Love and Friendship: Part Two

By Susan Broomhall, The University of Western Australia

As Susan Broomhall discussed in ‘Love and Friendship: Part One’, analysing the correspondence between Maria Theresia and her daughter Marie-Antoinette, and between Catherine de Medici and her daughter Elisabeth de Valois, reveals the complex entanglement of feelings between powerful mothers and their powerful daughters –­ daughters whom they wanted to see become strong and confident influences in their new homelands, but whom they also often expected to secure natal interests.

‘[A] Friend who speaks to you with the tenderness of a mother’

Just a few years after Marie-Antoinette and Marie Theresia had concluded their correspondence, another powerful woman, Wilhelmine von Preußen, wife of Willem V, Prince of Orange, began to foster a correspondence structured as an intimate friendship with her daughter, Frederica Louise Wilhelmina. Louise, as she was called within her family, was the eldest child of the princely couple, and sister to two younger brothers, Willem and Frederik. In October 1790 she married Karl Georg August von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. Letter-writing with her mother clearly presented an opportunity to develop a firm, secure and trusted ally for the House of Orange. Wilhelmine proposed the exchange to her daughter, however, as an outlet for emotional experiences that would not jeopardise the young woman’s courtly position.

Wilhelmine von Preußen, Princess of Orange
Figure 6: Johann Friedrich August Tischbein, Wilhelmine von Preußen, Princess of Orange, 1789. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Wilhelmine framed her requests for intimacy in terms of her daughter’s emotional wellbeing and educational development, although over time many letters also involved symbolic and partisan political discussion. In 1790, Wilhelmine admonished her daughter not for her lack of response, but for the lack of information about her personal feelings that Louise’s most recent letter had contained:

In a conversation, my dear Loulou, each puts in something of one’s own, if one wants it to be agreeable and sustained. It is the same for a correspondence. For it to be animated there must be some sustenance. When everything is on one side and nothing on the other, it soon languishes and one is tempted to abandon it. Such is my case, my dear Loulou; your silence does not encourage me at all to continue correspondence with you.[1]

Wilhelmine developed the idea of a format and tone for their correspondence that allowed her to pursue intimate topics, ones that may not realistically have been addressed in speech, but which nonetheless were contextualised in an evocative framework of familial intimacy.

Wilhelmine’s letters were also, however, lessons; many set out a careful, deliberate presentation of arguments for Louise’s consideration. In the year of her daughter’s marriage, for example, Wilhelmine began a series of lengthy letters that developed topics such as marriage, court conduct, and female diplomacy:

Since your reason has begun to develop, I have been pleased, my very dear Loulou, to share my reflections with you on each occasion which concerns you particularly and which could offer you a useful lesson. Could I at present keep silent at the approach of the most interesting period of your life? … In another letter, my dear Loulou, I will speak to you of your future state. We will examine it from all its angles and I will tell you of my thoughts on this interesting subject.[2]

The next month, she wrote again, pursuing her discussion of the topic in the same explicitly pedagogical style:

A reasonable person, my dear Loulou, sees events that concern them from their different angles, so as to form just ideas and to regulate one’s conduct as a consequence. I am persuaded that you accept this principle and following from that, I imagine that it will not be disagreeable to you that we examine together all that relates to your future establishment and that on these occasions I give you my reflections on these matters.[3]

As Louise’s marriage approached Wilhelmine explicitly reiterated this language:

Give me your full trust. Do not leave me ignorant of the insinuations that you will perhaps receive, the intimacies of the young Princesses with whom you will be; do not tie yourself intimately to anyone before knowing them sufficiently. …Yes, my child, it is this trust so precious which will begin to let me even do the same with you.[4] 

Louise, as princess of Orange
Figure 7: Johann Friedrich August Tischbein, Louise, as princess of Orange, 1788. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Wilhelmine’s letters might well have been an exemplar of contemporary epistolary aspirations of naturalness, spontaneity, sincerity and simplicity. She assured her daughter that she could write freely, ‘in the certitude that your letters would not be seen by any but me’. From her daughter, Wilhelmine expected nothing less than that Louise should expose the true expression of her feelings and thoughts: ‘Tell me frankly your opinion on what you see and here and always, my dear Loulou, let me read the inner recesses of your heart’.[5] She encouraged her daughter use the letter format to express her spontaneous and natural sentiments, as well as her reasoned judgements. Wilhelmine’s letters, and those she expected of her daughter, were studies in the art of natural, rational discourse, presenting deep, meaningful discussions interspersed with philosophical considerations and the language of love and friendship in a seemingly artless way.

Complicating their epistolary relationship, though, Wilhelmine insisted on both love as a mother and as a friend as key facets for their interchange:

whatever they might contain, I would never reproach you, that I would demand only sincerity and that my responses are dictated by the true interest that I take in you, that it was a Friend who speaks to you with the tenderness of a mother.[6]

In the following year, when talking about what she expected from a marriage partner, Wilhelmine wrote:

My tenderness for you makes me regard what concerns you as if it also concerns me and I make it my duty to tell you of my observations that a little experience of the world has given me. However, my dear Loulou, I submit them to your judgement and your own examination. Give me the real pleasure of letting me know your remarks and the objections that you might have to my reasoning.[7]

Wilhelmine adopted the language of maternal affection, but also that of a friend. This created a tension in their correspondence – were they equals or not? What Louise was offered in return for her open feelings was no more than the promise that her mother might one day do the same.

And what of friendship with one’s future husband? When, in 1789, Louise expressed doubts about her prospective husband – a man who was known to be rather unimpressive and no great thinker, but whose father had assisted her parents against the Dutch rebellion in 1787 – Wilhelmine dissected the question in didactic style:

it seems to me that you have no other idea than the alternative of governing your husband or seeing him the plaything of those around him, which revolts you. Let us try, my child, to rectify your ideas on this point and examine together all that this establishment promises you. I would be angry if you did not feel repugnance for those women who, as you say, govern their husband in the palm of their hand. But there is a great difference between that authority and the influence that I desire that you have over yours. A friend who is enlightened, wise, far-sighted, is a treasure for any man who has some feeling. … In this way she can flatter herself to become a companion not only agreeable but also useful to her husband. She will have an authority over him that reason, that friendship, creates; but never if she is wise, would she want to go beyond that.[8]

In a letter just a few months before Louise’s marriage, Wilhelmine set out a discourse on the prospect of marital happiness. ‘Our happiness depends principally upon ourselves’, she began.

It would be possible that after your marriage, more strongly involved with the duties of a Wife that you might make secret reproaches that your sentiments towards your Husband were not of the degree of vivacity that you would wish to give them. This would put you ill at ease with yourself, which is a painful sentiment that you have not yet felt. You might shut it away; not daring to open yourself up to anyone, you would suffer doubly and the consequences could be damaging for you and your Husband, if you do not take the true means to guard against it. Here is, my dear Loulou, my opinion on that. Experience proves that all that is exaggerated, above nature, does not assure one of stable happiness. This is why a strong passion does not make a happy union, if it is not founded on a true esteem … It is thus not a passion such as that that one demands when one says to love one’s husband. It is not the degree of vivacity of this sentiment that is in question. But to love one’s husband means principally to fulfil all one’s duties towards him.[9]

For Wilhelmine, maternal sentiment – that which ostensibly governed her correspondence with Louise – might be expressed and felt from the heart, but the love for one’s life partner was a more rational matter for the mind and for social practice.

Once married, affections would be what tied these young women to the interests of their natal dynasties, in ways that would never be experienced by their brothers. This demanded a purposeful and sustained practice of emotional behaviours, including letter-writing, gift-giving and visits, from a range of family members – particularly, from maternal figures. The epistolary cultures that Catherine de Medici, the Empress Maria Theresia and Wilhelmine von Preußen fostered with their respective daughters clearly provided opportunities to share news and feelings, to form their daughters’ characters and to survey them remotely. These were complicated maternal-filial and political relationships. Understanding their multifaceted – sometimes competing – dimensions demands nuanced scholarly consideration of contemporary meanings and practices of love and friendship.

Susan Broomhall is Professor of History at The University of Western Australia and Director of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. She was a Foundation Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. She became an Honorary Chief Investigator in 2014, having taken up an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. She is currently working on a study of emotions in the letters of Catherine de Medici.

[1] Correspondentie van de stadhouderlijke familie, 1777–1820. Volume 1: 1777–1793, edited by Johanna W. A. Naber (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1931), p. 68. These letters are analysed further in Susan Broomhall and Jacqueline Van Gent, ‘Love and Marriage: Individual, House and Dynasty’, Gender, Power and Identity in the Early Modern House of Orange-Nassau (London: Ashgate/Routledge, 2016).

[2] Correspondentie van de stadhouderlijke familie, pp. 57–58.

[3] Ibid., p. 60.

[4] Ibid., p. 29.

[5] Ibid. p. 29.

[6] Ibid., p. 6.

[7] Ibid., p. 60.

[8] Ibid., pp. 30–32.

[9] Ibid., pp. 61–62.

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