Translated by H M Waidson

Goethe is such an established name these days that it’s easy to forget that he was once considered dangerous … particularly by the Victorians.  It’s easy to see why reading Elective Affinities (1809).

Baron Eduard and his wife, Charlotte, are perfectly contented living in their mansion, redesigning the garden.  They are  both past the flush of youth and have married each other following the deaths of their respective first spouses.  Not for companionship but because both wished they had married earlier.  Then Eduard’s friend the Captain asks to stay for a time and Charlotte invites her niece, Ottilie.  Let’s just say, the cat is set among the pigeons or in the words of the early 19th century elective affinity chemical theory.

Think of an A that is intimately bound to a B and inseparable from it, even though many means and much force are used; now think of a C which is related in a similar way to a D; bring the two pairs into contact; A throws itself at D, C at B, without  our being able to say who first felt the other or who first united itself with the other again.

So Eduard becomes infatuated with Ottilie and Charlotte with the Captain.  As each character represents a vital characteristic, it no surprise that Charlotte (the voice of reason) and the Captain (public opinion) should determine to forego their love. Eduard (passion personfied) cannot see why he should forgo Ottilie (true love). If he cannot have her, he doesn’t want to be around and so he stomps off to war, trusting he will soon be dead. Eduard is an insufferable spoilt brat – really, Goethe himself couldn’t stand him.  Ottilie is the interesting one, the poor relation who must accept her lot.  Her love for Eduard is sincere but she can make no demand of him and, because of his behaviour, finds herself in a no man’s land – tied to Charlotte while waiting for the married couple to finally separate.  Eduard returns from war determined to divorce and this prompts a catastrophe.  After which Ottile decides she can never marry him. But her emotional turmoil continues.  Does she die from this conflict or is she the first case of anorexia nervosa in literature?

So what is there that might have upset the Victorians?  While the two main affairs remain unconsummated (even though Charlotte gives birth to a son with the Captain’s features – I’ll come back to that) there is a third high-born but unmarried couple cavorting around with impunity.  They mirror Eduard and Charlotte, in that they were in love before they married other older partners.  Now they are waiting for the death of those partners to free them to marry.  They are most definitely not waiting for marriage to consummate their relationship.  There is also Eduard’s refusal to accept parental responsibility for the child.  In his view, it is the result of a double spiritual adultery, conceived when he was thinking of Ottilie and Charlotte of the Captain. Perhaps this is why the child has the Captain’s features – some kind of chemical osmosis …..

Nor is that the only element of strangeness.  There is no small measure of the supernatural – this was Goethe aligning himself to the new school of German romanticism.  But what stuck me as most odd was Charlotte’s behaviour.  She may be representing reason but she goes above and beyond the call of her representative role and, as a result, in places feels unreal.  Could anyone ever remain under the same roof and be so civil and caring to the woman who is simply waiting to replace you?

I think Elective Affinities has to be approached as a novel of ideas to prevent such oddities from damaging it.  In other  respects though it has all the hallmarks of fine literary fiction.  It is rich in motifs, symbols and foreshadowing.   Despite the seeming moral daring of its plot, it actually upholds the sanctity of marriage arguing that marriage should not be for convenience, companionship or monetary gain.  It should be for love, love of the deepest truest sort … and, if not entered into with such a spirit, then the marriage partners must be unfailingly loyal to each other. 

Which is really interesting in the light of Goethe’s own marriage to Christiane Vulpius in 1806, after 18 years and a son …. (Cf Why did Goethe marry when he did?)

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P.S Elective Affinities was selected as a good read on Radio 4 last night.  For further insights, UK readers can listen here.  Discussion starts about 11 minutes in.

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