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Karin Baumgartner

In Search of Literary Mothers across the Rhine: The Influence of Madame de Genlis and Madame de Staël on the Writing of Helmna von Chézy

In 1801, Helmina von Chézy (1783-1856), the grand-daughter of poet laureate Anna Luise Karsch, traveled to Paris to serve as a companion to Madame de Genlis. The talented Helmina and her mother, Karoline von Klenke, hoped that the acquaintance with Genlis would help Helmina develop her considerable writing skills. Very soon, Chézy and Genlis had a falling out and parted ways. Helmina took over the editorship of the Cotta journal Französische Miscellen, where she frequently reviewed the works of Madame de Genlis and the latter’s rival, Madame de Staël. In these reviews, I argue, Helmina searched for her own literary identity and a female literary network she could call her own. The tensions between these larger-than-life literary “mother-figures” found, however, a way into Helmina’s own writing where her rationalist training by Genlis and her own Romantic literary inclinations modeled on Staël's were at odds.

The first half of the presentation will address the literary influences of Genlis and Staël on Chézy’s writing, while the second half will concentrate on Chézy’s attempt to recreate female literary networks in Germany upon her return there in 1810. Repeatedly, she attempted to bring other women writers together for collaborative projects (such as the journal Iduna). None of these attempts succeeded though: while Chézy’s creativity and talent inspired passionate friendships, she was not able to channel her sometimes erratic nature and these literary collaborations ended in disputes and animosity. The paper will seek to answer the question whether Helmina’s failure to establish women-centered literary projects were based solely on her difficult personality or whether the failure of these projects was based on a cultural climate in Germany that was unfavorable to female networks and collaboration.

SvD, March 2008

  • Conferences > NEWW international conferences > Chawton 2008 > Baumgartner

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