Editorial Preface to the English translation of Goethe’s correspondence with a child by Bettina von Arnim - 1837

Bruce G Charlton


picture of Bettine von Arnim






Wonderful Bettina!...

She is a finer genius than George Sand or Mme. De Stael, more real than either, more witty, as profound, & greatly more readable. And where shall we find another woman to compare her with.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Journal: July 9 1839, and Letters, III: 77. (cited in Collins & Shelley, 1962)


Of these letters to Goethe some have said they were so pure a product, so free from any air of literature, as to make the reader feel he had never seen a book before.

Margaret Fuller. Bettine Brentano and her friend Gunderode, 1842.  


Bettina von Arnim …fills a larger space in the literary history of the nineteenth century than any other woman.

George Henry Lewes. Life of Goethe (2nd edition). Smith, Elder and Co.: London, 1864.


In Bettina Brentano, Romanticism was embodied in feminine form… the most spirituelle of all German women

P. Hume Brown. Life of Goethe Volume II. John Murray: London, 1920.



Bettina von Arnim’s own English translation of her book Goethe’s correspondence with a child is a neglected romantic masterpiece of the nineteenth century – and potentially of great interest to scholars of transcendentalism and feminism alike. Bettina (1785-1859) is surely one of the most intriguing and appealing of female literary personalities. The book had a formative impact on several key figures in American literature – especially the New England Transcendentalist circle including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and (later) Louisa May Alcott. For instance, Emerson engaged in a scintillating correspondence with the young intellectual and poet Caroline Sturgis that was explicitly modelled on Bettina-Goethe; Fuller reviewed and translated passages from the Correspondence; then a generation afterwards Louisa May Alcott found Emerson’s copy of Bettina when browsing in his library, and – in emulation – composed many passionate yet platonic (unsent) letters to the middle-aged philosopher, and made romantic gestures such as leaving anonymous flowers on his doorstep.

For the modern general reader, the Correspondence offers a remarkable self-portrait by an unique and complex character – Bettina herself – the persona of the correspondence: her personality by turns lyrical, adventurous, moody, brave, bold, submissive, despairing and ecstatic; a combination of the tomboy, the flirt and the bluestocking. There are numerous sparkling vignettes of famous figures (Beethoven, Madame de Stael and assorted nobles, academics and poets), art, music and landscapes. She describes adventures, intrigues and absurdities – with a sense of self-amused irony that is very modern. She climbs and rambles, disguises herself, rides a wild horse, fearlessly approaches (and wins-over) all manner of distinguished personages, and presents herself as being at home with all sorts and conditions of humankind. Indeed, in this and other respects, the nearest parallel nineteenth century figure to Bettina would seem to be Walt Whitman – especially in his vivid impressionistic memoir Specimen Days.  

Yet the reason for the Correspondence’s neglect over the past 170 years is not hard to understand, since it is overlong, unstructured, and sometimes unrestrained to the point of being embarrassing. The relationship between Bettina and Goethe (as portrayed here) was the original source of interest in this volume (which was published after Goethe’s death to raise money for a memorial monument) - yet this relationship has now receded to distinctly secondary significance. We now read the Correspondence because of Bettina herself, not because of her friendship with Goethe (or his mother).

But to read it at all, most of us need access to Bettina’s own English translation of her firs book. For whatever reason, the English translation seems never to have reprinted, and there must be few copies still extant, and none easily available. Hence the rationale for this web publication.


Letters to ‘a child’?

One confusing aspect of the Correspondence relates to the author’s self-description as a ‘child’. In the text, Bettina implies that she is thirteen years old on meeting Goethe, whereas she was actually twenty-two. To be more exact, the situation with Goethe was described by Lewes as: ‘A man aged fifty-eight worshipped by a girl who, though a woman in years, looked like a child.’ He characterizes the problem (for Goethe) as that ‘she gave herself the licence of a child, and would not be treated as a child.’

It is worth emphasizing that – for all their unbridled passion – these letters depict an almost wholly ‘platonic’ (as well as one-sided) love affair, aside from a few embraces and an episode of knee-sitting. This also fits with the childlike persona. Despite her seductive badinage, Bettina has a young woman’s day-dreamy desires: more like the romantic stories in a young-teenage girls’ magazine than the consummated adult sexual relationships of modern fiction.  

It is a measure of change in social mores that in the early nineteenth century it was regarded as less controversial for Bettina to portray herself as a young teen infatuated with an old man, than to give her age accurately. This ‘nymphet’ scenario now seems sinister, or pitiful, rather than innocent. Yet I think this interpretation would be a misreading – and not just on the basis of being an anachronism. The interpretation that seems most consistent with the tone of the text is to regard ‘the child’ Bettina as a species of whimsical self-dramatization on the part of a sexually-mature young woman who felt constrained by the suffocating restrictions placed on her gender by contemporary society.

Only by adopting the ‘licence of a child’ – the persona of a pre-pubescent but ingenuously-sexy intellectual tomboy - was Bettina able to maintain her independence in the strongly patriarchal world she inhabited, without creating scandal or provoking ostracism.   


Provenance of the letters

One of the factors in provoking a backlash against this book, and a cause of its subsequent neglect, was the doubtful provenance of the letters themselves. These suspicions seems to have been initiated by George Henry Lewes, the English author of an early definitive biography of Goethe (Life of Goethe. Smith, Elder and co.; London, 1864).

Lewes describes Bettina as the ‘author of that wild but unveracious book, Goethe’s correspondence with a child’. Although he had much positive to say of her gifts (‘more elf than woman, yet with flashes of genius…), this was undercut by accusations of errors, distortions and invention (…flashes of genius which light up in splendour whole chapters of nonsense…). He cites a German proverb: ‘At the point where the folly of others ceases, the folly of the Brentano’s begins’, linking his criticisms to a family trait. (The family was well known, and Bettina’s brother Clement Brentano was a major romantic poet of his day.)

Many inaccuracies are documented by Lewes: omission of the fact that Bettina was from 1811 forbidden Goethe’s house following a public argument Bettina had with his wife, inclusion of poems by Goethe that were claimed to have been inspired by Bettina but were actually addressed to other women, the claim that some of Goethe’s letters were manufactured from paraphrases of his poems, and chronological impossibilities such as letters from Goethe’s mother dated after her death. Lewes concludes: ‘The correspondence has been so tampered with as to have become, from first to last, a romance’.

The paradox is that this makes Bettina’s book, if anything, of even greater interest to the modern literary reader. Modern readers are typically fascinated and stimulated by the borderlines of fact and fiction, personality and persona. The Oxford Companion to German Literature (1976) puts all this into perspective by describing the Correspondence as a ‘free and imaginative rehandling of a correspondence’ while acknowledging that her cutting, compressing, and invention and (sin-of-sins!) destruction of original manuscripts means that she ‘is not popular with scholars’.

My interpretation is that in terms of factuality, there is a blend of accuracy and invention: but perhaps the most striking aspect of Correspondence is its ‘psychological truthfulness’ – its impression of being an extraordinarily candid and self-revealing document – indeed, almost frighteningly so. According to The Oxford Companion, this emotional open-ness disturbed the book’s early readers – but it is precisely this quality which gives the book its appeal to a modern readership.


Need for a new edition

The purpose of this web publication is to bring Goethe’s correspondence with a child to the attention of both scholars and general readers – and to stimulate the attentions of editors and publishers with the hope that someone may prepare an edition suitable for a broader audience.

While I lack the time and background knowledge for such work, the aims and scope of such an edition are clear enough. The editor would need to prepare a text which corrects the errors - but not the charming eccentricities – of spelling, grammar and punctuation; to provide explanatory notes (on historical, geographical, artistic and biographical references in the text); to provide a detailed index to allow readers to navigate this complex set of letters; and, perhaps most importantly, to apply a vigorous yet sensitive blue pencil to shorten and focus the material. Until such an edition is available the modern reader needs to take Emerson’s advice and read for ‘lustres’- passing swiftly over that which fails to engage, and focusing on that which is arresting and inspiring.

My impression is that fully half of the text could be excised without significant loss – in particular Bettina’s repetitious rhapsodizing over Goethe – how wonderful he is, how much she loves him, his neglect of her etc. etc. A little bit of this goes a long way. No doubt, for the author herself, this was of prime importance, and to the nineteenth century audience there was the shock of seeing the great Goethe portrayed as cold, calculating, ‘heartless’ – but the books appeal to the modern reader lies in its other qualities which could be brought forward by cutting.

Also, the final few letters, apparently written after some years gap in correspondence and at a later date, could be deleted; so the book was ended by the striking phrase: ‘My friend believes me perhaps a lunatic, because we have to day full moon? – I believe it also.’



My interest in Bettina von Arnim’s book of letters, Goethe’s correspondence with a child, was initially stimulated by Robert C Richardson’s account (in Emerson: the mind on fire, California University Press, 1995) of the reception of her English translation among the New England transcendentalists of the 1830s. From Richardson’s account it was clear that these now-forgotten volumes had a remarkable and galvanizing effect on some of the major writers and intellectuals of New England. This is described in HP Collins and PA Shelley. (1962). The reception in England and America of Bettina von Arnim's Goethe's correspondence with a child. In (PA Shelley and AO Lewis Ed.) Anglo-German and Anglo-American crosscurrents: Volume Two. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC, USA. pp97-174.

Emerson came across Bettina’s book in the English translation issued by Longman’s, and I was amazed to find the same two volume 1837 edition in The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne of which I am a member (a third volume published some years later and entitled Diary was not present, and I have not been able to locate it). After looking through this remarkable book I was struck with the idea of making it freely available online, and was supported in this endeavour by Kay Easson, the librarian of the Lit and Phil. Permission to borrow and transcribe the book was granted by the committee of the society.

Thanks also to Iain Bamforth who - by comparing the English and German versions - helped complete the poems from the end of volume one in places where words had become illegible due to the paper having disintegrated.

The internet version of the typescript was prepared by David Pearce of www.hedweb.com – whose server also hosts my personal web pages including this book. Without Dave’s long-term and continuing help in web-matters, even the idea of an e-text version of Bettina would never have crossed my mind – and without his assistance the prospect of making the book freely available on the internet would have been too intimidating for me to contemplate.

Transcribing the seven hundred foxed, faded and flimsy pages of these volumes – replete with misspellings and eccentric grammar - was a daunting task; performed with amazing speed and accuracy by Karen Leitch in the evenings away from her onerous position as Administrator for the School of Biology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Special thanks are therefore due to Karen, without whose skill and hard work this project would not have reached the point of publication.


Bruce G Charlton. University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK; April 2004.


NOTE: Praise, comments, criticisms, and lists of transcription errors (which are rather tricky to spot due to Bettina's many idiosyncrasies of English - these I have attempted to preserve when they are not ambiguous) will be welcomed by the editor at: bruce.charlton@ncl.ac.uk.  



e-text web edition:
Goethe’s correspondence with a child by Bettina von Arnim - 1837