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… for Young and Inexperienced Persons of my Sex

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

From 1781 to 1782, Charlotta Dorothea Biehl published four volumes of moralising stories (Moralske Fortællinger; Moral Tales); they were a case of regular bread-and-butter work. Following the death of her father, and after theatre manager Warnstedt’s rejection of her writing for the stage, she was in dire need of an income. In the postscript to volume four, she points out that one of her “purposes” was “to be able, in a respectable manner, to secure my livelihood”.

Louise Magdeleine Horthemels: La France Comté conquise pour la seconde fois, 1674. Etching 154a,66, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

Biehl thought that writing prose might well provide a source of income; even though the first volume of her tales did not sell in any great numbers, her evaluation was nonetheless proven to have been spot on. The 1780s was the first decade in the history of Danish literature during which prose was a major player. While Swedish writers, male and female alike, mainly concentrated on classicism and the new sentimentalism in poetry and drama, and members of Det norske Selskab (the Norwegian Society) focused on entertaining and satirical stories told in verse, Danish writers began taking an interest in the prose genres.

Unlike her contemporaneous Danish colleague Charlotte Baden, the Swedish writer Anna Maria Lenngren preferred to compose her portraits and newspaper satires in verse.

Englishman Samuel Richardson’s celebrated Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740-42) had been translated into Danish as early as 1743-46, but it took another forty years before there was an extensive bourgeois readership for Richardson’s moral prose story, which gave instruction on emotional matters through entertainment. In the 1780s, all Richardson’s novels were translated, and within the course of just a few years, the number of novels and stories translated from English, French, and German multiplied many times over. Biehl accounted for one of the greatest feats of translation in the form of two works by Cervantes: first El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (1605; Eng. tr. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha; Danish title: Don Quixote af Manchas Levnet og Bedrifter), translated from 1776 to 1777, and then, in 1780 to 1781, alongside the publication of her moral tales, his Novelas Ejemplares (1613; Eng. tr. Moral or Instructive Tales; Danish title: Lærerige Fortællinger).

Danish writers and a few Norwegian-born writers were swift to learn from the successful foreign novels and stories. Even though the late eighteenth century still considered the genres of poetry and dramatic art to be the finest and most important, writers and readers alike set doggedly to work in a variety of widely differing prose genres. Volume upon volume, periodical upon periodical, was filled with moral tales, sentimental epistolary novels, and stories told in fictional letters, educative novels, serialisations, prose experiments, and social satire.

Biehl and Sophia Lovisa Charlotte Baden (1740-1824), along with the girls’ school founder Emanuel Balling, and a number of anonymous women, wrote prose that was both moralising and emotionally instructive.

Emanuel Balling (1733-1795) was a prominent member of Selskabet for Borgerdyd (the Society for Civic Virtue); in 1787, he established a realskole (originally, academies for boys) for daughters of the middle classes. In 1783, he became editor of the newspaper Kiøbenhavns Aftenspost (Copenhagen Evening Mail), in which he serialised a number of moral and entertaining novels written in the style of Richardson.

Family issues and scheming love stories are key to a protracted plot, the mainspring of which is often a dispute concerning a contract of marriage. The major role models were Richardson, his French disciple Marmontel, and the German writer Gellert, whose novel of marriage, Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G—— (1747-48; The History of the Swedish Countess of G——; Danish title: Den svenske Grevinde af G. Liv og Levnet Beskrivelse), was translated into Danish in 1749 and re-translated in 1775.

Biehl recycled parts of the plot of Gellert’s novel in her story “Den forklædte Maler” (vol. II of her Moralske Fortællinger; The Disguised Painter), and she also busily borrowed from Richardson’s portrait of Pamela and her many ordeals for her own “Emilie eller den belønnede Standhaftighed” (vol. I; Emilie, or Steadfastness Rewarded); Marmontel’s “Le bon Mari”, from Contes moraux (1755-59 Moral Tales), can be heard in the background in a number of her stories. Furthermore, Gellert’s writings on the art of letter composition and his model letters were of enormous significance to both Biehl and Charlotte Baden, whose husband, Professor Jakob Baden, had translated a volume of Gellert’s work.

In 1762, Charlotte Baden’s husband, Professor Jakob Baden, translated Christian Fürchtegott Gellert’s Briefe, nebst einer praktischen Abhandlung von dem guten Geschmacke in Briefen (1751; Letters, Including a Practical Treatise on Good Taste in Letter-writing; Danish title: Christian Fürchtegott Gellerts Breve, tilligemed en Praktisk Afhandling om den gode Smag i Breve); in 1778 playwright Peter Topp Wandall also translated letters by Gellert, “with the addition of some thereto accompanying letters from his friends”; and in 1777 clergyman H. J. Birch published a volume of translated letters by, among others, aristocratic writers Madame de Sévigné and Madame de Pompadour. The eighteenth-century interest in fostering a new, natural style of letter and epistolary culture was enormously inspirational to writers of moralistic prose.

Male and female writers alike used and re-used without ceremony or scruples the many sources of inspiration available to them. Charlotte Baden’s principal work of prose was a free continuation of Richardson’s novel The History of Sir Charles Grandison, and in her short stories in letter or dialogue form for the newspaper Morgenposten (Morning Post) she borrowed ideas to praise virtue and criticise undue sentiment from the German educationalist Joachim Heinrich Campe’s “Ueber Empfindsamkeit und Empfindelei in pädagogischer Hinsicht” , (1779; Eng. tr. Concerning Sensibility and Sentimentality in Pedagogy; translated into Danish in 1780 as “Om Følsomhed og Føleri”). Like Biehl, she had clearly benefitted from reading Marmontel’s moral stories, Contes moraux.

Both Baden and Biehl are able to cover many pages with virtuous instruction and sensitive morality, and Biehl in particular sees no reason to save paper. Her moral stories cover more than 1400 pages, and in her extensive Brevvexling imellem fortroelige Venner (1783; A Correspondence between Confidential Friends), she presented her readers with a further 1000 pages. She manages to fill all these pages by building up a kind of standard set of scenes and characters that can be re-applied from tale to tale. Now and then, she changes track en route in terms of the aim and direction of the story, taking the plot in a completely different direction than she had originally indicated; this does not seem to bother her unduly, however, nor does she mind sending the odd character to a swift death or giving them a personality change if she deems this necessary in order to pursue an unanticipated idea. Such is the case in, for example, “Det stille Vand har dyb Grund” (Still Waters Run Deep), which starts out as a story about a young nobleman who breaks with his aristocratic family in order to marry a merchant’s daughter. When Biehl herself seems to tire of the narrative, she quickly turns it into a tale of jealousy between the nobleman’s two daughters. To make the story work, she has to remove a portion of the nobleman’s aristocratic disposition and sensitivity to his surroundings. Rather than starting on a new story, Biehl adds material and changes the story she is working on. When telling a story, nothing that can be turned into a moral point must be allowed to go to waste.

Biehl generally sets her stories in French or English family circles, but she does not dwell unduly on descriptions of the setting itself. At a pinch, she will write a little about the Parisian social scene, her characters’ social activities at the gaming tables, the theatre, the promenade, or the masked ball, but she keeps it brief, as she does when describing the country estates and manor houses of England, in which her characters might be staying.

The stories with a Danish setting give an occasional glimpse of life out and about in Copenhagen; in the “Den fortvivlede Elsker” (The Disconsolate Lover), for example, country girl Grete travels to the capital city in order to intercede with the authorities on behalf of her suitor, Hans, whose furious jealousy has almost been the death of her. Biehl’s interest lies in the relationships within families and friendships. The sparse descriptions of surroundings actually only serve to inject the tales with a certain aura and authority vis-à-vis the Danish reader, to whom it is pointed out that virtue prevails among English merchants and kind-hearted French aristocrats, whereas moral ruin lies in wait at the Parisian gaming tables and at the Papal court in the Vatican.

Biehl’s charcters are described on the basis of their position in the family as mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, brothers, sisters, or grandparents. Time and again she energetically underlines how fathers or mothers with “whims” have an unfortunate influence on their children. In “Den Foranderlige” (The Capricious Woman), the aristocratic Mrs Dervieux passes on her own insatiable appetite for entertainments and change to her daughter. The young Miss turns into a major consumer of frocks, diamonds, goldfish, monkeys, and admirers. On the other hand, a strict and callous upbringing can also have an unfortunate outcome. This is the case in “Den unge Wartwig” (Young Wartwig), in which the young student Wartwig compensates for the strict and loveless upbringing he received from his father by abandoning himself to a dangerous infatuation after reading Johan Martin Miller’s novel Siegwart, eine Klostergeschichte(1776; Siegwart, a Monastic Tale). Wartwig becomes intensely ‘siegwartised’ and runs around outside the churches in a confused state of mind, hoping, like his hero Siegwart, to meet the woman of his choice: Mariane. Wartwig does not meet any young convent girl; he does, however, meet a prostitute who is willing to join in and shed an appropriate flood of tears at the right moments, if Wartwig will provide for her.“[…] yet after the passage of a whole month she had come no further with Wartwig than on the first day; he sank into her arms speechless with molten emotion, or with a broken cry about how affected was his heart and what he was without her; she knew he was rich, but thought him parsimonious since he had given her no gifts save the works of Klopstock.”

“That God! Merciful! Eternal! Almighty! Began each era, anyone who knows his pattern may easily deduce, and he was far too intensely Siegwartised not to feel the same comfort and certainty which was Siegwart’s lot on similar occasions.”

(“Den unge Wartwig”)

Wartwig is, of course, rescued from his dangerous infatuation and the calculating prostitute by a sensitive friend, and he is reconciled with his father. As is usual for Biehl, the story springs from a disrupted relationship within a family, and it concludes with a sensitively realigned and loving family constellation. She always ensures that her unmarried characters are also placed within a family-like situation. In “Pebersvenden” (The Bachelor), for example, the vain old rentier Danby is inculcated and instructed in such a way that, despite his unmarried status, he can be a figure of authority for his young relatives, and thus nevertheless be incorporated into the delights of family life.

Biehl’s contemporary reader could pick up extremely practical and concrete moral tips from the tales. Her straightforward ‘family therapy’ was indeed an attempt to find language and behavioural patterns for the family life of the bourgeoisie. In a postscript addressed to the reader, Biehl stated that she wanted to make “my acquired knowledge of the world and the human heart profitable for young and inexperienced persons of my sex”. With the obligatory modesty of a female writer, she stressed that she was comforted by the conviction that: “have I not been of benefit, then I have at least not caused harm, but to the best of my belief made the most of my talents.”

J. J. G. Haas: Illustration from Charlotta Dorothea Biehl’s translation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, 1776-77. Etching 722,63, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

Whether Biehl harmed or benefited her readers, Volume II of her moral tales certainly caused a sensation with “Den falske Ven” (The False Friend), in which she painted an extremely revealing and aggressive portrait of theatre manager Warnstedt, who had purported to be her friend and supporter at the theatre. None of her readers had any difficulty recognising Warnstedt in the person of the underhand, homosexual Don Varini, who exploits his unsuspecting friend Don Carlos – Biehl – to the extreme.

“On this occasion, Don Varini saw a great deal of Sebastiano, and was sorely pleased by him, so he had neither rest nor calm until he became better acquainted with him. This pleasure was eventually turned into an intense obsession, and brought with it the vile intimacy for which fire rained from the heavens and consumed Sodom and Gomorrah. Although this vice is looked upon with less revulsion by Italians than by all other peoples, all who are righteous among them do nevertheless feel the greatest disgust for those who abandon themselves to this despicable vice, and they are particularly loathsome in the eyes of women.”

(“Den falske Ven”)

With “Den falske Ven”, Biehl effectively and publicly got back at Warnstedt, and Volume II sold in numbers that more or less compensated for the meagre earnings from the other volumes of her moralising stories. Biehl did not entirely spare herself in the portrait of Don Carlos: he suffers from an almost harmful passion for the tender friendship, “these warm feelings for others had made him something of a fanatic in friendship, which he considered to be the greatest earthly bliss. He had loved with all the intensity that the warm air instills, but since death had robbed him of his beloved he had bid love an eternal farewell, and thus his enthusiasm for friendship had been compounded.”

“[…] but as he was unable to hide from himself the fact that he was not in possession of the requisite insight to occupy the position he desired, he found it necessary to plough with borrowed oxen, and repeat what others had said in order to gain a reputation for having acquired learning,” is the snide comment on Don Varini, alias Warnstedt. Conversely, Don Carlos, alias Biehl herself, possesses vast learning and merits: “In Rome lived a person by the name of Don Carlos, some thirty years of age, who had won fame through many an endeavour in the fine arts. He had been awarded prizes in several foreign locations.”

There are 357 names on the long list of subscribers to Biehl’s moral tales, among them Warnstedt himself – ignorant of the highly disagreeable surprise awaiting him in Volume II. Two of Biehl’s former suitors also feature on the list: Lieutenant Colonel Ellebracht, whom Biehl’s mother had tried to force on her, could read about the significance of marriage based on love; and a kinsman of suitor Ramshart – who, according to Biehl herself, had lectured her on the subject of her excessive “intensity”, and whom she could not get her parents’ consent to marry – was able to follow one engagement plot after the other. Her last suitor, Peder Normann, who is not mentioned in her autobiography, was also a subscriber to Miss Biehl’s tales.

Sensitivity and Sentiment

The insistent and almost heated showdown with so-called romantic delusions, which Biehl had pursued in her moral tales and Brevvexling imellem fortroelige Venner, was continued by Charlotte Baden in her epistolary tales and stories told in dialogue. Baden’s literary reference was, like Biehl’s, the new German novel – above all Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, (1774; Eng. tr. The Sorrows of Young Werther) and Miller’s much discussed and read novel Siegwart, Eine Klostergeschichte (1776; Eng. tr. Siegwart, a Monastic Tale), translated into Danish in 1778 (as Siegwart. En Klosterhistorie).

A Danish translation of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers was stopped by the censor.

Baden preferred Richardson’s virtuously weeping heroines to the dreamy and over-loving lovers of German sentimentalism. She was so taken with Richardson’s The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753) that she wrote a continuation, in letter form, of the lives of the characters: Den fortsatte Grandison (The Grandison Continuation) was published in Bibliothek for det smukke Kiön (Digest for the Fair Sex) in 1784, and was re-issued in 1792.

Baden was particularly interested in bringing the story of the young, unmarried Italian aristocrat Clementina to a conclusion. In Richardson’s novel, Clementina is engaged to the English hero Grandison; he falls in love with the beautiful Harriet Byron, whom he saves from a villainous seducer. Clementina’s parents find it hard to accept Grandison, a Protestant, as son-in-law material; when it would seem Clementina is about to die from a broken heart, they finally ask Grandison to come to Italy. However, as Clementina also insists that he convert to Catholicism, he returns to England and marries Harriet Byron. The newly-weds receive a visit from Clementina, who has run away from a convent, and Richardson resolves the imminent conflict of lovers past and present by making all three intimate friends. Clementina returns to Italy to marry Belvedere, a loyal wooer championed by her parents.

“Our Clementine has for some time been busy embroidering a white satin frock […]. Her Camilla says that she has asked if she was sewing a wedding dress. ‘Perhaps!’ was Clementine’s reply.”

“She had been attired in a frock of white satin, with silver lace trimmings, and, as Camilla later reported, she said: ‘This is the last piece I shall put on to adorn the mortal body which will be lowered in the grave with it.’”

(Den fortsatte Grandison).

The close friendship between Clementina, Grandison and Harriet appeals to Baden, but she is convinced that Clementina will not marry Belvedere – although she respects and appreciates him, she does not love him – without quite an inner moral battle. Baden’s interest is in how to conclude Clementina’s story while making sure that her heroine experiences the consequence of her actions. If Clementina marries Belvedere without further ado, she will be betraying her love for Grandison. But if she insists that it is Grandison she loves, then she will be betraying her friendship with Harriet. Baden is in no doubt that the only way out for Clementina is a heroic death, which is what she gives her in Den fortsatte Grandison.

Baden sends her Clementine back to the convent to try to concentrate her love on Belvedere. But her inner moral battle proves too much for her, and she pines away. Near death, and in the presence of all her friends and family, she confesses her love for Grandison and marries Belvedere, claiming that on her deathbed, she has vanquished her mortal love for Grandison.

Baden has here composed an extremely high-flown and classically heroic ending, the most striking aspect of which is her awareness that the new intimate and close life among family and friends embroils the woman in such a network of emotional relationships that she must either be able to change her feelings in all haste or carry off a meaningful death.

Baden adopts a conversational and animated style for the cheerful Charlotte’s letters; writing about her old paternal aunt, for example, Charlotte explains: “News of weddings and confinements are always welcome to her. As I write now, she sits reading your letter – Full stop! Where, I wonder, has she stopped? for now she took off her spectacles, wiped her right eye, which is more inclined to melancholy than the other – here she put her spectacles back on – now off again, to take a pinch of snuff – ‘hem! ahem! poor unfortunate Clementine would from this world! this she should not be denied.’”

(Den fortsatte Grandison)

Bibliothek for det smukke Kiön printed a reaction to Baden’s epistolary novel from an interested female reader, keenly encouraging Baden to carry on as “the disseminator of moral teaching” and posing a few questions as to the structure of the story: “Forgive me for asking a question: Did you not hasten far too quickly from one transition to another in the last Scene of this sad Act?” The anonymous reader, possibly Miss Charlotte Sophie Møller to whom Baden dedicated the re-publication of the novel in 1792, received her reply from Baden in the next issue of the periodical. Baden used this propitious opportunity to reflect on women’s reading and female sensitivity.

“And we should unite, honourable lady! Do you not think our sex is too much attacked for the sensitivity we are accused of having reaped from the reading of a Siegwart, a Werther, and such books […].

“In what manner – gentlemen who reproach our sex for sensitivity –should one read a moving story with reflection, may I ask, without putting oneself in the position of the suffering character? Can one watch a performance of Emilie Galotti without sympathising with the father and loathing Marinelli? […] Is this not a permissible sensitivity, one which should rather be kindled in our sex than weakened?”

Baden was in no doubt that reading could kindle and cultivate the sensitivity of men and women alike, but, like Biehl, she also cautioned against sentimentality and infatuation. In a short story in letter form, she wrote ironically of the nouveau riche bourgeois family in which mother and daughter have both come down with Siegwart-fever: “[…] it has cost me and Dorotte many tears. Yes, I am very sensitive, said Miss, just like my ma cher Mere.” This sensitivity did not run very deep, however, for when her father is angry because one of the peasant women has become pregnant, the young Miss remarks: “‘[…] if the wench couldn’t have the child before the time prescribed by Monfrere.’ ‘No matter,’ replied Madam, ‘then she can strap the lass to her back.’ ‘Indeed, to be sure, such people do not need long confinement,’ noted the daughter.”

From time to time, Charlotte Baden is an excellent prose writer. In Den fortsatte Grandison and the short stories in letter form, she works to individualise the language used by her narrators and her letter-writers; eighteenth-century interest in the national language was given a new and surprising treatment in Charlotte Baden’s sensitive and moral writings.

In a short story told in letter form, Baden gives a vain young girl the chance to speak. She has acquired a new sunhat, which she hopes will make an impression when she is walking in Kongens Have, a park in central Copenhagen: “But it was the sunhat I wanted to tell you about. When I entered the park, I saw more than one of the same shape; I can assure you, my legs could hardly carry me to the first bench, onto which I threw myself in aggravation and made a promise not to wear a sunhat any more this summer.”

Translated by Gaye Kynoch