A ‘strange wild book’

Posted on 3rd September 2020 by simonbeattie

This is a copy of the first edition in English of Bettina von Arnim’s first book, Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (1835), translated in part by the author herself and privately printed in Berlin.  ‘The printing had almost come to end [sic], when by a variance between the printer and the translator, it was interrupted; then by the inspiration of despair, I ventured to continue translating …  Had Byron still lived, he would have praised my attempt, praised and loved me for the book’s sake …’ (pp. iv, ix).  (This copy was subsequently presented to the literary historian Heinrich Spiero (1876–1947) by Arnim’s son-in-law, Herman Grimm (1828–1901; son of Wilhelm Grimm, of fairy-tale fame, and one of the editors of the Weimar edition of Goethe’s works).)

Bettina Brentano (1785–1859), as she then was—granddaughter of the novelist Sophie de La Roche, sister of the poet Clemens Brentano, and later the wife of her brother’s friend, the writer Achim von Arnim—became friendly with Goethe’s mother on a visit to Frankfurt in 1806; she met Goethe himself the following year and remained in close contact with him until 1811 when, provoked by her behaviour towards his wife, he severed all connection.  After her husband’s death in 1831, Bettina settled in Berlin, where she enjoyed moving in literary circles with the likes of Ludwig Tieck, the Grimms, and Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt.

Arnim’s book has sometimes been condemned as literary forgery, but the work is really an imaginative novel in epistolary form, rather than a documentary collection of putative letters.  The subtitle in the first volume, Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child.  For his Monument, means exactly that: the book was to help raise funds to erect a monument in Goethe’s memory; Arnim’s line drawing of it is reproduced here as a frontispiece to vol. III:

The translation was published commercially by Longmans in London, 1837–9, using the Berlin sheets.  When it was reprinted by Trübner & Co. in 1860 the editors noted that the book had become ‘too celebrated in German literature to need any recommendation to the English public’, calling it a ‘strange wild book’; ‘it should be borne in mind that the authoress herself was the translator … if it plays strange pranks with the English language, this is only one more singularity to the many in which the work abounds’.

For further details, please see my recent e-list of books by and relating to Goethe.

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