Anna Amalia, Grand Duchess: Patron of Goethe and Schiller by Frances A Gerard
|Anna Amalia, Grand Duchess: Patron of Goethe and Schiller by Frances A Gerard
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
|Summary: A biography of Anna Amalia, Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, best remembered as the patron of Goethe and other men of letters who helped to make Weimar the cultural centre of 18th-century Germany
|Date: June 2012
|Publisher: Fonthill Media
Anna Amalia of Brunswick, a Duchess of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach in the eighteenth century, is scarcely little more than a footnote in European royal history these days. Nevertheless it was mainly through her patronage that the court of Weimar became one of the most artistically renowned of the time, a reputation it never lost throughout the increasingly militaristic times that Germany went through from the age of Bismarck and beyond.
Born in 1739, she was married at the age of seventeen to the sickly Duke Constantine. By the time their second son was born he was dead, leaving her a widow at only nineteen. Although still very young and inexperienced, she made a successful regent on behalf of her elder son Karl August, fighting off court intrigues and financial pressures, notably in the aftermath of the Seven Years War. Yet her greatest achievement was to attract men such as the writers Goethe and Schiller, the leaders of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement, to the duchy. Goethe took up residence in Weimar after the success of his first novel, spent ten years there and after becoming a member of the privy council he initiated several important government and welfare reforms while continuing to pursue his literary career.
Weimar thus became known as one of the literary and artistic centres of Germany during the Enlightenment. Regarded as something of a cultural ambassador for her age, the Duchess also employed Wieland, a poet and translator of Shakespeare, to be her son’s tutor, established her own personal library, later said to be home to over a million volumes, and as a gifted musician also composed works including a symphony and an oratorio. After her son attained his maturity she retired into private life. Her last years were overshadowed by the Napoleonic wars and in particular the French invasion of the duchy in 1806. Although peace was declared during her lifetime, by then she was already in the throes of her last illness. She did not live to see the final defeat of her arch-enemy, but died the following year.
This biography was originally published in 1902, the last in a series of German-related biographies. It appears here with a new introduction by publisher Alan Sutton, a series of extracts from the journal of Francis Witts whose family had lived in Weimar at the end of the eighteenth century, and some minor corrections, particularly with regard to dates. Relying heavily on letters and narrative of the events of the Grand Duchess’s life as well as focusing on her literary and artistic connections, the book will inevitably seem a little old-fashioned to a modern readership. It is a sympathetic portrait which may in places appear to lack objectivity. For instance, in the first paragraph of one of the closing chapters, it is said that in her later years her heart seemed to be purified; her self-love decreased, her affectionate care for others increased...and her desire was to make everyone round her happy. Such gilded prose was all too common in biographies which were written and published over a hundred years ago, but naturally seems something of an anachronism today.
The book does not have an index, but contains very detailed headings under each chapter title in the contents list, while 32 pages of plates contain a generous 57 black and white illustrations of excellent quality. While this is undoubtedly of specialised interest, it is encouraging to see books of this nature made widely available once again.
Why not have a look at House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles by Evelyn Juers?
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