Saturday, June 25, 2016

Goethe and Christiane

Der Geheimrat und sein Mädchen
I have a long overdue book review to write this summer: Sigrid Damm's Goethes Freunde in Gotha and Weimar (2014). In preparation, I am going back and reading two of Damm's earlier books on the "Goethe circle." As I prepare to head out to British Columbia for the rest of the summer, my suitcase includes Cornelia Goethe (1987) and Christiane und Goethe: Eine Recherche (1998). The latter book is structured in terms of "parallel lives," which over two centuries bring the two together in Weimar. While Goethe's ancestors go from strength to strength through the centuries, the Vulpius clan represents a case of downward mobility.

 By the end of the second part of this book they are on the brink of their meeting on July 12, 1788, in the park in Weimar, when Christiane approaches Goethe with a request from her brother for support. As Damm writes, without exception all accounts admit of no doubt that this is what happened. Except, as she continues, there is no surviving document from Christian's brother requesting support, and it was not until July 19 that Goethe's friend Knebel vacated Goethe's garden house, which became the love nest. Still, both Goethe and Christiane date the beginning of their "Liebesbund" to this date.

The subtitle, "Recherche," means investigation, which this book certainly is, and one cannot help being touched and impressed by the amount of research Damm has undertaken, burrowing in archives, traveling to small Thuringian towns to go through church records. In the church in Rothenstein she finds a grave marker of Johann Friedrich Vulpius, who was pastor of the community for 39 years before passing away in 1715. The account Damm gives here of the struggles of Christiane's father should disabuse anyone of nostalgia about life in a town dominated by a court in the mid-18th century.

Part 3, which I am now reading, concerns the initial and clandestine arrangements between Goethe and Christiane shortly after his return to Weimar from Italy and, then, the household he was forced to form after she became pregnant and he had to leave the Frauenplan house. Carl August's wife did not want to have Goethe's bastard child running around under her nose. From the beginning, as Damm writes, Goethe didn't intend to sanctify their relationship with a marriage license or ceremony, not because he had hesitations about accepting his responsibility to Christiane. It was because of his "paganism," his anti-Church sentiments, and his aversion to marriage. Besides, a "wild marriage" corresponded to his post-Italian notion of himself living in Weimar as "artist" and "guest."

So, in order to avoid a bourgeois or Christian marriage, Goethe had to transport to a new house his lover and his lover's aunt and stepsister. His long-time cook and his trusty factotum were dismissed. His own working arrangements were disrupted, and he no longer had all his favorite possessions around him. He had to assert himself in a milieu that for ten years had sheltered him and given him a stage on which to play a leading role, but that had becoming disapproving. Oh, Goethe!

Picture credit: Lydia Keßner

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