Tag Archives: letters

Anatomy of a Breakup: Søren Kierkegaard & Regine Olsen

“You, my heart’s sovereign mistress (‘Regina’) stored in the deepest recesses of my heart, in my most brimmingly vital thoughts, there where it is equally far to heaven as to hell–unknown divinity!  Oh, can I really believe what the poets say:  that when a man sees the beloved object for the first time he believes he has seen her long before, that all love, as all knowledge, is recollection, that love in the single individual also has its prophecies, its types, its myths, its Old Testament?  Everywhere, in every girl’s face, I see features of your beauty, yet I think I’d need all the girls in the world to extract, as it were, your beauty from theirs, that I’d have to criss-cross the whole world to find the continent I lack yet that which the deepest secret of my whole ‘I’ magnetically points to – and the next moment you are so near me, so present, so richly supplementing my spirit that I am transfigured and feel how good it is to be here…” 2 February , 1839.

Regine Olsen by Emil Bærentzen (1840)

The tormented philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard pursued Regine Olsen for two years before he proposed and ultimately regretted the decision he’d made.  They met in the spring of 1837 while Kierkegaard was still a student.  His liking for her was immediate.  He pursued her as a friend and then a suitor before he confessed his true feelings, which he recounted in his writings about the awkward event nine years later:

“On 8 September I left home with the firm intention of settling the whole thing.  We met on the street just outside their house.  She said there was no one at home.  I was rash enough to take this as the invitation I needed.  I went in with her.  There we stood, the two of us alone in the living room.  She was a little flustered.  I asked her to play something for me as she usually did.  She does so but I don’t manage to say anything. Then I suddenly grab the score, close it not without a certain vehemence, throw it onto the piano and say: Oh! What do I care for music, it’s you I want, I have wanted you for two years.  She kept silent.  As it happens, I had taken no steps to captivate her, I had even warned her against me, against my melancholy.  And when she mentioned a relationship with [Johan Frederik] Schlegel [future husband and former teacher], I said: Let that relationship be a parenthesis for I have first priority…She mostly kept silent.”

Not the stuff made of ladies’ dreams, is it?  Despite his fumbling, Regine agreed to marry Kierkegaard, and they were engaged for almost a year before he sealed his engagement ring in a breakup letter and put it in the post on 11 August, 1841.  Is that today’s equivalent of breaking up via text?  Among a few other lines which aren’t necessary to relate, he wrote: “Above all forget the one who writes this: forgive someone who whatever else he was capable of could not make a girl happy.”

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard, 1840. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard.

Regine was rightfully devastated.  She thought herself in love with a melancholic heart, and the poor girl threatened to commit suicide.  She was so put out that Kierkegaard stopped writing her “I don’t love you anymore” letters (he thought indifference would convince her of his unworthiness) and finally visited her in person on 11 October, 1841…where he said some dick things:

“…I received a letter from him [her father] saying that she had not slept that night, that I must come and see her.  I went and made her see reason.  She asked me: Will you never marry.  I answered: Yes, in ten years time, when I have had my fling, I will need a lusty girl to rejuvenate me.  It was a necessary cruelty.”

Kierkegaard was capable of intellectual romantic excesses and though he broke with Regine because of his depressive nature, his inability to be writer and husband, and what he decided was divine opposition, the complicated man remembered her fondly for the rest of his life.  Upon his death, he wished Regine to have “whatever little I  may leave behind… [his books and author’s rights].  What I want to express in this way is that to me an engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage, and that therefore my estate is her due exactly as if I had been married to her.”  It was later revealed in 1896 that her husband Schlegel refused the inheritance.  Regine is also said to have destroyed her letters to Kierkegaard, so there isn’t much from her point of view, but Kierkegaard, who some biographers say suffered from hypergraphia, later reflected:

“I cannot quite place her impact on me in a purely erotic sense.  It is true that the fact that she yielded almost adoringly to me, pleaded with me to love her, had so touched me that I would have risked everything for her.  But the fact that I always wanted to hide from myself the degree to which she touched me is also evidence of the extent to which I loved her… Had I not been a penitent, had my vita ante acta not been melancholic, marriage to her would have made me happy beyond my dreams.  But even I, being the person I unfortunately am, had to say that without her I could be happier in my unhappiness than with her – she had touched me deeply, and I would so much, ever so much, have done everything.”  24 August, 1849

You can read more about Kierkegaard’s writing on Regine in Papers and Journals: A Selection. I also did a series of posts a while back on Napoleon’s letters (Achy Breaky Heart part one or part two) to Josephine if you find yourself in an epistolary reading mood.

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Lord Chesterfield on Trivial Pursuits, Day 7 REPOST

Originally posted 1/2/11

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

As a lady of substantial cranial proportions, I say with all humility that I simply cannot countenance the follies of my age.  To dance and make merry?  Bah!  ‘Tis a waste of sturdy, spinster feet.  Likewise, I do not care to garland my person in the most dear and newfangled fashions, thereby bankrupting my paltry accounts, simply to join in the happy pursuits of society.  Yet what choice have I but to make myself a lemming?

Verily Yours,

Miss Anthrope

Marie-Adelaide de Bourbon, one of Louis XV’s spinster daughters

Dear Miss Anthrope:

In truth, whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; and nothing can be done well without attention: I therefore carry the necessity of attention down to the lowest things, even to dancing and dress. Custom has made dancing sometimes necessary for a young [wo]man; therefore mind it while you learn it that you may learn to do it well, and not be ridiculous, though in a ridiculous act. Dress is of the same nature; you must dress; therefore attend to it; not in order to rival or to excel a fop in it, but in order to avoid singularity, and consequently ridicule. Take great care always to be dressed like the reasonable people of your own age, in the place where you are; whose dress is never spoken of one way or another, as either too negligent or too much studied.

Adieu!

From Bath, October 9, O.S. 1746

Missed the previous Lord Chesterfield’s posts? See On Friendship and On Giving Compliments and On Domestic Affairs and On Secrets and On Political Atmosphere.
 

Lord Chesterfield on Political Atmosphere, Day 6 REPOST

Originally posted 12/31/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

I solemly swear before God and country that all politicians are liars and thieves!  They never accomplish what they vow, and upon my soul, there is a not a noble man among such a house of fools.  I dare say, in the next election I will not suffer to vote.  What say you on this most important matter?  Given the day’s unsavory climate, am I wrong to feel apathetic towards these demmed pimps?

Verily Yours,

Straight Suffering from Lack of Having Sovereigns

joseph, baron ducreux

Dear Straight Suffering, etc., etc.,

Another very just observation of the Cardinal’s [de Retz] is, That the things which happen in our own times, and which we see ourselves, do not surprise us near so much as the things which we read of in times past, though not in the least more extraordinary; and adds, that he is persuaded that when Caligula made his horse a Consul, the people of Rome, at that time, were not greatly surprised at it, having necessarily been in some degree prepared for it, by an insensible gradation of extravagances from the same quarter. This is so true that we read every day, with astonishment, things which we see every day without surprise. We wonder at the intrepidity of a Leonidas, a Codrus, and a Curtius; and are not the least surprised to hear of a sea-captain, who has blown up his ship, his crew, and himself, that they might not fall into the hands of the enemies of his country. I cannot help reading of Porsenna and Regulus, with surprise and reverence, and yet I remember that I saw, without either, the execution of Shepherd,—[James Shepherd, a coach-painter’s apprentice, was executed at Tyburn for high treason, March 17, 1718, in the reign of George I.]—a boy of eighteen years old, who intended to shoot the late king, and who would have been pardoned, if he would have expressed the least sorrow for his intended crime; but, on the contrary, he declared that if he was pardoned he would attempt it again; that he thought it a duty which he owed to his country, and that he died with pleasure for having endeavored to perform it. Reason equals Shepherd to Regulus; but prejudice, and the recency of the fact, make Shepherd a common malefactor and Regulus a hero.

Adieu!

From London, September 13, O.S. 1748

Missed the previous Lord Chesterfield’s posts? See On Friendship and On Giving Compliments and On Domestic Affairs and On Secrets.

Lord Chesterfield on Secrets, Day 5 REPOST

Originally posted 12/30/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

Recently at a party a most scintillating secret was relayed to me by an acquaintance and I simply cannot bear to keep it to myself!  If I go and whisper this trifle of a tale to say, a few of the fashionable ladies with whom I play the lute , would this be a violent breach of trust?  The secret did, after all, come by way of a rakish acquaintance.

Verily Yours,

The Gossipmongering Gent from Kent

Dear Gossipmongering Gent from Kent,

My word of advice from the Cardinal de Retz is, “That a secret is more easily kept by a good many people, than one commonly imagines.” By this he means a secret of importance, among people interested in the keeping of it. And it is certain that people of business know the importance of secrecy, and will observe it, where they are concerned in the event. To go and tell any friend, wife, or mistress, any secret with which they have nothing to do, is discovering to them such an unretentive weakness, as must convince them that you will tell it to twenty others, and consequently that they may reveal it without the risk of being discovered. But a secret properly communicated only to those who are to be concerned in the thing in question, will probably be kept by them though they should be a good many. Little secrets are commonly told again, but great ones are generally kept.

 Adieu!

From London, September 13, O.S. 1748

Missed the previous Lord Chesterfield’s posts? See On Friendship and On Giving Compliments and On Domestic Affairs.

Lord Chesterfield on Domestic Affairs, Day 4 REPOST

Originally posted 12/29/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

After fighting with my beau, I decided to confide the subject of our quarrel to several of my closest friends. Now I’m afraid I have made a mess of the situation, for where my beau and I have promptly forgotten our dispute, my friends, taking my momentary poor constitution to heart, now quite thoroughly detest him! As the damage is already done (and woefully irreversible in the near future) what advice have you to offer so I do not err further?

A Whimsical Woman

Dear A Whimsical Woman,

Cautiously avoid talking of either your own or other people’s domestic affairs. Yours are nothing to them, but tedious; theirs are nothing to you. The subject is a tender one; and it is odds but you touch somebody or other’s sore place; for in this case there is no trusting specious appearances, which may be, and often are, so contrary to the real situations of things between men and their wives, parents and their children, seeming friends, etc., that, withthe best intentions in the world, one often blunders, disagreeably.

From Bath, October 29, O.S. 1748

Come back the day after tomorrow for Lord Chesterfield on Secrets

Missed the previous Lord Chesterfield’s posts? See On Friendshipand On Giving Compliments.

Lord Chesterfield on Giving Compliments, Day 3 REPOST

Originally posted 12/28/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

I was recently watching a splendid film called ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (centuries ahead of your time, I’m afraid, old boy) and couldn’t help but cringe upon the following scene involving how to (or how not to) give delicate compliments.

Mr. Collins (the creepy toad): It’s been many years since I had such an exemplary vegetable.

Mr. Bennet: How happy for you, Mr. Collins, to possess a talent for flattering with such . . . delicacy.

Elizabeth Bennet (the serpent-tongued yet lovely chit): Do these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are they the result of previous study?

Mr. Collins: They arise chiefly from what is passing of the time. And though I do sometimes amuse myself with arranging such little elegant compliments, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.

Elizabeth Bennet: Oh, believe me, no one would suspect your manners to be rehearsed.

I trust you can see how I would positively shudder at being considered a Mr. Collins.  Please do advise.

Lost in Austen

Dear Lost in Austen:

You will easily discover every man’s prevailing vanity by observing his favourite topic of conversation; for every man talks most of what he has most a mind to be thought to excel in.  Touch him there, and you touch him to the quick. 

Do not mistake me, and think that I mean to recommend you to abject and criminal flattery: no; flatter nobody’s vices or crimes: on the contrary, abhor and discourage them.  But there is no living in the world without a complaisant indulgence for people’s weaknesses, and innocent, though ridiculous vanities.  If a man has a mind to be thought wiser, and a woman handsomer, than they really are, their error is a comfortable one to themselves, and an innocent one with regard to other people; and I would rather make them my friends by indulging them in it, than my enemies by endeavouring (and that to no purpose) to undeceive them.

There are little attentions, likewise, which are infinitely engaging, and which sensibly affect that degree of pride and self-love, which is inseperable from human nature; as they are unquestionable proofs of the regard and consideration which we have for the persons to whom we pay them.   As for example: to observe the little habits, the likings, the antipathies, and the tastes of those whom we would gain; and then take care to provide them with the one, and to secure them from the other; giving them genteely to understand, that you had ovserved to like such a dish or such a room; for which reason you had prepared it: or, on the contrary having observed they had an aversion to such a dish, dislike to such a person, etc., you had taken care to avoid presenting them.  Such attention to such trifles flatters self-love much more than greater things, as it makes people think themselves almost the only objects of your care and thoughts.

Adieu!

From London, October 16, O.S. 1747

So why did Mr. Collins blunder?  First he asked which cousin to compliment on such a fine meal (An insult.  The Bennet’s were well-off enough to have a cook.  Harrumph!)  Then, he proceeded to compliment them on boiled potatoes, calling such a basic and ordinary food exemplary.  Yikes!  Hopefully none of you endured this sort of exchange over Christmas dinner.

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for Lord Chesterfield on Domestic Affairs!

Missed the previous day?  Lord Chesterfield on Friendship

Lord Chesterfield on Friendship, Day 2 REPOST

Originally posted 12/27/10

Dear Lord Chesterfield,

I find myself in a common predicament these days: I have an abundance of friends when I have no real need of them and few friends when I do. What, pray, is the difference between a true friend and friend to pass the time, and why, when in most cases companionship is not wanting, should I care?

Adrift and Addlepated

Dear Adrift and Addlepated,

People of your age have, commonly, an unguarded frankness about them; which makes them the easy prey and bubbles of the artful and the inexperienced: they look upon every knave, or fool, who tells them that he is their friend, to be really so; and pay that profession of simulated friendship, with an indiscreet and unbounded confidence, always to their loss, often to their ruin. Beware, therefore, now that you are coming into the world, of these proffered friendships. Receive them with great civility, but with great incredulity too; and pay them with compliments, but not with confidence. Do not let your vanity, and self-love, make you suppose that people become your friends at first sight, or even upon a short acquaintance. Real friendship is a slow grower; and never thrives, unless ingrafted upon a stock of known and reciprocal merit.

There is another kind of nominal friendship, among young people, which is warm for a time, but, by good luck, of short duration. This friendship is hastily produced, by their being accidentally thrown together, and pursuing the same course of riot and debauchery. A fine friendship, truly! and well cemented by drunkeness and lewdness. It should rather be called a conspiracy against morals and good manners, and be punished as such by the civil magistrate. However, they have the impudence, and folly, to call this confederacy a friendship. They lend one another money, for bad purposes; they engage in quarrels, offensive and defensive, for their accomplices; they tell one another all they know, and often more too; when, of a sudden, some incident disperses them, and they think no more of each other, unless it be to betray and laugh at their imprudent confidence. Remember to make a great difference between companions and friends, for a very complaisant and agreeable companion may, and often does, prove a very improper and a very dangerous friend.

Adieu!

From London, October 9, O.S. 1747.

Missed the first post The Sagacious Letters of Lord Chesterfield?

Come back the day after tomorrow for Lord Chesterfield on Giving Compliments!

The Sagacious Letters of Lord Chesterfield REPOST

For the next 12 days I’ve scheduled a series that may assist with your resolutions for 2013  (naw, probably not, but I’m trying here).  I didn’t get many blog hits back in 2010, so with any luck these reposts will be fresh for the majority of you.

I’ll be on blog vacation through the second week of January, but will be responding to comments, as usual.

Happy New Year, readers!  Here’s hoping that 2013 gives you the best it has to offer.

Originally posted 12/26/10

In the spirit of bettering oneself in the New Year we make resolutions to be fitter, richer, and, if we’re all lucky, kinder. But do we ever resolve to be wiser? Common sense suggests a well-turned out mind is earned through experience over tutelage, but in the case of the 18th century upper classes, les maniéres nobles were gained through rigorous adherence to a social code that demanded one improve upon politesse.  An enviable restraint in animal spirits–virtually extinct today–was what afforded ladies and lords the power to glide through fashionable circles with few incidents to mar their family name.

Given our current fall from social graces, we thankfully possess Lord Chesterfield’s correspondence.  It serves as a guide to what may seem like many a muddled affair of dead persons to the uncritical observer, but I assure you, the advice is pertinent.   For the edification of us all, please allow me to introduce you to our guest, Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield . . .

Best known for his letters to his namesake son, his preeminent work involves schooling his heir on lessons most of us suffer to learn through painful trial and error.  His excessive sophistication at times seems foolish (“In my mind there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. . . I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh.”) but on the whole, his advice is suprisingly apt.  Think of his letters as an 18th century version of the popular book by Dale Carnegie, How to Make Friends and Influence People.

Tomorrow I will begin the first of a seven day course for those interested in how to improve wanting social graces, 18th century style.  We’ll call it Dear Lord Chesterfield (a refined Dear Abby) but for the moment, I’ll leave you with a few fine words from his lordship on achievement dated October 9, 1746:

“. . . I have discovered [in you] laziness, inattention, and indifference; faults of which are only pardonable in old men, who, in the decline of life, when health and spirits fail, have a kind of claim to that sort of tranquility.  But a young man should be ambitious to shine and excel; alert, active, and indefatigable in the means of doing it . . . Without the desire and the pains necessary to be considerable, depend upon it, you never can be so; as without the desire and attention necessary to please, you can never please.

I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labour, make himself whatever he pleases, except a good poet.”

An 18th Century Perspective on Elizabeth Bennet

In anticipation of an upcoming review I’ve been reading Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece.  I’ll be posting the full review on December 16th, Jane Austen’s 237th birthday, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you an 18th century perspective that shows just how incredible the character of Elizabeth Bennet truly was.

Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny
Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny

Jane Austen started writing Pride and Prejudice in October 1796 at the age of twenty.  She would no doubt have been exposed to the popular publications of the period, including the ever so entertaining Lady’s Magazine: or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex.  A few years prior to Austen putting pen to paper for what was then called First Impressions, The Lady’s Magazine published in their 1791 edition “A Letter from a Father to his Daughter on Relative Duties,” part of which is excerpted below.

“Of all the weaknesses the younger part of your sex are most prone to are pride and affectation, and there are none scarce which render more contemptible in the eyes of the thinking and sensible part mankind; therefore as you value the esteem of your friends, crush them in the bud.  The ingenious Mr Addison says “Pride in a woman destroys all symmetry and grace; and affectation is a more terrible enemy to a fine face than the small pox.  

And yet there is no passion so universal or steals into the heart more imperceptibly than pride; at the same time, there is not a single view of human nature, under its present condition, which is not sufficient to extinguish in us all the secret seeds of pride.  As nothing appears more odious and disgusting than pride and affectation, to nothing is more amiable in your sex than humility; it adds a beauty to every feature and a luster to all your action.”*

These epistolary tutelages served as continual nudges against youthful waywardness, advising sons on achievement in politics and education, and daughters on obedience and humility.  Based on works they produced, writers like the young Jane Austen must have felt the thorn in these infuriatingly narrow instructions at one time or another.

From 'Pride and Prejudice' film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005
From ‘Pride and Prejudice’ film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005

Elizabeth Bennet was a character written from the breed of proud, independently-minded women who were mightily disapproved of by the majority of gentlemen (and a whole lot of gentlewomen) during the 18th century. She is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the ideal gentlewoman and her genius, of course, is in being appealing nevertheless.  As Fullerton says, “She was a highly unconventional, new sort of heroine, and it is easy for modern readers to underestimate just how astonishing she was for readers of the time.”  What’s interesting is that Austen made Elizabeth THE favorite daughter of her father and despite all obstacles of temperament, she is our heroine.  As Fullerton points out, according to the values of the time Jane Bennet would’ve been the appropriate choice.  I think we can all say thank goodness she wasn’t Austen’s choice, as today only Elizabeth would be ours.

*Find the full letter on page 42 here

Napoleon’s Achy Breaky Heart: Milan, 27 November, 1796

Earlier this week I left you with Napoleon in Verona, depressed and a trifle desperate.  Today, he’s looking a little like this:

The Emperor Napoleon I by Vernet (*see note below if the fancy strikes you)

Josephine’s cavorting with Hippolyte Charles who incidentally does not have the makings of a weak chin.  I’m told this helps in the romance department.

To say the least, Monsieur Bonaparte is suspicious of his lady wife.  He’s gone from realizing his general awesomeness to seeing cracks reflected in his veneer.  And you see, it’s all Josephine’s fault.

The General Napoleon by Andrea Appiani

Our little bit of muslin is just too wonderful in her own right to pay attention to her new husband who, in addition to being short, is apparently “impecunious” and “irrepressible”.  Touché, darling.

Josephine Bonaparte de Beauharnais by Andrea Appiani, 1796

Years later on 19 December, 1805, Napoleon writes to her, “. . . I am still in Brüun.  The Russians have gone.  I have made a truce.  In a few days I shall see what I am going to be.   Deign, from the height of your grandeur, to trouble yourself a little about your slaves.”

On this day, however, this is what he has to say:

 (click to enlarge)

P.S.

*As a complete side note, the upside of the sad-faced painting by Vernet is that it comes in a melamine plate offered by the National Portrait Gallery.  It was also mentioned in December’s Oprah magainze, if that’s your thing.  The downside: it’s £12, double the price of the other melamine face plates.  But I suppose he was an Emperor and as such large and in charge so he has to have the biggest sized plate of the bunch.

Also

You’re going to have to forgive me about the ongoing post name in this series.  For some reason I had Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart in my head which is odd because a) not a fan of Billy Ray; and b) I hardly like country.  Hauntings of country songs past, I guess, but attributing Napoleon’s letters to Josephine a result of his achy, breaky heart has cured me of my problem.  Hopefully, I have not passed it on to all of you.