restricted access L’amour à la Werther: Liebeskonzeptionen bei Goethe, Villers, de Staël und Stendhal by Susanne Mildner (review)
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Reviewed by
Susanne Mildner, L’amour à la Werther: Liebeskonzeptionen bei Goethe, Villers, de Staël und Stendhal. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2012. pp. 326 + bibliography.

In 1774 the unknown and unconventional Johann Wolfgang Goethe published a novel that would eventually mark a sea change, a change of such enormity that no reader of the Goethe Yearbook needs to be told its title. Nor did it take long for its significance to be noted and its originality to be admired; for example, it was already translated into French in 1775. Rather than drowning in the enormity and long wake of that cataclysm, Susanne Mildner’s study focuses on specific ideational changes that the novel Werther wrought and traces the reception of those ideas in nineteenth-century French literary texts. The areas of [End Page 292] focus include (1) the novel’s impact and accompanying celebrity for its author both in person and in biographical representations; (2) the international recognition of a new German literary movement (between “the Age of Sensitivity” and “Storm and Stress”) and how such a categorization builds negative national stereotypes (15–19 and 321) while simultaneously promoting comparative criticism and cultural self-awareness (11 and 13); and, finally and most saliently, (3) the literary discourse on the unconventional yet immediately popular presentation of passionate, heterosexual love.

As the title makes clear, L’amour à la Werther examines four writers—the household names Goethe (1749–1832) and Stendhal (1783–1842), the academic perennial Germaine de Staël (1766–1817), and the comfortably obscure Charles de Villers (1765–1815). Mildner takes the revolutionary portrait of profound, internalized, and suffering love from the Werther novel as her departure point (l’amour à la Werther) and then traces the trajectory of that Wertherian love in those four writers’ nonfiction, their lives, and, where appropriate, their fiction. Not surprisingly, this German-language study of predominantly French-language texts pays particular attention to the nationalistic pronouncements by those authors on the subject of love. Wertherian love enters the literary discourse as a new concept, but since it arrives in the Hexagon from the German-speaking lands to the east, it is frequently dubbed German. In such a framework, the selection of writers and their works is seen as debating whether and when love is more French (i.e., frivolous, beautiful, delightful, articulate, reiterable, old-fashioned, illusionary) or more German (i.e., profound, painful, all-encompassing, natural, perhaps prelingual, eternal, absolute, and sometimes fatal). The list of adjectives derives from Mildner’s truly thorough citations and skillfully avoids excessive binary opposition, generating instead a recognizable yet never rigid notion of l’amour à la Werther.

Entitled “Die Amour à la Werther vor dem Hintergrund von Empfindsamkeit und ‘Sturm und Drang,’” the second chapter is of particular interest. It begins with a concise exposition of theories of love from a Standardwerk der Germanistik, Luhmann’s Liebe als Passion, and from a French de rigueur thinker, Barthes, and then turns to two themes, namely suicide and femininity, within Goethe’s novel and their reception. Mildner carefully teases out the delicate relationship of suicide to love in Werther and interprets Werther’s death not as the end of love but rather as its infinite escalation (49). Without glancing at Werther’s masculinity, Mildner draws a parallel between the surprising appeal of Lotte’s idyllic femininity to the emancipated woman writer de Staël (56) and the idealized reception of La Roche’s character Fräulein von Sternheim by an educated Caroline Flachsland (57); perhaps, a closer parallel exists between de Staël and Flachsland’s equally faulty identification of the authors with their respective literary characters and the ensuing mutual dissatisfaction when confronted with biographical reality.

In the three substantial central chapters, which address French responses to l’amour à la Werther, Mildner proposes that love cannot be nationalized, while at the same time she exhaustively and intelligently presents abundant nationalistic utterances by Villers, de Staël, and Stendhal. Villers’s largely self-imposed exile to Göttingen meant choosing the Hanoverian Electorate over the French Republic. His reasons were not merely political disagreement but quickly became ideological and personal preference for German culture; he writes at times with the fervor of...