: Mémoires de Louise Juliane, Electrice palatine, par Frederic Spanheim. 4to. Leyden 1645. [3] Write it down and send it to him this evening if possible. I will probably receive something from you as well. I am keeping Garve and putting up a half |137| guilder for it, not because it has a tallow stain or anything like that on it, but because it is an exemplary polemical treatise as regards its excellent, genuinely philosophical emotional tenor, being neither too tense and strained nor too humble and respectful. [4] Anton Reiser, [5] for which I am lying in ambush, will then provide a bit of autumnal mist once more.

May this year pass for you in the same comfortable ease and calm with which you seem to be beginning it, and at the beginning of the next one, may its first morning encourage you with more exciting expectations than the desolate desert image might betray. [6] Although my own wishes are modest, strictly speaking altogether they weigh in more than perhaps a single more fiery one, as if it made any difference whether one dipped one’s wig into the ocean rather than a pail of water. [7]

But, as you will find after more serious, sensitive reflection on such things — precisely because such reflection leads us to focus on the broader picture — the most beautiful colors of the future do indeed transition into such images — that ultimately a certain feeling of vanity or nullity dissolves all of them. Lotte, we would be miserable indeed — if our happiness did not in fact consist of small things whose sum is indeed vain but that individually are nonetheless capable of occupying us completely.

For it is from that particular disposition in which the soul seemed ready to withdraw into itself and to be intent on fathoming its own depths and our very nature — that the smallest trifle can so easily call us back, a voice, a fleeting glance that draws our attention to a ribbon, to some small something — and, like a bolt of lightning, brings us back to the present, to the comfort and varied distractions of life, reviving our inclination and joy for it all once more. It is thus — but I know nothing more about it.

Yesterday I played the dinner hostess, and the roast was more important to me than heaven and earth. [7a] All of you, too, have had guests, in fact: Meyer, and in that case you doubtless did not think about barren deserts. I kept imagining that Ilsemann, who was sitting next to me, was in fact Meyer, since I had just learned from Louise [8] |139| that he was there at the house with all of you. That was enormously comical. Not least because this political tinker [9] is now putting on airs because — only imagine! — it had been proposed that he be made a professor; it was to that that he wanted to draw attention, wanting to bring about all sorts of reforms in his apothecary-schnapps store, and the young drunkards ruined it and made buffoonery out of it all. [10] Hardenberg [11] had recently sent musicians there, as if to a pub; well, did he ever puff up his feathers about that! In Hannover, they thought it more convenable, as the rescript put it, to make him a mining chemist. And in any case it would have been a disgrace for Göttingen had someone become a professor who had never even been at a university. [12]

But what does that concern you? Let us speak instead about the Louises. [13] The little I can do for the one did indeed happen at the most propitious opportunity, since she herself has written me much about a quarrel with Busch, [14] something I find insufferable and through which, as I have also told her, Marianne [15] has lost all respect. She possesses all the recklessness and thoughtlessness of someone her age; alongside the secret joys of love she also appropriates everything offered by vanity, and without considering in the least that the one is detrimental to the other. [16] For her it is doubtless not good to live in the larger world of all of you. I fear only bitter experience will bring her to her senses, for has she not — all her blessings notwithstanding — taken ten steps before the first, and as thoughtlessly as possible?

Even the most recent such step, namely, having Rudlof as her confidante — how was such a step even possible? [17] Mother, of course, must learn none of this; I do not want to upset her even if I might do some good by it, but with respect to her public comportment she must be careful not to be too unconcerned, for supervision and admonition certainly are able to have some effect on Louise. She is not so passionate as to ignore the ill consequences.

You also need to continue to remind her, especially when she |140| is about to do something foolish. I fear that at the beginning you did indeed sacrifice our other Louise a bit to a girl’s prejudice against a woman and wife, perhaps causing her to throw herself completely into the latter role, since apart from you she did not have any other unmarried girlfriend, and in that regard her own personality is just not sufficiently defined to play a role alone. [18]

Things would not necessarily have turned out quite this way if from the very outset you had continued the relationship with all the former cordiality, though at the time even I myself noticed something in you directed against her that increased as the wedding drew near. [19] You seemed to have imagined beforehand that afterward you would not be able to do much with her. Let me entreat you to try to reestablish your former relationship with her either straightway or at least gradually. What could even the most open declaration contain that she would want to relate further to her husband, since he would not be interested in it in any case? [20] Nor is one inclined to do such a thing anyway, since few women will betray a lady friend to their husband, including Louise. [21]

I for my part, however, would sooner favor a gradual approach; explanations or declarations can too often make the first party more vehement than necessary, and the second thereby bitter. Telling her a bit about what you are thinking would be a good initial step. Reproach her when she starts talking about potatoes and the like, ask her why she is not the same with you as before, but do so without making too serious a production out of it.

Louise herself will feel better if she is able to chat with you. You are probably also judging her too severely in some respects — look, it is and will always remain impossible for a woman to be like a girl. Since such will indeed make a difference in even the most distinguished creature in this sense, albeit in a different fashion, how should it not also be thus for a more normal person, for whom the purpose of a woman perhaps becomes the primary purpose of a person in general?

Do you not believe, for example, that Therese would completely take the part of her husband? And that much of what she finds good or bad she does so through him?

|141| At the beginning, one can, like Louise, develop an almost childish interest in household matters and then talk about it all quite enthusiastically to learn all one can; and because it does indeed exert no small influence on our lives, such discussions are by no means as insipid as one might think — alas, just as it also once seemed to me! Perhaps Louise is simply going too far with it — at least according to your rather lively description — but it is probably merely embarras [22] and a defensive ploy resulting from her not knowing what she ought to say when you yourself have nothing more to say to her. Sister Louise is also more to blame for the cooling of the relationship, though without being really culpable herself — she is company for you when you otherwise would have sought someone else’s, though it seems to me I have already dealt with all this.

In a word, do not neglect Wischen [Louise]. What old women may say is just not all that important. Louise never was all that adept at captivating anyone, her charm was that of the young girl, and of the naïve young girl; she lost the one and will no longer risk utilizing the other, and thus has lost very little, and yet the charm itself has nonetheless fled!

As far as the sinfulness of the choice of clothing is concerned, both sides of the argument, albeit supported by the appropriate exaggeration and restrictions, might be maintained. Her inclination to be excessive in what is good is in fact a bit of an inherited family trait. Though I do think it also true that the way a woman dresses is different insofar as one considers primarily the character one wishes to assert and not so much the approval of others. [23]

So, do what you can, my dear girl. I have to be at the club in a half hour and have not yet done my hair.

Tell Madam Schlözer that I could not yet send the money this time.

Your Caroline


[*] Originally letter 65. Concerning dating: Schmidt (1913), 136, dates the letter to early 1786. Julius Steinberger, Erinnerungen, 141, points out that Caroline’s reference to Luise Michaelis’s “quarrel with Busch” makes sense only in late 1786, since Luise did not arrive back in Göttingen from Gotha until early summer 1786.

Luise Michaelis herself, in her Erinnerungen (see Luise’s autobiography, p. 69), mentions the quarrel with a certain “Herr von dem Bussche, who had insulted me the previous winter [i.e., winter 1786/87, prior to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the university in September 1787] because I, having already promised him a third dance, did not grant him such.”

Moreover, if the second Louise mentioned in this letter is Louise Böhmer (the first clearly being Louise/Luise Michaelis), the letter should also be dated a year later, namely, to 1787, since Louise Böhmer married on 17 October 1786, and Caroline refers to this Louise having a husband.

That said, it is not entirely clear whether the letter was written just after New Year’s and is referring to the following year as well, or whether at the end of the year and is referring in an anticipatory fashion to the beginning of the next year (“May this year pass for you in the same comfortable ease and calm with which you seem to be beginning it, and at the beginning of the new one, may its first morning encourage you with more exciting expectations than etc.”). Back.

[1] “Morgen,” Göttinger Taschen Calendar Für das Iahr 1797; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



[1a] Application in previous sentence in French (or English) in the original. — Illustration of infant baptism in 1797 (at the mother’s bedside rather than in a church): Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Eintritt in die Welt (1797); Herzog August Bibliothek; Museums./Signatur Graph. A1: 435:



[2] “Gustav” is an uncertain reference. Waitz (1871), 1:30n1, wondered whether perhaps the reference was to Friedrich Traugott Hase, Gustav Aldermann. Ein dramatischer Roman (Leipzig 1779) (here the frontispiece):


Schmidt (1913), 1:684, doubted it, suggesting the reference might instead be to a historical piece and referring the reader to Caroline’s mention of Gustav and Mary Stuart in her letter to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer in 1786 (letter 66). This remark, however, is more likely an oblique reference to the figure of Mary Stuart in Sophia Lee, The Recess; or, A Tale of Other Times, 3 vols. (London 1783–85); see Caroline’s letter to Lotte Michaelis just before Christmas 1786 (letter 73), note 1. Back.

[3] Concerning this work, see Caroline’s letter to Friedrich Ludwig Wilhelm Meyer on in 1786 (letter 66), note 3. Her remarks there, namely, that “Les Mémoires de Louise Juliane Electrice palatine par Fred. Spanheim do not seem to be in the library,” do indeed seem to support dating letter 65 (i.e., this present letter 72a) before letter 66, since these remarks seem to presuppose Caroline’s request here (assuming also that letter 66 is correctly dated). Back.

[4] Christian Garve, whom Friedrich Nicolai had rudely dispatched because of Garve’s review of Nicolai’s own Beschreibung einer reise durch Deutschland und die Schweiz, im Jahre 1781. Nebst Bemerkungen über Gelehrsamkeit, Industrie, Religion und Sitten, 12 vols. (Berlin, Stettin 1783–96), responded calmly with his Schreiben an Herrn Friedrich Nicolai über einige Äusserungen desselben, in seiner Schrift, betitelt Untersuchung der Beschuldigungen des P. G. gegen meine Reisebeschreibung (Breslau 1786); it is to this latter piece that Caroline here refers. Back.

[5] Karl Philipp Moritz, Anton Reiser. Ein psychologischer Roman, 4 vols. (Berlin 1785–90), a timeless (Erich Schmidt’s assessment) autobiographical novel. See John George Robertson , A History of German Literature (New York 1902), 346–47:

Less ambitious than the “art-novels” of Heinse or Klinger’s philosophical romances, Anton Reiser, ein psychologischer Roman (1785), by Karl Philipp Moritz, demands special attention in a history of German fiction at the close of the “Sturm und Drang” [Storm and Stress period]. This novel stands in the direct line between [Christoph Martin Wieland’s] Agathon [2 vols. (Frankfurt, Leipzig 1766–77)] and Wilhelm Meister. It is an unpretentious story, mainly autobiographical, like Jung-Stilling’s Jugend [Heinrich Stillings Jugend (1777)]; yet before Wilhelm Meister, no book of the eighteenth century painted with such convincing truth a young man’s initiation into the trials of life.

Anton Reiser is born in extreme poverty, and, beginning life as a hatmaker’s apprentice in Brunswick, has to fight his way through all manner of hardships; the dream of his life is to win a name for himself on the stage, but, once success is within sight, he is bitterly disappointed with what he had regarded as the ideal world of Shakespeare and Goethe. This is practically the thread of narrative on which the novel hangs, but the importance of the book lies, not in its story, but in its keen observation and fine insight. The restless spirit of the “Sturm und Drang” is still present, but now and again we are reminded of that new world which Goethe’s broad humanitarianism had revealed to his contemporaries.

Here the four frontispieces in order:






[6] Lotte Michaelis apparently made some such allusion in the letter to which Caroline is responding; Caroline mentions the same image later in this letter. Back.

[7] Caroline is alluding to the following passage in Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick, 2 vols. (London 1768), 1:156–58 (“The Wig. Paris”) (illustrations from Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy [New York 1892], 86–87):

When the barber came, he absolutely refused to have any thing to do with my wig: ’twas either above or below his art: I had nothing to do, but to take one ready made of his own recommendation.


— But I fear, friend! said I, this buckle won’t stand. You may immerse it, replied he, into the ocean, and it will stand —


What a great scale is every thing upon in this city! thought I — The utmost stretch of an English periwigmaker’s ideas could have gone no further than to have “dipped it into a pail of water” — What difference! ’tis like time to eternity.


I confess I do hate all cold conceptions, as I do the puny ideas which engender them; and am generally so struck with the great works of nature, that for my own part, if I could help it, I never would make a comparison less than a mountain at least. All that can be said against the French sublime in this instance of it, is this — that the grandeur is more in the word; and less in the thing. No doubt the ocean fills the mind with vast ideas; but Paris being so far inland, it was not likely I should run post a hundred miles out of it, to try the experiment — the Parisian barber meant nothing.

The pail of water standing besides the great deep, makes certainly but a sorry figure in speech — but, ’twill be said — it has one advantage — ’tis in the next room, and the truth of the buckle may be tried in it, without more ado, in a single moment.

In honest truth, and upon a more candid revision of the matter, The French expression professes more than it performs. Back.

[7a] Illustration from Der Freund des schönen Geschlechts: ein angenehm und nützlicher Taschenkalender für das Jahr 1808:



[8] One of the passages where it is difficult to determine whether the reference is to Louise Böhmer, Louise Nieper, or Luise Michaelis, though here Louise Böhmer seems the most likely choice. Back.

[9] Allusion to Ludvig von Holberg’s first comedy, Den Politiske Kandestøber (Copenhagen 1722; Eng. The Political Tinker, or The Pewterer turned Politician). See Frederick J. Marker and Lise-Lone Marker, A History of Scandanavian Theater (Cambridge 1996), 56–57 (illustration: Wilhelm Marstrand, Collegium politicum [n.d. (19th cent.)]; Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark, KKSgb7285):


In The Political Tinker, the opening salvo in Holberg’s comic offensive, Herman von Bremen is a muddle-headed tinker whose risible political pretensions become his undoing after he is duped into believing that he has been elected mayor. Back.

[10] Airs in French (or English) in original.

Numerous references to apothecary shops appear in this correspondence; here an apothecary ca. 1785 (Joseph Richter, Bildergalerie weltlicher Misbräuche: Ein Gegenstück zur Bildergalerie katholischer und klösterlicher Misbräuche [Frankfurt, Leipzig 1785], illustration following p. 166):


Here four similarly characteristic illustrations from the period. The first is an apothecary’s shop from the early eighteenth century (Christoff Weigel, Abbildung Der Gemein-Nützlichen Haupt-Stände Von denen Regenten Und ihren So in Friedens- als Kriegs-Zeiten zugeordneten Bedienten an biß auf alle Künstler und Handwercker Nach Jede Ambts- und Beruffs-Verrichtungen meist nach dem Leben gezeichnet und in Kupfer gebracht etc. [Regenspurg 1698], illustration following p. 126):


The remaining shop illustrations in order: [1] anonymous, apothecary in the 17th/18th century; [2] Wolf Helmhardt Hohberg, Daniel von Neuberg, Mathäus von Küsel, Georgica Curiosa Aucta, Das ist: Umständlicher Bericht und klarer Unterricht Von dem vermehrten und verbesserten Adelichen Land- und Feld-Leben Auf alle in Teutschland übliche Land- und Haus-Wirthschafften gerichtet [Nürnberg 1716], plate on p. 335; [3] Franz Philipp Florinus, Oeconomus prudens et legalis. Oder Der kluge und rechtsverständige Haus-Vater, book 8 [Franckfurt, Leipzig, 1702], plate on p. 72):





[11] Identity uncertain. Back.

[12] Convenable (Fr.): “suitable, fitting.” — Ilsemann, whose mineral collection Goethe had examined during his own visit to Clausthal on 9 December 1777, did in fact lecture on chemistry and mineralogy at the mining academy in Clausthal 1782–1810. Back.

[13] The references seem to be to Luise Michaelis and Louise Böhmer. Back.

[14] Although Erich Schmidt (1913), 2:674, s.v., seems (he does not include initials) to identify this person as Friedrich August von dem Bussche (see Caroline’s letter to Julie von Studnitz on 14 June 1781 [letter 23]), Luise Wiedemann, née Michaelis, in her Erinnerungen, suggests the reference is instead to the nephew of Ernst August Wilhelm von dem Bussche, namely, Clamor Friedrich von dem Bussche (see Luise’s autobiography, p. 69, and note * above concerning dating. Back.

[15] Presumably Marianne Heyne, though the context is unclear. Back.

[16] Luise Wiedemann, née Michaelis, herself admits as much on several occasions in autobiographical portion of her Erinnerungen, passim. Back.

[17] See Luise’s own recollections of Rudloff in her autobiography, p. 20. Back.

[18] Louise Böhmer had married Georg Jacob Friedrich Meister on 17 October 1786 (Goettinger Taschen Kalender vom Jahr 1785; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):



[19] That is, Louise Böhmer’s wedding on 17 October 1786. Lotte herself would not marry until 1792 (Taschenbuch für das Jahr 1813: Der Liebe und Freundschaft gewidmet [Frankfurt], Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):



[20] Goettinger Taschen Kalender vom Jahr 1790; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



[21] Goettinger Taschen Kalender vom Jahr 1785; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



[22] Fr. in original, here in the meaning: “embarrassment, nervousness.” Back.

[23] Goettinger Taschen Kalender vom Jahr 1790; Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung:



Translation © 2011 Doug Stott