Rahel Varnhagen Introduction

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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, 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.

Critical Reception

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.