Rahel Varnhagen

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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,...

(The entire section is 921 words.)