Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G***

[This page by Seán Williams]

Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G*** ; Life of the Swedish Countess of G*** (1747-48)

Gellert published his novel in two parts, the first in 1747 and the second the following year. There were six authorized editions during the writer’s lifetime, and many more pirate copies were brought out – a perennial problem of the 18th century. In addition, Das Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G*** ; Life of the Swedish Countess of G*** was translated into various European languages, which is fitting considering its cosmopolitan narrative and the fact that it was inspired by both French novels and the English sentimentality of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740). The novel might not make for an especially great read today if we hope to be entertained. However, it is nevertheless noteworthy for the history of German literature because of its innovative form, its themes, and its reflections on contemporary reading culture.

The first part opens from the countess’s perspective, as she begins to narrate her own life. The style is straightforward and clear, and this corresponds to Gellert’s efforts to develop a more natural, less contrived German literary idiom. The first-person storytelling is interrupted by letters, a genre that Gellert would promote to the reading public in 1751 in his collection of ideal exemplars and accompanying notes. Indeed, in Die schwedische Gräfin, the central theme of love is said to be best expressed in epistolary form. The subtleties of written language do at times help Gellert to communicate his thematic content: this is a novel that is in large part about class, and the countess says that when she refers to her (second) husband without considering social strata, she calls him ‘mein lieber Mann’ (‘my dear husband’) instead of the more formal ‘mein Gemahl’. However, we might also level the criticism that despite – or perhaps because of – Gellert’s stylistic naiveté and lack of artifice, his depictions can become unrealistic. For example, a key twist in the plot is revealed by a confused five year old child, but the child is attributed remarkably well-formed sentences that do not convincingly differ from adult dialogue in the book.

If this novel’s prose is, in general, simple and succinct, it is remarkably heavy on plot. The narrative champions marriage made through reasoned and heartfelt choice; considered friendship; and the adoption of children. Actions of this kind are preferred to actions arising from passionate urges and biological ties. Such juxtaposition entails a plot with some racy events: we read of illegitimate children; the countess unknowingly commits bigamy; and this is contrasted with an incestuous relationship that results in the birth of a child and ends in murder and suicide. Admittedly, the death scene of the character Marianne is not particularly violent and she may have died imminently anyway, but in her removal of her bandages she is attributed suicidal intent, because she did so ‘aus Lust zum Tode’ (‘out of a desire for death’). Die schwedische Gräfin further thematizes the education of women, money, and calls for an amount of religious tolerance: thirty years before Lessing’s Nathan der Weise ; Nathan the Wise, a Jew is here described representative of a morally upright character, ‘der rechtschaffene Mann!’ (‘the honest man!’).

Gellert thus uses this novel in order to present the ideas of Enlightenment sensibility; he imports the aims of the moral weeklies (moralische Wochenschriften) into the genre of the ‘Roman’ (novel), or popular prose fiction, which was not exactly a reputable form at this time. Sensibility did not mean that people should listen only to their hearts and disregard the wisdom of their heads, though. Rather, the movement embraced the natural goodness of the bourgeois individual and the unison of reason and feeling. The opposing social model was that of the aristocratic court, and its galant, supposedly disingenuous codes of interaction. Gellert writes as much in Die schwedische Gräfin: in amusing hyperbole, Gellert exaggerates that Herr R… (Mr R…) believed that the flatterers (‘die Schmeichler’) at court did more damage to truth and good manners than all the heretics (‘alle Ketzer’) and freethinkers (‘Freigeister’) put together! In the mid-18th century, now-tainted ways of pursuing lovers in baroque society were conveyed to the increasing middle-class, and predominantly female reading public through licentious, galant novels. The Swedish countess complains that as a youth her old, conservative aunt had fostered in her a liking for ‘Galanterie’, through which a woman can apparently easily and happily become ‘eine stolze Närrin’ (‘a proud fool’). With Das Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G***, its natural style and its positive and scandalous examples, Gellert sought to enlighten his audience – and especially those female readers brought up under the supervision of older women who desired or had no access to more formal modes of instruction.

Further Reading in English

Stephanie Hilger, ‘The Feminine Performance of Class in Chr. F. Gellert’s Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G ...’, Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 37:4 (2001), 283-304

Anna Richards, ‘The Era of Sensibility and the Novel of Self-Fashioning’, in German Literature of the Eighteenth Century: The Enlightenment and Sensibility. Vol. 5, The Camden House History of German Literature, ed. by Barbara Becker-Cantarino (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005), pp. 223-43 (esp. pp. 226-29)

Anna Richards, ‘Forgetting the Dead in Gellert’s Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G*** (1747/8)’, Oxford German Studies 35:2 (2006), 165-75

Heidi M. Schlipphacke, ‘Eros and Community: C. F. Gellert’s Das Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G***’, Germanic Review 76:1 (2001), 70-89

John Walter van Cleve: ‘Tolerance at a Price: The Jew in Gellert’s Schwedische Gräfin’, Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 18:1 (1982), 1-13

Further Reading in German

Bernd Witte, ‘Christian Fürchtegott Gellert: Leben der schwedischen Gräfin von G***’, in: Interpretationen: Romane des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1996), pp. 112-149

Web Link


Full text of the novel (in German)