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Confessions of a Childless Woman: Fictional Autobiography around 1800

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 21, 2014
pp. 79-102 | 10.1353/gyr.2014.0018

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Canonicity, Anonymity, Exemplarity

As with nearly all of Goethe’s literary output, the Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele (Confessions of a Beautiful Soul) in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) is endowed with an irrevocable air of canonicity. The unnamed title figure, generally referred to either as the beautiful soul or as the Stiftsdame, carries with her an exemplarity that by now seems inevitable—though it is noteworthy that scholars remain undecided as to whether she is a positive or a negative example. Nevertheless, this sixth book of the novel, which interrupts the Bildungsweg of the male protagonist to such an extent that Schiller worried that to some readers it might appear “als wenn die Geschichte stillestünde” (as though the story had stood still), is generally viewed as a formative contribution to discussions on religion and feminine identity. This reception history, though we neither can nor should wish to erase it, has the effect of obscuring both the sheer strangeness of the title character and the connection to other texts that also participated in these discourses about family, religious or secular care of the self, and the role of women in society.

Like Goethe’s Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele, the anonymous 1803 Bekenntnisse einer Giftmischerin, von ihr selbst geschrieben (Confessions of a Poisoner, Written by Herself) and the 1806 Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele, von ihr selbst geschrieben (Confessions of a Beautiful Soul, Written by Herself—likewise anonymous but often attributed to Friederike Helene Unger) are long, single-perspective, first-person narratives supposedly written by women who are unusually unattached. They examine—at length, and with nuance and, I would claim, sensitivity—a mode of life that was ignored or effaced by dominant narratives that idealized the marriage partnership and motherhood, and they begin to advance alternatives to those narratives. All three, by staging themselves as autobiographical confessions created by women, assert the interest and value of the feminine voice even—or perhaps especially—when the female subject remains unattached. None of the three women has children of her own: both “beautiful souls” are unmarried; the poisoner’s marriage is destroyed when she proves to be infertile, and she later poisons her husband. Each of these texts represents a different kind of engagement both with the genre of pseudo-autobiographical confession and with the place an unattached woman occupies in society, and each leads to a different result (a word that is less problematic than is perhaps usual in the case of literary texts because all three do make some kind of explicit claim to a didactic message).

The similarity of these title characters should not, however, obscure the significant differences in their authorship and modes of circulation. It must be noted that Goethe is an established male author writing in a female voice (somewhat unusually for him—there is no other extended first-person narrative from a female perspective in his oeuvre), whereas the other two texts were published anonymously and their authorship remains disputed. The Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele, von ihr selbst geschrieben is now most often attributed to Friederike Helene Unger, the wife of the publisher Johann Friedrich Unger; she also translated Rousseau’s Confessions into German. Unger was the author of several other novels—most notably Julchen Grünthal: Eine Pensionsgeschichte (Julchen Grünthal: A Boarding-School Story, first published 1784, revised and expanded in 1799)—all of which were published anonymously by her husband’s press. Magdalene Heuser, in her stylistic analysis of the Bekenntnisse in comparison to Unger’s known works, finds Unger’s authorship of the 1806 text likely, as does Susanne Zantop in the afterword to the 1991 reprinting of the novel, which lists Unger’s name, albeit in brackets, on the title page. The other most frequent candidate for authorship is Paul Ferdinand Friedrich Buchholz, who worked as an author, editor, and commentator for Johann Friedrich Unger’s publishing house. The strongest evidence for his authorship is a listing for Buchholz in Julius Eduard Hitzig’s Gelehrtes Berlin im Jahre 1825 (Learned Berlin in the Year 1825), which counts both the 1806 Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele and the 1803 Bekenntnisse einer Giftmischerin under Buchholz’s name...



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