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The Mond Bequest at King's College London: A Celebration

Love and suicide

Lock of Lotte Buff's hairLock of Lotte Buff's hairAmong the effects in the Mond Collection is a lock of Lotte Buff's hair, which she had given to Goethe as a token of friendship, and a ring that Goethe had given to her.

The exchange of tokens of affection might easily be misunderstood; in the same way the hero of Werther expresses an absolute conviction that (the fictional) Lotte's behaviour proves that she loves him.

The reader of the novel sees things differently, of course, though the novel does suggest that Lotte was guilty of leading Werther on. This, as well as the striking resemblances that the fictional characters bore to the real Goethe, Lotte and Kestner, put great strain on Goethe's relationship with the Kestners.

Six weeks after Goethe's flight from Wetzlar, a young man of his and Kestner's acquaintance, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, committed suicide in Wetzlar. It was said that the melancholy Jerusalem, son of an orthodox Lutheran pastor, had been in love with Elisabeth Herd, wife of the Secretary of the Palatinate's delegation at Wetzlar, a situation that had uncanny echoes of Goethe's own circumstances.

Goethe drawing, 1774Goethe drawing, 1774At Goethe's request, Kestner wrote a detailed account of Jerusalem's character and his suicide, little knowing what the fate of his investigations would be. For Goethe, Jerusalem's fate seemed powerfully symbolic – did it describe the path he might have followed if he had not escaped from Wetzlar?

The outlines and much of the detail of Kestner’s letter found their way into The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther himself comprises elements of Jerusalem, with aspects of Goethe’s own character – notably his image of himself as a failed artist.

The novel proved the greatest publishing phenomenon of the day – Goethe became a literary superstar in Germany and beyond. For the Kestners, the unwanted celebrity status meant considerable personal and social discomfort.

References:

  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (Penguin 1989)
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, ed. Roger Paulin (Bristol Classical Press 1993)
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