Great Aunt Dorothea Mendelssohn

or, Foam on the wave

Lily Tuck
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

On my mother’s side, I am related to the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was born in Dessau, Germany, in 1729. By the age of six, despite many health problems, which included scoliosis, he had learned the entire Bible by heart. By the age of fourteen, besides Yiddish, his first language, he spoke German, Latin, Greek, French, and English. Mostly self-taught, Moses Mendelssohn never went to university, nor did he ever hold an academic position. He supported himself by working in a silk factory. In 1762, he met and fell in love with Fromet Guggenheim, a young girl from Hamburg, who was blond and beautiful. However, when Guggenheim saw Mendelssohn for the first time–she knew him by reputation only–and saw his stunted misshapen figure, she began to weep.

“Is it because of my hump?” Mendelssohn asked her.

“Yes,” Guggenheim admitted tearfully.

“Let me tell you a story,” he said. “According to a Talmudic saying, a proclamation of the name of the person I will marry was made in heaven when I was born. Not only was my future wife named, but it was also said that she would be hunchbacked. ‘Oh, no,’ I said to myself, ‘she will be deformed, bitter and unhappy. Dear Lord,’ I said again, ‘give me the hump instead and make her fair and beautiful.’” Fromet Guggenheim was so moved by his story that she dried her tears and they married.

The two lived together happily and had ten children, six of whom survived to adulthood. They were Dorothea (originally called Brendel), Rebecka, Joseph, Henriette, Abraham, and Nathan; the four who did not survive were Sara, Sisa, Hayyim, and Mendel. Moses wrote movingly about one of the latter to a friend: “Death has knocked at my door and robbed me of a child, which had lived but eleven innocent months; but God be praised, her short life was happy and full of bright promise”– a short life he goes on to describe. He ends his letter with: “You will laugh at my simplicity, and see in this talk the weakness of a man who, seeking comfort, finds it nowhere but in his own imagination. It may be; I cannot believe that God has set us on His earth like foam on the wave.”

My father’s family was also German and Jewish, but when I was born in 1938 in France, I was baptized a Lutheran in a beautiful long white lace gown which had belonged to my father, a fact that leads me to believe that he also had been baptized. Neither of my parents, however, was religious. I never heard them mention God, nor did I ever see them inside a church–except to sightsee. I, on the other hand, as a child was fanatically religious. I am not sure why–perhaps, because we lived in Peru, a Catholic country, and perhaps, too, because my French nanny, who was truly devout, took me to mass on Sundays. I distinctly remember that every night I knelt on the floor beside my bed and said the Lord’s Prayer in French, “Notre Père qui es aux cieux,” and how I added a long list of the names of family members, friends, pets, and stuffed animals to be blessed. On my night table, I had a small marble statue of the baby Jesus. The statue rested on a bed of white cotton, and each night I kissed it. No one, I decreed, was allowed to touch it. One day, however, the Peruvian maid, cleaning my room, did touch it; worse, she dropped the statue of the baby Jesus on the floor and his foot broke off. How to convey my outrage, my fury, at this sacrilege: I bit the maid’s hand so hard I drew blood.

In Dorothea’s case, despite attending her father’s lectures as a young girl, she did not receive much religious instruction from him, and once married to Simon Veit she conflated her loveless marriage with her ancestral religion.

Of the six Mendelssohn children, only Rebecka and Joseph kept the Jewish faith. I am descended from Joseph, and the lineage goes like this: my grandmother on my mother’s side was born Louise Clara Ida Maria Sonnenburg and was the daughter of Anna Marianne Caroline Westphal and Eduard Sonnenburg, a doctor who successfully took out Kaiser Wilhelm’s appendix. (My grandmother recalls meeting the Kaiser, post operation, while she and her sister were playing in Sans Souci Park and being questioned by him about whether she and her sister were twins. They were not.) Anna Westphal was the daughter of Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal, a neurologist and the author of a very troubling essay “Die Konträre Sexualempfindung: Symptom eines neuropatholologgischen” (“The Opposing Sexual Instinct: A Symptom of Neuropathology,” one of the first medical accounts of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder), and his wife, Clara Rosamunde Dorothea Mendelssohn. Clara Mendelssohn was the daughter of Alexander Mendelssohn, the son of Joseph Mendelssohn. Alexander also kept the Jewish faith, but he had his four children baptized.

Rebecka, the middle sister, was married briefly and unhappily, and the marriage was eventually dissolved. She was clever and intelligent but suffered all her life from ill health. Henriette, the youngest sister, was short and, like her father, humpbacked. Well-read, fluent in English and French, and a prodigious letter writer, she became governess to French Field Marshal Sébastiani’s daughter Fanny, whose murder later became a cause célèbre. As Fanny’s governess, Henriette lived in great luxury, which she described in a letter to her brother Joseph’s wife, Leah: “Do you remember the Champs Elysées and the beautiful hotels in the Faubourg St. Honoré, the gardens of which open on to them? Well, I live in one of them, next door to the Emperor.” A Catholic convert, Henriette died in 1831 during the cholera epidemic.

Abraham Mendelssohn and his wife, Lea, secretly converted to Christianity in 1822; earlier, in 1816, they had their children, Felix and Fanny, baptized, also secretly, and Felix was not circumcised. His full name was changed to Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy–Abraham added the name Bartholdy to the family surname–and both he and Fanny were brought up as Lutherans. Nathan, Abraham’s younger brother, a mathematician and an engineer, who had a daughter and two sons, one of whom went to prison for five years for a bungled theft–the only recorded miscreant in the Mendelssohn family–also converted to Christianity, changing his named to Carl Theodor Nathaniel. A reason, besides the obvious and pernicious one of widespread anti-Semitism, given for these apostasies was that the brothers were very young when their father died and thus did not receive the religious education that their older brother, Joseph, had. Nonetheless when Abraham was asked by Felix, his brilliant composer son, to explain the reason for the name change his reply acknowledged the futility of it: “A Christian Mendelssohn is an impossibility. A Christian Mendelssohn the world would never recognize and is no more plausible than a Jewish Confucius.”

And what about Dorothea, the most interesting and accomplished of Moses Mendelssohn’s six children? As the eldest child, Dorothea received an excellent and unusual education, both for a woman and for her time. According to a source close to the family, she was allowed to join in the lessons Moses offered each morning at his home to a group of young men who, along with his sons Joseph and Abraham, included the two von Humboldt brothers, Alexander and Wilhelm. (Moses later published these lessons in a little volume called Morning Hours.) Despite this intellectual advantage, Moses nevertheless selected Dorothea’s husband, and in 1778, at the age of fourteen, she was engaged to Simon Veit, a banker, who was twenty-four years old. Four years later they were married. The marriage was loveless and lasted sixteen years. They had two children, Jonas and Philipp, both of whom became painters and joined the Christian Brotherhood of the Nazarene in Rome.

To alleviate the tedium of her marriage and to provide herself with intellectual stimulation, Dorothea took to holding soirées in her home to which she invited her friends, Henrietta Herz and Rachel Levin (of the three, Dorothea was considered to be the romantic, Henrietta the beauty, and Rachel the intellectual), and soon Henrietta and Rachel, too, began to hold soirées or salons in their homes, so that nearly every night there was a gathering of young Jews and liberal-minded Christians discussing literature, theater, music, philosophy–Voltaire, apparently, was debated in French, Dante in Italian, and Goethe, the favorite, in, of course, German. These literary salons in the Jewish women’s homes became known as the artistic and literary centers in Berlin, and the women who hosted them were regarded, according to the poet Heinrich Heine, as “the Bacchantes of thought, reeling in holy intoxication after the god.”

In 1797, Dorothea Veit met the man who would alter her life: Friedrich Schlegel, at one of the literary salons. They instantly fell in love, despite the fact that Schlegel was seven years younger than she, and Veit was not considered a great beauty. On the contrary, she was usually described as a large, mannish-looking woman, and even her good friend Henrietta Herz did not mince words: “There was nothing about Dorothea to entice one to sensuality. Nothing about her was beautiful except her eyes, through which, it is true, there shone the light of her lovable soul and her sparkling mind.”

To the general disapproval of her friends and, worse, the condemnation of her family, Dorothea left her husband and went to live with Friedrich Schlegel. Remarkably, she was able to obtain a divorce from her husband and was allowed custody of one of her sons, Philipp, on the condition that she not remarry or change her faith–both conditions she ignored. In 1799, Dorothea and Friedrich left Berlin and went to live in Jena, which briefly had become the center of German Romanticism and home to the writers A. W. Schlegel (Friedrich’s brother), who was translating Shakespeare’s plays into German, Ludwig Tieck, F. W. J. Schelling, and Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis).

In her novel The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald perfectly captured the atmosphere of the Jena circle–and in particular the behavior of the women:

Friedrich Schlegel lived with a woman ten years [actually seven] older than himself. She was Dorothea, daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a kind and motherly woman, apparently, but she had a husband already, a banker… Whoever he was, he was well out of it.

They were all intelligent, all revolutionaries, but since all of them had a different plan, none of it would come to anything. They talked continually of going to Prussia, to Berlin, but they stayed in Jena… . this was because Jena was so much cheaper.

To the Jena circle Fritz [Novalis] was a kind of phenomenon, a country boy, perhaps still growing, capable in his enthusiasm of breaking things, tall and awkward. Friedrich Schlegel stuck to it that he was a genius. “Whatever you read of Hardenberg’s you won’t understand him nearly as well as if you take tea with him once.”

“When you write to him,” said the wild Caroline Schlegel to her sister-in-law Dorothea, “tell him to come at once, and we will all fichtisieren [reflect incessantly] and symphilosophise [philosophize together] and sympoetisieren [poetize together] until the dawn breaks.”

Part of the new Romantic movement in Germany, these writers declared that the novel was a poetic form, whereas, during the eighteenth century, it was considered a prose form, and as Novalis stated in no uncertain terms: “A novel must be poetry through and through.” The novel could embody the characteristics of drama, epic, and lyric; it could concentrate more on characters than on events and on the inner life rather than on external action. It could emphasize its own fictiveness and fracture ordinary structures of time, place, and causality in search of a greater truth. Going a step farther, Friedrich Schlegel asserted that “Der Roman ist ein romantisches Buch” (“The novel is a Romantic book”–the distinction between a romance and a novel in French and German is impossible to make), thus implying that all novels should be romances. But the perfect novel, according still to Schlegel, is unattainable and unachievable. “It should,” in Schlegel’s words, “forever be becoming and never be finished.” He also declared in one of his earliest surviving notebooks (written at the time he met Dorothea) that every man who is cultured has a novel within himself, although he need not write it, nor, he also declared, was it necessary for anyone to write more than one novel–a novel that would depict the inner life of the author and be filled with digressions addressed to the reader. Following his own dictum, Schlegel wrote such a novel.

Published in 1799 and based on his and Dorothea’s romance, Lucinde can, by today’s standards, be considered a postmodern novel. It has no plot, no story, no chronological narration; it is made up of fragments, reflections, letters, memories, and dialogues, and, perhaps most telling, it is concerned with inner rather than external experience. The theme is, of course, love. This love is a combination of spiritual and sensual love that has definite religious overtones since it is the transfiguring force in human experience, where the inner and outer world merge and where the finite and infinite combine to give humans a sense of unity with the universe. Schlegel never finished Lucinde; he had also planned to write a second part in the form of poems connected by brief prose passages, but he never managed to achieve this either, proving his belief in the unattainability of the perfect novel.

Two years later, in 1801, Dorothea, a talented writer in her own right, published her own novel anonymously. According to the German historian Rudolf Haym, “Authorship was indispensable in the Schlegel circle, and so Dorothea wrote amongst other things a novel, entitled Florentin. Do not suppose for a moment that she intended to produce a pendant to Lucinde. The slightest thought of placing herself on a level with the ‘divine Frederick’ she would have regarded as an act of high treason. In her eyes the author of Lucinde was an artist; it was enough for her to assist in procuring him repose, and, as a humble worker, earn bread for him, until he could do it for himself.”

Unlike Lucinde, Florentin does have a plot. The principal themes of the novel are Florentin’s search for identity, his search for his soulmate–the woman preordained for him–and his worship of nature, a manifestation of the spiritual. The novel begins with Florentin, a homeless orphan, riding through a forest and becoming lost; he is anticipating a journey and a change in his tedious, unrewarding life: he plans to go to America to offer his services to the English colonies. Instead he stumbles on an old man who is being attacked by a wild boar and saves his life. The old man, Count Schwarzenberg, invites him to his home, a castle, where Florentin remains for most of the novel. There he meets the Count’s wife, Eleonore, her daughter Juliane, and Juliane’s betrothed, Eduard. Not surprisingly, Florentin is drawn to this world of order and beauty. So drawn, in fact, that he, Juliane, and Eduard are soon bound to each other in friendship–an almost incestuous friendship–and Florentin feels compelled to divulge his own story: an unhappy childhood, a debauched youth, an unfortunate marriage, and other misadventures. Florentin is also an artist–he makes a living from his paintings—but his true calling is as a musician. Music, for Dorothea Mendelssohn, best rendered the divine, for as she once wrote: “I love music as the greatest benefactress of my life… . How often has the celestial one sung to rest the evil spirits that threateningly surrounded me!”

For many readers, the lack of resolution at the end of Florentin is problematic as our hero, Florentin, simply leaves–the last line of the novel is “Florentin was nowhere to be found” –and where he goes is not made clear although the reader assumes, thanks to his earlier assertion, that he has left for America to help the English colonies. Mendelssohn defended this choice in her dedication to the publisher: “Usually, however, one does not find any conclusion of a novel satisfying unless the one in whom one was most interested gets married or is buried… . As far as I’m concerned, I must admit to you that I am never completely calm when the poet leaves nothing for me to think or dream about.”

On the whole Florentin was well received by Dorothea’s Jena circle of writers and friends. In addition, there was a great deal of speculation about who had written the novel. Some people thought Friedrich had written it, others thought Dorothea had, and still others thought neither had. As for the critics, Mendelssohn herself was one of the first to disingenuously weigh in with her opinion of the novel, in a letter to a friend: “To whom we actually owe it, I truly do not know. Be that as it may, it is a friendly, enjoyable, delightful book that resists whining with all its might. Sometimes the colors are somewhat childishly applied too glaringly, but precisely for that reason it looks on perspective quite amusingly like a decoration and delivers the dearest little story quite culturally. What more does one want? It greatly amused me. I read it twice and am impatiently awaiting the continuation.” Novalis was not as sanguine. He told Friedrich Schlegel that there was much cultivation about it but no plan in it. Schiller, on the other hand, was so enthusiastic about Florentin that he wrote to Goethe: “Madame Veit has published a novel that I want to inform you about. Look at it for the sake of curiosity. In it you will also see the haunting ghosts of old acquaintances. All the same, this novel, which is a strange caricature, gave me a better idea of the authoress, and it is a new proof of how far dilettantism can go at least in mechanics and in the hollow form. I would like to have the book returned as soon as you have read it.” Apparently, Goethe, for the most part, agreed with Schiller.

In 1802, Dorothea and Friedrich moved to Paris, where apparently they led a tranquil and well-ordered life, during what may have been Dorothea’s happiest time. According to a contemporary account, she was

very active and exemplary, she practiced all womanly industry. It is incomprehensible how she still found time to write. She it was who, whilst her quick, clever hand made and mended clothes, knitted stockings, and busied itself on the domestic hearth, was the copyist of all her husband’s writings, herself all the while bringing forth much that was beautiful and excellent. During this time she worked at the second part of Florentin, wrote excellent essays for the Europa (signed with a D.), translated and compressed “Merlin” into an exquisite epitome, carried on a tolerably extensive correspondence, found time to see the most remarkable objects of art, read all the new books, occasionally attended concerts and the theatres, and enlivened the evenings by the charm of her social gifts or her beautiful reading aloud… . She was proud that her products should appear under Schlegel’s name, and always asserted that fame was a disadvantage to women, who must expect and accept every happiness and splendor from love alone.

Dorothea and Friedrich finally married in 1804, and she officially took Friedrich’s name. The same year, she also converted to Protestantism but not for long. Four years later, she and Friedrich became Catholics. Dorothea’s conversions may not be difficult to explain. Many Jews in post-Napoleonic Europe felt that Judaism had outlived its usefulness and were thus driven to convert not so much for ideological reasons as for practical ones–those of civil equality. In Dorothea’s case, despite attending her father’s lectures as a young girl, she did not receive much religious instruction from him, and once married to Simon Veit she conflated her loveless marriage with her ancestral religion. Under the influence of both Henriette Herz and Rachel Levin, both of whom had already converted, and the literary salons’ stimulating evenings, Dorothea, no doubt, craved a life of freedom, independence, and romance. Once she married Friedrich Schlegel, a Lutheran, it is not surprising that she converted. The lure later of Catholicism was probably due to the pageantry and ceremonial aspects of the church service, which suited their Romantic sensibilities.

I am not sure when exactly I stopped praying
. Perhaps when I came to America and I had to learn to speak English, and the Episcopal version of the Lord’s Prayer no longer held the same meaning. During college, however, thanks to my roommate, whom I admired and who was religious, I briefly returned to the church. Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston was then–it may still be–considered very high church; the liturgy was sung, bells were rung, incense was swung. It was there, my sophomore year, that I took confirmation classes and that the bishop of Boston laid his hands on my head to bless me. After this brief reentry into the church, and after my roommate decided she had had enough of college life and left, I lapsed. Lapsed completely and forever.

I was, however, twice married in a church. The first time from lack of voice or choice, probably one and the same, to accommodate family members and my future husband, who was a Christian and a WASP. Also, it was an unsettled time. My wedding took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I will never forget the seamstress, who was making last-minute alterations on my wedding dress–I kept losing weight–with pins in her mouth, muttering ominously, “If there is going to be a wedding at all!” Worse still, I had been told not to mention to my husband-to-be’s family that I had Jewish blood. No, no, no. It would trouble them. It was also suggested that my father, who lived in Italy, not attend the wedding. As it turned out, however, a relative of my future mother-in-law whose origins were Italian and who happened to be in Rome at the time, had dinner with my father and afterward my mother-in-law remarked that she hoped my father would not think that the relative was Jewish on account of his prominent nose. This reminds me that one of my husband’s sisters, a woman I liked very much, later told me that she had known all along I had Jewish blood on account of my ears: my earlobes are long. One thing I still deeply regret about that wedding is that I did not include one of my good friends as a bridesmaid because she was black. At the time I felt the religious waters were roiled up enough. In 1962, a Jew and a black in St. James Episcopal Church would have caused a veritable tsunami of trouble.

Again to accommodate others, my second marriage also took place in a church, this time a nondenominational church. The reason was that both my husband and I were divorced and the Episcopal Church has restrictions. The Reverend William Sloane Coffin was prepared to marry us (instead, in the end, he went to Nicaragua on more urgent business), and my husband-to-be and I went to meet him in his office high up in the tower of the Riverside Church. A huge thunderstorm was in progress.

“Why do you want to be married in the church?” Reverend Coffin asked my husband-to-be.

My husband-to-be gave a satisfactory response.

Then, turning to me, Reverend Coffin asked, “Do you believe in God?”

For answer, there was a tremendous clap of thunder.

Reverend Coffin laughed.

I know little about the Jewish faith. When I was growing up, Judaism was never mentioned, and as a result I don’t feel Jewish; at the same time I would never deny my Jewish heritage. As for my own faith, I wish that, like Blaise Pascal, I could hedge my bet and believe in God, just to be on the safe side, but I cannot. Sadly–and I genuinely regret this–I don’t believe in any god, and despite Moses Mendelssohn’s confident faith, I do think we are like foam on the wave.

In 1808, Dorothea and Friedrich Schlegel
moved once again, this time to Vienna. Friedrich joined the civil service and began acquiring notions of grandeur, calling himself von Schlegel and dabbling in mesmerism, faith healing, and Hinduism; he also began drinking and eating too much. Meantime, Dorothea supported them both; she wrote various articles for literary journals and translated Madame de Staël’s Corinne into German, all of which she continued to publish under Friedrich’s name.

Life for Dorothea and Friedrich became more and more difficult. Vienna was filled with refugees from the Napoleonic Wars; their apartment was shabby and unheated. Insolvent, Friedrich had grown petulant and fat, and in 1829, at the age of fifty-six, he died (rumor had it that his death was the result of overeating). After Friedrich’s death, Dorothea moved to Frankfurt, where her sister Henriette and her brothers Abraham and Joseph resided. Dorothea lived another ten years on a small government pension, and despite illness and poverty, she remained true to her Romantic ideals. For as she wrote her friend Henrietta Herz: “All that we children used to call the Poetry of Life is far, far away! I could say, with you, that I have had enough of it. But all the same, I will not say, and implore you not to say it again. Be brave!”

Lily Tuck is the author of seven novels, among them The News from Paraguay, winner of the 2004 National Book Award, and most recently Sisters, two collections of stories, and a biography, Woman of Rome, a Life of Elsa Morante. This year she received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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