Setting a Mark for the Ego

Writing as an identity-creating process. Margarethe Elisabeth Milow (1748-1794).

“The idea of writing an account of my life had been in my mind for a long time, but routine business – of which like you, dear husband, I generally had much – and adverse circumstances, which often weighed heavily on my heart and often, I confess, utterly dispirited me, kept me from starting. Now, in 1778, I am making a start (…).

Margarethe Elisabeth Milow, an 18th century Hamburg pastor’s wife, would stop writing her life story only when at the beginning of 1794 advancing cancer left her too weak to continue. I introduced her text last winter term in the mid-level “Women diarists” seminar. In the first part of the two-term seminar texts already published were to be examined from genre- and gender-specific perspectives by exemplary analysis and eyes sharpened for dealing appropriately with the source material. Back to Margarethe Milow and her journal. Sixteen years of such sustained and tenacious work on turning one’s own life into text pose the central question of the motivation for such an undertaking. Margarethe Milow comments on this on the very first page of her extant journal. Her husband and children were intended to become acquainted with all her faults and their causes (sic!). She urges her children to read it in order to learn from their mother’s experience; to her husband she promises a true portrait of herself. In this article I would like to examine the question whether in addition to this explicitly formulated intention there are also other levels of meaning in the text.

The source and the history of the text

It was not the author’s intention to reach a broad readership, let alone to publish. That this nevertheless came about is due, as so often, to a combination of different events. By chance the historian Rita Bake found in 1986 a typescript among the Milow family papers in the Hamburg official archives. It had been typed in 1909 by Robert Matthaei, a relative of the Milows, and contained the first part of Margarethe Milow’s journal. One could at that time only conjecture as to the whereabouts of additional parts. Despite the uncertainties as to the source the editors decided to publish the first part supplemented with material from the papers left by Margarethe’s brother Johann Michael Hudtwalcker. Three years after the edited version’s appearance one of Milow’s descendants informed the editors that he was in possession of the original manuscript, which moreover also contained a third part of her account of her life.

The source in the context of scientific research

In the focal area between Gender Studies and research into personal writings women’s self-testimonies from bygone epochs also came increasingly under scholarly scrutiny in interdisciplinary discourse during the nineties. Precisely for the Age of Enlightenment studies called for a new “approach to the human being in history”. The introductory article by Rita Bake and Birgit Kiupel is highly relevant to the Milow source. In it the thesis is put forward from a historical and feminist perspective that with few exceptions 18th century middle-class women developed no emancipatory strategies against the prevailing social pattern and therefore left behind hardly any self-authored sources in this vein. Because there were no alternatives they did not take issue with the rigid definition of roles within their existence as wives and mothers. In the last few years however studies in the most diverse disciplines have shown that a number of self-testimonies written by women have survived from this epoch. In her comparatistic study Ann-Charlotte Trepp for example treats the category gender as an integrative component of a holistic approach. She sees rigid polarisation based on gender-specific dichotomies as unconfirmed by self-testimonies by women and men of the Hamburg 18th century middle class. That this finding is in no way subject to regional constraints is demonstrated by Leonie Koch-Schwarzer in her study of Anna Katharina Garve (1716-1792), a Breslau artisan’s widow and mother of the popular philosopher Christian Garve. Elke Ramm in her study examines autobiographical writings by women and argues that these should be liberated from the narrow genre models of traditional classification schemes and a different method developed for examining the non-contents of these texts. She denies evidential value to all publications not published independently by their authors and subjected to unauthorised editing. A study which deals with the interpretation of feminine pietistic self-portrayals by Moravian Sisters is that by Irina Modrow. She ascribes to her sources only limited scope because of their structurally immanent schematicism. In this connection it is worth mentioning the essay by Günter Niggl, who observes that since the beginnings of confession literature there have been secularisation and thus individualisation tendencies within the genre. The to date latest study of the Milow autobiography is Gudrun Piller’s structural analysis of its language, in which she refers to a “medical lay culture” in the 18th century. For example she interprets the text with its discussion of disease and death as a received source, being a document of its time with far-reaching informative significance.

Towards clarification of the genre question

Because of the different termini technici I have encountered in my reading of the research literature on Milow’s journal I would like at this point to digress briefly into classification of the source in poetic-genre terms. This seems to me all the more important since our seminar was primarily concerned with the source genre diary and its delimitation from other literary forms of self-portrayal. To mark out the genre boundaries within which we will operate some preliminary considerations are necessary. Regarded in its unedited form Milow’s text is a self-testimony conceived and written under its own motivation. The self-determined nature of its contents is explicitly expressed by the author right at the start in the preface. In the weighting of outer- and inner-world elements the text’s decidedly egocentric quality is distinctly dominant. Global, historically important events are not reflected in it; everyday incidents are described only when they are helpful to the intuition of essences of the “ego”. The text’s assignment to the literary genre autobiography is manifested in its external and internal structure. This structure appears methodical and designed to be chronologically self-contained and complete. The outward precipitating cause for putting pen to paper was an impending confinement of which Margarethe Milow was mortally afraid. Since she assumed she would die when the child was born, she was recording her life up to that point in a supposed race against the time she had left. The author acts in this first part of her account of her life with wide-ranging authorial knowledge established by the time interval between reporting time and period reported on.


The text gives the reader an insight into the individuation process from the perspective of its originator. Its course is documented at the different stages of her life until shortly before her imminent death. Margarethe Elisabeth Milow was born in 1748 in Hamburg as the daughter of the Protestant and status-conscious merchant family Hudtwalcker. She grew up with her nine siblings. Her father dealt in fish oil and herrings. As was then usual, residential and working premises were housed in the same building. The family ate and lived together with two servants and employed a nursemaid and private tutor to bring up the children. Margarethe’s school education began at the age of three when she was sent with her siblings to a backstreet school, where she had to learn prayers and verses by heart. From her seventh year onwards she had lessons at home in theology, needlework and French, later also in writing and arithmetic. Contact with the outside world was confined until her adolescence to Sunday churchgoing. Her developing interest in the opposite sex focused after a few superficial flirtations on Oktav Nolte, a family employee. Since however this association was not regarded as consistent with her class, she was compelled to secrecy. To put an end to these undesirable goings-on and marry their daughter off appropriately, her parents settled on the preacher Johann Milow as a suitable candidate. After initially resistance Margarethe acquiesced in the inevitable. In 1769 she married the respected but impecunious theologian and moved with him to Lüneburg, where the couple lived with their children until his appointment to Wandsbek. There, on the outskirts of Hamburg, the Milows ran an educational establishment for boys as well as the parsonage. After a total of eleven pregnancies and births, eight of which had a happy outcome, at the age of 43 Margarethe developed with breast cancer and died of the consequences of the disease in October 1794 following a mastectomy.

Education as text-constituting category

Constituting of the subject in the form of oral or written textualisation proceeds only if certain conditions are met. Margarethe Milow’s education and upbringing are the essential prerequisites which make the later autobiography possible. At this point I will therefore briefly outline the course of this development and its roots in the literary and pedagogical discourses of the epoch. When they left the backstreet school the siblings’ joint schooling gave way to gender-specific segregation. While the boys attended outside educational institutions, the girls were privately tutored at home. Women’s acquisition of knowledge was interpreted first and foremost as the furtherance of moral training. Better understanding of God through knowledge of the world was the yardstick for selecting educational content. In non-lesson time only boys were allowed to occupy themselves with literature. As in other middle-class households, purposeless reading of non-religious texts was prohibited for the girls of the Hudtwalcker family too. The male members of the family on the other hand associated with groups of the educated Protestant middle class. They read out to one another Lessing, Klopstock, Gellert and Alberti and discussed them passionately. That Margarethe nevertheless had access to the leading literature of the Age of Enlightenment was due solely to the goodwill of her brother, who let her share in it. To read or even write letters she needed freedom to avoid the rigid supervisory measures:

”Because this work called for peace and quiet I was given permission to sit alone in my room. These were my golden hours: I would spend half the day reading and the other half embroidering. This was wrong of me.(…) And if I had not had a brother through whose hands I obtained all the books, O, how easily I could then have been led astray with them.”

During her adolescence the severity of the parental home was mitigated by her parents’ travels. In their absence she performed plays with her siblings and met young people of the same age for joint readings. That even in her adolescence Margarethe was composing literary tracts of her own is shown by a passage of text reporting how impressed Oktav was by her essays. The abundant correspondence she conducted with the Hamburg family during her Lüneburg years likewise illustrates how important writing was for Margarethe Milow as a reflective and communicative process. In later life too she recorded in fleeting subordinate clauses that writing her account of her life was coming between her and her reading or seeking diversion from workaday life in the poems of the contemporary female lyricist Rudolph and the plays of Shakespeare. In summary: the vital importance of reading and of her own writing constitutes an enduring cultural pattern in Milow’s biography. Despite all adversities she succeeded in maintaining this practice as a private sanctuary. Which expressive forms of literarisation and identity-creating strategies she had recourse to will be discussed in the next chapter.

Textualisation as identity-creating process

By analysing text-immanent contents I would like to turn my attention to the nature of individual self-performance. For this it seems necessary to examine Milow’s subjective role concept and her preferred narrative models as text-constituting determinants. The first part of the journal, after a brief account of her most recent childhood and a characterisation of her parents and husband, revolves mainly round the dichotomous themes of temptation versus virtue and self-pity versus self-reproach. They alternate with almost formulaic regularity and emerge as motifs more and more markedly over the years. After the break brought about by her marriage and move to Lüneburg the economic and social loss she thereby experienced were an especially prominent theme. In the third part of her journal subjects such as separation, death, disease and disenchantment at relations between people occupy more and more space. She devotes little space to themes with positive connotations. Only the solicitude and increased attentiveness she experienced when suffering from cancer is described with great demonstrativeness and gratitude. Her work as housewife, mother and pastor’s spouse remains unclearly defined. Few of her eight children are mentioned by name and even then only in the context of some insubordination, illness or church rite. Other details are left out. This is especially noticeable in her portrayal of her eleventh confinement. The description of her relationship with her husband departs from the clearly stereotypical vocabulary of the Age of Sensibility only when she writes of his illnesses and about discord between them. In the last third of the text Margarethe frequently refers to her husband as Father. What relationship transposition took place within the marriage can only be surmised, but not fully elucidated. Her social contacts, whom she routinely names in Wandsbek and Hamburg, are hardly mentioned. Only when they are conducive to conveying her sufferings and grievances are detailed descriptions given of specific individuals. Visitors she finds a nuisance; friendships are delineated in detail only in terms of disagreement and dissent. Her active participation in cultural life and her preferred reading matter receive only marginal mention. Alongside the chronologically structured contents the close relationship with God runs like a continuous thread through Margarethe Milow’s self-testimony. Again and again she turns directly to God as a partner in dialogue. Her image of God is that of the teacher and arbiter of human fate. God’s counsel does not always appears to her transparent, but she complies nevertheless.

When one looks back over the contents described, this question now arises: what portrait of herself is she painting in her journal? Milow’s self-performance can best be seen in the way she describes her role concept. First and foremost she is the loving and selfless mother who is “teacher”, “improver” and model for her children, especially her daughters. In this context narrative strands capable of authenticating her role as dutiful mother occupy a lot of space. Her description of her feelings towards them is frequently confined to literarised phrases. As pointed out earlier, she mentions some of her children by name only at the end of her journal. She articulates her concept of the woman’s role explicitly at only a few points, albeit all the more clearly. She is supposed to be “good, gentle and obedient”; nevertheless in certain situations “feminine meekness and astuteness” outflank the husband’s inflexibility, thus implying a tacitly expressed sense of superiority. Other roles, such as that of the wife, housewife or socially interactive being, are referenced like the maternal role for exemplarily documenting her suffering and virtue. This raises the associated question of her stylisation of herself. On the one hand stands an individual with a clearly articulated sense of self-worth who speaks of her “fine feelings”, “courage” and “steadfastness” and occasionally even portrays herself in an uncritically exaggerated version of her true person. On the other hand the positive self- assessment is relativised by denunciation of supposed failures before God as the ultimate moral authority.

A biography thus unfolds before the reader the most important reference points in which are located in a co-ordinate system of painful experiences and disappointments. The interpolations of self-reflection with religious connotation are especially conspicuous in the text’s narrative structure. Accusatory self-examination, doubt of the strength of one’s own faith and the quest for acts of pardon in her life permeate Milow’s journal. It is thus clearly in the tradition of pietistic autobiographies. The text may be far removed from the stereotypical sequence of a conversion model, and yet the secularised themes and associated individualisation are entirely conventional for their time. She being a child of God, temptation, devout spiritual distress and awakening to true Christianhood are leitmotifs in her autobiography. In summary: the following parallels with pietistic confession literature can be found in the text: Milow’s feelings for her private tutor Flügge and later for Oktav Nolte hover between infatuated youthful euphoria and religious self-reproach carrying within it the wish for redemption. God’s direction finally shows her the way out of the “improper desires” into marrying the clergyman Milow. Penitential injunctions and purification of the soul are intensified more and more in the course of the text by the God-imposed sufferings in illness and early death as the culmination. The adaptation of religious confession literature consists not just in the formalised narrative model, but necessarily also in the use of pietistic language. Parable-like metaphors and biblical references testify to the familiarity with the pertinent literature which Margarethe Milow had acquired in her youth through her education and social network.

Summing up

The ambivalence, the antagonism between the stereotyped construct of the devout confessor and the self-possessed and self-reflective woman points in many places to a subjective dilemma. The question posed at the outset about the multiplicity of levels of meaning present can thus be answered affirmatively. Above and beyond the didactic purpose formulated by Milow the text conceals yet more levels. The author alternates between the poles of painful disappointment at her own personal history and capitulation to the clearly inevitable. The attempt to give form to her own life by putting it down in words becomes a processing of existence per se. How important to Margarethe Milow this process of identity creation was can be inferred from her unyielding will to continue writing her journal to the end of her life. To what extent making this written record of her life should be regarded as a process with cathartic effect can be judged only indirectly.

Another aspect which directs attention from therapeutic introspection to semi-public presentation of the female subject is the text’s orientation towards potential readers. Milow’s self-reflection must, since it has to take account of external and internal censorship, be virtuous in intent and its literarisation appropriate. Although she only rarely and superficially has anything to say on relevant topics in politics and culture, without literary education and knowledge of pertinent discourses on ethics and faith the writing techniques applied would not be possible. Criticism of the course of her own life, open expression of which was precluded on moral and ethical grounds, she therefore wrapped in the didactic garb of a bequest. The wish for recognition of women’s independence could thus be realised in the mask of the justification topos. It is immaterial here whether this strategic approach is adopted consciously or unconsciously for, viewed in terms of popular ethnology, the cultural significance of this 18th century autobiography is manifested in the fact that it gives us a glimpse of the author’s subjective structure of consciousness in its historical context and thus externalises for the reader one of the many possible forms of life management for women.

Written by: Petra Ehlers