This book conjured seriously sinister reactions from obsessed fans

PUBLISHED: 03:34 13 March 2017 | UPDATED: 03:34 13 March 2017

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Archant

Forget Harry Potter mania - fan fever for Goethe’s tragic hero Werther was blamed for copycat tragedies and popularising yellow trousers

This time 243 years ago, in an attic room at his family home in Frankfurt, 23-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was sitting at a high desk scribbling away frantically in a sustained fit of creative passion to produce what would become Europe’s first bestseller.

Written in six weeks between January and March 1774 The Sorrows of Young Werther, a short novel about a doomed love triangle with a tragic conclusion, went on to create a sensation unprecedented in European literature and present the first example of the kind of explosion of youth culture that would later manifest itself in Beatlemania, the rise of Elvis Presley, and Harry Potter.

Young people across Europe were soon buying not only the book but also etchings and miniatures of the eponymous hero. Young men began dressing like Werther in blue tailcoat, yellow waistcoat and trousers and knee-length boots, hand-painted dinner services bearing his likeness sold quicker than the shops could stock them, one London shop with an eye for the main chance began selling Werther wallpaper, while in Paris an enterprising parfumier started knocking out bottles of scent called ‘Eau de Werther’ as Goethe’s book became as much a merchandising phenomenon as a literary one.

Yet so scandalous were the book’s contents perceived to be that within months of its publication it was banned outright in Leipzig and would stay banned for the next 50 years, while the Bishop of Milan sent out underlings to buy up every copy in the city in order to prevent the reading public getting their hands on it.

The reason for this combination of rampant youthful enthusiasm and grown-up pearl-clutching conniptions? The book’s tragic dénouement: the suicide of the protagonist.

Goethe’s novel was written as a series of letters from Werther, a young artist staying in the fictional village of Wahlheim, to Wilhelm, a friend in a distant town. By today’s standards Werther would be dismissed as an uber-snowflake; a hopeless, hypersensitive gawd-help-us who even on the first page of the novel is in floods of tears at the death of a local count whom he’d never even met.

He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on Twitter, but in a late eighteenth century Europe firmly in the grip of Romanticism, Werther’s histrionics were the perfect conduit for the newly-unleashed passions of the continent’s swooning fops and dandies.

Werther falls hopelessly in love with the captivating Lotte who is inconveniently betrothed to Albert, an older man whom Werther has also befriended. His feelings for Lotte are reciprocated, but rigorous contemporary etiquette dictates that Lotte cannot just hand Albert his hat, she has to go through with the marriage or risk a scandal from which none of them would recover.

Werther tries unsuccessfully to come to terms with being just good friends but soon concludes this awkward threesome can only be broken up in the most drastic fashion. He asks to borrow a pair of Albert’s pistols, telling the now married couple he’s undertaking a long journey, and proceeds to shoot himself in the head so inexpertly it takes him an agonising 12 hours to die.

It was this aspect of the book that prompted such extreme reactions from the burghers of Leipzig and the Bishop of Milan, as rumours spread of a wave of copycat suicides across Europe.

The Enlightenment thinker Gottfried Lessing wrote of how he’d enjoyed the book but considered it would do “more harm than good”. He had a point, it seems. The ‘Werther effect’, they called it. ‘Werther fever’, even.

In 1777 a young Swede shot himself with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther at his side while a year later a lovelorn German woman named Christel von Lassberg drowned herself in a river with the book in her pocket.

In England, a 1784 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine carried news of the suicide of a Miss Glover of Southgate with the detail that a copy of the book had been found under her pillow, “a circumstance which deserves to be known in order, if possible, to defeat the evil tendency of that pernicious work”.

Lord Byron wrote to a friend that Werther was “responsible for more deaths than Napoleon himself”, while in a 1790 treatise on suicide theologian Charles Moore wrote that “many a deluded female has been discovered in the hour of her self-destruction to have reclined her aching head on this poisonous tale”.

As late as 1927 a Parisian tenor, Monsieur Vidal, who had in the past performed the role of Werther in Massenet’s operatic interpretation of the book, shot himself wearing Werther costume at his home in Nantes following a messy divorce.

While the number of copycat suicides doesn’t seem to have been at the epidemic levels cited in some quarters, it’s difficult nonetheless to comprehend today just what a phenomenon The Sorrows Of Young Werther was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was translated into French, Italian and Russian, while the first English edition in 1779 was an instant bestseller despite having been translated from French and hence was a pretty poor translation of a translation.

This didn’t prevent Werther’s cultural reach in English literature becoming considerable: Frankenstein’s monster reads the book in Mary Shelley’s famous novel of 1818 while Jane Austen cites The Sorrows of Young Werther in her early work Love and Friendship.

Perhaps the novel’s most famous devotee however was Napoleon Bonaparte, who when he met Goethe in 1808 told him he’d taken the book with him on his 1798 foray into Egypt where he’d read it no less than seven times. Indeed, Goethe became one of the first literary recipients of the Legion d’Honneur, a medal he continued to wear long after Napoleon’s downfall.

For all its success, controversy and, indeed, wallpaper, perhaps the most poignant aspect of the book is its solid basis in truth. A couple of years before setting to work on the manuscript Goethe had fallen in love with a betrothed woman called Lotte. Unlike his fictional creation however Goethe’s passionate entreaties were entirely rebuffed.

Around the same time in 1772 an acquaintance of Goethe’s, the philosopher Karl Jerusalem, shot himself when it became clear the object of his affections, Elizabeth Herd, already engaged to a local dignitary in his home town of Wetzlar, would never be his. He used a pistol borrowed from Elizabeth’s fiancé.

Goethe went on to become one of Europe’s greatest cultural figures: poet, novelist, librettist, painter, sculptor, playwright, amateur scientist and meteorologist and even a minister of state in the government of Saxony-Weimar. He’s perhaps best known for his dramatisation of Faust, but nothing gripped the continent like his debut The Sorrows Of Young Werther.

The book was a stunning achievement, not least for persuading legions of fashionable young Europeans that wearing yellow trousers was a great idea. In more than two centuries since, it seems only Nigel Farage has been sartorially deluded enough to agree.

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish)
  • Become a partner of The New European for a contribution of £240. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook
  • Become a patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook and an A3 print of The New European front cover of your choice, signed by Editor Matt Kelly

By proceeding, you agree to the New Europeans supporters club Terms & Conditions which can be found here.



Supporter Options

Mention Me in The New European



If Yes, Name to appear in The New European



Latest articles

Blow for Hard Brexit as Cabinet ‘unites’ behind transition deal

The Cabinet is “united” in backing a transitional Brexit deal which would mean continued access to migrant labour, Michael Gove has said.

What Euratom really stands for

The Euratom row lays bare the innate flaws of Brexit. But it also gives pro-Europeans their biggest chance yet to regain the initiative

How did Brexit Britain lose the spirit of the 2012 Olympics?

How did Brexit Britain lose the spirit of the 2012 Olympics?

Brexit could force UK to set up new healthcare scheme for tourists

Brussels is holding out on the government’s hopes of continuing membership of the European health insurance scheme post-Brexit.

Fox says UK does not need trade deal with Europe after Brexit

Brexiteer cabinet minister Liam Fox has reiterated the government’s widely ridiculed negotiating tactic of “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

UK and EU clash over ‘fundamental’ differences on citizens’ rights and divorce bill

The European Union’s top Brexit negotiator has demanded the government clarifies its position on citizens’ rights and stumps up a Brexit divorce bill.

Britain’s creative brilliance has taken decades to build... it could be destroyed in months

It is no accident that Britain’s creative sector has grown as borders have become more open. Now, decades of progress are in peril, says one of the world’s leading architects

We can learn from the British motor industry: Our economy needs capital and talent not slogans

The British economy can succeed. But it needs less wishful thinking and a more hard-headed assessment of the facts

Juventus is Europe’s most colourful football club

The club in Turin is a football club quite unlike any other - an institution which combines excellence and ugliness

How climate change is forcing native American culture to change

Just because Donald Trump doesn’t care about it, doesn’t mean climate change isn’t already having an impact in the US.

The Honours system is so corrupt it would be an embarrassment in Zimbabwe

The idea that the British establishment is predicated on civilised values of ‘fairness’, ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ is beginning to unravel.

Somali pirates are back - history shows how we can stop them

The fight against the menace of modern day piracy must start on the land, not the sea

Translating for the enemy: Tempting financial services out of post-Brexit UK

For some in Europe Brexit offers an opportunity to prize business away from London and the UK.

London hit by Brexit ‘wobble’ as fewer Europeans come to work in capital

London’s economy is “wobbling” due to the aftershock of the Britain’s decision to back Brexit, according to a new report.

Online ‘echo-chambers’ are an effect of hate, not a cause

Legacy publishers such as the Mail and the Sun are condemning the environment they create

Oh shit... we’re blowing Brexit

Things are now so grim in Brexit Britain - there is no hero riding to the rescue – but it’s not too late to rethink

Remember this moment from Orwell’s 1984 and don’t let the Tories rewrite history

Really Theresa May? Consensus? With the “saboteurs”, the “enemies of the people”?

BBC and Channel 4’s obsession with so-called ‘impartiality’ is stifling true debate

Forget the social media whirlwinds around media bias, impartiality is overrated

‘EU leaders are willing to consider freedom of movement changes to stop Brexit’

It’s becoming clear what the British people want from Brexit. But they are not being given the option, says former PM Tony Blair

Brexit pathology: Leave’s latest lie shows the trouble they are in

A new Big Lie is currently entering the Big Lie lexicon. It is that 51.9% having voted Leave last June 23 – National Self-Harm Day – the number has now risen to over 80%.

Watch us on YouTube

The rollercoaster ride of Theresa May's plummeting approval ratings

Views: 242

A year of failure and fiasco in May’s Number 10

Views: 200

Tory minister Steve Baker demands the EU is to be ‘torn down’

Views: 400

Podcast

Trending

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter