La Roche, Sophie von (1730–1807)
La Roche, Sophie von (1730–1807)
German novelist and publisher of a journal for women whose writings depict morally strong women capable of rising above all misfortune. Name variations: Sophie La Roche. Pronunciation: Roche rhymes with posh. Born Sophie Gutermann in the Bavarian town of Kaufbeuren, Germany, on December 6, 1730; died in Offenbach, Germany, on February 18, 1807; daughter of Georg Friedrich Gutermann (dean of the medical faculty at the university in Augsburg) and Regina Barbara (Unold) Gutermann; married Georg Michael Frank von La Roche, on December 27, 1753; children: out of eight only five survived infancy, Maximiliane von La Roche Brentano (1756–1793, mother of Bettine von Arnim); Fritz von La Roche (b. 1757); Luise von La Roche (b. 1759); Carl von La Roche (b. 1766); Franz Wilhelm von La Roche (b. 1768).
Wrote first novel Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771, translated as Memoirs of Miss Sophy Sternheim in 1776); wrote Rosaliens Briefe an ihre Freundin Marianne von St** (Rosalie's Letters to Her Friend Marianne von St**, 1779–81); published her journal Pomona für Teutschlands Töchter (Pomona for Germany's Daughters, 1782–84); wrote the story Die zwey Schwestern: Eine moralische Erzählung (1784, translated as Two Sisters); wrote Briefe an Lina (Letters to Lina, 1785–87); published novel Erscheinungen am See Oneida (Event at Lake Oneida, 1798); in later years, wrote Mein Schreibtisch (My Writing Desk, 1799); published travelogues on Switzerland, France, Holland and England; wrote Schönes Bild der Resignation (Beautiful Image of Resignation, 1801), the anthology Herbsttage (Autumn Days, 1805), and Melusinens Sommer-Abende (Melusine's Summer Evenings, 1807). Many of her earlier works were published anonymously.
Sophie Gutermann was born in the Swabian town of Kaufbeuren on December 6, 1730. Her father Georg Friedrich Gutermann was a well-respected physician who never failed to emphasize the importance of education to his children. Little is known about Sophie's mother Regina Gutermann , who would die when Sophie was 17. Being the oldest of the family's 13 children, Sophie profited the most from her father's mentoring efforts. He was a typical patriarch, who insisted on controlling the direction and content of her learning. Introduced to his library when she was two, Sophie found the colorful and decorative title pages of books fascinating. By age three, she could read well, but only the Bible and other religious tracts were permitted. Her family's interest in pietism and its close association with the Swabian Pietists may have encouraged her to read the complete Bible at the age of five. As Sophie grew older, Georg tried to awaken her interest in natural science, astronomy, and history. While Regina taught her daughter the necessary domestic skills, Georg prided himself in providing her with a well-rounded education. But when Sophie expressed her desire to receive a systematic education, such as that available to young boys of her age, her father bluntly refused. It was almost impossible for him to envision his daughter as anything but a housewife and mother in the future. La Roche realized for the first time that she was powerless over her father's decrees; he was the benevolent, absolutist ruler taking care of his dependents and exercising full control over them.
Father and daughter experienced another conflict over her first fiancé, the Italian Gian Lodovico Bianconi (1717–1781). Sophie was 17 when she became engaged to Bianconi, the personal physician of Augsburg's prince bishop. Gian Bianconi hardly wanted a traditional wife; rather, he prepared her for the role of his companion. He encouraged her efforts to learn mathematics and music and introduced her to contemporary Italian literature. Following Regina's death, however, Georg broke off Sophie's engagement, because Bianconi insisted that their children be raised Catholic. Georg disagreed so vehemently on this point that Sophie had to distance herself from Bianconi despite her admiration for him. At her father's behest, she tore Bianconi's portrait into a thousand pieces. She was then sent away from Augsburg to Biberach for a change of scene. The only way in which she could ameliorate her father's despotic behavior was by vowing to forget what Bianconi had taught her.
In Biberach, while living with her paternal grandparents, she helped around the house and spent her leisure time reading and adjusting to the quiet life there. This acceptance is indicative of her flexibility. As long as she could turn to books for comfort, Sophie faced vicissitudes with equanimity. Learning was the one constant in her ever-changing life, and she hung on to it passionately. Through her reading, she developed a belief in the capacity of reason and virtue to provide happiness. Later, in her writings, she presented virtuous behavior as the ultimate guarantee for personal happiness. Through her friendship with her distant cousin Christoph Martin Wieland (1733–1813), she came to know more about literature and also began to feel an impetus to write. Wieland, who was a law student and had studied philosophy, was also searching for direction when he met the recently arrived Sophie in Biberach. Both found in the other a friend who could help ease their isolation. Wieland considered Sophie the embodiment of his ideal woman: she seemed to possess tenderness, sympathy, charm, intellect and beauty—qualities then highly valued. Sophie encouraged Wieland to express his feelings in poetry. She became his muse, while he became the only one who could speak to her soul. They poured out their thoughts and feelings in the letters they exchanged, and by now they were also engaged. Soon after, in 1752, Wieland left for Zurich, Switzerland, to study literature under the poet and literary critic J.J. Bodmer (1698–1783). Thereafter, the young man took little initiative in setting a marriage date, and Sophie was left to endure her father's constant inquiries about her matrimonial future. Neither her father, who thought that Wieland had no bright prospects, nor Wieland's mother, who could not imagine her son married to a worldly woman like Sophie, liked the idea of the marriage. Hence, the engagement was annulled by both parents. Even so, Christoph and Sophie remained friends and continued to help each other develop into mature writers.
Georg decided that she would marry Georg Michael La Roche (1720–1788), a respectable administrator and a liberal Catholic. After their marriage in 1753, the couple moved to Mainz, where Georg Michael served as private secretary to the first minister Count Anton Friedrich Heinrich von Stadion. Their life at court gave Sophie the opportunity to interact with the intellectuals of the city. She did not have to bother about mundane household chores and thus could devote her time to socializing. Her husband stayed in Count von Stadion's service for eight years while Sophie developed into an excellent hostess, entertaining the well-known figures of her day, including Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Georg Michael encouraged Sophie's interest in literature and philosophy, gave her a free hand in arranging social gatherings at their home, and, as a true believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment, made sure that Sophie kept informed of developments in music, painting, and English and French literature. Sophie realized that her marriage of convenience had in fact given her an independence that she had never known, and she would always appreciate Georg Michael for the freedom he gave her. When von Stadion retired in 1762, he moved to Warthausen near Biberach, and the La Roches settled there to be near him. Sophie continued offering her home as a meeting place for leading individuals of her day, while educating herself through books from Count von Stadion's library. Six years later, when Count von Stadion died, Georg Michael could no longer afford to maintain their comfortable lifestyle, and Sophie found herself alone and isolated. She resorted to corresponding with friends and acquaintances.
I still feel with my 68 years the great value of knowledge.
—Sophie von La Roche
While fulfilling her role as a woman of the court, La Roche had not forgotten that she was also a wife and a mother. She had given birth to eight children, only five of whom, however, survived infancy: Maximiliane von La Roche Brentano (b. 1756); Fritz (b. 1757); Luise (b. 1759); Carl (b. 1766) and Franz Wilhelm (b. 1768). When her two daughters were sent away to a convent in Strassbourg for schooling, Sophie became more lonely than ever, and she devoted her time to completing her first novel, Die Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (1771), which would be translated as Memoirs of Miss Sophy Sternheim (1776). Financial necessity was another incentive for her writing. Due to the La Roches' declining finances, their eldest son Fritz was also sent away for education in 1769 to study with Wieland.
Used to expressing her joys and frustrations in letters, La Roche dealt with the absence of her daughters by inventing a "paper maiden" in Sternheim. She created a fictional character whom she could bring up according to her own ideas. By presenting in her novel the necessity for women's education to make them independent and strong, Sophie indirectly gained legitimization for her writing. The profession of letters was then dominated by men. If a woman took up the pen, it was thought to be at the cost of her household duties. Hence only an overt proclamation of an altruistic purpose in her work could allow Sophie to continue her literary activities. The pedagogical aspect of Sternheim was successful in warding off any criticism of her "unfeminine" attempt to assume the public persona of a writer. Moreover, Wieland's introduction to the novel helped realize a positive reception by the critics. From the beginning, Wieland had encouraged Sophie to write this novel. During its ten-year gestation, he had made suggestions and corrections, supported her ideas and thus given her the confidence to keep working.
Sternheim's popularity was widespread. Its heroine Miss Sophie von Sternheim fascinated both male and female readers with her virtue, beauty, intelligence, independence, and sense of culture. Her moral uprightness, which proved to be a weapon against the corrupt men at court, gave middle-class readers a sense of superiority over the nobility. Those who appreciated such novels as Samuel Richardson's Clarissa or Pamela and J.J. Rousseau's Émile and La nouvelle Héloïse found Sternheim equally appealing. In addition, the novel's message was welcomed by upper-class and educated readers. Since this novel was in the form of letters written by three individuals, it presented its readers with different points of view, thereby giving the impression of an objective piece of work.
Sophie's second novel Rosaliens Briefe an ihre Freundin Mariane von St.** (Rosalie's Letters to her Friend Mariane von St.**, 1780–81) was, like Sternheim, didactic in nature. But it was never as popular as Sternheim. With the advent of the Sturm-and-Drang (storm-and-stress) writers, like Goethe and Schiller, who advocated unrestrained love over self-imposed resignation, the literary climate changed. Sophie's Letters could not find an audience when Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) was the rage throughout Germany. Werther's self-destructive concept of love was completely at odds with Sternheim's reasonable love. Literary differences created personal discord between Goethe and Sophie. In addition, Werther's Lotte seemed to be based on Sophie's oldest daughter Maximiliane, for whom Goethe had expressed his admiration. All these factors brought about a complete break in Sophie and Goethe's relationship, though Sophie was able to renew her old friendship with Wieland and thus did not feel rejected by the literary establishment. Wieland would remain a source of support throughout her life.
The theme of women's education continued to preoccupy Sophie von La Roche. When she began her journal Pomona für Teutschland's Töchter in 1783, she became the first woman to publish an educational and literary monthly for women. In it, she never failed to emphasize the importance of learning alongside domestic virtues for women. Pomona included letters, poems, stories, essays and translations which celebrated the idea of women's education. Most of the contributions to the journal were written by Sophie herself, who had assumed the role of a maternal friend to her female readers. Her writing was also the family's only source of income after her husband lost his job at the conservative Trier court. It is not clear, however, as to why Sophie stopped publishing her journal after 1784. Either the pirated copies of her periodical robbed her of her subscribers, as she claimed, or she was making preparations to travel.
Her first trip was to Switzerland in 1784, followed by visits to France in 1785 and Holland and England in 1786. La Roche traveled on a minimum budget, either with a female friend or with one of her younger sons. As her husband continued to remain unwell after he lost his job, he stayed at home. During her journeys, Sophie recorded her keen observations in a diary and later published them in the form of travelogues. She wrote about the places and the people she visited, interspersing her observations with accounts of local history and economy. In Switzerland, she was charmed by her natural surroundings, whereas in France she admired the French culture and art. Dutch trade and industry brought out her appreciation for the hard-working people, while the beautiful English countryside, the political awareness of the English, and their economic well-being, made her admire most everything that was English. She described her social meetings with well-known personalities, including George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744–1818). Her writings about women in these countries illustrate her curiosity to learn about their differences and similarities to German women.
Traveling abroad gave La Roche an opportunity not only to learn about foreign lands and people but also to experience a sense of freedom. She could escape the demands of her household and family. In her writings, she acknowledges her gratitude to her husband for allowing her to travel. In her time, she was one of the few German women who had traveled extensively and who had met with so many important people. But she was unable to continue her travels for long. The deaths of her husband in 1788, her youngest son in 1791, and her daughter Maximiliane Brentano in 1793, robbed her of her enthusiasm to gather new experiences in foreign lands. In addition, her financial condition hardly permitted her to continue. The French occupation of the left shore of the river Rhein resulted in the cancellation of her widow's pension from the Trier court, and her literary neglect made matters worse. But once again she turned towards writing for solace and financial support.
From the letters she received from her oldest son Fritz and his wife, who were attempting to settle in America, Sophie created the basis of her next book Erscheinungen am See Oneida (Event at Lake Oneida, 1798). This German novel in an American setting tells of a French couple who settled near Lake Oneida in northern New York state. The book appealed to many readers who found the struggle of early settlers with nature fascinating. But Sophie's later books, such as Schattenreise abgeschiedener Stunden in Offenbach, Weimar und Schönebeck im Jahr 1799 (Silhouettes of Departed Hours in Offenbach, Weimar and Schönebeck in the year 1799, 1799), Mein Schreibtisch (My Writing Desk, 1799), Schönes Bild der Resignation (Beautiful Image of Resignation, 1801), Herbsttage (Autumn Days, 1805), and Melusines Sommerabende (Melusine's Summer-Evenings, 1806), failed to gain a large readership. The younger generation did not respond to her ideas of arranged marriages, virtue and charity. La Roche's belief that a woman's place was ultimately within the home was rejected by the Romantics, who preferred (at least in their reading material) female companionship and intelligence resulting in the union of souls over the domestic virtues of a housewife.
Dejected by her pecuniary state, literary rejection and personal tragedies, Sophie von La Roche died in Offenbach in 1807. Nevertheless, her literary legacy was successfully passed on to her granddaughter Bettine von Arnim , her daughter Maximiliane's daughter. Bettine continued her grandmother's literary endeavors by writing socially critical works in the epistolary genre.
Blackwell, Jeannine. "Sophie von La Roche," in German Writers in the Age of Goethe: Sturm und Drang to Classicism: Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 94. Edited by James Hardin and Christoph E. Schweitzer. Detroit, MI: Bruccoli, Clark and Layman, 1990, pp. 154–161.
Lange, Victor. "Visitors to Lake Oneida: An Account of the Background of Sophie von la Roche's Novel 'Erscheinungen am See Oneida'," in Deutschlands literarisches Amerikabild. Ed. by Alexander Ritter. NY: Georg Olms, 1977, pp. 92–122.
Mielke, Andreas. "Sophie La Roche: A Pioneering Novelist," in Modern Language Studies. Vol. 18, no. 1. Winter 1988, pp. 112–119.
Petschauer, Peter. "Sophie von Laroche, Novelist Between Reason and Emotion," in Germanic Review. Vol. 57, no. 2. Spring 1982, pp. 70–77.
Watt, Helga Schutte. "Woman's Progress: Sophie La Roche's Travelogues 1787–1788," in Germanic Review. Vol. 69, no. 2. Spring 1994, pp. 50–60.
Lynn, James, ed. The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim. NY: New York UP, 1992.
Some of Sophie von La Roche's letters and manuscripts are at the Freies Deutsches Hochstift, Frankfurt am Main in Germany. Other collections can be found at the Deutsches Literarturarchiv Schiller Nationalmuseum, Marbach; the Stadtarchiv, Offenbach; the Wieland-Museum, Biberach; the Universitätsbibliothek, Freiburg; the Pfälzische Landesbibliothek, Speyer; the Zentralbibliothek, Zurich; the Hessisches Staatsarchiv, Darmstadt; the Stadtbibliothek Schaffhausen; and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.
Vibha Bakshi Gokhale , author of Walking the Tightrope: A Feminist Reading of Therese Huber's Stories (Boston, Massachusetts)