Arnim, Bettine von (1785–1859)

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Arnim, Bettine von (1785–1859)

German writer—best known for her epistolary works published from correspondence with Johann von Goethe, Clemens Brentano, and Karoline von Günderrode—and social activist, whose writings on behalf of the poor, of political agitators, and of social reform annoyed many, including the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV and the Berlin Magistrate. Name variations: Bettina; Bettina Brentano; Bettine. Pronunciation: AR-neem. Born Elizabeth Catharina Brentano in 1785 in Frankfurt am Main; died in Berlin in 1859; daughter of Maximiliane von La Roche Brentano and Peter Anton Brentano (a Frankfurt merchant); sister of poet Clemens Brentano; granddaughter of Sophie von La Roche; married (Ludwig) Achim von Arnim (1781–1831, a German poet and novelist), in 1811; children: Freimund (b. 1812); Sigmund (b. 1813); Friedmund (b. 1815); Kühnemund (b. 1817); Maximiliane (b. 1818); Armgard von Arnim (b. 1821); Gisela von Arnim (b. 1827).

Published first work Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (1835), after her husband had died (1831); through her later political works and deeds, was held partially responsible for the revolt of the Sile-sian weavers; publication of her work was temporarily stopped, and she was arrested; sympathized with the 1848 revolution and wrote on behalf of imprisoned insurgents; sentenced to three months in prison for lese-majesty; acquitted after trial.

Selected works:

Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (Goethe's Correspondence with a Child, 1835); Die Günderode (1840); Clemens Brentanos Frühlingskranz (Clemens Brentano's Spring Wreath, 1844); Dies Buch gehört dem König (1843); Reichsgräfin Gritta von Rattenzuhausbeiuns (1843, fairytale co-authored with her daughter Gisela von Arnim); Das Armenbuch (Book of the Poor, 1844); Ilius Pamphilius und die Ambrosia (1848); Gespräche mit Dämonen (1852); Sämtliche Werke (Collected Works, 1853).

Toward the end of her life, Bettine von Arnim told the historian Karl Varnhagen von Ense about the circumstances under which she composed her first published poem. According to her story, her brother, the writer Clemens Brentano, had locked her in a small room, refusing to let her out until she had composed a song. The poem, called "Seelied," or "Sea Song," was published anonymously in the Zeitung für Einsiedler of May 11, 1808, the journal of her future husband, (Ludwig) Achim von Arnim.

In many aspects, Arnim's works and life epitomize the romantic spirit of freedom, spontaneity, and individuality. The German philosopher and writer Friedrich Schlegel, in his "Fragment 116," defined romantic poetry as a "universal poetry," one that mixes "poetry and prose, geniality and criticism, artistic poetry and nature poetry." For Schlegel, the romantic makes "poetry lively and social life and society poetic." That interplay between the written word and the lived experience applies to all of Arnim's writings and actions.

"Once upon a time there was a child who had many siblings"; so begins a short autobiography that Bettine von Arnim wrote at the request of her brother Clemens. Her father Peter Brentano, an Italian merchant who had settled in Frankfurt am Main, had had six children in his first marriage. Bettine was the seventh child of twelve from Brentano's second marriage to Maximiliane von La Roche.

Scholars usually connect Bettine von Arnim's name with the famous men she knew: among others, her brother, Clemens Brentano; her husband, the writer Achim von Arnim; her correspondent, the renowned writer Johann von Goethe; and Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, who dedicated their book of fairytales to her. In doing so, they have largely ignored her place in a long lineage of acclaimed women. Her grandmother, Sophie von La Roche (1731–1807), was one of the most recognized and renowned woman novelists in Germany. Arnim's mother, Maximiliane von La Roche Brentano, who died at 37, received praise by those who visited her, including Goethe, as possessing a sensitive, artistic sensibility that also fostered artistic talents in all her children. Arnim's own daughters Armgard and Gisela became artists and writers in their own right.

Arnim was only eight when her mother died. Her father then placed her and three of her sisters in the Ursuline convent school in Fritzlar. The education the girls received there was a usual one for women of the time—lessons in gardening, stitchery, playing guitar, painting, and singing. Arnim characterizes these early years as happy ones, especially the times when she would sneak out on her own to admire the night moon or to sniff the herbs in the garden. Her knowledge of the medicinal uses of herbs would influence her throughout her life, for she often turned to homeopathic remedies for her own and her friends' illnesses.

When her father died in 1797, her half-brother Franz became her guardian. Franz and his wife Toni tried to socialize her into accepting certain norms of behavior, assigning her household tasks. Arnim's letters to friends during the short time she was there and for a long time afterwards reveal her feelings of confinement.

She was thus pleased when in the middle of the year she moved in with her grandmother, Sophie von La Roche, in Offenbach. Here she was allowed free rein of the library. She engaged in stimulating conversations with her grandmother, who also let her examine old correspondence and papers of her grandfather, who had been a councillor at the courts of various counts and electors, which sparked Arnim's initial interest in biographical writing.

At this time, she also developed a close relationship with her brother, Clemens Brentano. They corresponded while he was at school between the years 1801 and 1803, which was to form the basis for her later book Clemens Brentanos Frühlingskranz (Clemens Brentano's Spring Wreath, 1844). The education and encouragement Bettine received from her brother had a profound effect on her development. But her recollection of his help often portrays his constant advice about her writing and personal habits as stifling: "I had to promise him to write something before he came back," Bettine confides in her friend, the poet Karoline von Günderrode , "Never, he said, would I learn more about how the world was boarded up than if I tried to write a book. And then he talks about a free future and how, without having written a book, I would never enjoy my future!—A book is thick and has many blank pages, which I can't fill by just grabbing things out of thin air—and that seems like a real chain on my freedom." In her letters to Clemens, there seemed to be tension between his desires to channel her interests into those of a respectable woman and her need to find herself outside of the constraints of society.

To connect her life solely with famous men also ignores the intense friendships she had with women. In 1801, Bettine befriended Günderrode. At this time, Karoline was living in a Lutheran cloister for upper-class, unmarried, and widowed women in Frankfurt. The two met frequently to discuss their active intellectual life. The correspondence she had with Günderrode from 1804 to 1806 was later reworked into Die Günderode, published in 1840. Unlike her relationship with Clemens, in which Arnim often felt pressured to adhere to certain social and literary norms, her friendship with Günderrode helped transcend them. In their correspondence, she speaks easily to the poet, searching out new methods that enable her to "speak from the heart."

At times, however, the expectations that Bettine placed on the women's relationships seemed almost too demanding for Karoline. The two women grew apart after Günderrode began a relationship with a married man whom Bettine did not like. Despite Arnim's desperate attempts to mend the rift, Günderrode became even more distant from the world in general, showing signs in her letters and poems of an inability to reconcile her passionate desires to write and lead an active life with societal constraints. In 1806, Günderrode committed suicide by stabbing herself on the bank of the Rhine river. Bettine felt the devastating impact of the loss of her friend, and she began a friendship with Elisabeth Goethe , mother of the admired Johann von Goethe. Bettine von Arnim's correspondence with Elisabeth Goethe showed that Arnim sought out the older woman not only to gain access to the admired Goethe, but also to share her stories with the renowned female story-teller. Arnim's "Report on Günderode's Suicide," which she sends to Elisabeth Goethe in 1808, and then includes in her later publication of Goethe's Correspondence with a Child, is a poignant expression of her grief.

In 1807, Arnim's grandmother died and left her without a permanent residence. She stayed with relatives, traveling to Marburg, Kassel, Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. Through Clemens she met Achim von Arnim, her future husband and Clemens' partner in compiling a collection of folkballads and poems entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Bettine anonymously contributed ballads and poems to the collection. Clemens and Achim often encouraged her to lend some of her musical compositions to collections of songs, but because Bettine had insecurities about her talents and fear of ridicule, as her replies indicate, she frequently hesitated to contribute to their projects.

Günderrode, Karoline von (1780–1806)

German poet. Name variations: Günderode, Gunderode, Gunderrode; sometimes used the pseudonym Tian. Born in Karlsruhe, Germany, on February 11, 1780; committed suicide at Winkel on the Rhine, on July 26, 1806; grew up as one of several daughters of a moderately affluent widow.

Prompted by her mother, Karoline von Günderrode entered a kloster for well-born spinsters but was unhappy there. She soon found that travel and visits to friends, especially her close friend Bettine von Arnim , freed her. Günderrode's relationships were intense. Before her attachment to Arnim, she'd had a close friendship with Karoline von Barkhaus , then Susanna Maria von Heyden . An unfortunate love affair with the scholar Friedrich Creuzer, who was married with stepchildren, heightened Günderrode's natural tendency to melancholy and mysticism, which colors her poetry. At age 26, she walked to the bank of her favorite stream and committed suicide with a dagger. Some maintain that a falling out with Arnim caused her early death. Gedichte und Phantasien (Poems and Fancies) was published in 1806, the year of her death, as was Poetic Fragments. In one of her poems, "Wandel and Treue," she wrote that "there is no certainty save that all is uncertain." Christa Wolf wrote of her in Kein Ort, Nirgends (No Place on Earth, 1979).

In April 1807, Bettine traveled in men's clothing with her sister and brother-in-law to visit Goethe in Weimar. By early 19th-century standards, this trip was both audacious and aberrant for an unmarried, 23-year-old woman. Bettine was accused of being presumptuous, but for her own personal and literary development, the journey represents a major step toward building her self-confidence. The period after her visit shows much activity as she described her journey to everyone and undertook more travels to visit friends and relatives.

Bettine's marriage to Achim von Arnim took place secretly in 1811, when she was 26. At first the couple lived in Berlin, spending time in Weimar as well, where they were often Goethe's guests. One year after her marriage, she gave birth to her first son, Freimund; six other children would be born in the next 15 years. The family lived in Berlin until 1814, and then moved to a residential estate in Wiepersdorf. In 1817, they struck a compromise whereby Bettine moved to Berlin and Achim stayed in Wiepersdorf. The correspondence between the pair shows how family and financial matters, as well as her constant encouragement of Achim in his literary work, occupied most of Bettine's time.

After Achim von Arnim's death in 1831, Bettine von Arnim began publishing her works. In Goethe's Correspondence with a Child (1835), she presented a compilation of letters that she had exchanged with the poet, beginning when she was 17. Goethe had been dead for three years when the book appeared, and the work caused an immediate stir in literary circles for the very erotic way in which Arnim portrayed the relationship between the much older poet and the younger woman. Several critics were quick to point out that Arnim had altered letters to place herself in a more favorable light than Goethe would have wanted. Despite the prevailing gossip, the book was an enormous literary success.

Scholarship has now proven that Arnim did alter many of the original letters between herself and her correspondents when she published her letter books. To try to assemble an exact inventory of those changes, as many scholars attempted in the 19th and early 20th centuries, can lead to condemnation of the works as "untrue" without recognizing the boundaries between truth and fiction, between biography and literature that Arnim was blurring. Such investigations do not consider the innovative literary techniques Arnim was attempting. Arnim's epistolary works are able to stand on their own with their imaginative combination of letters, poetry, dialogue, reflection, and narration. The persona of the child that Arnim adopts in Goethe's Correspondence with a Child allows her to enter into discussions on love, friendship, nature, music, and writing. Arnim thought the book so successful that she, as she recounts later, sat down and translated the entire piece into English herself in just a few days.

Arnim's second book, Die Günderode (1840), exemplifies the close, fecund friendship that can and often did exist among women. The two women read works of philosophy, literature, history, and the natural sciences, sometimes together, sometimes separately as they followed their own interests and discussed their views with each other. Arnim's work conveys the two women's differences—Bettine being more prone to spontaneous wanderings in nature and free-flowing bouts of writing, while Karoline preferred contemplative study in her room—and the resulting tolerance they have for each other. Within the confines of their individual houses, they imagined a world in which they could travel together to distant places, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary utopias. Together, they created their own "floating religion" (Schwebereligion) that could carry them above the confines of their sometimes stifling lives. Die Günderode captured the interest of the American Transcendentalists, as evidenced by a translation of the work into English in 1842 by the philosopher and writer Margaret Fuller .

My soul is a passionate dancer, it jumps around to an inner dance music that only I hear and not the others. Everyone cries, I should be calm, and you too, but out of the desire to dance my soul does not listen to you, and if the dance were over and done with, then I, too, would be over and done with.

—Bettine von Arnim to her brother Clemens Brentano

Arnim saw many of the proponents of the earlier romantic times die—Friedrich Schlegel in 1829; Rahel Varnhagen , another famous saloniére and letter-writer, in 1833; Clemens Brentano in 1842. Two years after Clemens' death, she published her earlier correspondence to him as Clemens Brentanos Frühlingskranz (1844). The book is both a tribute to his encouragement of her as a young writer as well as a revealing portrait of the constraints his demands represented to her.

Still, in her later years, Arnim did not live for the past, but found new friends and issues in the changing times leading to the 1848 Revolution. The last 20 years of her life are characterized by political struggles, many of which are documented by private correspondence and official reports. Between 1838 and 1840, she wrote her strongest political epistles to the crown prince, later, Prussia's king Friedrich Wilhelm IV, on behalf of acquaintances who had been indicted or dismissed for their subversive actions. From 1838 to 1840, she pleaded the case of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, who as members of the dismissed "Göttigen Seven" at the University of Göttigen, had to seek new positions. In 1844, she conducted numerous interviews with poor working families living in the Prussian province of Silesia, published under the title of Armenbuch (Book of the Poor). In 1845, she defended Friedrich Wilhelm Schlöffel, from whom she had received lists of poor workers for her Armenbuch, against accusations that he was a communist. In 1846 and 1847, she wrote on behalf of Ludwig von Mieroslawski who was sentenced to death in 1847 for his involvement in Poland's independence struggle. In 1849, she pleaded against the death sentence of the former Storkow mayor Tschech who had attempted to assassinate the king in 1844. In 1849, she tried to persuade the king to acquit the theologian and art historian Gottfried Kinkel, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his participation in the 1848 Revolution. From 1846 to 1847, she engaged in an involved correspondence with the Berlin magistrate to defend her actions in publishing Achim von Arnim's and her own works privately. The magistrate had ordered her to purchase her citizenship, which she needed to continue her own private publishing "business" that she had begun in 1846. She stated that she would not pay for the honor of citizenship, but would accept it, if conferred upon her. The magistrate was insulted by her remark and brought suit against her.

Bettine von Arnim's two final books, Dies Buch gehört dem König and Gespräche mit Dämonen, contain dialogues between Elisabeth Goethe and herself as first-person-narrator as they make an appeal for religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and an improved educational system. During her later political years, Arnim also ran a well-known salon. One of the most famous portraits of her shows a contemplative, white-haired woman in a large easy chair, head leaning into her hand, listening to a string quartet in her living room. Although she appears rather sedate here, we know from letters and documents that her salon offered a lively place where the various political factions sought mediation before and after the failed 1848 democratic revolution.

Bettine von Arnim has not been a forgotten writer, but her works and activities have often been misrepresented. Her connections with famous men have loomed in critical studies and biographies. Questions of truth and fiction have obscured close textual readings of her works and appreciation of her ideas on their own terms. Now and again, however, she has been "rediscovered." Margaret Fuller's captivating studies of Goethe's Correspondence and her translation of Günderode were the first to recognize the unique intensity of Arnim's emotions and the two women's friendship. Two German women who led the struggle for women's rights in the area of education, Gertrud Bäumer and Helene Stoecker , wrote articles on Arnim. Writers and critics in the former German Democratic Republic, such as Christa Wolf, Ursula Püschel , and Heinz Härtl, have rediscovered and reinterpreted many forgotten and unexamined texts. Recent feminists on both sides of the Atlantic have looked into her writings and salon. Since 1987, the International Bettina-von-Arnim Society in Germany has published a yearbook and newsletter. In 1991, an organization of the "Friends of Wiepersdorf Castle" was founded to commemorate the literary tradition associated with the country estate of Bettine and Achim von Arnim. With a reevaluation of Bettine von Arnim's literary and social works have come analyses of her musical and artistic compositions as scholars delve into more little explored territory in the life of an extraordinary, multitalented woman.


Arnim, Bettine von. Bettina von Arnims Armenbuch (Bettina von Arnim's Book of the Poor). Edited by Werner Vortriede. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1981.

——. Goethe's Correspondence with a Child. Anonymous translation [presumably by Bettine von Arnim]. 3 vols. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1839.

——. Goethe's Correspondence with a Child. Translation, Anonymous [part of the translation by Bettine von Arnim]. Lowell: D Bixby, 1841.

——. Die Günderode. Afterward by Christa Wolf. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1983.

——. Günderode. A Translation from the German by Margaret Fuller. Boston: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 1842.

[——]. "Seelied" ("Sea Song") in Ludwig Achim von Arnim's, Trost Einsamkeit: alte und neue Sagen und Wahrsagungen. Geschichte und Gedichten. 1808 rpt. Munich: Meyer & Jessen, 1924, pp. 96.

——. Werke und Briefe. (Works and Letters). Edited by Gustav Konrad. 4 vols. Frechen: Bartmann Verlag, 1958–1963. Briefe. (Letters). Edited by Johannes Müller. Vol. 5. Frechen: Bartmann Verlag, 1961.

——, and Gisela von Arnim. Das Leben der Hochgräfin Gritta von Rattenzuhausbeiuns: Ein Märchenroman. (The Life of the High Countess of Rattenzuhausbeiuns: A Fairytale Novel). Edited by Shawn Jarvis. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1986.

"Bettina von Arnim: Translation of The Queen's Son and corrections and amendments to Bettina von Arnim's (?) translation of The Report on Günderode's Suicide." Translations and introduction by Jeannine Blackwell; bibliography by Edith Waldstein. Bitter Healing: German Women Writers 1700–1830. Edited by Jeannine Blackwell and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990, pp. 441–472.

Bäumer, Gertrud. Gestalt und Wandel: Frauenbildnisse. (Appearance and Change: Portraits of Women). Berlin: F.A. Herbig, 1939.

Bettine von Arnim. Romantik und Sozialismus (1831–1859). (Romanticism and Socialism: Presentations by Hartwig Schultz, Heinz Härtl and Marie-Claire Hoock-Demarle). Trier: Schriften aus dem Karl-Marx-Haus, 1987.

Fuller, Margaret. "Bettine Brentano and her Friend Günderode," in The Dial. Vol. 7. January 1842, pp. 313–357.

Goodman, Katherine R. "'The Butterfly and the Kiss': A Letter from Bettina von Arnim," in Women in German Yearbook. Vol. 7. 1991, pp. 65–78.

Goozé, Marjanne Elaine. "Bettine von Arnim, the Writer." Ph.D. Diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1984.

Püschel, Ursula. "Weibliches und Unweibliches der Bettina von Arnim." Mit allen Sinnen: Frauen in der Literatur. Essays. ("Feminine and Unfeminine of Bettina von Arnim." With Full Senses: Women in Literature). Halle-Leipzig: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1980. pp. 48–82.

Schlegel, Friedrich. "Fragment," in Werke in zwei Bänden. Ed. Nationale Forschungs- und Gedenkstätten der Klassischen Deutschen Literatur in Weimar. 2 vols. Berlin, Weimar: Aufbau Verlag, 1980. Vol. 1, pp. 204–205.

Stöcker, Helene. "Bettina von Arnim," in Neue Generation: Zeitschrift für Mutterschutz und Sexualreform. 25. 1929, pp. 99–105.

Varnhagen, Karl August von Ense. Aus dem Nachlass Varnhagen's von Ense. Briefe von Stägemann, Metternich, Heine und Bettina von Arnim, nebst Briefen, Anmerkungen und Notizen von Varnhagen von Ense. (From the Papers of Varnhagen von Ense. Letters of Stägemann, Metternich, Heine and Bettina von Arnim, with Letters, Remarks, and Notes by Varnhagen von Ense). Ed. Ludmilla Assing. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1865, pp. 272–273.

suggested reading:

Bäumer, Konstanze. "Bettine, Psyche, Mignon": Bettina von Arnim und Goethe. Stuttgart: Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz Akademischer Verlag Stuttgart, 1986.

Frederiksen, Elke, and Katherine Goodman, eds. Bettina Brentano-von Arnim: Gender and Politics. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1995.

Herzhaftt in die Dornen der Zeit greifen … Bettine von Arnim (1785–1859): Ausstellung 1985. [Exhibition Catalogue]. Edited by Christoph Perels. Frankfurt am Main: Freies Deutsches Hochstift—Frankfurter Goethe Museum, 1985.

Hirsch, Helmut. Bettine von Arnim. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1987.

Waldstein, Edith. Bettine von Arnim and the Politics of Romantic Conversation. Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture. Vol. 33. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1988.


Correspondence and manuscripts auctioned off in 1929 and scattered all over; some locations are unknown. Extant partial collections are in the Goethe Museum Frankfurt am Main; Goethe- and Schiller-Archive Weimar; Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz Berlin; Varnhagen Collection in the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow, Poland; and Stadtund Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt.

Lorely French , Professor of German and Chair of the Humanities Division, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon

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Arnim, Bettine von (1785–1859)

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