A 'Monstrous Book' after All? James Anthony Froude and the Reception of Goethe's 'Die Wahlverwandtschaften' in Nineteenth-Century Britain

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How the scientific notions underlying Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften acquired new meanings in the English context of the theological, philosophical, and political mid-nineteenth-century debate about the future of the Anglican Church is one of the questions addressed in this essay. Another is why Goethe's work can be perceived to have shaped the ideas of James Anthony Froude's scandal-ridden religious novel The Nemesis of Faith, which was publicly burnt in Oxford in 1849. Froude, who was spectacularly forced to resign from Exeter College in the aftermath of this event, is today probably best known as the author of the History of England, which appeared in twelve volumes between 1856 and 1870, as an advocate of the ideas of Thomas Carlyle, whom he admired, and as Carlyle's first biographer. His contribution to the English reception of Die Wahlverwandtschaften is unique in that he was responsible not only for a partial adaptation of Goethe's work in his own novel, The Nemesis of Faith, but also for the first English rendering of the work, which was published anonymously in 1854 in a collection of selected works by Goethe entitled Novels and Tales in Bohn's Standard Library. His translation was reprinted on numerous occasions and remained the standard English version of Goethe's novel in Great Britain and the United States for over a century. (1) Unlike the other translator who contributed to Novels and Tales, Froude refused to have his name attached to Elective Affinities. As a result, the publisher Henry George Bohn had to inform his readers in the preface that The Sorrows of Young Werther as well as four shorter tales by Goethe had been translated by Roger D. Boylan, who was known to the readers of the Standard Library through his English rendering of Schiller's Don Carlos, whereas the second translator, who had undertaken Die Wahlverwandtschaften, was described as 'a gentleman well known in the literary world, who does not wish his name to appear'. (2) It is only through a letter written by George Eliot to Sarah Sophia Hennell on 21 January 1852 that we know about Froude's involvement in the project, since she referred to the fact that 'Froude is too busy translating the "Wahlverwandtschaften" for Bohn to do anything for us [i. e. the Westminster Review] worth having.' (3)

Froude's achievement in transplanting Goethe's ideas into a different culture, and employing them to influence intellectual and theological developments in Victorian Britain which had no equivalent in the country of their origin, appears even more creative and engaging when it is evaluated against the background of the critical response which Die Wahlverwandtschaften received in both Germany and Britain. In his Life and Works of Goethe, George Henry Lewes remarked that in both countries the assessment of Goethe's novel was distorted and that it was 'alternately pronounced immoral and profoundly moral', while he held the view that it was neither one nor the other:

When critics rail at it, and declare it saps the whole foundation of marriage, and when critics enthusiastically declare it is profoundly moral because it sets the sacredness of marriage in so clear a light, I see that both have drawn certain general conclusions from an individual case; but I do not see that they have done more than put their interpretations on what the author had no intention of being interpreted at all. (4)

Lewes's impression is confirmed by the active interest Goethe took in the wide spectrum of criticism relating to Die Wahlverwandtschaften which was published in Germany during his lifetime. (5) Goethe preferred reviews which conveyed an understanding of the subtleties and philosophical implications of his novel and did not attempt to reduce it to the question of what constitutes moral and immoral behaviour in marital relationships. In 1810, for example, he advocated Rudolf Abeken's evaluation of the novel as the only adequate piece of criticism which had been written on his work. …