Monday, January 14, 2013

Charlotte and Young Werther

A mid-nineteenth century painting of Charlotte and Werther

I simply couldn't resist one more mention of a famous Charlotte who had something to do with dancing. If you haven't read The Sorrows of Young Werther, you probably should. Written by Johann Wolfgang Goethe in 1774, this short book was of the primary texts of the 19th century romantic movement. It was also the Catcher in the Rye of its day. Just like Catcher, you will either love it or hate it. Many young people felt that it spoke to their souls. Many older people probably thought that the young protagonist needed professional help.

Werther (sometimes translated as Werter) falls in love with Charlotte even though he has been warned that she is engaged to a good man. He pursues a friendship with her and her husband even though his heart is breaking. He finally decides that only his suicide can release Charlotte and Albert from the entanglement of his love.

The book inspired Werther-Fieber, with symptoms that included a fashion trend for blue coats and buff waistcoats "in the English fashion", possible copycat suicides and countless girls weeping over the book.

Young girls reading Werther in 1870.

Werther meets Charlotte as he and companions pick her up on the way to a ball. His first glimpse of her is as she feeds her little brothers and sisters a snack and says goodbye to them.

As I entered the apartment I saw six children, the eldest of which was but eleven years old, all jumping round a young woman, very elegantly shaped, and dressed in a plain white gown with pink ribands. She had a brown loaf in her hand, and was cutting slices of bread and butter, which she distributed in a graceful and affectionate manner to the children, according to their age and appetite.

Werther falls more than a little in love with Charlotte in the carriage on the way to the ball. They enter the ballroom. Notice that the first dances of the ball are minuets, an older classic dance. Then they dance English country dances, which would be newer and more fashionable. After the second country dance, there is an allemande followed by a waltz. Werther dances the allemande with Charlotte and they make various patterns with their arms. This makes the allemande sound very much like the Austrian landler. Then they dance the waltz. Goethe doesn't give many details about this early waltz; he doesn't even mention whether it is counted in three, but the details he does mention, the sense of flying, the way the rest of the world fades away, are the emotional hallmarks of the dance.

They began with minuets. I took out one lady after another, and exactly those who were the most disagreeable could not bring themselves to leave off. Charlotte and her partner began an  English country dance. Imagine my delight when they came to do the figure with us. You should see Charlotte: she seems to dance with all her heart and soul, and as if she was born for nothing else; her figure is all elegance, lightness, and grace. 

I asked her to dance the second country dance with me; she was engaged, but promised herself to me for the third; telling me at the same time, with the most agreeable freedom, that she was very fond of allemandes. "It is the custom here," said she," for every couple to dance the allemandes together; but my partner will be delighted if I save him the trouble, for he does the walse very ill: I observe the lady you dance with is in the same situation. I am sure by your English country dances that you must do the walse very well yourself; so that if it is agreeable to you to dance the allemandes with me, do you propose it to my partner; I will propose it to your's." We went to settle this affair; and it was agreed that during the allemandes, Charlotte's partner should attend upon mine.

We began; and at first amused ourselves with making every possible turn with our arms. How graceful and animated all her motions! When the walse commenced, all the couples, which were hurling round, at first jostled against each other. We very judiciously kept aloof till the awkward and clumsy had withdrawn: when we joined in, there were but two couples left. I never in my life was so active; I was more than mortal. To hold in my arms the most lovely of women, to fly with her like the wind, and lose sight of every other object !—But I own to you, I then determined, that the woman I loved, and to whom I had pretensions, should never do the walse with any other man.—You will understand this.

(Have you noticed that Werther is a little self-centered?)

Rowlandson illustration of the waltz from 1806. The caption refers to the Sorrows of Werter.
We took a few turns in the room to recover our breath; and then Charlotte sat down, and I brought her a few dices of lemon, all indeed that were left, which I stole from those who were making the negus: she eat some with sugar, and seemed to be refreshed by them; but I was obliged in politeness to offer them to the lady who sat next Charlotte, and she very injudiciously took some.

(Have you noticed that Werther is a lot self-centered?)

We were the second couple in the third country dance. As we were going down (and heaven knows with what ecstacy I looked at her arms, and her eyes which bore the impression of a natural and lively pleasure) a lady of a certain age, whose agreeable countenance had struck me at first sight, looked at Charlotte, and smiled; then held up her finger in a threatening attitude, and in a very significant tone of voice said, "Albert! Albert!"
"Who is this Albert?" said I to Charlotte, "if it is not impertinent?" She was going to answer, when we were obliged to separate for hands six round at bottom ; and in crossing over I thought I perceived that she looked pensive. "Why would I conceal it from you? said she, when she gave me her hand to lead out of sides; Albert is a worthy man to whom I am engaged.' I had been told this before by the ladies in the coach, but I had not then seen Charlotte; I did not know her value. I seemed to hear it for the first time. I was distressed, confused, wrong in the figure, and put every body out; and Charlotte, by pushing one and pulling another, with great difficulty set us right again.

(Werther is self-centered. Charlotte is self-confident and very competent. She's not going to let a country dance fall apart around her.)

 Whilst we were dancing, the lightning, which had for some time been seen in the horizon, and which I had declared to be only summer-lightning, and proceeding entirely from heat, became much more violent, and the thunder was heard through all the noise of the fiddles. Three ladies run out of the set; their partners followed; the confusion became general; and the music stopped. When any distress or terror comes upon us in a scene of amusement, it has a stronger effect on our minds, either because the contrast makes us feel it more keenly: or rather, perhaps, because our senses being open to impressions of all kinds, the shock is more forcibly and quickly perceived. This circumstance may account in some measure for the extraordinary contortions and shrieks of the ladies.

One of the most courageous sat down with her back to the window and stopped her ears; another knelt -down before her, and hid her face in her lap; a third shoved herself between them and embraced her little sister, shedding at the same time a torrent of tears: some insisted upon going home; others, still more distressed, did not attend to their indiscreet partners, who were stealing from their lips those sighs that were addressed to heaven. Some of the gentlemen went down stairs to drink a bottle quietly; and the rest of the company very willingly followed the mistress of the house, who had the good sense to conduct us to a room darkened by close window-shutters. As soon as we came into it, Charlotte drew the chairs round, made us sit down in a ring, and was eager to begin some little play. 

(Yet again, Charlotte takes charge.)

More than one of our belles drew up and looked prim, in hopes of some agreeable consequences from the forfeits. "Let us play at counting," said Charlotte. "Observe, 1 am to go from right to left; you are to count one after the other as you sit, and count fast: whoever stops or mistakes is to have a box on the the ear, and so on till we have counted to a thousand." It was pleasant to see her go round with her hand up. "One," says the first, "two," the second, " three," the third, and so on, till Charlotte went faster and faster. One then mistook; instantly a box on the ear: the next laughed instead of saying the following number—another box on the ear; and still faster and faster.

I had two for my share; and fancied they were harder than the rest, and was much delighted. A general confusion and laughter put an end to the play, long before we got to a thousand. The storm ceased; the company formed into little parties;. Charlotte returned to the assembly room, and I followed her. As we were going, she said, " The blows I inflicted made them forget their apprehensions: I myself was as much afraid as any body; but by affecting courage to keep up the spirits of the company, I really lost my fears." 

We went to the window, and still heard the thunder at a distance; a soft rain watered the fields, and filled the air with the most delightful and refreshing smells.  (Goethe,The Sorrows of  Werter: A German Story, A new edition, London: J. Dodsley. 1784. p. )

If you want to read more, you will find plenty of angst and the final scene of Werther's suicide. It's actually quite touching. 

Young Werther

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