- Life Writing, Letter Writing, and Two Elite Women
A welcome companion to recent renewed interest in court studies has been the fresh attention to royal and noble women. These two radically different studies, one devoted to the short-term regent of a miniscule German principality and the other to the long-term usurper of the largest eighteenth-century empire, suggest how rewarding such attention can be.
In his study of Anna Amalia, Joachim Berger has attempted a distinctive new type of biographical study, one that reduces as much as possible the projection of the late-twentieth-century psychological norms into the account and that especially avoids attributing excessive teleology or meaning to the subject's development and behavior. Convinced that the usual narrative structure contributes to a kind of psychologized biography that saturates every act with purpose, Berger sets about devising a form that disrupts these tendencies and that more effectively captures the uncertainties, dead ends, and ordinary failures of lived reality. Drawing on new social science critiques of life writing, he employs a thematic approach in which he systematically examines Anna Amalia's life according to a series of roles she was expected to play. He first describes her activities for each role, and then analyzes and evaluates those activities to demonstrate her "room for action" and the gendered constraints that were placed on her. With this formal structure of investigation, Berger writes a new account of the princess who is renowned for [End Page 473] having gathered into her small dominion three of the most important German men of literature of her period and several other influential thinkers as well. When Anna Amalia died, two Weimar privy counselors, Goethe and Voigt, composed a famous tribute to her; Berger also sets himself the task of evaluating the highly laudatory claims about the princess made in the eulogy, especially the assertion that Anna Amalia presided over a Musenhof, a court of the muses. In the end, Berger's judgment on that oft-repeated claim is that only if the meaning of this concept is limited to the sponsorship of art-loving sociability could it be an appropriate designation (504–07).
Anna Amalia was born the fifth child of the ruler of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. Her mother was a sister of Friedrich the Great. While most of the boys in the family, like other princes in the small territories around Prussia, joined the Prussian army, all the sisters but one were married off. Anna Amalia's young husband was an orphaned prince who was about to come of age and take control of his own minor principality. He was nineteen, and she sixteen. She very quickly became pregnant, gave birth to a son, Carl August, and promptly became pregnant again. But before the birth of her second son, her husband sickened and died. The marriage had lasted twenty-six months. As soon as an early official declaration was obtained proclaiming Anna Amalia no longer a minor, she became the regent (1759). Her realm consisted of fragments that included the towns of Weimar, where the court resided, Eisenach, famous for its connections with Martin Luther, and Jena, home to a small university. Anna Amalia ruled as regent until 1775 when she was almost thirty-six; at that point her son Carl August was given a slightly early certification that he was of age, and he eagerly began his reign. For the next thirty-two years, his mother was the dowager duchess, living first in Weimar, close to the central court, and later, after 1781, based for much of the year at her small country seat, Tiefurt. She died in 1807.
Berger's thematic sections are organized around specific social roles that Anna Amalia played: daughter and sister, wife and mother, Landesmutter ("mother of the country"), dilettante, patron and center of...