Translated from German by Christa Baguss Britt (1991)
As far as plots go, to my C21st century eyes, this novel, while being great fun, is pretty preposterous. But as far as German literary history is concerned, it is rather significant. The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim was the first German novel written by a woman and the first Bildungsroman.
In an age when women did not write novels, but took care of domestic correspondence, it comes as no surprise that Sophie van La Roche chose to write an epistolary novel, albeit not not one in which the letter writers are writing to each other. There are a number of narrators here, the most important being Lady Sophia Sternheim herself, Lord Derby and Lord Seymour. Yes, not one, but two English aristocrats, and Lady Sophia herself has English blood running through her veins. This was the age when Englishness was held to be a virtue, when Samuel Richardson’s sentimental novels were the best sellers of the day. And it is very much in that sentimental mode that The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim was conceived. Prepare yourself for a virtuous, if not downright saintly, heroine, a dastardly villain (Lord Derby), and a good guy who is not afraid to let his emotions show – once he has decided to show them. (Lord Seymour).
And so to the plot …
*** Spoiler alert ***
Following the death of her parents, our fair and beautiful heroine is transported to the court at D_ by her aunt and uncle, whose motivations are anything but honourable. They are looking for Sophia to become the ruler’s mistress. This, they hope, will ensure a good outcome in the legal court case in which her uncle is entangled. Sophia finds court life incredibly vacuous, but, good girl that she is, she accompanies her aunt to all the social functions required of her, even when her aunt takes away all her books!!! Sophia, who has been brought up in the countryside, loves natures and helping those less fortunate than herself. Her purity of spirit is at direct odds with the sophistication of court life.
Of course, our good guy, Lord Seymour falls in love with her at first sight, but, knowing the ulterior motives behind her presence at court, determines that his love must prove her virtue before he declares himself. Lord Derby admires her, and seeks to make his own conquest. The court ball, at which Sophia innocently agrees to wear the ruler’s jewels, proves to be a catalyst. Lord Seymour finally doubts his love’s virtue, and lets her know the score. All kinds of despair ensue, upon which Lord Derby is able to capitalise. He manages to trap Sophia into a sham marriage.
*** End spoilers ***
Well if you think this is the low point, think again. Because worse lies in store for Sophia, (or Mrs Leidens – Mrs Suffering – the name she adopts in the second half of the novel) in Scotland of all places. (Can you hear me
laughing out loud howling with laughter? Scotland as a place of misery – what a trope!) Sorry, C21st philistine/cynic that I am, I’m just incapable of taking this overblown drama seriously, despite Sophie van La Roche’s honourable intentions in showing a) that maltreatment at the hand of a predatory male need not be the end tragedy it probably was for girls of good breeding in the C18th, and that b) all will come good when one is truly altruistic.
It is a truth generally acknowledged that an C18th female novelist was in need of a strong male champion. Sophie van La Roche had hers in the form of her cousin and one time fiancé C M Wieland. Once the novel was published, she found her greatest admirer in a certain J W von Goethe who, and I can see him wagging his finger at me, deplored La Roche’s critics and proclaimed “these gentlemen are in error, when they believe they judge a book — it is a human soul!” You can certainly see where he found inspiration for his own paragon of sentimentality in The Sufferings of Young Werther (1774).