Distance and Proximity

– The role behaviour of Margarethe Milow

When as part of the mid-level seminar “Women diarists (1): Gender-oriented approaches to personal writings (18th – 20th century)” my study group was looking at the journal of Margarethe Elisabeth Milow née Hudtwalcker, I was astonished. The apparent candour with which this 18th century woman wrote about personal matters interested me greatly. She addresses her autobiography to her husband and children (mainly the daughters). I was moreover astonished at how many “male acquaintances” she had had before her marriage to Pastor Johann N. Milow. As I saw it this did not “fit” into the picture I had formed of an 18th century young woman. Added to this was the fact that her journal displays a novel-like character and in reading it I found myself entering into her “fate” full of excitement. It was thus primarily the male acquaintances which interested me in examining the journal more closely. Two of them I would like to describe here in greater detail. These are the private tutor Flügge and Johann Octav Nolte, her father’s clerk. This account of her life has been evaluated from various aspects by Rita Bake and Birgit Kiupel, and also by Ann-Charlotte Trepp and Gudrun Piller. The studies by the three first-named scholars form, together with Margarethe Milow’s journal, my basis for this article. I have examined her account from the perspective of Margarethe Milow’s role behaviour. How does she describe her relationship with the opposite sex? Excepted here are the men of her family. Is there a pattern which is communicated by society and reproduced in her journal?

Who was Margarethe Milow?

Margarethe Elisabeth Milow was born on 2.10.1748 in Hamburg as the second child and eldest daughter of Sarah Hudtwalcker, née Ehlers, and the merchant Heinrich Jacob Hudtwalcker. She was one of 10 children. The Hudtwalckers were a respected merchant family and Margarethe enjoyed a middle-class daughter’s upbringing. She grew up in an age in which the foremost philosophy was the Enlightenment. In the 18th century for example there emerged the notion of a youth phase in which an independent personality develops. In Trepp’s view it is precisely this individuality which is reflected in the increased appearance of self-revelations. One aim of education was thus “the rational, standard-led human being”. The human being of the Age of Enlightenment was to do what he wanted, but to want to do only what met with general approval. “Complete suppression and control of desires and passions” was to the fore. Strongly stressed in this was control of the sex-drive. To restrain it contact between boys and girls was to be prevented by rules. Margarethe Milow’s parents made these middle-class criteria the basis of their parental practice. And this educational model, in which chastity and virtue were obligatory for Margarethe and which was critical for her relations with the opposite sex, is also reflected in her journal.

distanceandproximity_e-millow-2

The opposite sex – the first approach

Trepp writes that both boys and girls had since the closing years of the 18th century had the opportunity to “have experience and internalise values which differed from those of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations”. Part of this was discovery of the opposite sex and the quest for a mate. How initial contacts were made and at what age are, Trepp writes, virtually unknown. In Margarethe Milow’s case it is known, for she was 12 years old when she became aware of the opposite sex. She and her siblings (her elder brother and younger sister) were invited to a party. And Margarethe described the encounter there thus: ”But the change from child to young woman happened here, quite suddenly, with my sister, who was a year younger, with my brother and me. I saw a boy of my own age, with red cheeks, black hair, and my childhood was over”. Margarethe’s tutor had the idea of putting on a tragedy and comedy with the children at the gathering, and at the rehearsals the children were mostly left to themselves. They used the opportunity to exchange kisses and play forfeits. After performing the play the children asked their parents for further gatherings, which were granted. Margarethe was now 13 and at the first gathering her chaperone too was present, unnoticed however by Margarethe. She described the evening at home as unforgettable; she herself called it “defining” for her subsequent behaviour. “But I will never forget when we came home that evening. It is the reason for all my subsequent chastity and virtue”. That evening became definitive above all for her future attitude towards men. The chaperone chided her for behaving in a manner not suitable for “well-bred young ladies”. From that evening onwards Margarethe provisionally distanced herself from the opposite sex. Chastity and virtue, which constituted the yardstick of proper upbringing, were now the paramount precepts. She even suppressed her feelings for men.

Distance – the relationship with Flügge

She was in love for the first time when in autumn 1763 the girls acquired a new tutor: Benedictus Gilbertus Flügge, called just Flügge or Fl. in her journal. He was 24 years old when he entered service in the Hudtwalcker household. Margarethe describes him as a handsome young man and comments that he liked her too, since he treated her differently from her sisters. This special attention was new to Margarethe and she could barely wait for the next lesson. The subsequent lessons went similarly. He praised her when she saw him to the front door. She felt a warm feeling when he arrived and blushed when he was mentioned in his absence. Margarethe was in love, but everything happening to her was happening at a distance: once, when he kissed her hand, she quickly withdrew it. Afterwards she asked her sister to see the tutor to the door, to keep out of his way. He took this very seriously and Margarethe regretted reacting as she had. She thereupon resumed seeing him to the door. It is apparent from the way in which she describes her reaction how difficult she found it to handle the feeling of being in love. This was due primarily to the virtue and chastity principle which had been imposed on her. When later Flügge declared his love, she reacted as she had when he kissed her hand – with alarm. In her own words: ”I was very taken aback, so much so that I couldn’t utter even a single syllable. He was my tutor; I felt fear and respect towards him, but surely not love….?! Yes, that too; my heart was too full of feeling”. Her reaction was not what he expected, for she remained silent. He found fault with her attitude and simply could not understand it. She reacted to this whole situation with tears and prayed to God. Margarethe hoped for help and devised strategies for extricating herself from her emotional conflict. The virtue and chastity principle which had been instilled in her in her early years came into play here again. Love him she might, but she could not show him. Her greatest fear was of being seduced and making her parents unhappy. She wrote: ”What would have become of us, me especially, if I had not been vigilant, prayed and fought? A poor seduced unhappy girl who had made her parents unhappy. But this time God gave me the strength to fight […]. Turning to God was a constantly recurring behaviour pattern in Margarethe whenever she found herself in a conflict situation; the fear of disgracing her parents is also typical of Margarethe. She distanced herself more and more from Flügge and, when he approached her during an outing in her parents’ absence and pressed her too much, she drew back from him decisively. In her subsequent descriptions Flügge plays only a “minor part”. When she mentions him, she writes that he vexed her with his love. She was glad when Flügge departed in 1768.

Proximity – Octav Nolte the great love

Her first love was over and there had long been a new man in her life: Johann Octav Nolte, her brother’s friend and her father’s clerk. She writes about this man thus:

”Now I must tell you everything about this man, who had a great influence on all the rest of my life […] His mind was great, acute, grasping everything at once, his heart full of feeling, noble and proud”.

This love for Octav did not accord with her station and had to be concealed. So she could not enjoy this love either. Margarethe once went out secretly with Octav and felt a “sinner” in so doing. She even wore a veil to avoid being recognised. Her guilty conscience tormented her so that she could not enjoy the stroll. The fear of being noticed by someone was too great, and she quickly went back home. Margarethe would have liked to take her mother or brother into her confidence about this, but she was afraid of both of them. She was alone with her feelings. Margarethe writes of regular evening walks which she prevailed on herself to make. She felt happy during them and looked forward to these times, she writes. Her love for Octav was for her pure and noble, but without her parents’ blessing it was wrong. She writes: ”[…] we loved one another as do but few honest souls on this earth, and yet this pure, true, exalted love was a sin, a wrong, because it was furtive and we knew with certainty that my parents would never accept it […]. They became secretly betrothed to one another before God. Nothing existed for Margarethe but her love for Octav; even reading lost importance. With him she was no longer alarmed by proximity, of which she had been so afraid with Flügge. Margarethe Milow clung to this love for, although this union was hopeless, she surrendered to the illusion of having a future with him. She even hoped that her younger sisters would find husbands before her and she would be overlooked, so that she could then love Octav. The two lovers met clandestinely one day in a room in the house and were by chance overheard by her father. The consequences for Margarethe were dreadful. Her parents sought a suitable husband for her and punished her with severity. She suffered, writing about this: ”From this time onwards all the joys of youth were over for me. Tears and sorrow accompanied me day and night. I withered like a flower of the field, my parents’ love for me and my confidence were no more, all homely pleasure was banished from our home”. Even after its discovery Margarethe Milow would not abandon her love for Octav. This love and her relationship with him seemed to her so important that she would not end it. Trepp points out that both were filled with an innocent love of the kind described in the sentimental literature of the 18th century, especially in the novels of Richardson. Since rebelling against her parents’ wishes was unthinkable for her however, she could not marry the man she loved. And so eventually she acquiesced and on 17.10.1769 married Pastor Johann N. Milow.

Closing consideration

What role models are reflected in Margarethe Milow’s journal? This was the question I started with, and I think that the manner in which she describes her relations with both the men chosen by me clearly reflects the educational ideas and concept of the role of women at this time. Virtue and chastity were to the fore in both her experience with Flügge and her relationship with Octav Nolte – in the first case because she did not yet know how to handle emotions. This also explains her panic reactions and her reserve towards him. She could not handle the proximity he wanted to give her and might actually ask for. In the case of Octav she sought this proximity, and yet she was defeated by the expectations of society and her parents. Although this love was what she sought, for it was a pure love, she could not indulge it because it was intolerable to her parents. Margarethe wrote her autobiographical journal primarily for her daughters, so that they would not make the same mistakes as their mother. She wanted to be a warning example and spare them the heartache she herself had suffered. Rita Bake and Birgit Kiupel write that she did not question the middle-class images of men and women, even though she suffered under them. And this is clearly reflected in her account of her life.

Written by: Zuzanna Niedenthal