Rahel Varnhagen 1771-1833
(Born Rahel Levin; pseudonyms include Rahel Robert, Antonie Friederike, Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, and Rahel) German epistolary writer and diarist.
As the host of Berlin literary salons and a prolific writer of letters, Rahel Varnhagen is well known as an astute intellectual and a social commentator of her time. Varnhagen was considered a peer of such contemporaries as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Rebekka Friedländer, and Bettina von Arnim. Her salons provided neutral spaces for a heterogeneous community of intellectuals to engage in socio-political and artistic debates, while also offering opportunities to nurture powerful personal relationships. Varnhagen's writings, primarily her letters but also her diaries, demonstrate her sustained interest in issues associated with humanism and with women's emancipation.
Varnhagen was born in Berlin on May 26, 1771, the daughter of Levin Markus Cohen, a jewelry merchant and financier, and Chaie, his wife. In later writings Varnhagen would describe her childhood as painful and neglected, but it was during her youth that Varnhagen learned the importance of social relationships. Her family, especially her father, enjoyed entertaining and the family household often had guests. Soon after her father's death in 1789 Varnhagen opened her first salon in the attic apartment of her parents' house. It welcomed a diverse mix of classes, genders and backgrounds—aristocrats, Jews, intellectuals, actors, and government officials all gathered to discuss current events, art, and social concerns. During the period in which she hosted this first salon, Varnhagen educated herself by hiring tutors and embracing the writings of Goethe and Jean Paul, among others. Varnhagen's was the most famous of the Berlin salons of the period and it operated from 1790 to 1806, eventually closing when French troops entered Berlin and its members dispersed. Varnhagen herself left Berlin in 1813 because of the war, residing in Prague in 1814 and working in hospitals to aid the injured.
In 1795 she met Karl Finckenstein, to whom she became engaged. Their relationship ended in 1800 because Varnhagen's Jewish heritage and Finckenstein's aristocratic background created difficulties. Between 1802 and 1804, Varnhagen was engaged to Don Raphael d'Urquijo, a Spanish diplomat. Though the relationship was passionate, their engagement ended in part because of d'Urquijo's disinterest in intellectual concerns and his jealous nature. Varnhagen's relationships with other men—Wilhelm Bokelmann, Alexander von der Marwitz, and Friedrich von Gentz—were characterized by heated intellectual discussions and tumultuousness, even when the relationships were platonic. In September 1814 Varnhagen married Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, a Prussian state official and historian, after converting to Protestantism to do so. By all accounts, theirs was a marriage of intellectual and social compatibility, with both expressing a liberalism at odds with the dominant conservative and restrictive culture. After moving to various diplomatic posting, the family returned to Berlin in 1819. Varnhagen's second salon, opened in 1819 and cohosted with her husband, lasted until 1832. Like the first, this salon was marked by its tolerance of dissenting opinions and the diversity of its members, who were some of the most prominent people in Berlin. The first substantial release of Varnhagen's writing occurred after her death in 1833 in her husband's collection, Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Fruende: Als Handschrift gedrunkt (1833; Rahel: A Memorial Book for Her Friends).
Varnhagen wrote thousands of letters that demonstrate her aptitude for the literary tradition of epistolary writing. Varnhagen expressed personal sentiments in her letters, of course, but she also incorporated diary entries, travel notes, literary criticism, reviews, essays on contemporary issues, treatises, and other forms of commentary. Her letters reveal an interest in humanism and individualism, and they emphasize self-knowledge, the constructed nature of identity, and the possibilities for individuals to transform themselves through experience and education. In keeping with these perspectives, the letters often center on the challenges encountered by those who are marginalized for various reasons. A common theme throughout is Varnhagen's identity as a Jewish woman who is constrained by both gender and ethnicity. The letters express the difficulties and limitations of being an outsider and also contemplate questions of assimilation while celebrating individuality. The letters also involve political and social issues, such as women's emancipation. They assert the existence of women's identity as individuals and support women's intellectual and physical emancipation. The letters call for a woman's right to education and vocational training, maternal rights, and a skepticism about the benefits of marriage for women. As a whole, Varnhagen's letters are concerned with the individual and the outsider, themes which reflect Varnhagen's reality as an individual with multiple identities: woman, Jew, converted Protestant, unmarried until her forties, intellectual and host of a famous salon.
Varnhagen, as both a salonnière and an epistolary writer, is widely studied by those interested in nineteenth-century German culture, salons, and epistolary writing. Varnhagen's letters have been examined as a means for her to articulate, to construct, and to shift her identity, especially as a Jew and as a woman. Critics such as Liliane Weissberg and Dagmar Barnouw use Varnhagen's writings to analyze Jewish-German writing, the development of the German nation-state, and anti-Semitism. Kay Goodman and Doris Starr Guilloton are interested in Varnhagen's expression of women's identity and women's rights. Other scholars, including Lynne Tatlock, trace Vernhagen's letters as inspiration for subsequent generations of feminists, activists, and writers. Critics often cite her letters to demonstrate the influence of her salon and the force of her personality, as well as to highlight her self-aware writing. Generally, most scholars reinforce Edith Waldstein's assertion that Varnhagen's writings reveal her multiple subject positions and eschew a singular, cohesive identity.
Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde: Als Handschrift gedruckt [Rahel: A Memorial Book for her Friends] (letters and diaries) 1833; revised as Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Fruende. 3 vols., 1834
Aus dem Nachlaß Varnhagen's von Ense: Briefwechsel zwischen Rahel und David Veit. 2 vols. (letters) 1861
Juden and Judentum in deutschen Briefen au drei Jahrhunderten (letters) 1935
Rahel Varnhagen in Umgan mit ihren Freuden (Briefe 1793-1833) (letters) 1967
Briefwechsel. 4 vols. (letters and diaries) 1979
Rahel-Bibliothek: Gesammelte Werke. 10 vols. (letters and diaries) 1983
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SOURCE: Guilloton, Doris Starr. “Toward a New Freedom: Rahel Varnhagen and the German Women Writers before 1848.” In Woman as Mediatrix: Essays on Nineteenth-Century European Women Writers, edited by Avriel H. Goldberger, pp. 133-43. New York: Greenwood Press, 1978.
[In the following essay, Guilloton contends that Varnhagen's letters and literary salon promoted women's rights and asserted women's equality.]
Given the restricted status of women in Germany until recently, it is all the more noteworthy that the cause of their emancipation was championed nearly two hundred years ago. Its major spokeswomen—first Rahel Varnhagen and then Luise Mühlbach, Countess Hahn-Hahn and Fanny Lewald—represent the two literary generations between 1790 and 1850 known as German Romanticism and “Young Germany” (Junqes Deutschland). During the Romantic period, to be sure, the idea of feminism was barely hinted at. But its roots can be found in Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, famous for her literary salon in Berlin and considered the German Mme. de Staël.1 Not an activist in the strict sense of the word, she nevertheless set forth women's right to self-determination and recommended a reevaluation of their status, both in the family and in society.2
Although she was unquestionably the most prominent women's advocate of her time in Germany, there were other writers who shared...
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SOURCE: Goodman, Kay. “Poesis and Praxis in Rahel Varnhagen's Letters.” New German Critique: An Interdisciplinary Journal of German Studies 27 (fall 1982): 123-39.
[In the following essay, Goodman focuses on Varnhagen's letters, as well as those of her contemporary and friend Bettina von Arnim.]
When German feminists trace their literary and cultural roots, they usually begin with the romantic women living around 1800. It was the time of the great Berlin salons and the new romantic liaisons, and both of these phenomena challenged a strictly domestic image of women.1 The aura of sexual liberation in the lives of Caroline (Michaelis-Böhmer-Schlegel) Schelling and Dorothea (Mendelssohn-Veit) Schlegel draws the most colorful attention, but a more profound admiration generally accompanies the regard for Rahel Varnhagen and Bettina von Arnim.2 When letters by these women first appeared in the 1830's, they excited, outraged, or simply puzzled readers; but even then their peculiar effect on women was apparent to anyone who cared to look. If women in mid-19th-century Germany did not all agree with the radical passions expressed in these letters, neither could many of them quite deny their attraction and sense of identification.3 Without raising the red flag of sexual freedom, von Arnim and Varnhagen expressed their impatience at all social prejudice and hypocrisy even as they...
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SOURCE: Tatlock, Lynne. “The Young Germans in Praise of Famous Women: Ambivalent Advocates.” German Life and Letters 39, no. 3 (April 1986): 193-209.
[In the following essay, Tatlock analyzes how Young Germany—a collective of writers who advocated women's emancipation in the 1830s—celebrated Varnhagen and her contemporaries Bettina von Arnim and Charlotte Stieglitz.]
That in the 1830's the group of writers known as Young Germany admired Rahel Varnhagen, Bettina von Arnim, and Charlotte Stieglitz is well known and has long been seen as consonant with their alleged interest in the emancipation of women. Recently Wulf Wülfing has examined the tendency of Young Germany to mythologize them and remarks that while the Young Germans may idealize Rahel, Bettina, and Charlotte they seem to despise women in general. He suggests that we need to consider whether or not this demonstrates their inability to comprehend woman ‘wie sie wirklich ist’. However, this question goes beyond the scope of Wülfing's paper and remains unanswered.1 The Young German reception of these three famous women is ambivalent and invites a closer look.
In 1839 Karl Gutzkow enthused:
Wer einst die organische Entwickelung unserer neuen Literatur zeichnen will, darf den Sieg nicht verschweigen, den drei durch Gedanken, ein Gedicht und eine That ausgezeichnete...
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SOURCE: Hertz, Deborah. “Inside Assimilation: Rebecca Friedländer's Rahel Varnhagen.” In German Women in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Social and Literary History, edited by Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres and Mary Jo Maynes, pp. 271-88. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Hertz considers the collection of Varnhagen's letters to Rebecca Friedländer as reflective of Varnhagen's desire for personal emancipation and her attempts to assimilate.]
Almost two centuries ago in Germany, Rahel Varnhagen was a much-admired, much-discussed phenomenon. During the last decade of the eighteenth century and again during the third decade of the nineteenth century, she was at the center of Berlin's social and intellectual life.1 Varnhagen was not the only Jewish woman in central Europe to entertain and befriend the era's most prominent male intellectuals. A tiny circle of rich Jewish women in Berlin achieved stunning successes as mediators of high culture and as pioneers in social assimilation. Their successes at the outset of the long process of Jewish emancipation were all the more remarkable because social triumphs on this scale largely eluded their counterparts in subsequent decades.2 But Rahel Varnhagen earned her renown not just because her salon was popular or because her lovers were prestigious noblemen. Varnhagen attracted admirers for the quality of...
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SOURCE: Waldstein, Edith. “Identity as Conflict and Conversation in Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833).” In Out of Line/“Ausgefallen”: The Paradox of Marginality in the Writings of Nineteenth-Century German Women, edited by Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres and Marianne Burkhard, pp. 95-113. Amsterdam: Rodopoi, 1989.
[In the following essay, Waldstein notes that Varnhagen's letters reflect a constant renegotiation and reconstruction of Varnhagen's identity. Waldstein claims that these shifting identities reveal Varnhagen's various identities—woman, German, Jew, writer—without depicting a unified, traditional sense of self.]
In German literary history Rahel Varnhagen has been known primarily for the many letters she wrote and for her role as the leading salonière in Berlin at the turn of the last century. Her letters have been described as having a literary quality, and her conversational skills have been praised as being superior. That she was a cultural figure of great importance was recognized during her own time and cannot be denied today. Literary critics are now even arguing that Varnhagen, among other romantic women writers, is the source of a female literary tradition in Germany that has only recently been discovered.1 Nonetheless, a tension pervades her letters that reflects a never-ending struggle with herself and others for self-definition and identity construction.
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SOURCE: Weissberg, Liliane. “Stepping Out: The Writing of Difference in Rahel Varnhagen's Letters.” In Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis edited by Sander L. Gilman and Steven T. Katz, pp. 140-53. New York: New York University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Weissberg analyzes Varnhagen's letters for their articulations about Judaism and nation in order to explore the connections between anti-Semitism and the concept of a German nation-state.]
Nation f. vor Ende des 14. Jh. entlehnt aus lat. natio(nem), das als Ableitung von natus “geboren” … die blutmässige Einheit des Volkskörpers bezeichnet.
—Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch, 1967
natio, s. Nascio, war eine Göttin, so die Gebuhrt eines Menschen dirigiren sollen.
—Herderich, Gründliches Antiquitätenlexikon, 1743
The term anti-semitism was coined in the late nineteenth century and designates, as a political term, a negative attitude towards Jews that no longer finds its cause in issues of religion, but instead derives from a concept of human races and the difference of human “natures.” Hannah Arendt, in her preface to the first part of The Origins of Totalitarianism, entitled “Antisemitism,” elucidates this...
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SOURCE: Weissberg, Liliane. “Turns of Emancipation: On Rahel Varnhagen's Letters.” Cultural Critique 21 (spring 1992): 219-38.
[In the following essay, Weissberg speculates that Varnhagen's letters offer a unique epistolary form that develops around ideas of emancipation and derives from Varnhagen's perspective as a Jewish female.]
Emancipation, the “deliverance from bondage or controlling influence,”1 is a term that has its origin in the Roman family and describes not just the liberation of slaves but also the freeing of children from paternal power. It developed into a political term associated with contracts and laws and with the declaration of civil rights, and its use is highly charged ideologically. The eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, does not list the term; the American Webster's dictionary, on the other hand, refers to its own country's history by listing Lincoln's proclamation. The German Brockhaus deflects attention away from German history and cites instead the end of American slavery as well as the French Revolution, and points to a general history that seems to defy all national boundaries: to the emancipation of women and of Jews.2
Perhaps, however, it is precisely this deflection that marks German historical writings, even more so than the account of the legal...
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SOURCE: Barnouw, Dagmar. “Enlightenment, Identity, Transformation: Salomon Maimon and Rahel Varnhagen.” In The German-Jewish Dialogue Reconsidered: A Symposium in Honor of George L. Mosse, edited by Klaus L. Berghahn, pp. 39-58. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
[In the following essay, Barnouw claims that Varnhagen and Salomon Maiman, as German-Jewish writers, were influenced by both Enlightenment and Romantic concepts of identity and in particular the concepts of transformation, self-knowledge, and experience.]
In the Western world Jews as a group have been perceived as particularly talented for modernity. Socialized into a mixed secular-religious culture that has valued symbolic activities, they have shown themselves to be skilled in abstraction, tolerant of change and, in certain situations, accepting of difference. They have been travelers who come and leave, strangers who negotiate the unfamiliar, connecting and exchanging across borders. If Ahasver, wandering through time without rest or change, is the old Urbild of Jewish existence, its modern counterpart is Lessing's Nathan, based on Moses Mendelssohn, the darling of German Enlightenment. Nathan comes and goes, carrying the fruits of exchange: objects, information and balanced opinion. Wise and shrewd, he is the seafaring, prosperous conflict mediator par excellence and agitator for inclusive, namely mutual, tolerance. Of course, in...
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SOURCE: Gellar, Jay. “Circumcision and Jewish Women's Identity: Rahel Levin Varnhagen's Failed Assimilation.” In Judaism Since Gender, edited by Miriam Peskowitz and Laura Levitt, pp. 174-87. New York: Routledge, 1997.
[In the following essay, Gellar asserts that Varnhagen's writings demonstrate the obstacles surrounding her identity as a Jewish woman.]
FROM RAHEL TO LEVIN VARNHAGEN
Rahel Levin Varnhagen was born in Berlin in 1771, the eldest daughter of the wealthy jewel dealer Levin Markus and his wife Chaie. Her father was among the select group of Jewish men who possessed the Generalprivileg, which allowed his entire family to live and work in Berlin. Soon after her father's death (c. 1790), Levin Varnhagen opened her attic (Dachstube) salon. It eventually became the leading gathering place for writers, intellectuals, and young aristocrats, and remained so until Napoleon's 1806 occupation. In 1808 she met the literary dilettante Karl August Varnhagen (later, von Ense), a man fourteen years her junior, whom she would marry in 1814, following her baptism and renaming as Antonie Friedericke. When together with her husband she reopened her salon in 1821, the character of Berlin's intellectual life had long since changed. Fostered by the exclusively male Christlich-deutsch Tischgesellschaft (Christian-German Eating Club; 1811-1813) led by Achim von Arnim and...
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SOURCE: Tewarson, Heidi Thomann. “1833 Rahel Varnhagen, Salonnière and Epistolary Writer, Publishes Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde, a Collection of Letters and Diary Entries.” In Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture, 1096-1996, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, pp. 136-42. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Tewarson introduces the epistolary tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Germany, tracing its private and public manifestations and noting its contended status as literature. Tewarson uses this background to examine the style of Rahel's writings and to note her influence on the genre.]
The unusual work, bearing only the author's first name in the title, was both a modest and daring endeavor. It left open the question of authorship while at the same time alluding to the biblical Rachel. Clearly intended to memorialize Rahel and edify a readership that had known and admired her, this volume and other posthumous publications of Rahel's writings soon began to assume overt political meanings. As the congeries of more or less retrograde German states evolved into the autocratic and hegemonic German Empire, Rahel's commitment to reason, tolerance, and human progress stood not only in stark contrast to a reactionary age but also as an example of the best that Enlightenment thought had...
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Furst, Lilian R. “The Salons of Germain de Staël and Rahel Varnhagen.” In Cultural Interactions in the Romantic Age: Critical Essays in Comparative Literature, edited by Gregory Maertz, pp. 95-103. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Furst discusses the literary salons of Varnhagen in Berlin and of Germain de Staël in Coppet to consider the salons' effects on cultural interaction in the Romantic Age.]
In any consideration of cultural interaction in the Romantic Age, one major social institution immediately springs to mind: the salon. The salon was instrumental in bringing together men and women from different backgrounds, classes, and countries. The conversational exchange of views, which was the main occupation of the salons, was a salient medium for the discussion and transmission of innovative ideas. The growing internationalization of the salon at this period was of primary importance in furthering wider and freer cultural interaction than had hitherto prevailed. Given the limitations of space I have opted to focus on two outstanding salons: that of Germaine de Staël at Coppet, and that of Rahel Varnhagen in Berlin. These are the preeminent exemplars of the species at the time, and though neither is typical of the genre, an analysis of their functioning will give us an insight into the role of the...
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Weissberg, Liliane. “Changing Weather: A Review Essay.” The Germanic Review 67, no. 2 (spring 1992): 77-86.
Reviews four books on Varnhagen. Weissberg also provides a brief biography and summarizes a conference devoted to the work of Varnhagen.
Arendt, Hannah. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. First Complete Edition. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. London: East and West Library, 1957. Reprint, with an introduction by Liliane Weissberg, Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Offers a descriptive, rather than factual, biography of Varnhagen that focuses on Varnhagen's Jewish-German identity, using then unpublished letters and diaries to reconstruct Varnhagen’s life.
Benhabib, Seyla. “The Pariah and Her Shadow: Hannah Arendt's Biography of Rahel Varnhagen.” In Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, edited by Bonnie Honig, pp. 83-104. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
Claims Hannah Arendt's biography of Varnhagen was written to also address the conditions of modernity and totalitarianism, particularly with regard to questions of Jewish-German identity and anti-Semitism.
Bird, Alan. “Rahel Varnhagen von Ense and Some...
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