Pichler, Karoline (1769–1843)

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Pichler, Karoline (1769–1843)

Austrian author whose literary salon was the center of intellectual Vienna for several decades. Name variations: Caroline Pichler. Born Karoline von Greiner in Vienna, Austria, on September 7, 1769; died in Vienna on July 9, 1843; daughter of Franz Sales von Greiner and Charlotte Hieronymus von Greiner; had one brother; married Andreas Pichler (a government official), in 1796 (died 1837); children: Elisabeth Pichler .

Selected writings:

Gleichnisse (Parables, 1800); Olivier (1802); Leonore (1803); Idyllen (1803); Ruth (1805); Agathokles (1808); Stille Liebe (Quiet Love, 1808); Frauenwürde (The Dignity of Woman, 1818); Die Belagerung Wiens (1824); Die Schweden in Prag (1827); Die Wiedereroberung Ofens (1829); Henriette von England (1832); Zeitbilder (1840); Sämtliche Werke (1820–1845, comprises 60 volumes); Denkwürdigkeiten aus meinem Leben (Memorable Events of My Life, 4 vols., published posthumously, 1844); Ausgewählte Erzdhlungen (4 vols., 1894).

Although her writings are largely forgotten, for four decades Karoline Pichler was one of the most influential personalities in the intellectual life of pre-1848 Vienna. In her own lifetime, three "complete editions" of her writings appeared in print, and her novels were eagerly read in German-speaking Central Europe and other countries, including France and Great Britain. Her posthumously published memoirs remain an important source of information on the Romantic era in Austria.

She was born in Vienna in 1769 to a family which belonged in social standing to the Bildungsbürgertum (educated middle class). The Bildungsbürgertum played a vital role in the Habsburg monarchy, providing that state with talented individuals who were not of the aristocracy but served its interests as loyal civil servants. Karoline's father Franz Sales von Greiner was born a commoner but had been knighted by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria in 1771; later, he was named a court advisor and hofrat (privy counselor). He married Charlotte Hieronymus (von Greiner) , an orphan whom the empress had adopted. Maria Theresa's favorite reader, Charlotte read aloud not only literature but also letters and documents in German and several other languages, including French, Italian, and Latin.

Growing up in this environment, young Karoline was exposed to many cultures and ideas. On numerous occasions, she accompanied her mother on visits with the empress. These memories would still be strong in Pichler's mind in the early 1830s when in her last novel, Elisabeth von Guttenstein, she described Maria Theresa with warmth and affection as possessing: "beauty, charm, intellect, modesty, compassion, loyalty to the spouse, tender love for the children, [and] respect for what is right and virtuous."

Despite the excellence of her education (largely conducted by private tutors and informally by her mother), Karoline was expected to become a cultivated wife and loving mother. Reading, writing, and musical performance were acceptable, even fashionable, for women of the educated and propertied classes as long as they remained amateur activities. Following a dissolved engagement after an unhappy love, in 1796 she married Andreas Pichler, an official in the Habsburg court chancellery. The next year, she gave birth to her only child, a daughter Elisabeth. The death of Karoline's father in 1798 changed her life and that of her mother as well. With the loss of Franz's salary, the family, who had been living in their stately home in the heart of Vienna, was forced to move into a modest dwelling in the suburb of Alservorstadt. At this juncture, Pichler decided to submit to a publisher some works she had composed solely for her own pleasure.

From her earliest years, she had written poetry and prose. As early as 1782, she had seen a poem of hers published in the prestigious Wiener Musenalmanach (Viennese Almanac of the Muses). Andreas was supportive of her writing activities and persuaded her to revise a work entitled Gleichnisse (Parables), which was published in 1800 to considerable critical acclaim. Over the next decades, Pichler would write a number of highly popular novels, including Leonore (1803), Agathokles (1808), and Frauenwürde (The Dignity of Woman, 1818), as well as the novella Stille Liebe (Quiet Love, 1808). In Agathokles, she presented a vigorous critique of the anti-Christian slant of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, thus reflecting the Romantic era's embrace of a conservative religiosity. Among the readers impressed by Agathokles were some of the literary giants of the day, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Over a period of almost four decades, Pichler published in many additional literary genres, writing verse, ballads, essays, and historical and patriotic dramas, as well as several Roman Catholic devotional books based on Fénelon's model. A number of her dramas were staged by Vienna's prestigious Burgtheater. In the final years of her life, she published two volumes of Zeitbilder (Pictures of the Times, 1839) which examined contemporary history in the form of fiction, at least in part to avoid some of the worst aspects of Habsburg censorship. The work was divided into two sections: one dissected Viennese intellectual and political life in the second half of the 18th century, the other in the first years of the 19th century.

In 1804, the Pichler finances had improved enough for the family, which included Karoline's mother Charlotte, to return to Vienna, and they moved back into her parents' old dwelling. Within a short time, both Pichler and Charlotte were heading one of Vienna's most important cultural and literary salons. Although it could never compete with such elegant houses as that of Eleonore Fliess, Fanny von Arnstein , or Arnstein's daughter Henriette (Baroness Pereira), the Pichler salon quickly became a meeting place for the most illustrious Viennese intellectuals and artists. As a host, Karoline played an active role in these gatherings, carefully guiding conversations and making certain that a proper mixture of guests was present. Among the illustrious women who frequented the salon were Germaine de Staël and Dorothea Mendelssohn (Schlegel), who became one of Karoline's closest friends. Among the men were Franz Grillparzer, Nikolaus Lenau, Franz Schubert, Adalbert Stifter, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Schubert set Pichler's poems "Der Unglückliche" (The Unhappy Man) and "Die Nacht" (The Night) to music as Lieder. Von Humboldt left a descriptive portrait of Pichler, calling her: "exceedingly ugly, but stimulating and animated, remaining all the while kindly, genial, and modest."

In addition to its literary and artistic function, the Pichler salon served a political function as well. As Austrian intellectuals redefined their national response to the challenge posed by the French Revolution and Napoleon, a synthesis of new ideas, both dynastic and German-nationalistic, were forged in the pleasant atmosphere provided by Pichler. As it became increasingly apparent that the nation's human resources would need to be more effectively harnessed to throw off the hated French yoke, Pichler made a number of public statements of interest. In her 1810 essay "Über die Bildung des weiblichen Geschlechts" (On the Education of the Female Sex), she argued for new roles for women in society, writing that, in an era of war and social upheaval, women's traditional security, found in the institution of marriage, was being revealed as fragile at best. She pointed to women's "educational ability and capacity for perfection in many areas," which should be developed so as to "make woman a more self-supporting and more useful being to the state than had been the case until now." Pichler concluded her essay with the confident assertion: "The well-educated woman will be—whether she marries or not—a highly valued human being—a complete person."

With the death of her husband in 1837, Pichler realized that she had entered the sunset of her life. As her physical strength waned, she was less able to maintain her salon at its previous level. Meanwhile, a significant change was taking place in Viennese social and intellectual life—a shift from the salon to the coffee house as the center of literary and political discussion. During these years, Pichler wrote her memoirs, which would be published posthumously in 1844 as Denkwürdigkeiten aus meinem Leben (Memorable Events of My Life).

In recent decades, Pichler has undergone reevaluation by scholars. Her later novels and historical dramas, which were traditionally seen as being little more than a narrow reflection of anti-Napoleonic Austrian patriotism, are now viewed as containing significant examples of psychological portraiture of the rapidly emerging Central European bourgeoisie of the first half of the 19th century. As a major representative of the essentially conservative Biedermeier Weltanschauung, Pichler can be seen as a significant author, as well as a woman who left her mark on history in a society that attempted to remain rigidly patriarchical. She died in Vienna on July 9, 1843.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Pichler, Karoline (1769–1843)

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