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‘Thesis of the Month’ goes to Joanna Raisbeck, University of Oxford!

Moving on from Nina Schmidt’s post on illness/disability studies last month, I’d like to return to more traditional forms of scholarship, and indeed to a period not seen on the WiGS blog since Ellen Pilsworth’s post: Romanticism at the turn of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. The subject of my thesis is Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806), and I am examining the intersection between religion and philosophy in her work.

My first acquaintance with Günderrode was encountering a small selection of her oeuvre – predominantly poems – as a final-year undergraduate. What struck me then was the distinctiveness of Günderrode compared to some of her contemporaries. For Günderrode shirked the popular novel form, which was disparagingly cast as Frauenroman and seen as an acceptable space for female writers to pursue their literary ambitions. Instead she composed Classicising dramas, dramolets, poems, Socratic dialogues and short prose texts, and even an intriguing mixture of poetry and purported letter fragments in Briefe zweier Freunde (1806). As an autodidactic writer who engaged extensively with contemporary literature and philosophy, Günderrode is an intriguing, isolated figure between the Jena and Heidelberg Romantic circles.

But there are inherent problems with dedicating a doctoral thesis to Günderrode. The most prominent of these is the pitfall of biographism. Günderrode’s biography and the circumstances of her death would provide ample material for a film melodrama: rejected by her married lover, so the standard narrative, Günderrode committed suicide on the banks of the Rhine by stabbing herself in the chest. Love and death feature as prominent themes in Günderrode’s work, which has regrettably led to a tendency in scholarship to read biography into individual texts.

So what does my thesis seek to do? It is more than the attempt to rehabilitate an author known primarily as biographical curiosity on the fringes of the literary ‘canon’. I am investigating the extent to which religion underpins Günderrode’s oeuvre, and how this interlinks with contemporary philosophy. Religion is not understood in the formal sense of worship and a series of habitual social practices, but rather as a palliative to existential concerns. My interest lies in whether Günderrode adopts various models – pantheism or panentheism, the valorisation and sacralisation of literature and artistic creativity, or love as a pervasive, quasi-cosmic force – as a means to stem such concerns.

One central text so far for my thesis has curiously escaped scholarly attention: Mahomed (1805), a play which charts the political and religious ascendency of the prophet of Islam. Unlike Goethe’s Mahomet play fragment, where Mahomet’s conviction and ability to inspire becomes a religious fervour that is fundamental, Günderrode’s Mahomed is an unequivocally divinely inspired prophet, whose religious understanding represents a curious, syncretistic admixture of Christianity, the Spinozism of the late eighteenth-century, some tenets of Islam, and elements from esoteric knowledge systems (Kabbala, Hermeticism).

The narrative thrust of Mahomed leads to a broader question not about Günderrode, but about Romanticism more generally. I seek to investigate the concept of ‘secularisation’, which the late M.H. Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism (1973) identified as a process to which European Romanticism responded. Secularisation has long been the subject of intense debate in scholarship, especially since it has been acknowledged that the process of Aufklärung was not inherently opposed to the church. Günderrode’s Mahomed is an attempt to rethink religion by stripping it back to its point of origin, and therefore offers one way of re-thinking the secularisation thesis in relation to Romanticism.

For more about Joanna’s research interests see:



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