When love arrived at the Engels house

New online edition and a family room in the Engels House give impressions of the ideas of marriage in the correspondence of the Friedrich Engels family

The epistolary novel 'Dangerous Liaisons' (Les Liaisons dangereuses) by the French author Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos is considered one of the major works of French literature of the late 18th century and describes a moral portrait of the Ancien Régime. He describes the story of two intrigues in 175 letters. Readers participate in the fate of the protagonists through these intimate letters. Less intriguing, but all the more interesting, are the private letters of Friedrich Engels' family, which will be made accessible to the interested public this year through a new online edition by the Wuppertal edition philologist and cultural scientist Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Lukas of the University of Wuppertal.
The background to the project, which extends beyond the Friedrich Engels Year, is the approximately 350 family letters that have been in the city archives since the 1980s and were discovered in Engelskirchen by Michael Knieriem, the former director of the Historical Center of the City of Wuppertal (today: Museum Industriekultur Wuppertal). In contrast to the literary model de Laclos', this is a real family correspondence of Friedrich Engels` parents and grandparents, from the period from 1791 to 1858. Parallel to the online edition, Lukas is also, in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Kristian Wolf, significantly involved in the family exhibition prepared in the newly restored Engelsmuseum. "Visitors can expect a media installation that combines text, images and sound," he reveals, "There is a so-called family room. It's his (great) grandfather's house, meaning family here means parents and grandparents." Now 350 potential letters would unrestrainedly overwhelm even the most interested visitor, so the literary scholar made a selection. "There are exactly 18 letters, and we have arranged them according to topics. I'll mention religion, love/eroticism, politics and business relations." Among other things, he said, it is the period of Napoleonic occupation. The letters selected, he said, are from a variety of addressees and, to the scholar's chagrin, are also very male-heavy. "That's apparently because women kept the letters better," he explains.

The museum project in the Angel House

Lukas is particularly proud of the museum installation. "They have a big touch screen where there are these 18 letters to choose from. There's a timeline, and I'm offered my desired information by person or topic." One of the highlights of this presentation, he said, is undoubtedly the audio implementation of the sample letters. "We had all the letters read by actors Olaf Reitz and Caroline Keufen from the Wuppertaler Bühnen. There is a separate installation for this. You take headphones, and the original letters run in facsimile across a projection screen on the window. I only see the old script, the so-called German Kurrent, and it's synchronized so that I see the line that's being spoken on the screen. It's wonderful, this old handwriting and the professional voice to go with it," he explains enthusiastically. On the touchscreen, he says, there are three views: the facsimile, meaning the copy of the original; a scholarly rendition (diplomatic transcription); and, as a third version, a reading version in a slightly modernized form, but not oriented to the new spelling. "With this, we would like to address those interested in cultural history as well as those interested in philology in the narrower sense, who can deepen their knowledge on the spot."

Marriage Initiation in the House of Engels

But what is so exciting about this family correspondence?
In addition to the various thematic offerings, one historical aspect in particular catches the eye: the changing nature of marriage initiation in the Engels household. "For me, that is one of the most exciting points about this correspondence, because we have the correspondence between grandfather and grandmother and father and mother. It's a bit one-sided, but this bride and marriage correspondence starts at the time in 1791 when the grandfather Johann Caspar Engels is looking for a second wife because his first wife, Johanna Konstantia, died young" explains Lukas. That's when the correspondence begins, he says, and then continues into the early years of marriage. "Then about 30 years later, around 1820, the son, which is Friedrich Engel's father, comes and does the same thing. But the same thing is totally different!" Marriage planning in the 18th and early 19th centuries still had clear guidelines, especially among the nobility and the rural classes, but also still among the middle classes. "The nobility thought in terms of alliances and genealogies. The peasants had economic aspects of provision in mind; you needed a capable farmer's wife on the farm. So love was not the first requirement," Lukas says.
And even for the grandfather, Johann Caspar Engels, there were other priorities in 1791. "How does the grandfather do it? He first makes inquiries. Then he has a woman in mind - which then becomes the grandmother - but doesn't go directly to her, instead he asks around in his shift. What is she like? What kind of qualities does she have? Is she pious? That is important, because he is a strict pietist. She must also have social standing, a certain reputation, because you don't take a woman from the lower class. She must be healthy, because she must be able to have offspring, she must be morally sound, she must be a capable housewife, she must be a merchant's wife and be able to look after the business. And then she should also be a little pretty and kind. Those are the kind of things," Lukas laughs, "and that's only played out quite openly with third parties." For us today, such an approach is somewhat strange, but you have to look at this from the point of view of time, says the researcher. And as if this painstaking bride selection wasn't already elaborate enough, there's another difficulty. "There is another competitor," Lukas reports, "that is the merchant Johann Gottfried Wülfing. He is applying for the same woman. Then the Engels is a bit hesitant and the potential marriage is actually on the line." Both gentlemen then actually visit the chosen one, Luise Noot, about whom it is all the time, and clearly agree: "If she gives the yes to the one, then we completely break off all contact, then it is as if one had never courted before." This, in turn, understandably caused the bride-to-be emotional distress for a few weeks, Lukas explains.
Equally interesting is the decision-making process of Luise, who confided in a friend and asked for help in making a decision. Then this friend wrote to her: "Why don't you make a list, write down the positive characteristics and compare them," Lukas says. That's how it works with grandparents, "according to the motto: Love will come!"

Friedrich Engels senior marries for love

The change in the marriage arrangements is then very nicely comprehensible between the letters of the grandfather and those of the father of Friedrich Engels, because the latter had actually fallen in love with his later wife, Elisabeth Franziska Mauritia van Haar, called Elise. This happened during her stay of several weeks with the Engels family in the summer of 1816. Gerhard Bernhard van Haar, a grammar school professor in Hamm, was on friendly terms with Johann Caspar Engels, who in turn had sent his first-born Johann Caspar (III) there for better studies in the years 1805 to 1807, a procedure that was customary in middle-class families. One sent his children to other families for some time and inquired by letter about their progress. However, in order not to jeopardize his incipient love story, Friedrich Engels Senior had to come to terms with the conventions of the time, so that some of his letters could not be sent directly. "You have to imagine, correspondence, that was always an event. When the mailman brought a letter, it was very common for it to be read en famille. So you already had to, if you wanted to write something that wasn't going to be read by the whole family, have it delivered secretly." These were the first signs of a growing intimacy, Lukas points out, and evidence shows that just such letters were delivered via a domestic servant, friend or sister. Engels' caution is remarkable, and even later he still values epistolary intimacy. "There he also threatens his wife on one occasion, writing that if I learn that you are showing my letters to anyone else, I will never write you such intimacies again." Here, a more modern conception of love becomes clear, as propagated especially by Romantic literature around and after 1800 and leading to the model of the so-called love marriage in the bourgeois society of the early 19th century.

The Online-Edition

The correspondence of the Engels family sometimes makes modern people think of successful scripts of dynastic family series. In the reprocessing for the online edition, they are now to be made accessible to a wider audience. "We have had all the originals in our hands," says Wolfgang Lukas, praising the good cooperation with the Museum Industriekultur Wuppertal and the city archive. In several master's seminars of the Edition and Document Science course, the researcher and his students literally autopsied the letters, researching watermarks, text spacing and character recognition. "We first learned to read the German script in several seminars. Then we started doing letter editions. How can you do that? What models and methods are there? We also looked at historical letter writers, instructions on how to write letters," he says, explaining the approach. In addition to the written record, digital implementation was then added. Lukas found a student (now a successful graduate) from the Master's program in Print and Media Technology who took over the media-technological processing. For the visibility of the content, further specialists from the fields of computer science and media/interface design were needed. Under the direction of Prof. Lukas and Prof. Wolf, seven (partly former) students from four different faculties of the University of Wuppertal are currently working on the two projects. Three of them have already founded "Studio Arrenberg" in 2018 as an office for design issues. Originally started with a focus on the design of industrial products, the office developed further and is now a competent contact for the development of front-end applications.

One may be curious, both about the soon reopening of the Engelshaus and about the release of the comprehensive online edition, which will be available at the address www.familie-engels-briefe.de. And the end is still open, because in the city archive still further correspondences from the surrounding field of the family Engels wait for their sighting, which can complete the family structure of a dynasty in the future still.

Uwe Blass (Interview on April 13, 2021)

Wolfgang Lukas studied German and Romance languages and literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich and received his doctorate there. He habilitated at the University of Passau. In 2006 he took over the chair of Modern German Literary History and Edition Studies at the University of Wuppertal.

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