Sophie von La Roche Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.