Bettine! (Or a Letter Without Text)

Contributor: Anne Bohnenkamp, Frankfurt am Main (Deutsches Romantik-Museum

Location: Frankfurt am Main (Germany)

Description: Letters belong to the most important media of the Romantic era. Apart from the general rise of private correspondence in the eighteenth century, which was marked by profound social, political and technical change, specific characteristics of the Romantic movement are responsible for the growing importance of letters in this period. These include characteristic tendencies of border transgressions – such as to abolish the distinction between life and art, to declare life a work of art and art as life, so that the distinction between private letters and works of art begins to blur. Last but not least emerging forms of female authorship frequently operate with the medium of the letter because it allows the author to disguise their claim to produce a literary work, which was still considered to be a very inappropriate aspiration for women. Today, the letters of the Romantic period give us intimate insights into the communication between the protagonists of this era.

This letter that Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau in Frankfurt am Main wrote on July 16, 1834, is addressed to “Frau von Arnim / née Fräulein Brentano / frey / in Berlin.” This handwritten inscription can be found on the reverse of the sheet shown here. The recipient of the letter – Bettine von Arnim, née Brentano – is one of the most important female authors of Romanticism in the German-speaking world. Her published work consists almost exclusively of ‘letter books’. Her “epistolary worlds of desire” combine a documentary impression with imaginative inventions forming “fantasy correspondences”, which are based in part on letters that were actually exchanged.

In 1834 Bettine von Arnim was busy working on her own first publication: the sister of Clemens Brentano and wife of Achim von Arnim did not appear in public as an author until she was 50 years old. Under the title ‘Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde’ her correspondence with the famous poet, who had doted on Bettine Brentano’s mother Maximiliane La Roche in his Frankfurt youth, appeared in 1835. Bettine’s book offers a mixture, unrecognizable as such, of authentic documents (letters actually exchanged between Goethe and the woman 35 years his junior between 1807 and 1811) and supplemented, altered or entirely invented texts.

The sender of our sheet is a writer from Bettine von Arnim’s own generation. Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, still known today as the creator of famous landscape parks, was a dazzling figure of his era. Bettine von Arnim had met him a year after her husband’s death at the turn of the year 1831/32 in the Varnhagens’ Berlin salon. She dedicated her first work to him, the publication of which was still pending in the summer of 1834.

The exhibit itself is a handwritten letter of remarkable brevity. At first one might think that it is only a draft of the beginning of a letter, which has not been finished and which has been kept by chance – the text is limited to the typical indication of place and date of writing (Frankfurt, 16. July 16, 1834) and the – letter-specific – salutation, which, however, already appears here in an untypical shortness: Not “Dear Friend”, “Dear Bettine” or even “My faithful Sclavin” or “Dear Unfaithful” (all letter salutations from Pückler’s correspondence with Frau von Arnim), but simply: Bettine – followed by an exclamation mark only. The rest of the page remained undescribed. The sender used the empty space of the paper to give room to the unspeakable: one could describe Pückler-Muskau’s epistle as letter-specific aposiopesis. This particular form of the rhetorical figure of the ellipsis is characterized by the abortion of speech, by the forceful emphasis on the unsaid through silence. Aposiopesis can express emotional overwhelmance, and at the same time it can also be a demonstration of tacit understanding: the dialogue – or here, pen – partners  are so close to each other that no words are necessary to communicate.

In addition to the handwritten address, it is, above all, the postmarks that prove that the letter was actually sent: postmarked on the way in Würzburg on July 17, the incompletely recognizable postmark of receipt indicates the date July 21. Bettine thus received Pückler-Muskau’s message five days after it was written. The fact that she was able to understand it (and to identify, in spite of the lack of a signature, whom it came from) is documented by her reply to the sender dated 25 July: “The call-out from Franckfurt was a great pleasure to me, and I am answering it warmly <…>” The distress that the writer gave expression to with his letter, reduced to an exclamation of a sigh, can only be briefly indicated here. Pückler’s situation in mid-July 1834 was difficult in several respects: he was in need of money and was negotiating a loan with the Rothschilds (in whose palace on the banks of the Main he had taken lodgings), the manuscript of a current book seemed lost, and his servant had fallen ill. In addition, he was confronted with a public duel demand by a reader who felt insulted (which was fought out with a harmless outcome a few weeks later). (1)

The blank paper of this one-word-letter expresses both the difficult situation and the emotional attachment to the addressee in a single shocking sigh. And it serves as a good example to make evident, that every letter is a multidimensional object and more than its text. (2)

Date: 16 July 1834

Creator: Hermann von Pückler-Muskau

Subject: letter to Bettine von Arnim

Media rights: Freies Deutsches Hochtstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum, Hs-13379.

Object type: letter

Format: ink on paper, 224x181mm

Language: German

Publisher: Freies Deutsches Hochstift/Frankfurter Goethe-Museum

Catalogue number: Freies Deutsches Hochstift – Frankfurter Goethe-Museum, Signatur 13379


  1. Cf. the commentary in the edition by Bernhard and Enid Gajek, “Die Leidenschaft ist der Schlüssel zur Welt”. Bettine von Arnim – Hermann von Pückler-Muskau. Birefwechsel, Stuttgart 2001, p. 513.
  2. A 2008 exhibition in Frankfurt was dedicated to this observation, which is also of consequence for the principles of letter edition. Under the title ‘Der Brief – Ereignis & Objekt’ (‘The Letter – Event & Object’), a foray through 200 years of letter history was devoted to the added value that lies in the physical bodies of letters – including the traces of their dispatch, reception, and archival history, each of which is shaped by specific events. Cf. Der Brief- Ereignis&Objekt, Katalog der Ausstellung im Freien Deutschen Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum. Hg. Von Anne Bohnenkamp und Waltraud Wiethölter. Frankfurt am Main 2008.