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Marjanne E. Goozé

Mimicry and Influence: The “French” Connection and the Berlin Jewish Salon Around 1800

In recent years the nature of the Berlin social phenomenon of the “salon” led by Jewish women such as Henriette Herz and Rahel Levin Varnhagen has been interrogated by scholars. Barbara Hahn has challenged the labeling of Rahel’s social gatherings, going so far as to call the salon a “myth.” My own research has called into question the post-1945 reception of the Jewish salon as a utopian space and moment where Jews and Christians mingled freely, anti-Semitism melted away, and Jewish women emancipated themselves. In her 2000 article, Ulrike Weckel questions another assumption made by literary and social historians–that the Berlin Jewish salons were modeled on 17th and 18th-century French salons. She asks: “Is it really true, however, that these gatherings in the Prussian capital had more in common with those of Enlightenment society in pre-Revolutionary Paris than with the contemporary culture of visiting among educated people in other German cities?” Weckel answers her own question without much analysis in the negative. In my view, her question demands further investigation, provoking an examination of the foundations and assumptions behind scholars’ contentions that the salon was by its very nature international (See: Simanowski, Wilhelmy-Dollinger, Furst) and that Berlin Jewish sociability was a part of an international salon culture, as Tornius implies quite early in his 1913 book that begins in Renaissance Italy and concludes with Rahel’s salon.

Any determination of direct or indirect influence of the French salonnières must be based on documentary evidence. This paper will examine through the letters and memoirs of the two women and their guests:
1) references to French salons, hostesses, and their memoirs and published works;
2) salon practices–jours fixes, dinners, types of guests, political motivations and influences, games, etc.; and
3) relationships with contemporary French salon women, in particular Germaine de Staël, who visited Berlin in 1804 and was an eyewitness to Berlin sociability.
Crucial is the consideration of differing French salon practices over time and among salonnières in both France and Berlin. Herz’s memoir contains a chapter on Madame de Staël and Herz discusses Staël and her novels in her correspondence with Schleiermacher. Rahel’s correspondence includes almost 50 references to Staël alone. Lastly, the influence and internationality of Berlin salon culture can only be fully assessed if it is perceived as radiating outward from Berlin. Otherwise Berlin social practices, insofar as they imitated French salons, were merely a performance of mimicry by Jewish women who had no official social standing or civil rights.

Clearly, there are difficulties in establishing connections and determining influences unique to the study of the Berlin Jewish salon. Direct literary connections among writers who were salon guests are more accessible – for example, Sophie Mereau’s translations of writings by Madame de Lafayette and Ninon de Lenclos. A major barrier to the study of French salon influences on the Berlin salonnières lies in Rahel’s and Henriette Herz’s lack of literary production. Yet, their own responses to pressures to publish can also be assessed as a reaction to the novels, memoirs, social portraits, and letters published by French salonnières. Rahel and Herz planned on posthumous publication of their letters and memoirs. Both Rahel's Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde [A Book of Remembrance for her Friends], published four months after her death, and Herz’s memoir, published in several editions and formats shortly following her death, entered German and European literary history as much as any novels or plays their might have written. Indeed, the publication of their memoirs and letters may be the most compelling evidence of the influence of the French salonnières on German literary and social culture.

SvD, April 2008

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