Portrait by Tischbein
Reading Robert Richards’ The Romantic Conception of Life for my fall seminar on German Romanticism, I come to a section about the personalities that made up the early Romantic circle in Jena. In a footnote, Richards confesses that he has fallen in love with a brilliant woman:
“Caroline’s magical, erotic power — the kind of power only a beautiful woman with a wonderfully creative intelligence can effect—has pulled writers into her embrace over the last two hundred years. . . . Biographer of Friedrich Schelling, Kuno Fischer, fell in love with her from a distance, and this historian, too, has succumbed.”
Caroline was the daughter of an Orientalist and was fluent in four languages before she was married to a medical doctor named Böhme at the age of 20. They moved to a small town where she languished socially and intellectually, had 2 children and was pregnant with a third when her husband died of an infected wound. Richards writes: “Caroline Böhmer’s life happily changed in 1788 when her husband died.”
Back in Göttingen she had several admirers, including August Wilhelm Schlegel. She and her one living child (2 had died in infancy) moved to revolutionary Mainz where she joined the circle of Georg Forster (whose book on his voyage with Captain Cook inspired Alexander von Humboldt — whose books about his own explorations inspired Darwin) and was arrested by the German forces who chased out the French. Pregnant by a young French officer, she was pardoned by the Prussian monarch on the advice of Wilhelm von Humboldt and then followed an invitation from Wilhelm Schlegel to join him and his brother Friedrich. She gave birth, left the child in the care of friends, and married Wilhelm, promising in a letter to a friend to teach him passion. She helped him with his Shakespeare translations and was active in the social circle of Romantics in Jena that included Novalis, Goethe, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Young Schelling soon supplanted Wilhelm Schlegel in her affection (Richards notes that perhaps Wilhelm didn’t learn her lessons). Schlegel left for Berlin and Caroline and Schelling ultimately married.
Philosophically and physically (the two were, Richards writes, intricately interwoven for the German Romantics) these were fascinating people whose ideas continue to shape our identities to this day.