“But I won’t complain”

Role models, role identification and identity in the account of her life by Margarethe Elisabeth Milow (1748-1794)

Self-conceptualisation in retrospect and from the consciousness and perspective of a wife and mother is the characterising feature of the memoirs of Margarethe Elisabeth Milow. She was prompted to write down her memories by two life-threatening situations – a difficult birth and an imminent serious operation, which together she did not think she would survive – the motivation to bequeath her husband and daughters a “true” picture of herself through her account of her life. The question as to source which arises in this connection is therefore: how this picture comes about, what models were influential for Margarethe Elisabeth Milow, and what self-image she constructs as a model for her daughters. From this arises the issue of the construction of identity and self in this account of a woman’s life. The roles of the father and eldest brother are to be investigated as role models. The main emphasis is placed on the brother-sister relationship.

The father’s role

In the gender roles as understood in the 18th century middle-class environment the man was the central reference person. Even upbringing was gender-oriented. That of boys was geared not just towards creating a basis for future remunerative employment, but also towards fulfilling the future role of head of the family and family authority figure as husband and father. The socialisation of girls aimed at virtue, domesticity, mildness and sacrifice; it was geared towards the future role as wife and mother, with a husband as authority figure. This was the role concept Margarethe Elisabeth grew up with, and she had these role models before her when she wrote her memoirs too. She saw deviations from these role models as a threat to the overall social framework and adapted them to the “ideal” role model.

Margarethe’s father Heinrich Jacob Hudtwalcker was, she wrote, already dead when she wrote her memoirs. She reconstructed his image, taking as her basis the role model of the good, strong-charactered and devout husband and father and his dominant position in the family – a role her father departed from, however. Margarethe’s critique of him is therefore relativised by her mother’s somewhat unconventional behaviour; she writes for example:

”He (i.e. the father) was a good, I’d almost say too good husband; his wife had too much power over him, acquired with her beauty and good behaviour towards him. But it is not good, children, for the wife, even if she is the best, to dominate the husband, and much would surely have been different and better in the household had my father been more dominant, indeed more of a man” (p. 8/p. 16).

At the same time however the role of the “exemplary” mother should not be touched, and Margarethe Milow noted appreciatively: “She (i.e. the mother) knew how to dominate, but did so unobtrusively; in company and where it might be noticed, she always let my father have the upper hand.” (p. 9/p. 17). She thus nudges the mother image back in the positive direction. This need for harmony in the exemplary role models is evidenced repeatedly in her memoirs. The father must not just be good, he must also display other exemplary character traits. Margarethe Milow wrote of her father: [He had] “a fiery, good and happy disposition […] He had a good, natural intelligence and an ever cheerful temperament”(p. 8/p. 15), and she added to these qualities that he enjoyed being outdoors, loved his children and did everything for their upbringing. Also emphasised is his “propensity to work and diligence”(p. 8/p. 15). Elements of this seemingly clichéd description she also applied to herself however: “Nature and the open air meant everything to me even then.”(p. 11/p. 19).

Similarly formulaic is Margarethe Milow’s description of her father’s piety, which played a central part in her own life. Of her father she said: ”His God was everything to him, prayer his greatest joy. You should have heard him pray, children! And praying gave him a faith in God so firm that it never left him, even in his greatest misfortunes.«(p. 8/p. 15). The sentimentalism of the age and its focus on piety may have guided her pen here, but Margarethe was at the same time describing her own attitude towards the misfortunes and trials which pervade her account. Resistance or emotional rebellion against God – and one’s father too – arouses guilt feelings und is suppressed or harmonised.

Negative qualities in her father such as meanness are circumscribed as “careful” or “fear made him somewhat economical” (p.8/p.15) or expressed by contrasting them with character traits she disapproved of in her mother. But this criticism of her mother too is in turn withdrawn when Margarethe simultaneously credits her mother with all the qualities of a “good mother” and presents her as the model of an economical and virtuous housewife and wife. All her father’s decisions and actions are – or so Margarethe’s presentation of them can be interpreted – just. For it was with rare absence of emotion and criticism that she described the cold disdain, contempt even, and hard-heartedness with which her father punished her when he discovered her love affair with the socially unsuitable young clerk Octav:

“Papa cut the bread and just tossed it to me” (p.48/p.68), or “At table nothing was given me any more […] If something was left over, first everyone else was asked if they wanted any more and, if no-one did, ‘you can have it then’” (p.54/p.75).

The great unfulfilled love, seen by her as honest and pure, but by her parents as a transgression and disgrace, brought forth “hatred” in her mother, but “profound sorrow” in her father (p.74/p.103). Denial of love and being shamed were the punishment and penalty for her transgression. Despite this the image of her father remained ultimately unharmed. When Margarethe, supposedly without compulsion, submitted to parental choice and married in 1769 the preacher Johann Nicolaus Milow (1738-1795), accepted in middle-class circles as socially appropriate, the image of the good father was reinstated by her. The father who because of her misconduct had provided for his daughter so inadequately in financial terms that in Lüneburg the Milows had to contend with great economic difficulties (Margarethe’s criticism of this fell victim to the family’s censorship in the typescript) later tried actively to assist his son-on-law to obtain a more lucrative ministry in Hamburg.

Parting from her father after her marriage was a painful loss for Margarethe, which she described thus:

“I had always greatly loved Papa, and parting from him was terrible.” (p. 95/p.129).

But this statement sounds final, and should probably also be seen as such. For her daughter role her father was the model of manly virtues. Her self-esteem was strongly dependent on his approval, so that his positive example took precedence over any criticism. Her marriage involved making her husband into the role model. When she describes him, she already occupies – mainly in the second, newly discovered part of her account – an individual position: alongside the idealising portrayal she also places more distanced, even critical, remarks. One explanation for this might be that she had to reconcile her unfulfilled idealised love for Octav with the “new” love for her husband; increasing maturity and life experience as wife and mother were probably contributory factors. She shows here a growing womanly self-assurance and an individuality shaped by the story of her life. Besides the father role and the traditional mother role Margarethe Milow’s eldest brother also had an especially marked exemplary function.

The brother’s role

The brother, Johann Michael Hudtwalcker (1747-1818), played until about the birth of Margarethe’s first son the central affective role in her life. Only a year older than Margarethe, he was a model, person to be respected, counsellor and confidant for her. In the 18th century family group elder siblings frequently assumed the role of models for the younger ones and were actively involved in educating them in their gender role: in their school education and freedom to circulate outside the family brothers were trained for their role as husband and father, and practised it as it were with their sisters. The latter were supposed to enter chastely and properly into their future role as wife and mother and needed their brothers’ supervision and support in this. Until they left the parental home elder brothers were accordingly their sisters’ allies against the parents, with whom there was in the 18th century not yet a defined relationship of trust in the modern sense; on the other hand they were representatives of the parents’ moral stance. Margrethe’s almost symbiotic relationship with her brother went beyond this role concept, as I intend to show below.

Margarethe does not once mention him by name, i.e. Johann Michael. He is “the brother”, “my eldest brother”, “my brother”, “he, this eldest brother”, “my brother and Niklas”(!) (i.e. her younger brother) (p.97/p.134), or: ”parents, brother, sisters” (p.116/p.160). Like the father, he too is described in stereotypical terms:

“He, this brother, had a heart, noble, great and good, he had intelligence, an all-embracing desire for knowledge which he pursued whenever he could, was the joy of his teachers, his parents’ early pride” (p.12/p.21).

His delicate constitution was for Margarethe sufficient to explain his melancholy, timidity and (“occasional”) peevishness. She saw herself as “playmate and then friend” (p.12/p.21) and had no secrets from him. He was her mentor on choosing the books Margarethe read. Through this favourite occupation, reading – for boys a matter of course, for girls however allowed only in rare leisure hours -, Margarethe once came to consider a different gender identity:

”[…] I often wished that I too were a boy, and to be able to read with them, for we had to wait till they’d finished, and much passed us by that we had no time for, for we girls lived very apart from him” (p.25/p.38).

Normally however she accepted her brother and his masculine role without envy.

When Margarethe experienced her great love for Octav and was devising plans for realising it, her brother took on quite different and disparate roles: out of fear – not only of her parents, but also of her brother – Margarethe took him into her confidence only late on, so bringing him into conflict, for Octav was also his close friend. But then he became her confidant again: the letters exchanged between the lovers were read out to him, he sympathised, but finally came down on the parents’ side: “Octav is my friend, you must appreciate the impossibility of ever marrying him […] your fate is unspeakably sad, but trust in God and His guidance”, and “he urged my to put it all out of my mind” (p.66/p.91). But again he became her acknowledged mentor when he suggested that Margrethe keep her unhappy love story a secret from her future husband Milow. Margarethe thereupon began clearly to see Milow, whom she had initially rejected, in a more favourable light not just in his own right but also as a substitute for her brother: ”Milow was an excellent man, thoroughly upright and honest, my parents’ favourite, my brother’s warmest, most intimate friend: they seemed made for one another, their innermost beings to communicate with one another. Milow did everything for my brother, who did the same for him; had it been necessary, they would have died for another.” (p.77/S107). Such passages recur, and here too they again show a fusion of different elements in the masculine roles, with the aim of identifying with the future husband. According to Margarethe’s descriptions her brother felt the same feelings for her as she did for him. The closeness between them is also apparent in her leaving of the parental home after her marriage. Besides fear of the new and unknown this parting also meant physical separation from her brother and sentimental sorrow at it:

”This was the parting from my brother, our love against parental love, sisterly love, friendship was all nothing now, they were to be broken up and our hearts, which had been forged together with chains, separated. For several days before we had spoken no more to each other, clinging silently to one another and weeping.” (p.93/p.128).

In the course of time however she would merge the role of brother, that of the tenderly loved and intimate one, with that of her husband Milow. But in Lüneburg the closeness to her brother survived. When Margrethe was expecting her first son in 1770 for example: “No father could take greater pleasure in his wife’s first childbirth, than did my brother in mine.” (p.98/p.134). Through his letters and diaries her brother was also the link with the family in Hamburg and the first point of contact whenever Milow applied for a ministry in Hamburg. He even involved her in his business journey to London in 1772, which filled Margarethe with alarm at, “knowing him so far away from me […] exposed to the risk of losing his love” (p.117/p.161), by writing a diary for her. It was probably through a family quarrel that she became clearly estranged even from her brother – the reasons for it may be found in the part of the account of her life we no longer have. In the second part this quarrel is only hinted at and knowledge of it taken for granted. Another, rather more natural explanation might be her brother’s marriage in 1775 to Elisabeth Moller. Anyway, Johann Michael Hudtwalcker, who in 1788 became a member of the council in Hamburg, considered the story narrated in this part by his sister of her illness so important that he adopted it into his own memoirs. Margarethe herself mentions her brother with sorrow at several points in the newly edited second part: ”Once I was at a reception given by my brother in Hamburg. Everything there was fine and splendid. But brother! I preferred you in your dressing gown and cap, in your little room in our parents’ house. Then we meant more to one another – and yet you will ever be dear to me.” (-/p.241) Or: “On this day my eldest brother also came to our house again for the first time in 16 months. O how did my heart pound. O love for him! You are indelible from this heart, you were too firmly ignited 25 years ago ever to be extinguished.” (-/p.255). In Margarethe this close primary bond with her brother endured until her death. But detachment from her brother by transferring his role to her husband Milow simultaneously brought about in Margarethe a change of roles:

“He who was now everything to me, parents, friend, mentor, comforter, bringer of good cheer” (p.89/p.122)

What her brother was to her Margarethe wanted to be to her husband in her marriage. This meant virtually exchanging her woman’s role for the masculine one.

Self-image and example

Margarethe Elisabeth Milow wrote the first part of her account “as a bequest for my husband and our daughters” – thus the manuscript’s subtitle. Her concern and motivation to write was twofold: firstly she wanted to leave behind a picture of herself:

“You don’t after all have a good likeness of your wife, so let this my life serve instead of a picture: it is a fair likeness, entirely myself […]” (p.7/p.13) is how she addresses her husband. Secondly her self-image and her life are intended to serve as a model for her daughters, “because it is rich in experience of all kinds; because this experience can be of special benefit to you, my children.” (p.7/p.13).

Margarethe was describing her life at a relatively short retrospective range (1779) and the writing is immensely lively and emotional, constantly interrupted by appeals to her daughters. Apparently unsparingly she depicts herself with her faults – love of finery, vanity, deficient housewifely skills – her first flirtations and her first great forbidden love. But at the same time she also expressly makes clear how with her devoutness, submission to God’s will and resourcefulness she has managed again and again to master difficult situations and become “a good girl” again (p.40/p.58). Being good is for her the essence of all positive qualities. She goes so far as to invoke God in one passage and wish for her children: “May they never become rich or learned in the world, only good […],” and continues: “O God, if Thou shouldst see some who do not become good, take them to Thyself early.” (p.65/p.90). If therefore on the one hand by describing her negative traits Margarethe points to the desirable positive qualities, on the other hand she does not hesitate to name candidly those merits and qualities in herself which she feels to be good, such as patience, steadfastness, forbearance and sensibility: “I believe there cannot be many people made with such delicate feeling, such deep sensibility as I […]” (-/p.198). She first gives expression to this self-image however in the chronicle. She endeavours to have with her children a loving, tender and trusting relationship such as she did not experience with her own parents, and for her daughters’ future married life she draws up practical rules of conduct for housekeeping and personal hygiene and for dealings with her husband. The latter’s greater freedoms and her own duty to submit were not openly questioned. Margarethe passed on to her daughters as it were the complete 18th century code of standards for women. She thus formulated for herself a feminine image “as people expect”, even if she appears to put herself as an individual at the centre of her account. And then there also arises the question as to the identity of Margarethe Milow behind the self-image and model she bequeathed to her family.


Erik Erikson uses the term “ego identity” to suggest the possibility of a specific growth in personality maturity and thereby a change in identity. In his conception identity is something which is anchored in the kernel of individuality and stands in reciprocal relationship and interaction with the social identity of its environment. Identification with models determines the process of the psychoanalytical part of identity formation. Psycho-social identity should not be seen without the psycho-historical side, i.e. not without integration of the individual and her/his role in the ideologies of her/his time, “between her/his life story and the historical moment”. In other concepts identity formation is seen as a transformation process in keeping with society’s standards and role expectations, or the ego identity and role identity are perceived as interacting. Margarethe Milow’s account of her life and chronicle can be considered from all these viewpoints.

The historical projection surface for Margrethe Milow’s yearnings and expectations is the 18th century middle-class environment and its gender-specific ideals: the man – embodied here by father and brother – is the central reference point, the woman’s role being confined to the sexual and familial functions. By this Margrethe’s upbringing was determined, and by this the reaction of the family and social environment should be measured when in her first love she behaved in keeping neither with her role nor with convention. Margarethe rebelled, because she had other wishes for her person. But she did not succeed in escaping the conventions, nor in her status as a female member of middle-class society did she have any realistic chance of doing so. So she took on the role of wife expected of her with her husband as the central figure and thus largely conformed to the image of an 18th century woman. That she identified fully with this externally directed role could be questioned – she over-emphasises the expected role characteristics – but she does not explicitly pose the question “who am I?” which could give us an answer. She explains her own wishes and ideas as egoistic and short-sightedly contrary to God’s plan, by which ultimately she interprets everything that happens, even misfortune, and to which she submits. Well-read and skilled writer that she was, she performed the task of constructing a feminine model for her daughters and guiding them into the role socially expected of them. The increasing melancholy which finds expression mainly in the chronicle may well have been at least reinforced, if not actually produced, by the conflict between role expectation and role affirmation and suppressed personal identity.

Identity development by the very act of autobiographical narration is assumed by Michael von Engelhardt, who at the same time pursues the question whether this genus has specific feminine features. Although they relate to the 20th century, the results of von Engelhardt’s research nevertheless provide some criteria by which Margarethe Milow’s autobiography too can be illuminated. The biographical self-portrayal which according to Engelhardt is “not life itself in its immediacy, but nevertheless a record of a life lived”, has fundamental significance for maintaining and further developing the writer’s identity: it satisfies the individual about her/his past, reflects and interprets that past in the selection of what is reported and takes its bearings from its own cultural environment model and that of the addressees. In Margarethe Milow’s case the control function and goal-directedness of her narrative are especially striking. That she arranges her narrative round the central “love-family-household” life-line is, according to Engelhardt, a typically feminine procedure. For feminine identification development Engelhardt highlights by way of example – and Margarethe Milow provides the evidence for it – identification with the father / male image, which also includes the elder brothers, and the “process of transferring ego outlines to the lover and life partner.” In the involvement of the original and her own family Engelhardt sees the tendency towards a feminine “collectivising bonding identity” in contrast to the “individualising demarcation identity” of masculine narrative. Since women are very much more firmly bound to their set gender-specific role than men are, their narratives also frequently reflect not life-making, but life management. This aspect emerges particularly strongly in Margrethe Milow’s account of her life.


Margarethe Milow’s account of her life and chronicle, written as a bequest to her husband and children, is a double construction: how she herself wishes to be and how her addressees are intended to see her, even if she expressly contests the latter. Her self, her personal identity is concealed behind this construction. Margarethe believes in the subjective truth of her account, even if gaps or self-censorship pervade and control the construction. The supposedly “unsparing” account misleads with inconsistencies which could yield information about her herself and indirectly do just this. It might also be asked to what extent literary models of educational manuals for girls play a part. For to the end of her life Margarethe – despite familial strain brought about by eleven births, an ailing, hypochondriac husband, her own serious illness and constant confrontation with financial difficulties – pursued her favourite occupation, reading.

At first glance Margarethe Elisabeth Milow’s autobiography and chronicle convey the picture of a woman from 18th century middle-class circles; at second glance they convey the tragic figure of an individual in conflict between role identification and personal identity.

Written by: Ilse Lange


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