13 June 2023

The question then arose as to how to finance the purchase. The friends’ association Gesellschaft der Freunde der HAB e.V. (GdF) agreed most generously to meet the costs of the acquisition, thereby allowing the Herzog August Bibliothek to make the successful bid at the auction on 28 March 2023. Ownership was transferred to the HAB for a little over 28,000 euros. We have the GdF to thank for the most significant acquisition of a handwritten document by Lessing in the last 15 years. The letter will now be preserved with the shelf mark Lessingiana XLIV and is already accessible in digitised form online.

For more than two centuries the valuable letter was owned by private collectors. After the death of Dorothea Salome Lessing in 1803, it went to the Mendelssohn Bartholdy family, with whom she was on friendly terms. The contents of the missive were known to Lessing researchers, and the text had also been printed in the large editions of Lessing’s works by Lachmann/Muncker and W. Barner. The letter is also recorded in the complete list of Lessing manuscripts compiled by W. Milde in 2016. But a handwritten document of this kind, through its materiality, also provides immediate information about its creation. The letter allows us to understand how Lessing applied his even, flowing and legible penmanship to the thin rag paper.

So what is this letter about? Lessing was writing on 20 March 1777 in Wolfenbüttel to his sister Dorothea Salome, who was in their home town of Kamenz. Only a few days previously, after returning from a trip to Mannheim, he had received his sister’s letter notifying him of their mother’s death on 7 March. She had died at the age of 73 following a long illness, seven years after her husband.

At the time, Lessing had been living with his wife Eva König for the past few months (they had finally been able to marry in October 1776) in what is now known as the Meissnerhaus on the Schlossplatz. On the family front it may well have been his happiest year, as a commemorative plaque on the house’s facade states, but Lessing was not quite so content with his career. In the hope of finding a well-paid post at the Nationaltheater in Mannheim, which was then in the process of being set up, he had travelled to the seat of the Electoral Palatinate – but his plans came to nothing and he remained librarian at the ducal library in Wolfenbüttel.

Lessing wrote to his sister, who was two years older than him, about how deeply the loss of their mother affected him. He eschewed long laments because he knew that Dorothea was aware of his love for their mother; the two siblings had been close since childhood. Instead, he thanks her for her sacrifice in caring for their mother, which made her final years bearable (this gratitude was the best way to mourn, he felt), sends her some money to cover the funeral costs and announces that further financial support will follow. Lessing shows that he is a practical type of person for whom a good deed speaks louder than a plethora of good words. Then he starts talking about his younger brother Theophilus, who had announced a visit in a letter to Eva König. Lessing asks about this full of anticipation – he very much hopes that the visit will happen, and indeed it did that Easter. Theophilus was then deputy head of the school in Pirna, and soon afterwards he took in his unmarried sister. Lessing concludes the short letter with greetings from his wife and an assurance of everlasting devotion.

The recently acquired manuscript complements the HAB’s existing holdings of Lessing’s letters perfectly. It can be compared to the earliest preserved letter by Lessing, which he wrote to his sister in 1743, at the age of 14, while attending school in Meissen. The HAB was able to acquire this letter back in 1990 (Lessingiana XXXVII). The two letters show a very personal side of Lessing and testify both to his intimate relationship with his family and to his care for his sister.

The contents of the letter:

My dear sister,

I need not tell you how much the news in your last letter moved me. For you do not think so poorly of me that I need convince you of my love for our dear departed mother by lamenting her death. The best way to mourn her, I believe, is to not forget that you made the final years of her life so bearable by sacrificing yourself to your sense of duty on behalf of us all. Do accept the small consideration contained within, which you may need to cover the burial costs, and rest assured that more is to follow.

How is Theophilus? He wrote to my wife in my absence and gave us hope that he would visit at Easter. Will he keep his word? We are expecting him any day now with the utmost impatience.

My wife sends her warmest greetings, and I remain eternally


loyal brother



20 March 1777


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