Friday, April 9, 2010

Bettina von Arnim

Bettina Brentano, granddaughter of German novelist Sophie von Laroche and sister of the Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, was born 225 years ago this month in Frankfurt. She married the German writer Achim von Arnim, and together with him and her brother she collected the poems that appeared in Des Knaben Wunderhorn. She was in the thick of the circle of German Romantics, even while having seven children.

She said that she would never write a poem, but she wrote some very original books, though her writing career didn't begin until she was fifty-five, after the death of her husband. Her first book, Goethe's Correspondence with a Child (Briefwechsel mit einem Kind), was a fictionalized account of correspondence between herself and Goethe. Bettina may have got the idea for a such a book from the correspondence Goethe's mother carried on with several luminaries of the day, including Duchess Anna Amalia, Wieland, and Lavater. In a similar vein was Bettina's work Die Günderode, a record of "correspondence" with her friend, the poet Karoline von Günderode. It was as impressionistic of her Goethe correspondence, consisting not only of letters but also of poetry, essays, and conversations.

Another aspect of this "third" phase of her life, according to biographer Michaela Diers, was her writing on the "social question" of her day. In This Book Belongs to the King (Dies Buch gehört dem König), published in 1842, Bettina developed her views on society, politics, and religion. The greater part of the book is a dialogue, the chief participant being Goethe's mother (pictured here in a 1776 portrait by Georg Oswald), to whom Bettina attributes many of her own views.

Bettina von Arnim's books are difficult, but as a person she is immensely interesting. She exemplifies a very modern type of individual, one devoted to developing her inner life, at the same time dismissive of the acquisition of "learning" or knowledge for its own sake.

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