Academic journal article German Quarterly

Women of Letters: A Study of Self and Genre in the Personal Writing of Caroline Schlegel-Schelling, Rachel Levin Varnhagen, and Bettina von Arnim

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Women of Letters: A Study of Self and Genre in the Personal Writing of Caroline Schlegel-Schelling, Rachel Levin Varnhagen, and Bettina von Arnim

Article excerpt

Daley, Marymargaret. Women of Letters: A Study of Self and Genre in the Personal Writing of Caroline Schlegel-Schelling, Rahel Levin Varnhagen, and Betting von Arnim. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1998. 135 pp. $55.00 hardcover.

As the subtitle of this small volume indicates, the focus is a study of self and genre in three of the most prominent women writers of the nineteenth century, Caroline Schlegel-- Schelling, Rahel Varnhagen and Bettina von Arnim. In particular, the author Marymargaret Daley explicates the personal writings of these women by analyzing how they "expand the boundaries" (ix) of epistolary writing, with self-discovery as the goal. Daley maintains that Schlegel-Schelling defines herself "as a woman intellectual against the radical backdrop of the French Revolution," that Varnhagen describes "her yearning for sublime transcendence," and that von Arnim "produce[s] an idealized expression of Romantic love" (x), all as "quest[s] for self-vision" (xii).

The thesis of the study is that epistolary writing is "uniquely suited for an exploration of the self in progress" (1). The reason given for this "uniqueness" is that "pressures from gendered social definitions of the self and the contradictions of identity and audience" give voice to the discovery of an identity that emanates from "epistolary intercourse made public" (2). An important characteristic of epistolary writing that Daley emphasizes near the beginning of her analysis is its oral semblance and its potential for creative literary production. It is then not surprising that all three women, either independently or together with their spouses, hosted various types of salons. Daley mentions this but does not unmask any deeper correlation between the oral salon tradition and the epistolary writings of these three women, which would strengthen this study's argument. For example, Daley maintains that Bettina von Arnim "seemed to enjoy turning her meetings into autobiographical monologues" (52). This would be an important point to develop further in supporting the thesis of Daley's book. However, neither is this assertion documented, nor is it used in the broader line of argument.

In Daley's review of the publication of Schlegel-Schelling's epistolary writings, it becomes clear how fragile these personal writings are. The way in which editors compromise and sometimes destroy the authenticity of personal writing is often overlooked. Daley, through the example of Schlegel-Schelling, illustrates the significance of this fact in her study of the role of gender and genre in women's writing during an era of male predominance. Schlegel-Schelling, with her biography of social and political connectedness, "can be read most productively as a series of reflections on the changing role of a woman's private life in a time of political and cultural tumult" (45).

In contrast to Schlegel-Schelling, who created a "signed" private voice and made a conscious choice not to publish her writings, Varnhagen created a public voice but chose to remain anonymous in her publications. Daley argues that Varnhagen "arrive[s] at a sublime level of contemplation" (56) in her writings of self-discovery. While this is by no means inaccurate, it does appear to be a bit presumptuous to claim that "It]he vast majority of readers have not yet learned how to read Varnhagen" in this regard (56). Daley references some of the recent literary critics who have helped us to read Varnhagen-Katherine Goodman and Elke Frederiksen, to name just two. Moreover, Daley seems to contradict herself on this point when in the same chapter she states, "Her [Varnhagen's] proclivity for self-reflection pinpoints a moment of conflict that is intriguing to critical and casual readers alike [. …

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