Sophie von La Roche Essay - Critical Essays

La Roche, Sophie von


Sophie von La Roche 1730-1807

German novelist, travel writer, essayist, short story writer, and editor.

As famous for her friendship with luminaries of German letters as for her own literary works, Sophie von La Roche nevertheless holds a place of honor in late eighteenth-century German literature. Her sphere of influence was extensive, with her novels and travelogues translated into many languages, including French and English. Her most famous work, Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771; Memoirs of Miss von Sternheim), was both the first novel by a German woman and the first German epistolary novel, establishing La Roche as a literary pioneer. Likewise, her friendship with Christoph Martin Wieland, her intellectual relationship with German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and her care for her grandchildren—writers Clemens Brentano and Bettina von Arnim—have been considered in analyses of her role in German literary history. Twentieth-century scholars examine La Roche's privileged education and her concern for women's moral and intellectual development as precursors to later feminist thought. While much of her work has been lost or forgotten, feminist scholarship has sustained modern interest in this significant literary personage.

Biographical Information

Born Marie Sophie Gutermann in Kaufbeuren, Bavaria, in 1730, La Roche was the first of thirteen children. While little is known about her mother, Regina Barbara von Unold, who died when La Roche was 17, her father had a significant influence on her education. Georg Friedrich Gutermann was a physician who insisted that his daughter receive only that education which was proper for a young lady, despite his daughter's precocious intellect. While he indulged her, calling her his personal librarian, Gutermann nevertheless adhered to his insistence on a traditional female domestic education. By the age of 17, La Roche was engaged to an Italian physician named Gian Lodovico Bianconi, who was considerably older than she. It was Bianconi who sought to educate La Roche in math and Italian and influenced her belief that women deserved an education in order to be intelligent partners for their husbands. La Roche's father called off the engagement when an agreement could not be reached regarding the religion in which the children would be raised. A few years later, in 1750, La Roche met her young cousin, Christoph Martin Wieland. Extensive correspondence resulted in another engagement for La Roche. La Roche encouraged Wieland to write poetry. Later regarded as a great German literary and intellectual figure, Wieland credited La Roche as his inspiration. Their engagement was ended, however, by Wieland's dissenting mother, who disliked La Roche. La Roche married Georg Michael Frank in 1753. Between 1753 and 1768, La Roche had eight children, five of whom survived infancy. As her children grew, La Roche turned to writing for amusement. Wieland encouraged her efforts and undertook the publication of her first work, Memoirs of Miss von Sternheim, an epistolary novel in the fashion of Samuel Richardson's very popular Pamela and Clarissa. La Roche's novel was a huge success, and she went on to write 28 books, including fiction, travelogues, and memoirs. While much of her work has received little to no attention, her weekly publication, Pomona für Teutschlands Töchter (1783-84), for which she served as editor, is regarded as influential. Unlike most women in the late eighteenth century, La Roche traveled freely throughout Europe, writing and publishing her reflections. When her husband's career as a diplomat ended, her writing sustained the family. Her children never achieved literary success, although her daughter Maximiliane married Peter Anton Brentano, and their children, Clemens Brentano and Bettina Brentano (later von Arnim), for whom La Roche served as a caretaker and role model, became noted literary figures. While she never again enjoyed the success of her first novel with later works, La Roche continued to write until her death in 1807.

Major Works

La Roche's most widely read work, Memoirs of Miss von Sternheim, is the story of Sophie Sternheim and her steadfast morality in a male-dominated, largely immoral world. As this character, who critics have noted resembles La Roche, moves between classes, her virtue is tested by the scheming Lord Derby. After being tricked into marriage—which turns out to be a hoax—Sophie Sternheim is forced to support herself as a teacher. A symbol of virtue in the face of distress, Sophie Sternheim also advances the cause for women's education, intellectual and moral. La Roche crafts the plot with twists and surprises, allowing her heroine a happy ending as the wife of a good, handsome young gentleman. La Roche's novel Rosaliens Briefe an ihre Freundin Marianne von St∗∗ (1779-81; Rosalie's Letters) has been termed a moral guide for young women. In it, La Roche creates a female vision of utopia where reform and the avoidance of conflict are the only ways to bring about change. The pastoral idyll is upheld over the evils of court and city life, and the vision of an educated but separate female sphere is maintained. Rosalie's Letters was widely held to be an important addition to the era's body of literature for women. Another of La Roche's projects was, Pomona für Teutschlands Töchter, while not as commercially successful as similar male-run journals, was nevertheless an important publication for women, offering a modern perspective on women's roles. Maintaining the value of family life and separate spheres, the journal helped widen the possibilities and opportunities women had within the traditional framework. While many of La Roche's works, including her moral essays and stories, have not received wide attention, but her travelogues have been recognized as important publications. Tagebuch einer Reise durch die Schweiz (1787) and Tagebuch einer Reise durch Holland und England (1788), have been lauded for providing women the opportunity to see the world through another woman's eyes. La Roche provided details on domestic life in other European countries that was typically absent from male-authored travelogues, and thus developed an understanding of the roles women played in other places.

Critical Reception

The majority of critical comment on La Roche's work centers on her Memoirs of Miss von Sternheim. Compared with Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, this novel has been praised for its rich and well-constructed plot, its compelling lead female character whose virtue in the face of danger was considered a model for young women, and its depiction of class concerns. Many twentieth-century critics have examined this work for its feminist message as well as its Anglophilia. Christina Swanson and Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres, among others, examine the significance of the education received by the author and her character, considering this interest in women's education as feminist in its late-eighteenth-century context. Other critics reflect upon the manner in which the utopian vision presented in Erscheinungen am See Oneida (1798; Occurrences at Lake Oneida) differs from traditional male utopian constructs. Discussions of La Roche's life and influence on German literature, including her relationships with Wieland and Goethe, can be found in many critical examinations of her work.

Principal Works

Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim: Von einer Freudlin Derselben aus Original-Papieren un anderen zuverläßigen Quellen gezogen [anonymous; Memoirs of Miss von Sternheim] (novel) 1771

Rosaliens Briefe an ihre Freundin Marianne von St∗∗: Von der Verfasserin des Fräuleins von Sternheim [anonymous; Rosalie's Letters] (novel) 1779-81

Pomona für Teutschlands Töchter [editor, 24 issues; Pomona. For Germany's Daughters] (periodical) 1782-84

Empfindungen der Verfasserin der Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, als Joseph II. in Schwetzingen war [anonymous] (novel) 1782; republished as Joseph der Zweyte nahe bei Speyer im Jahre 1781, 1783

Briefe an Lina: Als Mädchen, als Mutter [anonymous; Letters to Lina] (essays) 1785-87

Tagebuch einer Reise durch die Schweiz, von der Verfasserin von Rosaliens Briefen [anonymous] (travelogue) 1787

Journal einer Reise durch Frankreich, von der Verfasserin von Rosaliens Briefen [anonymous] (travelogue) 1787

Tagebuch einer Reise durch Holland und England, von der Verfasserin von Rosaliens Briefen [anonymous] (travelogue) 1788

Geschichte von Miß Lony und der schöne Bund [A Beautiful Alliance] (novel) 1789

Briefe über Mannheim (novel) 1791

Erinnerungen aus meiner dritten Schweizerreise: meinem verwundeten Herzen zur Linderung, vielleicht auch mancher trauernden Seele zum Trost geschrieben (novel) 1793

Schönes Bild der Resignation (novel) 1795-96; revised edition, 1801

Erscheinungen am See Oneida [Occurrences at Lake Oneida] (novel) 1798

Liebe-Hütten (novel) 1803-04


J. G. Robertson (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: Robertson, J. G. “Sophie von La Roche's visit to England in 1786.” The Modern Language Review 27, no. 2 (April 1932): 196-203.

[In the following essay, Robertson provides an overview of Sophie von La Roche's travel writings, with specific attention to her perception of eighteenth century England and her 1788 publication Tagebuch einer Reise durch Holland und England.]

In reading Mr P. S. Matheson's interesting Taylorian lecture of 1930 on German visitors to England between 1770 and 17951, which gives an account of the works on England by Moritz, Wendeborn, Archenholz and Lichtenberg, I have been reminded of another record of a stay in...

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Peter Petschauer (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Petschauer, Peter. “Sophie von La Roche: Novelist between Reason and Emotion.” The Germanic Review 57, no. 2 (spring/summer 1982): 70-77.

[In the following essay, Petschauer discusses La Roche's moderate Romanticism.]

During and after her life, Sophie von La Roche was acclaimed for many reasons. Most importantly, she was the first great love of the poet Christoph Martin Wieland, and she was hailed as one of Germany's first successful female novelists. Just as importantly, years before Theodore von Hippel and Mary Wollstonecraft, she concerned herself with issues that later were at the core of feminist discussions.1 It was a reading of her best...

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Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Joeres, Ruth-Ellen B. “‘That Girl Is an Entirely Different Character!’1 Yes, But Is She a Feminist?: Observations on Sophie von La Roche's Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim.” 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. 137-56. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Joeres explores Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim for its feminist aspects, which center on the literacy and education of the author and main character.]

The pinpointing of feminist thought in literary works from centuries...

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Sally Winkle (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Winkle, Sally. “Innovation and Convention in Sophie La Roche's The Story of Miss von Sternheim and Rosalia's Letters.” In Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature, edited by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, pp. 77-94. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Winkle compares La Roche's The Story of Miss von Sternheim to Rosalia's Letters, demonstrating that La Roche became increasingly conventional in her style and subject matter as she espoused the developing late eighteenth-century view of the intrinsic differences between men and women.]

In 1771, with the publication of her first novel,...

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Christa Bagus Britt (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Britt, Christa Bagus. Introduction to Sophie von La Roche's The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim, edited by Marilyn Gaddis Rose, pp. 3-30. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Britt looks at La Roche's life, the events leading up to the publication of Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, the various editions of the novel, and the author's place in German literary history, providing a comparative analysis of La Roche's novel with Samuel Richardson's Clarissa.]

Sophie von La Roche is generally credited with being the first female German novelist and author of the first German women's novel. Die...

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Ute Brandes (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Brandes, Ute. “Escape to America: Social Reality and Utopian Schemes in German Women's Novels Around 1800.” In In the Shadow of Olympus: German Women Writers Around 1800, edited by Katherine R. Goodman and Edith Waldstein, pp. 157-71. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Brandes looks at the works of three women writers—La Roche's Erscheinungen am See Oneida, Sophie Mereau's Das Blüthenalter der Empfindung, and Henriette Frölich's Virginia, oder die Republik von Kentucky—and focuses on how they envisioned and redefined the utopian ideal.]

America! The land of milk and honey, the...

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Helga Schutte Watt (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Watt, Helga Schutte. “Woman's Progress: Sophie La Roche's Travelogues 1787-1788.” The Germanic Review 69, no. 2 (spring 1994): 50-60.

[In the following essay, Watt highlights the manner in which La Roche's travelogues assert the traditional role of women and provide information about women's professional and artistic accomplishments.]

Sophie La Roche (1730-1807) was the first well-known German woman to publish travelogues. There were illustrious French and English predecessors, most notably Lady Mary Wortley Montagu whose Turkish Embassy Letters (1763) are justly celebrated to this day. In the eighteenth century, travel literature was enjoying its...

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Christina Swanson (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Swanson, Christina. “Textual Transgression in the Epistolary Mode: Sophie von La Roche's Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim.Michigan Germanic Studies 22, no. 2 (fall 1996): 144-61.

[In the following essay, Swanson offers a feminist reading of La Roche's Geschichte de Fräuleins von Sternheim, arguing that the novel's epistolary nature is the author's attempt as a female writer to assert authority over her subject.]

In Christoph Martin Wieland's editorial introduction to Sophie La Roche's Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771), he addresses his comments to “meine Freundin,” the fictional author of the...

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Regina Umbach (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Umbach, Regina. “The Role of Anglophilia in Sophie von La Roche's Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771).” German Life and Letters 52, no. 1 (January 1999): 1-12.

[In the following essay, Umbach discusses La Roche's Anglophilia as a driving force behind Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, which like Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, is focused on moral instruction.]

Over the course of the eighteenth century, Britain and Germany developed increasingly close links: dynastic connections, trade relations,1 and a growing book and translation market furthered their contacts in cultural and literary milieux. Until late in...

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Lesley Sharpe (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Sharpe, Lesley. “The Enlightenment.” In A History of Women's Writing in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, edited by Jo Catling, pp. 47-49; 60-64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Sharpe provides a brief introduction to late eighteenth-century German women's writing and offers a discussion of La Roche's life and works.]

The period covered in this chapter saw the decisive emergence of the female writer and of a female reading public. Literacy expanded considerably in the German states during the eighteenth century, including literacy among women, whose education had frequently been neglected, and the reading of...

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Further Reading


Blackwell, Jeanine, and Susanne Zantop. “Sophie von La Roche.” In Bitter Healing: German Women Writers. From 1700 to 1830: An Anthology, edited by Jeannine Blackwell and Susanne Zantop, pp. 149-54. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Sketches Sophie von La Roche's life and mentions many of her works.

Craig, Charlotte M. “Heritage and Elective Affinity: Bettina Arnim's Surrogate Mother and The Eternal Feminine.” Germanic Notes 16, no. 4 (1985): 54-57.

Discusses La Roche's influence on her granddaughter, author Bettina Arnim, and explores the younger writer's development in the...

(The entire section is 386 words.)