Sunday, January 18, 2009

Countess Auguste Louise Stolberg

On this day in 1775 Goethe began a correspondence with a woman whose identity, initially, remained unknown to him. She had written to him of her enthusiasm for his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and her letter had been sent to Goethe by her brothers, who were studying in Göttingen. None of the letters she wrote to Goethe have survived, but the first one impressed him enough that he immediately replied. The small correspondence between the two in the following year (Goethe's responses survive), forms a small footnote in Goethe studies. The letters he wrote to her from Frankfurt, however, reveal much about his state of mind during the period when he was courting Lili Schönemann.

The lady in question was Auguste Louise Gräfin zu Stolberg (1753-1835), and she seems to have been urged to the bold step of writing to Goethe by Metta von Oberg, a German baronness, with whom she lived in a cloister for noble ladies in a place called Uetersen, in Schleswig-Holstein, which was then part of Denmark.

Her brothers were Friedrich Leopold and Christian. They too were Werther enthusiasts, and, on their way to Switzerland, in May 1775,  the young nobles stopped in Frankfurt and convinced Goethe to join them on their journey. Desiring to escape his entanglement with Lili, he did so. For the trip to Switzerland the brothers had clothes made to match the dress made famous by Werther: a blue frock coat, yellow leather knee breeches, and boots. Not only in their dress did the brothers cause a stir. 

They were adherents of what was called the cult of nature and, near Darmstadt, took the opportunity to swim naked in a pond. 
As Goethe wrote later of this episode in his autobiography: the sight of naked youths in the sunshine was no doubt a novelty but also caused a scandal. Well, we live in more enlightened times now. (Irony meter registering.)

Auguste fades out of Goethe's story in 1776, when he was becoming entrenched in Weimar and found in Frau von Stein a recipient for his outpourings. Auguste moved to Copenhagen in 1783 and married Andreas Peter von Bernstorff, an important government minister. The German-Danish writer Friederike Brun has many complimentary things to say about Bernstorff in her autobiography Wahrheit aus Morgenträumen. Brun's father, Balthasar Münter, was the Evangelical pastor at the court in Copenhagen, and it was he, along with Bernstorff, who accompanied Johann Friedrich Struensee on his ascent to the scaffold in 1772. Goethe, by the way, was one of the prominent European intellectuals of the time who wrote letters protesting Struensee's death sentence. An interesting portrait of this period in Denmark can be found in the novel The Royal Physician's Visit by Per Olov Enquist. Bruce Bawer, in his review of the novel, has a full account of what he calls "one of the strangest chapters in all of Scandinavian history."

The portrait of Auguste (now in the Goethe Nationalmuseum in Weimar) is by the contemporary Danish painter Jens Juelle, whose portrait of Klopstock is one of the most celebrated of that poet.


Anonymous said...

I realize this post is three years old, but I just had to throw in my two cents here, adding some pretty damn fascinating (to me, anyways) info about the future exploits of the great Countess!

After marrying Bernstorff, both her and her husband joined the group of a certain prince Charles of Hesse-Kassel -- a group which practiced theurgical magic in an attempt to call forth angelic beings!

The Countess deemed the magical operations a resounding success -- she bragged about having seen a heavenly light appear in the room, etc.; and amongst the revelations the group received was the odd fact that she herself was in fact a reincarnation of none other than Mary Magdalene!

Rick's wife said...

Thanks so much for that response. Would you let me know about your interest in the countess? I am slowly getting ready to return to posting on Goethetc.

Anonymous said...

Sure! I've been reading up on Danish occultism and magic for a little while now, and came across info about prince Charles' circle in a number of books. Turns out Lavater, the famous Swiss physiognomist, was in touch with both of them -- i.e. both countess Bernstorff and prince Charles -- and even visited Denmark to take part in their experimentation first-hand. Weigelt's Lavater biography (which I am yet to read) has more information, as it turns out! I believe Lavater, too, was a friend of Goethe's, isn't that so?

Goethe Girl said...

Have you seen the new movie "A Royal Affair," based on the relationship between Johann Friedrich Struensee and the Danish queen Mathilda, wife of Christian VII? Struensee was a physician in Altona, ruled by the Danes. It's interesting that there was such a thing as Danish occultism. How did you come to that subject? I'll have to look up the Lavater connection. I once wrote an article on the poet Friederike Brun, who was the daughter of Balthasar Münter, the priest who accompanied Struensee to the gallows.

Sconsetgal said...

This is an interesting discussion. Such different times, long ago! This last June we were in Uetersen, where Gräfin (Countess) Augusta Louise zu (of)Stolberg lived when she was still single and corresponded with Goethe. it is definitely worth a visit, especially if you get a guide, as the church is fascinating (Baroque but set in northern Germany which is very rare), and the gardens are gorgeous, not to mention the story of both the cloister which housed unmarried wealthy women for life or until marriage. Such an interesting practice for a wealthy father worried about his growing daughters who might never marry. At the cloister they were both protected until maturity but also for all of their lives should they remain single.

Goethe Girl said...

Thanks so much for continuing the thread on this interesting figure. I will put Uetersen on my list of "places to visit" for my next trip to Germany.