Making words, marking words

I am giving a class in which – contrarily to the classes I have given so far – I am the one doing most of the talking. The topic is vast: “Writers and their publishers”,  and I have 13 sessions of 90 minutes to go through it. It is separated in three periods: turn of the 18th to the 19th, 19th, and 20th/21st century. I am having some trouble finishing the chapter on the time around 1800 for several reasons. First, it is the period I know best. Then I want to pin all the important knots that we will roll out in the following sessions. And finally, it is always difficult to give an overview of historical phenomena without examples, and not to get lost into your examples.

Books have piled up on my desk at home, I am transporting them to my office, at least 4 every day, and then back home at the end of my work day, where they pile up again with the other ones. And there are books that I have to consult in the library: all those that deal with the history of books are reading room-only. I cannot complain about that. I only have a street to cross coming from my office to reach the library. The rarities reading room (where the books I need are to be found on the shelves) has comfortable chairs, each reader has a wide table space, it is neither too cold nor too hot, there are few readers and accordingly few noises. The books are dispatched on shelves around the room, where additional “lodges” were built to accommodate the books that belong there. The letter “N” for instance is to be found in the second lodge, a balcony accessible through a small staircase.

So here I was, at lunchtime, finishing reading an excellent paper by Mark Lehmstedt on Friederike Helene Unger‘s accomplishments as a writer and a publisher (“Ich bin nun vollends zur Kaufmannsfrau verdorben“. Zur Rolle der Frau in der Geschichte des Buchwesens am Beispiel von Friederike Helene Unger (1751-1813), in: Leipziger Jahrbuch zur Buchgeschichte 6 /1996). Lehmstedt has thoroughly gone through an amazing mass of archival material to try and retrace Friederike Helene Unger’s activity after the death of her husband.

Before her husband’s death, it looks like the couple managed the whole business by having complementary areas of competences. He (Johann Friedrich Unger) wanted to make a decisive contribution to the evolution of typography and his activity qualifies genuinely as handicraft in that it had definitely an artistic or aesthetic dimension to it, but one that was closely connected to hard-core businesses like presses for books as well as for musicsheets or a foundry to create all the new typography models for his modernized Fraktur.


She, on the other hand, made the primary investment in the press, wrote and translated texts, and contributed greatly to the choice of the novelties published by the house. The two first activities are financial investments (as an author, she did not require to be paid by the publisher for her work), the two last ones determine the intellectual or artistic profile of the publishing house. As a writer and as a lector of incoming manuscripts, she was already contributing to the family enterprise even more than many other publishers’ wives did, even those who were actively involved in the family business. And because she sorted out the publishable from the rest, she made a great deal of enemies too. It was her husband who took care of the correspondence with authors, but it seems like he was not that often the one who actually decided upon the content of the letters.

When her husband died at the end of 1804, she inherited the whole business (they had no children). She took on even the branches of the business that she was not familiar with, dealing with an intricate financial construction and a business model built on risky investments. Of course, there were employees at the head of the different sections, but she still remained, all in all, in charge.

The difficult financial situation lead her on the verge of bankruptcy from 1806 on. She was – several times – saved at the last minute by a few persons who meant good to her and lent her money (the first of them being the King of Prussia himself), until bankruptcy became unavoidable, in 1811. She was left with strictly nothing and died, almost a beggar, one year later.

Many aspects of this tragic destiny are interesting; I hope to be able to discuss as many of them as possible in class on Thursday. For today, I would like to turn to two aspects in particular.

During the insolvency process, in which the state – that is ministry officers – decided upon every single item, from the different offices up to Friederike Helene Unger’s private book closet, they commented on the fact that it was absolutely impossible for a woman to deal with such a complicated business and that it urgently required a man to take care of it.

Old books

William Hoiles, Picture of Old Books, CC-BY 2.0

This was a correct assessment on a purely factual basis: there was simply no way for a woman to get an apprenticeship in whatever job at that time, and hence no way a woman would have been taught how to deal with such a complex business model. But of course, what I tend to hear out of that assumption is not so much this than the prejudice towards women as being by nature not as clever as men. It was simply not thinkable for a woman to be successful in managing a business. She could deem herself happy, says the quote, to have been such a successful writer and such an influential partner to her husband. The ministry officers were convinced that there was no way she could have handled the firm on her own.

Considering the overall financial and political situation, it is very likely that nobody, man or woman, would in any way have been able to avoid bankruptcy, but that does not seem to have been a relevant argument.

It is not unlikely that Friederike Helene Unger herself contributed to reinforcing this representation. To judge by the different quotations from her letters, she often presented herself as being a bit overwhelmed by the financial aspects of the business as well as the different offices. Even when she mentions how complicated this was to her, she adds that the did her best to 1) protect the jobs of her employees; 2) be a good account-keeper and keep the finances as sound as possible. In all of these aspects, she accords to the moral expectations towards women at that time. They had mostly to be virtuous, to be good house-keepers, and not pretend that they would be better than their actual worth.

It always takes an extremely good knowledge of a corpus in order to be able to say if a woman, in a letter from that time – and her letters were always loaded with more negotiation than literary potential in that regard – writes that kind of things about herself because she actually means it or because she wants to tame her correspondence partner by giving him (or her) precisely what he (or she) wants to hear. I trust Mark Lehmstedt when he writes that Friederike Helene Unger was genuinely overwhelmed by the extent her managerial tasks in combination with a catastrophic financial situation. But some of her letters seem to be much more assertive and self-assured, especially when it came to negotiating a manuscript to publish. How did she weigh her words? And what place should such business letters really have in literary history?

Maybe other examples will help sort this out until the end of term.

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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2 Responses

  1. 22/07/2015

    […] Dans un long article qu’il consacre à l’auteur et éditrice Friederike Helene Unger (cf. mon post de blog consacré à ce sujet), l’éditeur et historien du livre Mark Lehmstedt dit très justement que ce qui rend […]

  2. 22/07/2015

    […] Dans un long article qu’il consacre à l’auteur et éditrice Friederike Helene Unger (cf. mon post de blog consacré à ce sujet), l’éditeur et historien du livre Mark Lehmstedt dit très justement que ce qui rend […]

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