Bettina von Arnim Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Bettina von Arnim 1785-1859

(Born Catarina Elisabetha Ludovica Magdalena Brentano) German novelist, memoirist, and essayist. The following entry presents criticism from 1986 to 2001. For further information on Arnim's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 38.

A distinguished and innovative author of the German Romantic era, Arnim produced several literary works that defy standard classification. She was an advocate of social and political reform and a champion of the poor and oppressed. Until the latter part of the twentieth century she was best known for her unconventional relationship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and her fictionalized account of their correspondence Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde: Seinem Denkmal (1831; Goethe's Correspondence with a Child: For His Monument). More recently, however, critics have begun to appreciate her experimental approach to literature and her refusal to conform to traditional gender roles.

Biographical Information

Arnim was born in Frankfurt on April 4, 1785, into a famous German literary family. She was the seventh child of Peter Anton Brentano and Maximiliane von La Roche. Her brother, Clemens Brentano, was an important poet of the German Romantic movement, and her maternal grandmother, author Sophie von La Roche, produced what many critics consider the first “woman's novel” in German, Geschichte des Fräulein von Sternheim (1771; The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim). Arnim's mother died in 1793, and Arnim was sent to a convent in Fritzlar. After her father's death in 1797, she and her two sisters went to live with her grandmother La Roche in Offenbach.

In 1804 Arnim met and started what would be a close friendship with the poet Karoline von Günderode. Günderode's suicide two years later sent Arnim into a state of despondency. At the suggestion of her brother, Arnim turned for comfort to Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-96; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship). Deeply moved by the work, Arnim began to identify with its main character, Mignon, and to imagine herself as Goethe's spiritual child. She became friends with Goethe's mother and eventually began a correspondence with Goethe himself. Although Arnim's letters were amorous, Goethe never returned her affections and terminated the relationship after his wife publicly quarreled with his young admirer.

In 1811 Arnim married her brother's closest friend, Achim von Arnim, also a prominent figure of German Romanticism. The marriage lasted twenty years and produced seven children. For much of their married life, the Arnims maintained separate residences, Bettina in Berlin and her husband at his family's estate in Wiepersdorf. When her husband died in 1831, Arnim began seriously pursuing her own literary career, publishing fictionalized biographies and autobiographies, political appeals for reform, and fairy tales. She was a social and political activist who advocated free speech, a free press, freedom of religion, and relief for the country's impoverished victims of industrialization. She collected documentary evidence on the living conditions of the poor and accurately predicted that they would eventually revolt. Arnim was accused of inciting the workers in the 1844 uprising of the Silesian weavers.

In the last years of her life, Arnim edited and published the complete works of her late husband. She suffered a debilitating stroke in 1854 while visiting her daughter in Bonn. She returned to Berlin a year later and spent the rest of her life in the care of her children. She died on January 10, 1859.

Major Works

Arnim's first book is also her most controversial. Goethe's Correspondence with a Child is a fictionalized version of her correspondence with Goethe. Arnim's narrative persona, also named Bettina, is a twenty-two-year-old “child” who sits on Goethe's lap—a representation that outraged Arnim's contemporaries. In 1840, Arnim published Die Günderode, ostensibly a record of her correspondence with her friend Karoline von Günderode between 1802 and 1806. The work has been called an epistolary novel, or a conversational novel, to use Edith Waldstein's term. According to Waldstein, the work is “formless” in that it consists of “poetry, tales, essays, letters, and conversations.” In 1844, Arnim produced another work in the same genre, Clemens Brentanos Frühlingskranz aus Jugendbriefen ihm geflochten, wie er selbst schriftlich verlangte (The Spring Wreath), commemorating her relationship with her brother Clemens.

Arnim's first published political work is the two-volume Dies Buch gehört dem König (1843; The King's Book), an appeal to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV on behalf of Germany's poor. Her 1852 Gespräche mit Dämonen. Des Königsbuchs zweiter Band (Conversations with Demons), is another attempt to advise the king in a similar style; in it Arnim describes the horrors of prison conditions in Germany and laments the deplorable living conditions of the poor.

Arnim also collaborated with her daughters on various fairy tales, most notably the novel Das Leben der Hochgräfin Gritta von Rattenzuhausbeiuns (1926; The Life of the Countess Gritta von Ratsatourhouse), which she co-wrote with daughter Gisela.

Critical Reception

Categorizing Arnim's work has been a major problem for critics, as little of it conforms to the conventions of any established genre. However, Edith Waldstein claims that Arnim's writings should not be judged by traditional literary standards because the author was deliberately attempting to transcend those standards. Waldstein sums up Arnim's aesthetic theory: “In her view, ideas and forms must be in a constant state of flux in order for progress to occur; rigidity will result in stagnation and possibly regression.” Arnim's contemporaries regarded her works as seriously flawed biographies and autobiographies, identifying Arnim's various fictional personae as the author herself. For example, the distorted version of her real-life relationship with Goethe that appeared in her novel was considered by many a scandalous collection of lies. More recent scholars, however, have recognized her characters as literary creations and her works as self-consciously fictional.

Arnim's unconventional literary creations extend to her version of gender relations as well. Katherine R. Goodman claims that Arnim's “distaste for categories of gender was so strong that she almost surely would have objected to terms like ‘feminine’ or ‘female,’ especially with reference to her writing.” Critic Jeannine Blackwell comments on Arnim's representations of women that overturned traditional roles, citing her fairy tale Gritta, in which females are portrayed as active agents rather than passive victims awaiting rescue by a heroic male. According to Blackwell, “Gritta indicates how the structured narrative of nested tales and tellers can be used by women authors to include themselves as valid narrators and to undo the narration of themselves as objects.” Helen G. Morris-Keitel asserts that Arnim also makes use of the fairy-tale genre for political purposes, as in her “Der Heckebeutel” (1845; “Tale of the Lucky Purse”), by combining the emphasis on self-realization typical of fairy tales with the exposure of poverty and injustice associated with “social prose.” By engaging in such social and political criticism, Arnim also transgresses gender boundaries, particularly with her exhortations to the king. Nancy A. Kaiser (see Further Reading) explains that while Arnim's political criticism was rendered with impunity—whereas a male critic might have been imprisoned for the same sentiments—this protected situation indicates that her political activity was not taken seriously enough to be considered a threat. Kaiser suggest that certain features of Arnim's narrative personae—particularly Arnim's identification of the twenty-two-year-old narrator as “child” and that narrator's “constant assurances of devotion” to Goethe in Goethe's Conversations with a Child—also undercut her authority as a social critic by reflecting a submissive, “stereotypical female role” and standing in contrast to Arnim's political assertiveness. Nonetheless, recent critics have called for a reassessment of Arnim's effectiveness as a social critic. Waldstein recounts her active involvement and personal contributions on behalf of Berlin's poor. According to Waldstein, Arnim was not content merely to write about the desperate living conditions of the underprivileged; she also contributed both time and money to relieving their misery throughout her lifetime.