Thursday, December 14, 2017

Did Goethe have a pet?

A dog, perhaps? A cat? I ask, because the presence or absence is one of those biographical details that would seem to offer insight into the person, if not into the work. Maybe the Goethe household had cats around to keep away other critters, but a dog would seem a very English custom. The Brontë family, for instance, had pets, and the pets even had names. This I learned from a long essay in a recent issue of the London Review of Books by Alice Spawls assessing a number of new books on the Brontë females, the first of which concerns Charlotte, whose 200th birthday was commemorated in 2016. Emily and Anne and even brother Branwell will get their due in the coming years.

Spawls herself is very ambivalent about literary biographies, because of the confabulation that enters into them. She quotes Virginia Woolf to the effect that the worthies of the world are reduced to little figures that we expect to begin to see moving and speaking and whom we arrange "in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant." In this connection are the concocted images featuring famous writers. An example would be the image above of Goethe and Carl August in an imagined meeting on "state" business.

One of the books Spawls examines is Celebrating Charlotte Brontë, which looks at physical objects, including, e.g., styles of clothing, women's hair, the making of lace cuffs, dressing cases, writing desks ("really a sort of wooden tray you put on your lap"), decorative china. Spawls goes on to mention the richness of the material world of Charlotte's novels, which I found very interesting in connection with Goethe's novels. Objects are important in his novels, but they serve a symbolic purpose rather than creating realism. Long ago I read an essay by David Wellbery on Elective Affinities (the title escapes me now, but maybe someone can remind me), which concerned a bunch of objects in that novel the initial letter of which was "K." They included Kahn, Koffer, Kästchen. But, again, not easy to visualize as individually. Not very illuminating for biographical purposes, right?

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