Helmina von Chézy

Helmina von Chézy’s literary genealogy reaches back far into the 18th century: as granddaughter of Anna Louisa Karsch (the “Karschin”), a life immersed in writing is entrusted to her from early on – an existence under the auspices of literary discursive communication. Her mother, Caroline Louise von Klencke, née Karsch, was also an author. Meanwhile, her father, Friedrich Carl von Klencke, was an officer. An early marriage to Baron Karl Gustav von Hastfer fails, after which she makes her way to Paris following an invitation from the author Félicité de Genlis, former prince’s educator and inventor of the ‘tableaux vivants’.

In Paris, her journalistic and authorial career begins in a spectacular fashion. Through Félicité de Genlis she gains access to the most important Parisian salons and literary-theatrical circles, as well as to the political circle around Napoleon Bonaparte. A series of publications arise from this: communications, reports and translations (among others, for the magazine “Europa” under Friedrich Schlegel, who lived in Paris at the time). She additionally undertakes the editing of “Französische Miscellen”, a periodical established by Johann Friedrich Cotta in Paris dedicated to news from abroad. There she reports under her own name, as Helmina von Hastfer, about significant events such as art exhibitions, places of interest, theatre and fashion, educational and philanthropic initiatives. As she loses her editorial position due to her critical stance, she publishes her hitherto unreleased Parisian articles in 1805 and 1806 in Weimar, in the form of the two-volume work “Leben und Kunst in Paris seit Napoleon dem Ersten”.

Through Friedrich Schlegel she becomes acquainted with the orientalist Antoine Léonard de Chézy (1773–1832), whom she marries in 1806. Their two sons Wilhelm Theodor and Maximilian (Max) return to Germany with Helmina von Chézy after her separation from Chézy. She maintains her contacts in the developing “capital of the 19th century” (“Hauptstadt des 19. Jahrhunderts”, Walter Benjamin) through her continued correspondence with Félicité de Genlis and Julie Récamier. She also keeps in touch with George Sand, someone who is admired among the younger generation in Germany and who increasingly becomes a reference point for a more confident positioning of female authors within the literary field. Important places in Helmina von Chézy’s life in Germany and Austria after 1810 are Heidelberg, Dresden, Vienna, Baden-Baden and Munich. In all these places she develops, in a short time, relationships with the local and visiting artists, scientists, intellectuals as well as authors such as Caroline de la Motte Fouqué, Elise von Hohenhausen, Amalie von Imhoff, Caroline Pichler, Amalia Schoppe, Amalie Struve, Emma von Suckow, Fanny Tarnow etc. The publishing of her own works arises during her eventful life amid wars of liberation, restoration time and the effects of revolution. This publishing activity is realized within a network of friendly correspondence and publication politics, while being, at the same time, counterpointed by worries about her livelihood and familial incertitudes. Over the course of several decades, Chézy is engaged in social and political justice and the emancipation of women by her production of literary and especially journalistic texts about culturally active women. These texts come out as programmatic works, extended obituaries, reviews or memoirs, with some remaining unpublished or as drafts in her estate. Through her network of contacts, Helmina von Chézy also helps women in a practical way with approaching authors and publishers, as well as with the placement of manuscripts in magazines and paperbacks. She is also the founder of women’s associations and women’s magazines (e.g. “Iduna”).

In later appraisals, the often one-sided and partisan image of Helmina von Chézy’s participation in the cultural life of her time was primarily marked by her encounter with male contemporaries designated as leading figures. Such figures include Jean Paul, whom she revered, and Carl Maria von Weber, for whose opera “Euryanthe” she wrote the libretto. The Varnhagen Collection brings to the fore a different scenario: here one encounters Helmina von Chézy as a networker who distinguishes herself not only artistically, but also sociopolitically and in the area of (women’s) emancipation, tenaciously pursuing both her own interests and those of her correspondents.

(trans. Pedro Kauffmann Amaral)

Jadwiga Kita-Huber


Helmina von Chézy:
Unvergessenes. Denkwürdigkeiten aus dem Leben von Helmine von Chézy. Von ihr selbst erzählt. 2 Theile.
Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus 1858.

Irina Hundt:
„‚Wäre ich besonnen, wäre ich nicht Helmina.’ Helmina von Chézy (1783–1856) – Porträt einer Dichterin und Publizistin“. In: Forum Vormärz Forschung, Autorinnen des Vormärz. Hrsg. von Helga Brandes und Detlev Kopp. Bielefeld 1997, S. 43–79.

Jadwiga Kita-Huber:
„Der Briefwechsel Helmina von Chézys. Erschließung und (Teil)edition“. In: Bestände der ehemaligen Preußischen Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin in der Jagiellonen-Bibliothek. Forschungsstand und -perspektiven. Hrsg. von Monika Jaglarz und Katarzyna Jaśtal.
Berlin u. a. 2018, S. 263–278.