The female angel phenomenon: The case of Lotte

Werther describes his love for Lotte as a sort of demonic possession that robs him of free will: “the full and ardent sentiment which animated my heart with the love of nature, overwhelming me with a torrent of delight, and which brought all paradise before me, has now become an insupportable torment, a demon which perpetually pursues and harasses me…He could neither eat nor drink nor sleep: he felt a sense of suffocation; he disobeyed all orders, and forgot all commands involuntarily; he seemed as if pursued by an evil spirit, till one day, knowing that his mistress had gone to an upper chamber, he had followed, or, rather, been drawn after her….I am reduced to the condition of those unfortunate wretches who believe they are pursued by an evil spirit. Sometimes I am oppressed, not by apprehension or fear, but by an inexpressible internal sensation, which weighs upon my heart, and impedes my breath! Then I wander forth at night, even in this tempestuous season, and feel pleasure in surveying the dreadful scenes around me.”

He associates her with a sublimity often associated with heaven: directly before his suicide, he writes, “farewell, angel of heaven farewell, Charlotte!” And throughout the work he reinforces this paradigm; “Forgive, oh, forgive me!…Thou angel! for the first time in my existence, I felt rapture glow within my inmost soul. She loves, she loves me! Still burns upon my lips the sacred fire they received from thine…Forgive me, oh, forgive!…angel happy, and the blessing of Heaven be upon you!”

In the chapter “Degeneration, masculinity, nationhood and the Gothic” from Victorian Demons, Andrew Smith writes on Charles Kingsley’s  The Tree of Knowledge, that he defends “a conservative claim about the higher purity of women [by] rewriting his own Christian theology” where his goal is to shift the fault of the Fall. The serpent represents a predatory male desire with all the “depraved, bestial, yet ‘normal’ traits of male sexuality. It is the very purity of women, that incites the baser urges of the male and so illustrates the real moral ‘fall’ of the male” (Smith, p. 22). He goes on to quote Kingsley, “the woman’s more delicate organization, her more vivid emotions, her more voluble fancy, as well as her mere physical weakness and weariness, have been to her, in all ages, a special source of temptation; which it is to her honor that she has resisted so much better than the physically stronger, and therefore culpable, man” (p. 171). For Kingsley, “men can only transcend [their] degeneracy through the kind ministrations of women who can enlighten the degenerate male about the existence of a higher form of moral conduct” (Smith, p. 23).

Perhaps this is the same moral hierarchy upon which rests the amorphous code of chivalry, whose roots historian Amy Kelly traces back to original implementation by French Countess named Marie in the early 1100’s. The Countess, with the hopes of shaming any behavior that was dangerous to social order, “organized the rabble of soldiers, fighting-cocks, jousters, springers, riding masters, troubadours, Poitevin nobles and debutantes, young chatelaines, adolescent princes, and infant princesses in the great hall of Poitiers. Of this pandemonium the countess fashioned a seemly and elegant society, the fame of which spread to the world. Here was a woman’s assize to draw men from the excitements of the tilt and the hunt, from dice and games, to feminine society, an assize to outlaw boorishness and compel the tribute of adulation to female majesty” (Amy Kelly, ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine and Her Courts of Love’ Source: Speculum, Vol. 12, No. 1. Published by Medieval Academy of America, 1937). Countess Marie was one among a long line of reformers to help usher in a gynocentrism whose aim was to convince men of their shared flaws–essentially to shame them—and to prescribe romantic love and concomitant worship of females as the remedy. Chivalry and the worship of women was a method used to tame men’s rowdiness and brutality, something traditionalists like Kingsley agree with in their call for men to seek holiness from women.

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