Often compared by critics to George Sand and George Eliot, Fanny Lewald was an enormously productive, successful and respected writer in nineteenth-century Germany. Her early works of the 1840s deal in a committed manner with the political, social and religious questions of the time. Her later popular stories and novels were often first published in serial form in widely-circulated journals. She was also a gifted autobiographical writer. Her Memories of the Year 1848 gives a lively description of that dramatic year in European politics and also of her visit to Paris, where she met Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), a writer whom she greatly admired. Later she became more of a monarchist, convinced that a longer preparation for popular rule was essential; finally, she thought highly of Bismarck because of his “Realpolitik.”
Clearly, Fanny Lewald’s most significant work from today’s point of view is her six-volume autobiography Meine Lebensgeschichte (The History of My Life), published in 1861–1862, a seminal work that documents growing up female and Jewish in the nineteenth century as well as the lives of middle-class women in general during that century. Her experiences, struggles and accomplishments would later transform her into a strong and respected advocate for women’s rights in Germany.
Fanny Lewald was born on March 24, 1811, the first child of a merchant family in Königsberg (Kaliningrad), a city on the margins of then Prussia that had become famous for its great philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Young Fanny learned early on that she seemed to be doubly “disadvantaged”: she was Jewish and she was a girl. Already as a five-year old girl she heard herself called “Jew” in the streets, and in school, with her drive for knowledge and her hard work, she was troubled by comments like: “Well, your head would have better fitted a boy.”
Life in her parents’ house was strictly organized and followed patriarchal rules. Everyone, even her mother, obeyed her father at the least sign. Fanny loved her father, David Markus (1787–1846; changed to Lewald in 1812), dearly and with deep respect. The relationship with her mother, Zippora, née Assur, the daughter of a prosperous merchant family, who had never attended school, became more and more difficult. Already at the age of eight Fanny felt superior to her mother, in part because she witnessed the total subordination of her mother at home. Because of her drive for knowledge and her need for self-affirmation, Fanny felt drawn to her father, who was well educated and had wide-ranging interests. His education of the children (there were later two boys and five more girls) had a rational orientation and was focused on self-control. He did not tolerate “feminine faults” in his oldest daughter, but he also provided more space for her education than was common at the time. His goal for his daughter, however, was more or less a perfect education for the purpose of his idea of a harmonious marriage. She was constantly reminded that nothing was more disgusting and impractical than a “learned woman.” At the age of fourteen she had to leave school and dedicate herself completely to household chores, sewing, some selected readings and piano lessons, which she had to endure until the age of thirty-two. Clearly, in a middle class household at the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth century, where everything that was needed was produced in the house itself, many tasks had to be accomplished and organized in a practical manner. Fanny Lewald, however, felt unfulfilled and superfluous, watching her brothers continuing their school education and moving on to university.
At the age of seventeen she fell in love with a student of theology, Leopold Bock, and began without any hesitation to prepare herself for the role of the wife of a country pastor. One day, without any explanation, her father broke up this relationship, a disastrous experience for young Fanny, but shortly afterwards allowed her to become a Christian. She did, apparently out of deeply-felt first love for her young friend. Her father, a man of political caution and practicality, soon arranged for his two sons to convert before they entered the university. Later in her life, Fanny Lewald felt ambivalent about her conversion.
In 1832, when she was twenty-one, her father took her on a business trip to the Rhine and the Neckar. What at first seemed to be a pleasurable adventure for her and a generous gesture on the part of her father turned out to be a journey planned to find her a suitable husband. In spite of her initial shame and anger, the trip turned out to be an inspiring journey. Fanny Lewald encountered the new spirit of a new epoch. In July 1830 a revolution had taken place in France, while in Poland a new independence movement had emerged; both events radiated to the German states, heralding the Hambach Fest in May 1832, with its call for a republic and a united Germany. Fanny Lewald met many important men of the democratic movement, among them the converted Jewish writer and critic Ludwig Börne (1778–1837), whose works were widely discussed at the time. Staying for a while with open-minded relatives in Breslau, Lewald became familiar with current political and social questions and with the newest literature, such as the works of the “Young Germany” and the writings of George Sand. At the same time she had another heart-breaking experience—her unrequited love for her cousin Heinrich Simon (1808–1860), who later became a leading figure in the politics of the 1840s, and with whom she stayed close friends. Returning to Königsberg was difficult for the young woman, who had developed so much. Not only was it hard for her to give up her love for Simon, but she also had to resist the attempts of her parents to marry her off. Compelled to live in a house with five younger sisters, she was not allowed to earn her own living, because that would have undermined her father’s authority.
The situation finally changed for the better with the support of her cousin August Lewald (1792–1871), editor of the journal Das Neue Europa, who discovered her literary talent and encouraged her to become a writer. In 1845, when she was thirty-four years old, she was finally allowed to move to Berlin and into her own apartment, still quite a generous gesture by a father in those days and a considerable achievement for this unmarried and ambitious woman, dedicated to creating a “room of her own.”
When Fanny Lewald moved to Berlin she had already written three novels, the first two clearly with an autobiographical touch. In Clementine (1843) she discussed the problem of arranged marriage, and in Jenny (1843), a novel that won her fame and praise, she took up the question of discrimination against Jews and women alike. The novel gives a lively picture of the complex process of constructing a German-Jewish woman’s identity in the nineteenth century. After long soul-searching and struggle, Jenny, the protagonist, decides not to marry the man she had fallen in love with, a student of theology, although she had converted to Christianity after their engagement. Both novels were published anonymously, out of concern for the family and specifically for the younger sisters, who felt that their chances of getting married were adversely affected by having an older sister who was a writer. Hotly debated in those days was the question of divorce, raised primarily by the writers of the “Young Germany,” who advocated political and social change. Lewald sided with supporters of the easing of divorce in her third novel Eine Lebensfrage (A Vital Question), in which she appeared to some degree more concerned and serious compared to her fellow writers of the “Young Germany.” She also engaged herself in the question of class in her 1846 novella Der Dritte Stand (The Third Estate), demanding the rise of standards of living of the poor at the expense of the better off.
When Lewald embarked on her first journey abroad on her own, to Italy in 1845, she was soon herself confronted by the “vital question” that she had posed in her third novel. In Rome she met the scholar and writer Adolph Stahr (1804–1876), a married man, and they fell in love with each other. After his wife agreed to the divorce, they married in 1855. Henceforth Lewald published under the surname Lewald-Stahr. For her it seemed to be a happy relationship, which gave her enough space for her energy and independence. She established a salon in Berlin and became tremendously productive, writing numerous novels, novellas, essays and articles. She and Stahr traveled widely together, and Lewald wrote many travel accounts, a genre for which she was eminently prepared with her gift of detailed observation and vivid depiction. For her career as a novel writer the year 1850 meant a decisive break because of the beginning of political reaction in Germany. From her committed writings of the 1840s she turned to more classical topics and poetic realism, oriented toward her model Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the ideal of harmonious totality, which contributes to the more epigonal quality of many of her later novels.
When Lewald began to write her autobiography in 1858, the reason was not just to describe her personal development. She had become aware of the exemplary character of her journey through life and perceived the publication of her story as a contribution to the present and to change. She argued for the emancipation of women, their right to work and to support themselves in order to free them from the forced inactivity of waiting to be married or to finally agree to a marriage just because of material need. Her example was to empower women to pursue independence and to demonstrate the success of an observance of duty. Women’s professional work was for Lewald the basis of all liberation. At the same time she kept holding on to marriage as an ideal, because for her women’s professional work was precisely to eliminate material obstacles and thus allow for marriages of love.
Apart from her autobiography, two important works contributed to the Women’s Question of her day and also specifically addressed the life and working condition of lower-class women. Already in an article in the early 1840s she had discussed the “Status of Female Servants” (1843). Now, in 1863 in the Osterbriefe für die Frauen (Easter Letters for Women) she described, often drastically, the miserable life of servants, seamstresses and other lower-wage women workers, pointing out bluntly that women’s work is always the lowest paid. To change this situation, she demanded education and apprenticeship also for the “daughters of the poor,” as well as—and this demonstrates her always practical side—health insurance and old-age benefits, dining halls and boarding houses for women workers. In addition, there is a clear call to middle-class women to show solidarity with their “poor sisters” and to support their education and continuous training.
In her 1870 essay collection Für und Wider die Frauen (For And Against Women) she further clarified her position on emancipation for middle-class women, arguing for women’s access to all levels of school education up to the high school certificate, training and employment for women, including married women, and access to all areas of public life, such as commerce, crafts, arts, sciences and politics. In her opinion all this was possible, but she did not call for a radical change. She opined that progress happened step by step, and required not only change through legislation but also what she called the self-emancipation of women. Her concept of emancipation was based on liberation from dependency on family or husband and by and through assimilation to the existing norms and values in the professional world and society. Equally, she did not want a special niche for herself as a woman writer and refused to be called a “woman author.” Interestingly enough she took the same position on the Jewish Question. Whereas she criticized the state for withholding equal rights from Jews, she had no sympathy for complaint or radical change but insisted on self-emancipation and complete assimilation, which in a process of democratization that she trusted as an overall goal would with time solve the Jewish problem. Although she experienced antisemitic events in Berlin around 1880, she persisted in her opinion.
The Osterbriefe and Für and Wider die Frauen had a remarkable impact. Lewald received many responses from readers and requests for advice from women. Für und Wider die Frauen appeared in a second edition in 1875 and was translated into Polish, Russian, Hungarian and Croatian. A later famous woman leader of the German women’s movement, Gertrud Bäumer, called Lewald’s essays the best contribution to emancipation of the first generation of the women’s movement.
Altogether Lewald was much in agreement with many objectives of the middle-class women’s movement in Germany, which established itself under the leadership of Louise Otto Peters in 1865. But sometimes she went further in her goals, e.g. in her demand for employment of married middle-class women, too. On the other hand she did not believe in special feminine qualities which some in the movement promoted. She did not argue for new values or a re-evaluation of values but believed in a process of gaining rights by fulfilling established duties, although she acknowledged that men had their rights automatically. Clearly, Lewald sometimes contradicted herself, at one point asking for an equal partnership in marriage, while on other occasions emphasizing the virtue of a wife’s voluntary subordination. Although she sometimes appears very stubborn in her insistence on the fulfillment of established duties, she was also able to perceive the contradictions which women experience in pursuing their independence and happiness. Her autobiography contains a wealth of insight in and between the lines. During her in many ways restrictive upbringing Lewald had to repress her emotionality and imagination; she had to learn total self-control. For her later life this meant trusting in herself to reach her goals by fulfilling her duty, staying rational and disciplined. But she was not prepared for emotional turmoil and also had to endure many struggles in order to accept her sensual side. It became important for her to read other women’s writing, novels and letters in order to come to terms with her feelings and, later, to meet fellow women writers and artists in Berlin and in Rome, who helped her to gain self-confidence.
Some of the most insightful and beautifully written passages of her autobiography concern her friendships with women. Among others there are three women, Jewish or of Jewish origin, who had overcome many obstacles and created a space of their own. One of these was Henriette Herz, a woman who, with her intellectual and social talent, established the first salon of significance in Berlin at the end of the eighteenth century, where artists, scholars and aristocrats met. Another was Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805–1847), who was, according to Lewald, on an equal footing in musical talent with her brother Felix Mendelssohn. Most importantly, there was Rahel Levin Varnhagen, whose letters, published in 1833, had once been a “revelation and redemption” for young Fanny. The incredible impact of Rahel Levin’s letters on nineteenth-century women is documented in many autobiographical sources. Lewald read Levin’s letters in a time of crisis. Learning of the death of her first love, Leopold Bock, Lewald began to question her father’s authority and her quiet submission. Rahel Levin’s letters ended her solitude: here was a woman who, like her, had to endure misunderstandings, restrictions on her drive for knowledge and on her feelings, offenses as a Jewish woman, isolation and painful love, and nevertheless managed to carve out her space in life. Rahel Levin’s example provided Lewald with perseverance and strength. Following her as model, she promised herself that she would live and write with truthfulness. Thus, in her autobiography she was able to write openly about wounds and desperate situations in a manner that was not commonly accepted at the time.
Rahel Levin-Varnhagen was actually a distant relative of Fanny Lewald. Lewald’s maternal uncle, David Assure Assing (1787–1842), a physician and writer who lived in Hamburg, was married to Rosa Maria (1780–1840), a sister of Karl August Varnhagen von Ense (1785–1858). Their daughter, Ludmilla Assing (1821–1880), who also became well known as a writer, stayed at Varnhagen’s house in Berlin from 1842–1858 and tried to continue Rahel’s salon.
When Fanny Lewald died in 1889 much had changed in women’s lives compared to the time of her growing up. Industrial development had contributed to the easing of work in the house; middle-class women’s employment possibilities had been improved; there was, though slowly, growing awareness about the problems of low-wage women workers; and in Berlin the first courses leading to a women’s high school diploma were established. With her astute and vivid writings Fanny Lewald had supported and contributed to many changes and in her own life as a woman and a converted Jew she had realized part of the way towards emancipation.
Clementine [anonymous]. Leipzig: 1843; Jenny [anonymous]. Leipzig: 1843 [repr. 1967]; “Einige Gedanken über Mädchenerziehung” [anonymous]. Archiv für vaterländische Interessen. Königsberg: 1843; “Andeutungen über die Lage der weiblichen Dienstboten” [anonymous]. Ibid.; Eine Lebensfrage [anonymous]. Leipzig: 1845; “Der dritte Stand.” Berliner Kalender für 1845. Leipzig: 1845; Italienisches Bilderbuch. Berlin: 1847 [reprinted 1967]. Prinz Louis Ferdinand. Breslau: 1849 [repr. 1929, repr. and tr. 1989]; Auf roter Erde. Leipzig: 1850; Erinnerungen aus dem Jahre 1848. Braunschweig: 1850 [repr. 1969; tr. and ed. by Hanna Ballin Lewis, 1997]; Liebesbriefe. Aus dem Leben eines Gefangen. Braunschweig: 1850; England und Schottland. Reisetagebuch. Braunschweig: 1851; Wandlungen. Braunschweig: 1853; Adele. Braunschweig: 1855; Die Kammerjungfer. Braunschweig: 1856; Deutsche Lebensbilder. Braunschweig: 1856; Meine Lebensgeschichte. Berlin: 1861–1862 [repr. 1980, ed. by Gisela Brinker-Gabler, abridged version; reprinted 1988, ed. by Ulrike Helmer; tr. and ed. 1992 by Hanna Ballin Lewis as The Education of Fanny Lewald. An Autobiography, abridged version]; Bunte Bilder. Berlin: 1862; Gesammelte Novellen. Berlin: 1862; Osterbriefe für die Frauen. Berlin: 1863 [repr. Politische Schriften Für und Wider die Frauen, ed. by Ulrike Helmer, 1989]; Von Geschlecht zu Geschlecht. Berlin: 1864–1866; Ein Winter in Rom [together with Adolf Stahr]. Berlin: 1869; Für und Wider die Frauen. Berlin: 1870 [repr. as Politische Schriften Für und Wider die Frauen, ed. by Ulrike Helmer, 1989]; “Die Frauen und das allgemeine Wahlrecht.” Westermanns Monatshefte 26. Braunschweig: 1870; Benvenuto. Ein Roman aus der Künstlerwelt. Berlin: 1875; Reisebriefe aus Deutschland, Frankreich und Italien. Berlin: 1880; Die Familie Darner. Berlin: 1887; Published from her Archives: Gefühltes und Gedachtes. 1838–1888, ed. by L. Geiger. Dresden and Leipzig: 1900. Archives: Staatsbibliothek Berlin; Goethe-und Schiller Archiv, Weimar (collection).
For detailed listings and recent publications see: Renate Möhrmann, “Fanny Lewald.” In Neue Deutsche Biographie. Vol. 14. Berlin: 1984, 409–410. Brinker-Gabler, Gisela, Karola Ludwig and Angela Wöffen. Lexikon deutschsprachiger Schriftstellerinnen 1800–1945. Frankfurt a.M.: 1986; Lewis, Hanna Ballin (tr. and ed.). The Education of Fanny Lewald. An Autobiography. Albany: 1992; Rheinberg, Brigitta van. Fanny Lewald: Geschichte einer Emanzipation. Frankfurt/New York: 1990; Schneider, Gabriele. Vom Zeitroman zum “Stylisierten” Roman. 1993; Marci-Boehncke, Gudrun. Fanny Lewald. Jüdin, Preussin, Schriftstellerin. Studien zum Autobiographischem Werk und Kontext. Göttingen: 1998; Ward, Margaret E. “Fanny Lewald.” In Women Writers in German-Speaking Countries: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Elke Frederiksen and Elizabeth G. Ametsbichler. Westport, CT: 1998; DiMaio, Irene. “Fanny Lewald.” In Encyclopedia of German Literature, edited by Matthias Konzett. Chicago: 2000; Van Ornam, Vanessa. Fanny Lewald and Nineteenth-Century Constructions of Femininity. New York: 2002.
How to cite this page
Brinker-Gabler, Gisela. "Fanny Lewald." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 20, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lewald-fanny>.