A Candy Box of History’s Sappiest Literary Lovers

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Heinrich Heine, Mathilde, and Camille Selden

A biographer once referred to the conflict-riven life of late Romantic Germanophone poet Heinrich Heine and to “the manifold and frequently incompatible facets of his personality and work” as a “lifelong search for personal and national identity.” A palmist scanning Heine’s hand would certainly note, perhaps with some alarm, that his life path was destined to be splintered into a far more than ordinary number of forks, chicanes and shunts. Before becoming the leader of the Young Germany literary movement and the greatest lyric poet Germany ever produced, he was a businessman, a lawyer, a historian, a Jew who became a Lutheran, a romantic anti-Romantic, a pantheist, and a utopian socialist. Born in Dusseldorf, he moved to Frankfurt, Hamburg, Bonn, Gottingen, then traveled to England and Italy, and settled in Paris. He was considered so dangerous that, while living abroad, he was constantly watched by German government spies, yet his gentle verse was considered so tender and so moving that it was set to music by a train of major composers including Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss and Wagner. Born in Dusseldorf, he moved in quick succession to Frankfurt, Hamburg, Bonn, Gottingen, then traveled to England and Italy, and settled in Paris. He was suspended from a university in Germany for planning a duel; ten years later he was injured in the hip in a duel in France. He became an invalid as a result of an affliction variously diagnosed as spinal tuberculosis (tabes dorsalis) of syphilitic origin; multiple sclerosis; congenital neuropathy; or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Whatever it was, the grim malady caused a progressive paralysis which confined him to bed for the last ten years of his life and eventually became so severe that he had to prop open an eyelid with one hand so he could see to write with another. Heine famously characterized the bed which became the mainstay of his physical environment during these declining years as his “mattress-grave.” During his early days in Paris, Heine lived with and later married Crescencia Eugenie Mirat, a shopgirl he called “Mathilde.” Prosaic and unlettered, Mathilde has been a perennial source of consternation to historians inasmuch as she has seemed to many of them so unsuited a match for a man of Heine’s cerebral disposition and towering talents. The story of Heine and Mathilde, as Richard Le Gallienne puts it, “is the love of a man of the most brilliant genius, the most relentless, mocking intellect, for a simple, pretty woman, who could no more understand him than a cow can understand a comet.” While Mathilde patiently nursed and devotedly attended to Heine’s every need during his protracted illness, there entered, during the final phase, one Camille Selden, an Austrian bluestocking and literary dilettante he called “The Fly,” who dramatically broke onto the scene at the eleventh hour, upstaged Mathilde, hovered solicitously about the dying poet, and enmeshed him in a supposed “spiritual love.” Perhaps the exact nature of Heine’s relationship with these women or with any woman will never be entirely clear. What’s certain is that he was a romantic ironist who had endured his share of suffering and disillusionment. He once said that “woman is the best antidote to woman” although “this is driving out Satan with Beelzebub.” His poems reflect past attachments to more than a few young ladies — Amalie and Therese, Seraphine, Angelique, Diane, Hortense, Clarisse, Emma, Sefchen. Heine bequested his estate to Mathilde, whom he called his “Treasure,” and Camille Selden did just fine with the publication of her remembrances The Last Days of Heinrich Heine.

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Jonathan Swift and Stella

It has been said that Augustan author Jonathan Swift had the “moon’s mysteriousness” in showing one face to the world and another to his lifelong sweetheart “Stella,” the name he conferred on one Esther Johnson, whom he first met when she was but a child living in Ireland at Moor Park, the grand manor of his employer, Sir William Temple. Swift’s relationship with Johnson was the greatest enigma of a thoroughly enigmatic life. Known as the “Dean,” the great satirist who was to give the world Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub, attended Kilkenny and Trinity College in Ireland, before moving to Moor Park, where he tutored the young creature who grew into “one of the most beautiful, graceful, and agreeable young women in London — her hair was blacker than a raven, and every feature of her face in perfection.” Swift, a pamphleteer and something of a social and political agitator, was a cousin of John Dryden, a classmate of Congreve, and a founder of the Scriblerus Club. He suffered from chronic vertigo, and lived in dread of losing his sanity. He was “not a comfortable companion”; in fact he could be decidedly unpleasant, a “loathly brutal bully.” He was irascible and autocratic, a mean-spirited, misanthropic crank who enjoyed humiliating others, especially those who couldn’t fight back. But Swift’s inner beast was soothed by the gentle beauty of little Esther, for whom he compiled Journal to Stella, an album of dedicatory epistles addressed to her and her friend Rebecca Dingley, written partly in “baby language.” The possibility that Swift may have entered into a “secret marriage” with his Stella is a subject of endless speculation, but his devotion to her is beyond question. Even when a second Esther — Esther Vanhomrigh, whom he called “Vanessa” — fell passionately in love with him and wished to become his wife, he spurned her cruelly following a brief fling. Vanhomrigh is said to have died of shock (and of jealousy of Stella) when he severed relations with her. As a “moon,” Swift didn’t exclusively show his “dark” side to the world, but most of his lunar phases ranged from somewhere between “dried prune” and “shriveled sourpuss.” After Stella died, he lost his faculties, fell into mental decay and ended his days insane. A lock of Johnson’s tresses was found in his desk wrapped in a sheet of paper inscribed “only a woman’s hair.” On his death, he was buried alongside his beloved, and his fortune was left to endow the Hospital for Imbeciles, a lunatic asylum in Dublin.

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via First Epoch

Hans Christian Andersen and Jenny Lind

Universally acknowledged master of the fairy tale Hans Christian Andersen was one of the most sexually frustrated human beings who ever drew breath. He considered himself unattractive to the distaff gender and did not give serious thought to any need for conjugal relations until the age of twenty-nine when he wrote in his diary “I feel a tremendous sensuality and fight with myself. Is it really a sin to satisfy this powerful lust? So far I am innocent but my blood burns, when dreaming my whole being boils.” Nevertheless, he did not capitulate to his urges. A few years earlier, he had fallen head over heels for Riborg Voigt, a local girl who was secretly engaged to the pharmacist’s son and whom she soon married. At Andersen’s death, a letter from Riborg was found in a leather pouch strung round his neck. He was spurned as well by Sophie Ørsted and by Louise Collin, the daughter of his patron. In the 1840s, despairing of ever enjoying the love of a woman, the lonely and erotically ambivalent Andersen conceived passionate attachments to his young male friends Henrik Stempe and Edvard Collins, who likewise repelled his advances. To Collins, he exclaimed, “I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench…” Later he pursued Carl Alexander and Harald Scharf, also unrequitedly. Andersen’s romantic ideal was the operatic soprano Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” so named in connection with the celebrated fairytale Andersen had written about her. In one of literary history’s most famous brush-offs, Lind, in rebuffing Andersen’s suit, finally wrote to him the words “Farewell. That God may bless and protect my brother is the sincere wish of his affectionate sister, Jenny.” Understandably shy around members of the fairer gender, Andersen never married. His pattern of forming infatuations for possibilities of companionship beyond his reach led to what has been termed a chronic state of “sexual grief.” Pitifully disappointed in his quest for intimate human warmth, Andersen strongly identified with the outcast and the downtrodden. Many of his fairytales end with inner worth and nobility of soul triumphing over the injustice of arbitrary circumstance. On a trip to Paris at the age of sixty-two, Andersen persisted in his program of virginal abstention. His diary records, at the time, a visit to a bordello where he paid a soiled dove for the favor of twelve francs’ worth of nothing but amiable chitchat. At the age of sixty-seven, the world-famous author injured himself after falling out of bed. He was never the same afterward, and expired three years later, bereft of the basic human experience of physical love, but destined for the dubious compensation of adoration by generations of children all the world over, and commemoration as a Danish “national treasure” by an imposing statue erected in his honor in Copenhagen’s town hall square.

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Gilbert Alter-Gilbert is a critic, translator, and literary historian whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals. More from this author →