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Letter-Writer of the Century

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

Charlotta Dorothea Biehl (1731-1788) was the most productive Danish woman writer of the eighteenth century. She put her pen to work in all the major genres of her century: dramatic art, the moral tale, autobiography, verse, and above all letters.

Kristian Zahrtmann: C. D. Biehl, 1874. Private collection

Charlotta Dorothea Biehl repeatedly made effective use of the letter in her writing. She devised intrigues revolving around letters in her stage comedies and ballad operas: in Haarkløveren (1765; The Quibbler), for example, a misplaced comma in a letter nearly stops the tender lovers being united. She was the first writer to tackle, in Danish, the difficult verse epistle, the héroïde; inspired by the English author of epistolary novels, Samuel Richardson, she often used the letter as narrative form in her moral tales. Her most extensive work, a nearly one-thousand-page novel written in 1783, has the straightforward title Brevvexling imellem fortroelige Venner (A Correspondence between Confidential Friends).

Having employed the epistolary form over the course of a writing career lasting more than thirty years when she, at the request of her close friend Lord Chamberlain Johan Bülow, embarked on her autobiography in 1787, Biehl wrote Mit ubetydelige Levnets Løb (My Insignificant Life) in the form of a large-scale letter, intended to be distributed and read among Bülow’s circle of friends and influential persons of rank.

She had earlier made attempts at writing her autobiography, but finally wrote it when she was ready to take on the endeavour, which was, by a fortunate coincidence, at the best possible moment in her career. With the exception of a few private letters to Bülow, it was to be her last literary work. Biehl was at the height of her writing powers, and she had a life to look back on; her autobiography is no less interesting for being the only extant lengthy autobiography of an eighteenth-century Danish woman. Biehl gave her autobiography to Johan Bülow as a gift on his thirty-sixth birthday.

Your wish is a command to me,
When the gentle voice of friendship bids,
My tender heart willingly obeys,
Within my breast the beat is for you alone.

Wondrous occasion,
Which mightily moves both soul and heart,
And no sooner tears, than terror yields,
You must not presume here to find.

Therefore do not forget what urged me,
But while reading constantly recall
That this was made you to indulge
And I only for my Bulou wrote.

Charlotta Dorothea Biehl’s dedication poem to Bülow in Mit ubetydelige Levnets Løb (My Insignificant Life), dated “29th July 1787”.

The original has survived. It is an elegantly designed manuscript, laid out like a little book. It is a fair copy containing a title page, a page with a beautifully arranged introductory poem, and then the autobiography itself, closely-written without breaks: no chapters, no headings, just the occasional shift to a new line. Beautifully prepared for circulation. Biehl follows her story from early childhood to mature friendship with the young Bülow; she does not stick strictly to a sequential principle, however, but feels free to follow motifs at the expense of chronological order. The narrative form becomes episodic, but the autobiography has atmosphere and drama from beginning to end. Indignation is introduced as a variant, along with anger, genial gentleness and humour.

In the description of her childhood home, Biehl pays special attention to her paternal grandfather, Hans Brøer, who in his last years was steward of Copenhagen Castle. She paints a vivid portrait of him, warm, affectionate and God-fearing. He taught her to read and to take a stance on what she read. He was “the first for whom I expressed love and affection”. Playing the piano, Latin and Greek, and everything she might desire – he promises her she will have the opportunity to learn it all, even though he gets a little restive: “Of what benefit could it be to you, he said, you do not wear trousers, you cannot be a Professor. Yes, but how hideous it is, I said, not to understand a book completely.”

“Each time my grandfather had given me a book, then he wanted to hear my account of the content and what I did not understand I asked him, to whom I poured out my most secret thoughts. The Greek and Latin which is in Holberg’s Writings I needed explained too, but he replied that it was Greek and Latin, which he did not understand.”

All these dreams were shattered when her grandfather died in 1739, and for the rest of her life Biehl blamed his death for all the misfortunes that befell her in childhood.

Charlottenborg. Copperplate engraving, The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Charlotta Dorothea Biehl’s parents gave no support to, and showed no understanding of, her interests in reading and study. Her father, Christian Æmilius Biehl, was superintendent at Charlottenborg Castle in the centre of Copenhagen; he was embarrassed by his daughter’s abnormal desire to study and he kept her in her place with a heavy hand. Later, when she became well-known as a playwright, he was alternately jealous and proud of her success. Her mother, Sophie Hedvig Brøer, is described as kindly and weak-willed – although Biehl does allow her one occasion on which to step forward in a faint attempt to defend her daughter.

Biehl’s descriptions of her youthful affairs of the heart are interesting, but not particularly convincing. She uses a cover-up story – a mixture of a fairytale with three suitors and a stage play with accomplished repartee – by means of which to explain why she has chosen to remain unmarried. At this point in her autobiography, there is more going on between the lines than we can spot, but this does not lessen the impact of her life story. She does not tell us the name of the first suitor, and it seems as if she is trying to hide her interest in him. Instead, she highlights his keenness and interest; she lets him propose three times and is sorry that she has to turn him down because she has, in the meantime, been bound by an oath of allegiance to Peder Ramshart, maintaining that she loves him but cannot marry him because of her parents’ objections. Her parents favour a third suitor, Carl Henrik von Ellebracht, to whom Biehl refers with great contempt – and she refuses to marry him. Meanwhile, the first suitor laments losing her and dies a bachelor, and Ramshart is put out of the running when he follows her advice and marries someone else. To complete the mystery, she tells us nothing about her relationship with the miniaturist Peter Normann, even though she allegedly applied for funding in order to contract a marriage with him.

Of the first suitor, Biehl recalls that he will not apply to her parent’s authority. He insists that she “in this matter, must have a free hand, since he will only have me of my own volition”. Of Ramshart we learn: “[…] he was somewhat wild; but he had a good and noble heart.” The third suitor, Ellebracht, comes across as a cynical speculator on the marriage market, trying to ingratiate himself with Biehl’s mother: “[…] my mother’s favourite,” Biehl remarks ironically. As in Biehl’s plays, a set of suitors is sent on stage to go through a series of complex intrigues – but no ensuing wedding.

It might well seem as if disappointment in courting mixed with literary ambitions led her to choose career over love. In fact, however, she never had the chance – unlike her male colleagues – to enter upon the usual career path combining literary pursuits with official paid employment. She had the skill, the talent, the desire and the diligence to become something big, but the times were not disposed to give her the chance: “It is my misfortune to have been born a sex in which I cannot be of the benefit to state and myself that would be possible in another,” she explains in her autobiography. In her writings, however, she invented a life beyond that reality, a world of fictional characters she could control as she pleased without being subject to other people’s decisions.

“[…] although I was almost 46 years of age when my father died, I had never ventured to walk down to the castle garden much less approach any person without first asking his permission.”

She felt that the best aspect of her life came at the end of that life: friendship with the much younger Johan Bülow restored to her the intimacy and understanding she had experienced in her earliest childhood relationship with her grandfather. Full of tender feelings, Biehl notes how Bülow, like her grandfather, would make her day with flowers and fruit – and thus she elegantly closes the most important circle in her autobiography.

Many a reader of Mit ubetydelige Levnets Løb has taken Charlotta Dorothea Biehl at her word and believed her claim that it was addressed exclusively to Bülow. “And I wrote only for my Bülow,” she concludes the three-stanza dedication poem at the front of the autobiography. This has had the desired effect of giving the reader a feeling of seeing her at close quarters, seeing the whole Charlotta Dorothea for better or for worse – being given the key to hidden stores of explanations to riddles in her life. And this is exactly the way in which a well-written autobiography may deceive its readers. But a thorough reading of Biehl’s autobiography reveals that she has been quite precise in choosing where she will solve a riddle and where she would rather lay a smokescreen. The autobiography is a work of literature – of course it tells us things about Biehl, but not always what we think. Much in a life happens by chance, but if it is retold in exciting episodes that criss-cross one another or are presented as highlighted contrasts to one another, then the life acquires a logic that imbues the narrator with personality, colour and resolve. By employing the simple devices and art of abridgement at the command of an experienced playwright, Charlotta Dorothea Biehl boldly displays her remarkable life under the bell jar of an ironic title: My Insignificant Life.

Mit ubetydelige Levnets Løb was first published in the form of a somewhat sentimental summary with citations in H. J. Birch’s Billedgallerie for Fruentimmer, indeholdende Levnetsbeskrivelser over berømte og lærde danske, norske og udenlandske Fruentimmer (1793; Picture Gallery for Women, containing the Life Stories of Famous and Learned Danish, Norwegian and Foreign Women). In all likelihood, Birch had borrowed the manuscript from Johan Bülow. In 1909 it was published in its entirety by Louis Bobé, and in 1986 Marianne Alenius published an annotated edition, with a background introduction and commentary. With Mette Winge’s Skriverjomfruen (1988; The Spinster Scribe), Miss Biehl’s life had provided the inspiration for a novel.

Historical Letters

Wiedewelt: Fortuna, Det Nationalhistoriske Museum, Frederiksborg Slot

One of Biehl’s most read works is De historiske Breve (Historical Letters), a collection of long letters first published – and given their title – almost one hundred years after they were written. These stories from the king’s court, with everything that entails, are entertaining and well told. They also contain details that have not survived elsewhere, and are thus in some contexts valuable as historical source material. As was the case with her autobiographical ‘letter’, Charlotta Dorothea Biehl

wrote them at the request of her young friend and patron Johan von Bülow. The descriptions are partly written from personal experience, and partly reported by witnesses, verbally or in writing. She wrote them in 1784 and 1785. They fall into the genre of the fictitious letter; and these confidential letters are all addressed to a friend, Johan. The letters are, however, simply a frame within which the stories can be told. They have actually been written to us: to posterity and the unknown reader. The epistolary form is upheld by but a few stray comments; nonetheless, it is not wasted. It facilitates a free and direct narrative style, quite unlike the normal cladding of historical material. The feeling of witness testimony makes the story vivid and credible – which is not necessarily the case. Biehl might not write of things she has neither heard nor seen, and much of her narrative would seem to be true, but she does reserve the right to believe one thing rather than another. She is an author, not a historian. Hers is not the pen to sow seeds of doubt about the credibility of narratives.

“Much that is new, my dearest friend, you will not find here, but perhaps you therefore will learn more, and at least let it show you, that my friendship to you is of such a nature that I believe you entitled to know all that others under oath and pledge have confided in me, since my heart and soul are wholly yours.”

(Charlotta Dorothea Biehl, De historiske Breve)

The stories deal with great and small matters plucked at random from the days of Christian VI until Christian VII; there are a few detours to Frederik IV, a reign which pre-dated her. The details keep the narratives afloat: how Major Beck goaded Struensee in prison by refusing to give him a book while reading one himself; what King Christian VII was up to when he stole down to the stables and had six horses harnessed to a carriage; the psychological humiliations to which Struensee was subjected in the last minutes before his execution; how Queen Sophie Magdalene’s son, the future Frederik V, stopped her from deserting her husband’s deathbed and running off with the palace treasures, including a complete gold tea set; what court physician Wohlert found in King Christian VI’s stomach when dissecting him after his death, and how it had got there, indeed, the internal state of the King’s stomach in general! Or the tale of the boy hidden under King Frederik V’s bed while the king entertained a certain Miss Numsen during her nocturnal visit. The narrative style of the stories is similar to the chroniques scandaleuses written abroad, as the author was well aware; in a private letter to Bülow, she wrote:

“Farewell, my best, my beloved friend, although I still have a bag of funds in my pocket I will yet, now that I have started writing, continue my story, now beginning to get deep into the Chronique Scandaleuse.” (5 March 1784)

In De historiske Breve Biehl was, of course, a Madame de Sévigné writing Chronique scandaleuse to be published after her death.

Charlotta Dorothea Biehl’s gender is a not irrelevant factor. There are aspects of women’s lives that she has not personally experienced, but they are not alien to her. Even though we can identify many of her informants in these historical letters, and we can put men’s names to them, a large number of experiences must have occurred in the company of women and with women’s accompanying comments. Her stories teem with clothes and small talk, which would suggest ladies-in-waiting as storytellers. A woman’s perspective can also be detected at a deeper level, as is clear in her account of the death of Frederik V’s first wife, Queen Louise. Biehl shared her love of the English-born Queen with the Danish population at large, and she conveyed this love, as any other would have done, in the role of court reporter. In this report, however, she abruptly leaves the main track in order to follow up on some particular circumstances surrounding the death of the queen, and this is where the vantage point of female experience plays a role: not an angle a man would not be able to see, but one he would probably accord no attention in the midst of the unfortunate Queen’s pain and the sorrow of King and people.

Peder Als, Watercolour Td 525,16, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

After the birth of her first child, the Queen had become aware of a strange illness. Modesty prevented her from consulting a doctor, and so she asked her closest lady’s maid, Mrs Helmig, to do so as if asking on behalf of a friend. The illness was thus diagnosed as umbilical hernia, and the Queen also received advice about the use of a special support tape to deal with the condition. She wore the tape throughout her next two pregnancies, but then Mrs Helmig died and so, during her next pregnancy, the queen had to apply the tape herself. She grew too stout to do so, and now modesty prevented her using the tape at all. This had disastrous consequences, and her midwife, Madame Labes, realised what the problem was. She tried in vain to get the Queen to use the tape or stay in bed, and eventually told the King what was going on. The King managed to get the Queen to acknowledge her condition, but when he proposed to call upon the medical faculty to protect her and the baby, she declared:

“[…] that such consultations rarely or never matched the usefulness one expected of them, given that the most sensible voice was generally outvoted by the many.”

Nonetheless, the King dared not leave her untreated. The inevitable occurred: humiliation, loss of autonomy and the ‘sound advice’ that, as she had suspected, proved to be her death warrant.

“The faculty was gathered towards evening, Madame Labes was summoned before these gentlemen to make her report, but as no reliable conclusion could be reached from it, the Queen, whether she wanted to or not, had to subject herself to their examination to determine the nature of her condition. Once this had happened, they were still just as uncertain as before, until at length late in the night thay agreed […]” that an operation was called for.

“This verdict was signed by them all and presented to the Queen, but she would in no way be persuaded to acquiesce. She said that when the time came to die,” and she was apparently in no doubt that she would, “she would certainly not choose the surest and most painful manner in which to do so.”

The rest of Biehl’s story deepens our sympathy for the doomed Queen; her account culminates at the moment when the King, who has promised to support his wife, cannot take any more and has to be sent out:

“But when the King saw him [the doctor] approach with sleeves rolled up and lay out the necessary instruments, his steadfastness deserted him. He threw himself upon her, as if to cover her, withdrew his consent […].”

But the Queen is tough. Now it must be endured to the bitter end. And not long after:

“The operation took place, and half an hour later it was no longer any secret in the palace that the Queen had been perfectly right in saying that such advisory councils were of no use, for none of their conclusions had transpired.”

Biehl’s ice-cold matter-of-fact account – leaving out screams, blood and pain in order to concentrate on the woman’s modesty and powerlessness over her own body, even after she has produced a boy, the future king – makes the story a woman’s story, a narrative we would have been without had the writer not been female.

Despite their apparent lack of mutual connection, the stories are all guided by a fundamental principle strongly championed by the author: monarchy is the proper form of government. The king – no matter if he is mad, profligate or totally isolated – should enjoy the support of the people and the powers that be. Good guidance is important, but coup d’état is a bad thing and must be punished. Johan Bülow is a hero through his sound judgement, prudent counsel and loyalty. Frederik V and Queen Louise are the epitome of a royal couple. Apart from that, whatever happens may happen – and it does.

By far the most and the best of Biehl’s writing was composed in prose. Alongside her prose, however, she wrote and translated quite a number of poems, of which a few have been published. Two long poems were written for immediate publication: the héroïde “Brev fra Waldborg Immersdatter” (1775; Letter from Waldborg Immersdatter) in collections from Det norske Selskab (Norwegian Society), and a laudatory poem to J. H. E. Bernstorff “Et digt over Friehed og Eyendom” (1772; A Poem on Liberty and Estate). She also wrote a collection of unpublished religious psalm-like texts, “Morgen- og Aftensange” (Morning and Evening Songs). In 1776 she published, anonymously, a collection of FrimurerSange (Masonic Songs) by “Ordenens sande Veninde” (a true female friend of the Order), which were re-workings of German songs. Freemasonry was new to Denmark, and Biehl would seem to have been more au fait than most women with its mysteries and rituals, presumably by virtue of her close friendship with Lord Chamberlain Johan Bülow, who was a Mason, as were some of her other friends and also her brother. Biehl’s unpublished works comprised a collection of occasional poems and versified letters to Bülow, including a short special collection of FrimurerSange.

Change of Governance

The piece of historical writing which gave Biehl most satisfaction was a letter about the palace revolution of 1784 – a coup in which power was wrested from Hereditary Prince Frederik, Queen Dowager Juliane Marie and the de facto prime minister, Ove Høegh-Guldberg, and returned into the rightful hands: Christian VII and Crown Prince Frederik. Johan Bülow had played a significant role in the coup, and the assignment of describing the course of events meant that Biehl was entrusted with highly confidential material, conducted interviews with Bülow and other involved parties, and was given the stamp of approval by the Crown Prince. It was, in short, a position of trust in a class all of its own.

Edvard Holm published the letter, under the heading “Regieringsforandringen d. 14de April 1784” (Change of Governance, April 14th 1784), in Historisk Tidsskrift (1867; Journal of History) as historical source material. The original is now kept in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Biehl herself would undoubtedly count it as one of the historical letters.

Charlotta Dorothea Biehl was entrusted with highly confidential material when she sat down to write about the coup d’état of 1784. The confidence in her shown by Johan Bülow and the crown prince was particularly encouraging during her final years. In a private letter to Bülow, dated 27 June 1784, she wrote: “Has my heart ever felt true bliss then it has been in those moments when you put your trust and confidence in me […] believe me, my beloved friend, the feelings of the Empress when proclaimed ruler of all Russia cannot have been equal to mine at the moment my B- told me that C P [= Crown Prince] had given permission for my initiation into that about which none other than he and you were informed, and to make a comprehensive story thereof. O my friend. It was not vanity or pride, but delight of the soul over this unique attestation of your trust and esteem […].”

Private Letters to Bülow

At the end of her long autobiographical letter, Mit ubetydelige Levnets Løb, Charlotta Dorothea Biehl writes of Johan Bülow: “He then expressed the wish that I would write to him often, with which I was so willing to comply that he received three and sometimes four a week.”

Thomas Bruun: Sketch for Scenery, 1786, Teatermuseet, Copenhagen

These letters have survived among Bülow’s unpublished papers. Around 450 letters, all told. They are unedited, often rather private, letters containing a wealth of information on the particulars of Copenhagen cultural life. The majority are, however, variations on the theme: Charlotta Dorothea Biehl and Johan Bülow. The letters are heavily loaded with declarations of devoted affection for her young friend – so heavily loaded, in fact, that the only interest lies in seeing if she appreciates the need to vary her theme. She gets very little fresh fuel on which to drive a correspondence, however, as he apparently seldom replies to her letters and seldom visits her. Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe that he did not appreciate them: it was he who had urged her to write, and he filed her letters systematically.

In a letter dated 25 October, probably 1783, Biehl touches on the problem, as she did so often. She envisages acquaintances who tell her, without being asked for their opinion, that she should stop writing to him given that he does not reply.

“If your letters pleased him, said these uninvited advisors, then he must also put his faith in them; have you not time and again in plain language as well as with ambiguous words said to him that your greatest pleasure was a line from his hand, and the pleasure gained from pleasing a friend must surely be stronger than the apprehension were he himself pleased by your letters.”

A little further on, Biehl lets Bülow exclaim: “Miss B- is commended for her writing gift; yet, even so, her letters afford such little amusement that once you have read one then you have read them all, and as they weary and bore me, what would you then have me do; and for that reason I would far rather not write any.”

This could be called currying favour, and to some extent it is, but Biehl’s main point is to say that she actually intends to carry on writing, and she wants to alert him to the fact that if he contacts her a little more often then she would have material to which she could respond, and this might be more interesting – and, if he does not, then he will just have to hear about her ardent feelings for him. It is also quite clear from the letters that she always commented on any conversations they might have had; her particular favourites being discussions that provided her with information for the historical letters, especially for “Regieringsforandringen”.

“It is usually said: All’s well that ends well, and therefore I too wished to end my incessant writing to you (for correspondence I dare not call it) in a manner that could efface some of the tedium I have caused you, but my mind is worn-out and will not lend me assistance.”

(Letter to Bülow, 25 October 1783(?))

In the spring of 1784 her letters are dashing full steam ahead across the page. A number of episodes reported in her autobiography put in an appearance. She also looks to the past, writing about Sneedorff, Bornemann, Hielmstierne and Augustine, and about how she started her work as a translator. We see snapshots from Charlottenborg Castle, where Biehl is shocked by the residents, and we see Bülow waiting in the freezing cold outside the theatre. She steadfastly berates the theatre manager Warnstedt.

Counts, princesses and the king are mentioned once in a while, but her favourite member of the royal family is “our beloved Friedrich”, the crown prince. There is no shortage of self-irony and sweetness – nor can she forsake melancholy, particularly as she grows older and her health fails.

What had Miss Biehl imagined would happen to her private letters? Their status is not that of the beautifully written fair copy of Mit ubetydelige Levnets Løb. They would not have been written with the intention of circulation, but surely Biehl had hoped that Johan Bülow would keep the private letters for the benefit of posterity. If so, she was not mistaken. To this very day they are kept among Johan Bülow’s papers in the library at Sorø Academy, carefully preserved for anyone who would like to make the acquaintance of “the spinster scribe”.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch