Anglophone authors and Jane Austen fans tend to think of the culture and style of the Regency era as uniquely British. While having the Prince Regent was certainly for the UK alone, the larger sociocultural trends of the Regency were European, part of a dynamic give and take of ideas that flourished in spite of the Napoleonic Wars. One of the most important of these European influences on British tastes was the German novel.
German literature of the 18th century produced what are considered to be some of the best examples of the Romantic and Gothic novels. These works were part of the Literatur der Empfindsamkeit, or “novels of sensibility” and sentimentalism, most famously in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s works, starting with his 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. However, Goethe was not the first German to write a romantic or sentimental best seller. In 1771 Sophie von La Roche’s debut novel, Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (History of Fräulein von Sternheim), a romance about a virtuous young women finding happiness by overcoming hardship “considered a founding text for the German female literary tradition”, was flying off the shelves at the book stores.
Von La Roche’s novels would be widely translated into English and French and would gain a considerable readership in Britain. As a result of von La Roche’s success, German women authors writing fictional tales whose plot revolved around romance, marriage and the family, were published more often and sold very well. Of course, these works were sneered at by the male literary establishment as Frauenroman (women’s novel), or chick lit. While Gothe was lauded for writing of emotionally-centered narrative, a woman writing the same thing was just scribbling feminine drivel about love and friendship and the heart.
The spreading popularity of the German frauenroman helped English women authors find publishing niches of their own. Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth, who wrote some of Jane Austen’s favorite novels, such as Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796) and Belinda (1801), were able to launch their careers after von La Roche became internationally famous. The commercial success of women authors helped create and sustain the market for romantic fiction. Nevertheless, women authors of romance novels were never given the same kind of respect that their male colleagues received for similar work.
It drives me slightly bananas that Samuel Richardson’s The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753) and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) are indubitably romance novels, yet these works have traditionally been praised for their literary merits in a way that sentimental novels written by women have almost never been. Worse, the sexist categorization of what is worthy of literary praise and respect remains all too common even today. A dude writes Love in the Time of Cholera, which explores the theme of what love really means, and he’s ubiquitously hailed as a genius. In contrast, a woman writing a novel about the myriad forms of romantic and enduring love is accused of mass-producing escapist porn for housewives regardless of how brilliantly written the prose. Furthermore, lest you mistake the novel for a serious work of fiction written by someone with a penis, they make sure the cover metaphorically screams hearts and flowers.
In spite of the high-culture denigration of the frauenroman, women authors influenced literary tastes in Europe and Britain. Like the sentimental novel in general, the frauenroman typically showcased the idea of rewarded feminine virtue. Moreover, the heroines were conceptually proto-feminists, in that they were determined to be valued for interior (rather than exterior) qualities, and they attempted to control their own fates. Female autonomy is often a mark of the heroines in Gothik romance novels, particularly in the works of Ann Radcliffe, one of Britain’s most popular authors.
Frauenroman novels clearly influenced the writings of Jane Austen, whether or not she read the German books directly. The frauenroman-style heroine, young ladies of strong will and stronger virtue, women who would not be made the complacent objects of love but would demand to become the subjects of it, had permeated British literature. Elizabeth Bennett, the adored protagonist of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), with her insistence on respect and her resolution to marry only for deepest affection, is the spiritual heir of the frauenroman heroine, even if Austen was exposed to them second-hand in the work of English and Irish authors.
While Austen may have parodied Gothik romance in Northanger Abbey (1818) and clearly disapproved of her own character Marianne Dashwood’s excessive sensibility, in the end she also wrote Germanic sentimental novels. She wrote stories about the struggles of virtuous within a plot framework of love and marriage. Jane Austen wrote frauenroman.