• Sophie von La Roche’s Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771): Conceptualizing Female Selfhood around 1800

Literary texts that describe female protagonists are usually excluded from the genre of the Bildungsroman. There are two options to answer such exclusion: first, the introduction of a new genre, the “female Bildungsroman,” or second, the questioning of the concept of the self that forms the basis of traditional definitions of the genre. The following article focuses on the second option by paying close attention to dress and masquerade in Sophie von La Roche’s Lady Sternheim. I argue that La Roche develops a discursive notion of the self, which allows her to open up a space for female Bildung.


“With no presumption, no sound and fury, like the quiet unfolding of an aspiring spirit, like the new-created world rising gently from within, the lucid tale begins” (Schlegel 269). This is the opening sentence of Friedrich Schlegel’s famous essay “Über Goethes Meister” (1798, On Goethe’s Meister). His conceptualization of character and plot in terms of an organic and autonomous development of selfhood from the inside out became one of the defining features in the historiography of the Bildungsroman, arguably established by Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, 1795–96).

The emergence of modern notions of selfhood in the German-speaking world can be traced back to two origins: first, the cult of interiority and sentiment that emerged in the context of Pietism (Sparn 150), and second, the idea of an organic self-regulated totality that was first conceived in the context of embryology (Müller-Sievers 4). Few concepts have shaped our understanding of the eighteenth-century formulation of the self more decisively than the concept of the individual as an autonomous being. As historians have noted, there was no period before the [End Page 21] eighteenth century that displayed a similar fascination with the uniqueness of each human being (Maurer 61). Accounts of how best to explain the emergence of this fascination vary, but the different narratives available for the eighteenth century agree at least on one point, namely, that the rise of this autonomous self is closely linked to the rise of the bourgeoisie and its historically unprecedented assertion in questions of faith and love. However, the bourgeoisie’s newly found self-confidence did not provide it with more access to power and influence in the political sphere. Therefore, while forgoing political ambitions, it retreated into the private sphere. Bildung (education, formation) became the space for “compensation,” in which inner value was created, since access to the aristocratic sphere and thus to political authority remained unavailable.

Whether independent study of religious texts in the privacy of one’s home, the articulation of intimate feelings in letters and confessions, or the formation of the well-rounded character in the novel, eighteenth-century discourses and practices in Germany are understood as expressions of a new focus on interiority and autonomy. In formulating and shaping these autonomous spaces, writing played an important role. Eighteenth-century literary texts that center on selfhood are often discussed in gendered terms and in terms of periodization as they evolved from focusing on the female space in the sentimental novel, influenced by Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), to focusing on the male hero, for which Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with its (assumed) linear development leading to closure and completeness became the standard (Mahoney 2).

In his essay “On Goethe’s Meister,” which I quoted at the beginning of this essay, Schlegel anticipates and ultimately shapes this gendered assessment of genres and characters. Referring to the “beautiful soul” (schöne Seele), whose Pietist confessions form the sixth book of Goethe’s Apprenticeship, and to her uncle, Schlegel provides a succinct presentation of this gendered dichotomy:

Fundamentally she [the beautiful soul] [. . .] lives a theatrical life [. . .] she combines all the roles which [. . .] had been distributed among many figures [. . .]; moreover her heart is the stage on which she is at the same time actor and spectator and mistress of the intrigues behind the scenes. She constantly stands before the mirror of her conscience, prinking and preening her feelings. [. . .] It is the very peak of consciously articulated one-sidedness, to which is contrasted the image of the mature generality of a great purpose. For [End Page 22] the uncle is present in the background of this picture. [. . .] [W]ith the energy of maturity [mit männlicher Kraft] he shaped the natural world around him into a classical world which circled about his independent spirit as if he were its centre.


In Schlegel’s assessment, sentimentalism (Empfindsamkeit) is a female attribute, and Bildung is a male attribute. By articulating this dichotomy, Schlegel discovers a quality in the sentimental figure of the beautiful soul that conflicts with its declared origins in religious interiority. In opposition to Pietist understandings of the beautiful soul, Schlegel stresses that her life is theatrical and thus superficial. By means of this gendered juxtaposition, Schlegel is able to assert the autonomy of the male’s character that organically develops from the inside out.

No other text was as influential for the definition and understanding of the Bildungsroman as Schlegel’s Meister essay.1 His assessment “masculinized” the genre and prepared the framework for the exclusion of the female protagonist from the possibility of a development toward autonomy. This increasing masculinization is evident in the changing definitions and descriptions of the Bildungsroman, as seen in the 1925 and 1958 editions of the Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturgeschichte (Specialist Lexicon of German Literary History). In 1925, Christine Touaillon included Sophie von La Roche’s Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771, The History of Lady Sternheim) and Rosaliens Briefe (1775–76, Rosalie’s letters), as well as Caroline von Wolzogen’s Agnes von Lilien (1797) and Sophie Mereau’s Amanda und Eduard (1803) in her discussion (141–45), whereas in 1958, Hans Heinrich Borcherdt defines the genre with exclusive focus on the male protagonist and his maturation: “The depiction of the young man of those days who enters life at happy dawn, searches for related souls, encounters friendship and love, struggles with the realities of life, matures as a result of a variety of experiences, finds his identity, and is certain about his task in the world” (175).2 The assessment of the Bildungsroman as a text devoted to the male hero goes hand in hand with the conviction that the novel’s structure is shaped by the organism concept (Organismusgedanke) and by Goethe’s morphology (177). In other words, the protagonist is assumed to master an “organic” development that unfolds teleologically.3 This “organic” understanding of the self has shaped the conceptualization of the genre and led to the assumption that the female Bildungsroman for the development of the autonomous female self could not be written. [End Page 23]

Since the late 1970s, however, the failure of teleology has been acknowledged and has become a new paradigm for discussing novels like Goethe’s Apprenticeship. Scholars such as Klaus-Dieter Sorg, Martin Swales, and Jochen Hörisch show the extent to which the expected linear development fails to come to fruition. Sorg sees the problem in the fact that the Bildungsroman has to present a process of formation “without having a goal which is in any way secured as a reference point” (27).4 Swales—even though he defines Bildung in terms of an organic development (organischer Wachstumsprozess)—wonders whether the full development of the hero’s potential is ever reached (94–95). And Hörisch demonstrates the degree to which the individual in Goethe’s work is “subjected” to the process of signification (128), thereby standing at great conceptual distance from the force of constitutive subjectivity that forms the center of theories such as Kant’s theorem of transcendental apperception (135).

Moreover, in her book Wilhelm Meisters Schwestern (Wilhelm Meister’s sisters) published in 2006, Anja May notes that to date the significance of gender for the definition of the genre has not been thoroughly studied (14–21) and that novels focusing on the female hero are still excluded from the category Bildungsroman, while the category itself continues to be an important paradigm for conceptualizing selfhood.5 May’s assertion generates two possible points of departure for my study: first, to develop a gender-sensitive model of the Bildungsroman, that is, the development of a male versus a female genre, and second, to challenge the traditional model of subjectivity as it has been defined in the context of the Bildungsroman and in the wake of Schlegel’s assessment.6

In her recent monograph on Friederike Helene Unger’s work, Birte Giesler alludes to the fact that transferring traditional male models to female characters raises misleading expectations of a positive hero and of a coherent self (240). Drawing on her suggestion that eighteenth-century female authors like Unger expose the process of formation as a process of “gendering” (307), this article explores the definition of female self-hood in the context of the eighteenth-century novel and traces the evolution of the genre with particular focus on the development of female self-hood. I examine La Roche’s Lady Sternheim, the definitive female novel (Frauenroman; Gallas and Heuser 4) of the time, in which the author highlights the gender politics of the perceived naturalness (Natürlichkeit) of selfhood by negotiating the dialectical relationship between interiority and theatricality. My study investigates whether there is space for female [End Page 24] selfhood by paying close attention to La Roche’s focus on performativity and its implication for bourgeois interiority. Finally, I am interested in consequences for the definition of the self and for our understanding of the Bildungsroman in general. I argue that one of the key factors that led to the exclusion of female heroes from the genre is the fact that the notion of selfhood that has defined the genre since Schlegel’s Meister essay on Goethe’s Apprenticeship is essentially a product of early-nineteenth-century thought and thus represents only partly what was at stake in the eighteenth-century writing of the Bildungsroman.7

A Prototype of Female Virtue

Schlegel’s assessment of the beautiful soul is so provocative—and perceptive—because he defines her in opposition to the perception of the figure at the time of its first emergence. In his Meister essay, Schlegel refers to the articulation of the figure in Goethe’s “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul” from the sixth book of his Apprenticeship. In addition to the Pietist Susanna von Klettenberg, Goethe drew on Lady Sternheim, the fictional prototype of the character and main protagonist in La Roche’s novel, which he as well as Herder and Lenz praised at the time of its publication in 1771.8 The novel was highly successful: three editions were printed in the first year and eight by 1783. Only five years after its German publication, it was translated into English (Britt 3). La Roche herself became a celebrity and her admirers soon called her “the Sternheim,” thus conflating the author with her protagonist. In contrast to Schlegel’s later assessment, the female hero was praised for her psychological depth and naturalness. Christoph Martin Wieland in his introduction to the novel lauds “this unadorned sincerity of the soul [. . .], this gentle feeling of the true and beautiful, this practicing of every virtue, stemming from an inner source, this honest piousness” (11) and speaks of a “voluntarily emerging fruit of nature” (14). In an often-quoted review in the Frankfurter Gelehrten Anzeigen (Frankfurt Scholars Announcements) from February 1772, Goethe’s friend Johann Heinrich Merck writes: “[A]ll the gentlemen are wrong when they believe they judge a book—it is a human soul” (367).9 The admiration for the female character is based on the attribute of interiority as the defining element in her formation and on Lady Sternheim’s rejection of social status.

The novel’s plot seems to stress such rejection and reminds the reader of the story line in Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela: The female [End Page 25] protagonist, Sophie Sternheim, grows up in the countryside where she is educated by her father, who, born into the bourgeoisie, receives an aristocratic title for his exceptional personal attributes and strong character. Sophie’s mother, the daughter of an English lady and a German aristocrat, dies when Sophie is nine. Ten years later, after her father’s death, Sophie’s ambitious aunt and uncle bring her to the court to become the prince’s mistress. At court, Sophie is dressed in fancy and erotic clothes to take part in masquerade balls. Sophie regards her new clothes as an attempt to spoil both her virtue and her natural beauty. Hoping to escape, she confides in Derby, a young nobleman whom she hopes will rescue her but who instead rapes her. Subsequently, she withdraws from the world, rids herself of the fancy clothes that highlight her aristocratic status and femininity, and finally finds her peace as a teacher of young girls. After years, during which her virtue is being tested, Sophie is (re) discovered by the humble Lord Seymour, who had admired her deeply when she was at court. Sophie agrees to marry him, starts a family, and continues to uphold the spiritual heritage of her parents by educating the agricultural community among which she and her husband live. In the last letter of the novel, her brother-in-law Lord Rich portrays Lady Sternheim as “the true model of female genius and of the practical virtues of her sex” (243).10 As Merck’s review (quoted above) demonstrates, Lord Rich’s interpretation of Sophie Sternheim as the prototype for female virtue dominated the reception of the novel and helped to shape the notion of the beautiful soul that became significant for the works of Weimar classicism, for instance Goethe’s Iphigenia (Iphigenie auf Tauris [1779]) and, most importantly, the “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul” in his Apprenticeship.

In her epilogue to the 1997 republication of La Roche’s novel, Barbara Becker-Cantarino highlights the clash between the superficiality of the aristocratic lifestyle and the naturalness and compassionate virtue of Sophie Sternheim (408). The significance of pious religious movements—and their focus on practicing virtue—for La Roche’s conceptualization of her heroine should not be underestimated.11 Especially, the rehabilitation of emotions that took place in Pietist circles empowered women; they were elevated to a status of particular receptivity to divine grace. This development played an important role in facilitating female authorship and the notion of the female virtuous protagonist (see Critchfield, Ladendorf). In 1774, Klettenberg writes in a letter to Johann Caspar Lavater: “I am a woman, the gift of thinking [. . .] is [. . .] peculiar to the [End Page 26] male sex—we [women] are, however, much more sensitive.”12 In a secular version of such belief in the coincidence of femininity and feelings, Richardson notes: “I own that a good woman is my favorite character; and that I can do twenty agreeable things for her [. . .]. Softness of heart, gentleness of manner, tears, beauty” (qtd. in Roulston xviii). These gendered dichotomies were important for La Roche’s conception of her female protagonist and contributed significantly to the development of the topos of the beautiful soul. However, it is the naturalization of the topos expressed in Wieland’s preface that La Roche negotiates and exploits but eventually dismisses.

“All Human Virtue in Circulation Is a Token Coin” (Kant)

The topos of the beautiful soul deals with the subject of superficial dress and mask versus true virtue that shape the Pietist understandings of female selfhood in the sentimental novel in Germany. The degree to which the Pietist woman is conceptualized as a figure who aims to strip the self of all triviality is perhaps nowhere expressed with greater clarity than in Goethe’s “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul.” The female narrator differentiates the “I” not only from her clothes but also from her body, and thus presents it as a layer of garment: “[. . .] the body will be rent like a garment, but I, the well-known I, I am” (Goethe 253). In this light, the question of the function of dress and masquerade in La Roche’s Lady Sternheim becomes crucial for the interpretation of the novel within the context of the search for eighteenth-century female selfhood in Germany. Do dress and mask function as a disguise behind which another, more natural and, at the same time, more virtuous self can be found? Are they mere tools to blend into a corporeal-sexual self that is desired at court, or are they used to fashion the female self in yet a different way?13

At first sight, it seems as if dress and masquerade are seen in the novel as mere disguises of a natural and virtuous self. When Sternheim comes from the countryside (natural/pure) to the aristocratic court (cultured/corrupt), she strives tirelessly to maintain her pure self despite the court’s demands on her appearance. In her letters, she describes the hypocrisy and masquerade at court and how she is being forced to adhere to the same life style. However, while she writes about her vehement rejection of the aristocrats’ superficial preoccupation with outward appearance, she also remarks about their admiration for her natural beauty. Indeed, their approving glances and flattering comments give her, on the one hand, for [End Page 27] the first time, a notion of her “natural” self. On the other hand, she is appalled by the court’s “superficial” interest in dress. This tension confirms her existential insecurity regarding her ability to achieve a stable, true, and virtuous self.

The question arises whether Sophie’s notion of self is nothing more than a projection of these approving comments and admiring glances. Already a decade before the publication of La Roche’s novel, the English philosopher Adam Smith (1723–90), in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), wrote about the experience of finding one’s self in the eyes of others. His notion of self-approbation is defined as the ability to see oneself from the perspective of the other: “We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them; unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavor to view them as at a certain distance from us. But we can do this in no other way than by endeavoring to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them” (110). Self-knowledge by means of sympathy becomes a tautological structure. We can only know the self from the perspective of another person, while we understand the perspective of that person only through our own experience. The authentic self disappears; what we are able to experience is not the unified self: “When I endeavor to examine my own conduct, when I endeavor to pass sentence upon it, and either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of” (113). Smith’s theory rebuffs the unified and authentic self, and it is this idea that comes to light in Sophie’s letters about her own sense of her shifting self at court. At first she seems quite secure in the positive quality of her self, but soon she is severely troubled by the question of whether such a stable self exists. Already in her first letter, written after the death of her mother to her childhood friend Emilia, she reflects upon her sacrifice at court: “[T]he thought overcame me, how little I shall soon resemble her [the mother] in this matter. God forbid that this dissimilarity should ever extend to more than my dress, which I consider a sacrifice even the best and most sensible people must offer up to custom, circumstance, and their connection with others [. . .]” (Lady Sternheim 77–78). The formulation of her belief that clothes are an outside layer—and only connected to the outer world and circumstances in which a person lives—demonstrates Sophie’s latent fear that an underlying, [End Page 28] deeper self might not exist. This recognition of the performative quality of the self is stressed by the word Stück. Christa Britt’s translates Stück as “matter” (“how little I shall soon resemble her in this matter”). However, the word Stück can also mean (stage) play or may refer to the dress (Kleidungsstück) itself. If we consider the translation of Stück in the sense of (stage) play or dress, Sophie’s formulation stresses the performativity of the self.

Therefore, we might ask further, if Sophie recognizes her self for the first time in the comments and glances of those around her, is her self nothing more than projection? In other words, can the aristocratic world shape Sophie’s self by forcing her to wear the clothes of a mistress in the court’s masquerades? The philosopher Smith still speaks of “our own natural station,” and Sophie—in the Pietist tradition—is constantly driven to search for her true self. Hence the question remains to what extent the sense of one’s pure and true virtuous self exists prior to the encounter with the outside world. Sophie’s childhood—the time before all external social encounters take place—may provide some insight. Sophie is introduced to the reader as replacement for her father’s dead wife, her mother (and as a replacement of the newborn son).14 At the moment of her mother’s death, Sophie becomes exceedingly important to her father: “His [Colonel Sternheim’s] wife had presented him with a daughter, who grew up very prettily and—as Sternheim had the misfortune of losing her mother in childbed together with a newborn son—she was from her ninth year her father’s consolation and his sole joy on earth” (70). From her introduction onward, Sophie’s self is being shaped by her father’s expectation of what her ideal Bildung should be, namely, following her mother’s example. However, her Bildung is not an inner spiritual instruction but constitutes itself by means of wearing the “right” clothes. In his last letter before his death, Sophie’s father writes to a clergyman: “How often misery snatched me away from table or company when during the last two years, in which she had attained the full stature of her mother and wore the clothes that I preferred, I perceived in her the singular tone of voice, the gestures, and all the kindness and amiable cheerfulness of her mother!” (72–73). Sophie’s clothes are, however, only one medium that serves as projection screen for her father’s expectations and, consequently, as precondition for Sophie’s development of her self. When Sophie is twelve, Colonel Sternheim shows her another such “medium,” the portrait of her mother, and speaks “of her virtue and goodness of heart with so much emotion that the young lady, kneeling be his side, sobbed and [End Page 29] often wished to die in order to be with her mother” (70). In this sentimental moment, Sophie experiences, for the first time, the painful absence of her mother. Her father’s praises of the pure and true virtuous qualities of her mother fuel Sophie’s desire to copy her, to be like her. Yet Sophie is left with only her clothes and her picture, objects that seem ordinary earthly representations of someone who is no longer reachable. Hence, at the very kernel of the development of Sophie’s self we find the internalization of a picture, the copying of media that represent the mother without giving access to her. The development of Sophie’s self is, therefore, deeply intertwined with reduplicating the mother within herself. She is, as the narrator reports, devoted to “the memory of her mother, whose likeness she wanted to re-create in herself” (71). La Roche thus suggests that even the pure, true, natural, and authentic self emerges by means of imitation. Sophie’s self begins as a replacement for the absent mother and continues to evolve as a result of particular expectations for her life under distinct social conditions. In short, her self itself is a masquerade.

The idea that adopting a certain outward appearance leads to interiority is recurrent in eighteenth-century literature and philosophy. Kant expresses this idea in his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (2007, Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht [1798]):

[T]he more civilized human beings are, the more they are actors. They adopt the illusion of affection, of respect for others, of modesty, and of unselfishness without deceiving anyone at all, because it is understood by everyone that nothing is meant sincerely by this. And it is also very good that this happens in the world. For when human beings play these roles, eventually the virtues, whose illusion they have merely affected for a considerable length of time, will gradually really be aroused and merge into the disposition.


Kant explains, first, that when the adoption of an appearance becomes “reality,” the appropriation of an external mask operates as if it were one’s nature. Second, when selfhood is achieved as a result of this appropriation, the self is in a world of circulation and exchange: One self gives way to another, one mask to another. Kant closely aligns his observations regarding the production of interiority with the system of money circulation: “All human virtue in circulation is small change—it is a child who takes it for real gold.—But it is still better to have small change in circulation than no funds at all, and eventually they can be converted into genuine gold, though at considerable loss” (264). When [End Page 30] we read Lady Sternheim in the context of such economics of circulation, we come to an understanding of selfhood constituted and conditioned by exchangeability.15

It seems now that two trends for the development of the self can be found in the novel. On the one hand, there is the dynamic of circulation and exchangeability through masquerade. On the other hand, we observe Sophie’s effort to replicate the steady, pure, and true virtuous self of her dead mother. The question arises whether the two trends can be reconciled in the search of the female self. The answer can be found in Sophie’s first letter, in which she writes about the process of mourning:

You know, Emilia, that my dear Papa wanted to see me always in my Mama’s dresses, and that I too liked to wear them best. They are all out of fashion here, and in obedience to my aunt [. . .], I am permitted to wear none of them except the white taffeta which I had ordered toward the end of the mourning period. “End of mourning period,” Oh my dear Emilia! Do not take this literally; I have laid aside its outward trappings, but my heart still mourns and, I believe, is in league with the secret observer of all my actions (I mean my conscience). For when a mass of materials and finery was lately shown me [. . .] then, when looked at this or that one, my Mama’s picture on the bracelet turned from the movement of my hands. While setting it right, I fastened my eyes on it and saw her refined image adorned only with the simplest headdress and costume.


Once the self is internalized, clothes can be considered external decoration.

In light of the exchangeability of the self, Sophie is deeply concerned about keeping the memory of her parents alive. Since mourning has to form an alliance with the “secret observer” (i.e., conscience), she creates for herself a memorial, which consists of pictures of her dead parents inside a small space in her bracelets.16 Before leaving the countryside, she undergoes a strange ritual at the parents’ grave: “She renewed her vows of virtue and finally loosened her bracelets, wherein she had had the likenesses [of her parents] set over a hollow space with secret clasps in the center. She opened them and filled the small spaces with earth which she gathered from the tomb. Tears rolled down her cheeks while she did so, and Emilia said, ‘Dear Lady, what are you about? Why this earth?’” (75). It was common, in the second half of the eighteenth century, to include “neatly braided or woven hair” with the miniature portraits of loved ones (Grootenboer 18).17 It remains unclear, however, why Sophie should [End Page 31] have to put some earth in the little vacant spaces under the pictures. The ritual becomes readable when we consider Esther Schor’s argument in Bearing the Dead, in which she discusses mourning rituals around 1800 as a force that constitutes communities in a society that is increasingly defined by the concepts of exchange value and circulation: “The dead, because they cannot be remediated—because they both evoke and warrant our feelings of ‘dreary and endless’ melancholy—provide the gold standard for the endlessly circulating currency of sympathy which constitutes a normative morality” (37). Hence the earth in the space under the parents’ pictures guarantees for Sophie the stability of her self that would be otherwise so exchangeable. The dead are not only the moral “gold standard” of a social identity in times of exchangeability—as Schor demonstrates—but also the guarantee for the person’s identity, the self. The self is not a prediscursive concept but rather an effect of a system that is increasingly governed by exchange value, which in turn can be stabilized by a ritual of mourning.

Moral Richness without Gold and Spangles

Merck’s comment quoted above, namely, that Lady Sternheim is a “human soul,” not a book, seems to depict an opposition between spiritual virtue and the economy of the book market in which the novel participated. However, a close reading of the text suggests that the relationship between the celebrated authenticity of the self and the book has to be understood not as an opposition but as a relationship of mutual dependence. In a market that is defined by exchange value and in which hundreds of copies of the same book circulate, the invention of the self as a concept of authenticity and depth is a consequence of this book market and a necessity for it (Lynch).18

The reading of the novel suggested here reveals that La Roche arrived at a definition of female selfhood that is not natural, that is, not prediscursive. The model of a discursive self becomes for La Roche a means to oppose the reduction of women to nature and a presocial, private position, and it thereby opens up a space for female selfhood. In this light, Wieland’s praise of Sophie’s natural purity is a sign of his underlying knowledge of the latent power of the text to inspire female emancipation. Therefore, La Roche’s answer to Wieland’s accolades for her text’s originality and expression of the pure and true virtue may initially read like an appreciation, but a second look reveals her opposition to his assessment: [End Page 32]

I thank you, my dear cousin, for your beautiful and good, good letter [. . .], in which you tell me nothing but excellent things about my taste and my character. I see that everything is true [. . .]. And as it is not less true that all our characters are peculiarly determined, [. . .] I will, therefore, judge the taste and intentions of others by very silently maintaining and nourishing my own, to which I would not hold on so tightly, if I did not notice here and there other people’s big and little feelings and ways of thinking, which I want to perfect in myself; and I see them at beautiful and good occasions like festive dresses, in which one likes to show off oneself and shine. [. . .] Therefore, if I could hoard enough moral richness to wear a Sunday dress every day, without gold and spangles, exactly like my nut-brown skirt, would I then be wrong?

In this letter to Wieland, La Roche explains that she develops her character by observing and judging the morals and deeds of others in order to perfect these qualities in her own person.20 Finally, she equates virtue with a dress. She even alludes to the fact that this dress is “without gold and spangles” but brown, like the core or kernel of a fruit. Virtue, like vice, is just one of the possible “dresses” in the place of an absent positive self.

La Roche’s notion of the self shows that the pure and true virtuous self, which at first sight is favored over the vain outward appearance, is in fact the internalization of the external. This internalization operates in such a way that it is impossible to distinguish, in an ontological sense, between internal and external, between depth and surface, between original and imitation. La Roche’s notion of the self might be understood in terms of Deleuze’s notion of the fold, which he develops in his commentary on Foucault (1986).21 This notion of the fold suggests that we need not think about the self in terms of internal/external, inside/outside, private/public but in terms of the double. In Deleuze’s words, “the double is never a projection of the interior; on the contrary, it is an interiorization of the outside” (81). And he continues: “[I]t is a self that lives me as the double of the other: I do not encounter myself on the outside, I find the other in me” (81). The Sternheim novel reveals that La Roche was a progressive and independent thinker who significantly contributed to the foundation of the debate about gender and subjectivity that has taken place in the past fifty year. [End Page 33]


La Roche’s Sternheim novel is a key text for the understanding of the female self in the eighteenth century, and as such it laid the foundation for the exploration of modern selfhood. The performative, theatrical, and thus unorganic notions of selfhood that La Roche anticipated in perceptive ways were theorized only in the second half of the twentieth century. Moreover, the model of female selfhood that she developed in her Sternheim novel allows us to reconsider the definition of the Bildungsroman and to revisit notions of individuality that center on the male protagonist. A close look at the eighteenth-century novel reveals an abundance of performative scenes at the very center of a character’s Bildung.22 Therefore, La Roche’s text encourages us to return to the moment before the canonization of the Bildungsroman to rediscover alternative conceptualizations of selfhood.

Christine Lehleiter

Christine Lehleiter is assistant professor of German at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on the intersection between literature and the life sciences, and on gender studies. She is currently working on the completion of a monograph on notions of heredity around 1800 and on editing a volume on literary and scientific cultures in Germany and Britain that is forthcoming with University of Toronto Press.


I thank Linda Dietrick, Birte Giesler, and Christian Weber for providing feedback on earlier versions of this article. I am grateful to the editors of Women in German Yearbook and the anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments and suggestions. And I am deeply indebted to Deidre Lynch, who first introduced me to the study of eighteenth-century women writers.


1. Morgenstern’s 1803 response to Blanckenburg is regarded as coining the term Bildungsroman. However, Dilthey popularized the term. In Leben Schleiermachers (1870), Dilthey says: “Ich möchte die Romane, welche die Schule des Wilhelm Meister ausmachen [. . .], Bildungsromane nennen” (299). See also Selbmann and Martini.

2. “Die Darstellung des Jünglings jener Tage, der in glücklicher Dämmerung in das Leben eintritt, nach verwandten Seelen sucht, Freundschaft und Liebe begegnet, mit den Realitäten der Welt in Kampf gerät, unter mannigfachen Erfahrungen heranreift, sich selber findet und seiner Aufgabe in der Welt gewiß wird.” Unless stated otherwise, all translations are mine.

3. See also Jacobs 230–33. Jacobs still concentrates on the male hero, except for mentioning Spyri’s Heidis Lehr-und Wanderjahre (1880) as a reference to the model character of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister (231).

4. “[O]hne ein wie immer auch gesichertes Ziel als Bezugspunkt zu haben [. . .].”

5. See Jacobs and Krause. Kontje, who has devoted a book to novels by German [End Page 34] female authors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, prefers the term “domestic fiction” over “female Bildungsroman.” He argues that the genre of the Bildungsroman is too closely linked to male development and that the “effort to unearth examples of the ‘female Bildungsroman’ recalls Freud’s awkward attempts to account for women in a theory of sexuality based on male development” (xiii).

6. May follows the first line of inquiry in her study. See also Giesler and Hirsch, who read the “beautiful soul” narrative as a paradigm of the female Bildungsroman.

7. An exception to the tendency to read the concept of the Bildungsroman from the nineteenth century “backwards” into the eighteenth century is Gerhard, who distinguishes between the Bildungsroman and the novel of formation (Entwicklungsroman); the latter, according to Gerhard, refers only to Goethe’s work and thereafter.

8. For an account of Goethe’s relationship to La Roche see Becker-Cantarino, Von der Sternheim.

9. “[A]lle die Herren irren sich, wenn sie glauben, sie beurtheilen ein Buch—es ist eine Menschenseele.

10. All English translations are from Britt (1991).

11. On female Pietists, see Dohm.

12. “Ich bin ein Frauenzimmer, die Gabe des Denckens [. . .] ist [. . .] dem Männlichen Geschlecht eigen—wir [Frauen] aber sind desto empfindsamer” (qtd. in Dohm 114). See also Zantop’s discussion of the “Confessions,” in which she examines the paradox that the beautiful soul-figure enables the female narrator of the “Confessions” to free herself as an individual, but she, nevertheless, remains a fantasy of the male author.

13. Koschorke gives an excellent summary of the tension between the aristocratic and bourgeois body ideal.

14. The character Sophie Sternheim has much in common with the book Lady Sternheim, which La Roche calls her “paper girl,” replacing her natural daughters who had left the house: “Ich wollte nun einmal ein papiernes Mädchen erziehen, weil ich meine eigenen nicht mehr hatte” (qtd. in Becker-Cantarino, Nachwort 394).

15. Reading Lady Sternheim in the context of Smith and Kant confirms a central thesis of Gray’s Money Matters, namely, that “economic thought has a seldom recognized influence on the cultural regime” in eighteenth-century Germany (4). Parallel to the redefinition of money as a commodity without intrinsic value that accompanied the introduction of paper money in the first half of the eighteenth century (27), we can observe in La Roche, Kant, and Smith an understanding of selfhood that is conditioned by circulation and exchangeability.

16. The degree to which miniature portraits functioned as memorial sites has been described most recently by Grootenboer.

17. While in the last decades comprehensive work has been done on miniature portraits (see Coombs, Grootenboer, Stewart), relatively little attention has been paid to the connection between such miniature portraits and the ritual of mourning; an exception is Frank’s Love and Loss.

18. Lynch has demonstrated the extent to which the development from “flat” to “round” characters, which we observe in the course of the eighteenth century, is linked [End Page 35] to the capitalist market. She argues that the emerging interiority of characters enabled readers to distinguish themselves from others in a culture of mass consumption.

19. “Ich danke Ihnen, mein lieber Vetter, für Ihren schönen und guten, guten Brief [. . .], in dem Sie mir lauter ausgezeichnete Sachen sagen über meinen Geschmack und meinen Charakter. Ich sehe, daß alles wahr ist [. . .]. Und wie es nicht weniger wahr ist, daß alle unsere Charaktere eigentümlich bestimmt sind [. . .] werde ich also über Geschmack und Absichten anderer urteilen, indem ich ganz leise meinen eigenen erhalte und nähre, an dem ich nicht so stark festhalten würde, wenn ich nicht an den anderen immer hier und da große und kleine Gefühle und Denkweisen bemerken würde, die ich an mir vervollkommnen will; und ich sehe sie bei schönen und guten Gelegenheiten wie Festtagskleider, in denen man sich gerne zeigt und glänzt. [. . .] Wenn ich also genügend moralische Reichtümer aufhäufen könnte, um alle Tage ein Sonntagskleid zu tragen, ohne Gold und Flitter, ganz wie mein nußbrauner Rock, hätte ich da Unrecht?”

20. Here, too, the closeness to Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is astonishing. In a passage titled “Of the Character of Virtue,” Smith writes: “This natural disposition to accommodate and to assimilate, as much as we can, our own sentiments, principles, and feelings, to those which we see fixed and rooted in the persons whom we are obliged to live and converse a great deal with, is the cause of the contagious effects of both good and bad company” (224).

21. In their introduction to The Essential Foucault, Rabinow and Rose explain Foucault’s contribution to questions of interiority and subjectivity with reference to Deleuze’s notion of the fold: “[T]he apparent depth of the human soul is less a psychological system than a discontinuous surface, a multiplicity of spaces, cavities, relations, divisions established through a kind of in-folding of exteriority” (xx). Deleuze’s concept of the fold, which he develops in discussing Foucault, helps us to understand Sophie’s notion of selfhood not as an entity that is shaped by the dichotomy of inside/outside, depth/surface, but by the process of “folding” of a discontinuous surface. However, while in Deleuze’s conceptualization moments of discontinuity are stressed, La Roche’s notion of selfhood allows for temporary stabilization through the ritual of mourning.

22. My close reading of La Roche’s text shows the degree to which female authors in the eighteenth century were consciously involved in self-fashioning. However, the model of selfhood that La Roche develops in Lady Sternheim might also help us to reconsider concepts of individuality in those novels that center on male protagonists and that became known as the traditional Bildungsroman. While Schlegel’s assessment is shaped by a rejection of theatricality and display, a closer look at eighteenth-century novels that tell the story of their protagonists’ lives reveals an overwhelming abundance of performative scenes at the very center of the character’s formation. To provide just three examples: in Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser (1785), Reiser’s self-confidence is closely tied to the clothes that he wears and the value that his classmates and friends attribute to these clothes (239). The story of his life is conditioned by, and ends with, his longing to become an actor. We might also recall that Goethe’s [End Page 36] first fragment of the Lehrjahre had the full title Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung (1786) and that theater arguably remains the most important space for Wilhelm’s character formation. Becoming an adult does not mean to reach organic maturity but to realize and accept the contingency of closure (see Frick). In Tieck’s William Lovell (1795–96) we even witness the return to the epistolary genre. In many ways, such un-organic notions of selfhood come closer to our understanding of selfhood, which La Roche anticipates in perceptive ways.

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