A virtuoso muse - Bettina Brentano

Who," asked Napoleon Bonaparte, "is that fuzzy young person?" She was Elisabeth Brentano, known simply as Bettina. Actually, Napoleon was not among her conquests, nor was he her type.

She did not jump into his lap, as she did with Goethe, or croon her name into his ear, as with Beethoven, or go for intimate walks, as with Karl Marx. Napoleon did not dedicate a battle to her, as Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms dedicated songs and the Grimms an edition of their fairy tales. But, even at a distance, Bettina Brentano drew comment.

She was sister to one famous poet, wife to another and inspiration to others, but declined to write poetry. What she did write has outraged and fascinated people ever since. She was a supreme muse, a one-woman literary movement, at once among the singular and most representative figures of the Romantic century.

Bettina was born in Frankfurt in 1785 to the large family of an Italian merchant. Her grandmother was an acclaimed sentimental novelist. Her mother had been Goethe's first great love and Bettina grew up thinking of him as family property.

When her mother died, Bettina, then aged eight, was dispatched to a convent. When she was 12 and living with her grandmother, a handsome young man turned up. It was her brother Clemens, whom she had not seen since she was five. He became her mentor and protector.

Clemens encouraged Bettina to read Goethe. She promptly went mad for the fabled character of Mignon in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Goethe's Mignon was a little Italian dancer, stolen from her family by circus performers.

She perched on roofs; some days she would not speak and others spoke in riddles; she carried a cutlass and fought with brigands. In manner and dress, Bettina became the elfin, inexplicable Mignon. Meanwhile, for Goethe himself, she conceived a passion that would simmer until she died.

Oddly enough, it was Clemens's main concern that Bettina should marry well and become a proper hausfrau. He was afraid that his sister would hook up with a mad poet.

Clemens knew about mad poets because he was one himself. At one point he painted his room (floor to ceiling), the carpet, the curtains and his own face blue. He wrote plays and fairy tales and, with his friend Achim von Arnim (and with help from Bettina), gathered the folk poems for the epochal collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a touchstone of German Romanticism. As a lyric poet, Clemens rivalled Goethe.

Decades later, Bettina would publish her correspondence with her brother. We find him alternately encouraging her and trying to rein her in. She resisted relentlessly. "For heaven's sake," he chided, "don't become a Seeress... If you knew that... witches of former centuries were none other than the victims of constipation, you would take more care."

Already Bettina had a horror of the ordinary. To Clemens she wrote, in terms she would echo for the rest of her life: "It is no use telling me to be calm; to me that conveys sitting with my hands in my lap, looking forward to the broth we are having for supper... My soul is a passionate dancer; she dances to hidden music which only I can hear... Whatever police the world may prescribe to rule the soul, I refuse to obey them."

Bettina was small and delicate, with black blossoming curls, porcelain skin, fathomless brown eyes and a magnetism beyond conventional beauty. "What artist could do justice to her?" Goethe exclaimed.

Teenaged Bettina's first actual love was for a girl five years older, a beautiful, melancholy, impoverished poet, who lived in a convent: Karoline von Günderrode.

Bettina would publish their letters, too. "I can't write poetry like you, Günderrode, but I can talk with nature... And when I come back... we put our beds side by side and chat away together all night... great profound speculations which make the old world creak on its rusty hinges."

But Günderrode had a desperate passion for a married man. One day she opened her dress to show Bettina the place on her breast where a knife would find her heart. Finally the lover went back to his wife, and Günderrode put a dagger through the place on her breast. (Goethe used the incident in stories.) Bettina was devastated but not defeated. Günderrode had fallen to the dark side of the Romantic temperament: fatal longing, like Goethe's Werther. Bettina was the sunny side.

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