Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The name Andrea Wulf has the hearts of both publishers and reviewers pumping at increased velocity. She is an author who was born in India, moved to Germany, but now lives in England. She is the author of several highly acclaimed books, the winner of numerous international awards, and most importantly, the writer of a book called Magnificent Rebels, the subject of our review today. This book is magnificent. The Times described it as “[a] witty, gossipy, sparkling history [which] shows how the German city of Jena in the 1790s fizzed with creative energy” (Best Books of 2022). There is much more to be said.

The book under discussion highlights the work of a group of creative people who changed the way we think about ourselves and the world we inhabit. It was not Paris we should be imagining but rather a sleepy town called Jena in the quiet principality of Thuringia, where poets and playwrights (Goethe, Schiller and Novalis), philosophers (Fichte, Schelling and Hegel), literary critics (the contentious Schlegel brothers), and scientists (Alexander van Humboldt) have their say. At the heart of all this brain-power rested the formidable and free-spirited Caroline Schlegel.

Andrea Wulf introduces her readers to the Jena Set, whose creative ideas freed thinking about the self, the aspirations of art and science, nature, and what it really meant to be free. This is no academic text. Rather Andrea Wulf shows us how the participants lived their journeys, through misadventures and passionate love affairs and epic quarrels, their successes and heartbreak. Even today we empower ourselves to examine the self and, in so doing, we continue to restructure the mind.

This book has been described truthfully as a thrilling intellectual history that reads like a superior soap opera where the characters are mostly oddballs but geniuses nevertheless. It is a tale buttressed by scrupulous research, which Wulf presents as a case study in lucidity. There is so much material under discussion here that a lesser light could lose the direction of her argument, but Wulf never wavers.

Observing the Jena Set, with its quarrelsome subjects each endeavouring to be heard must have been chaos enlivened, yet Wulf keeps them on track. Here we have a group of philosophers, artists, and scholars so advanced in their thinking that we feel the tremors that their ideas set off as late as today. Yet “nobody but Andrea Wulf, with her exquisite grasp of ideas and personalities, with her meticulous, sensitive, and acutely observed prose, could make the reader feel as if they were in the room… bearing witness to their insights and their vanities and rages. Her storytelling had me immediately in her thrall.” – Lauren Groff, author of Matrix.

Researching the literature finds almost every reviewer praising the work of Andrea Wulf. The book has been described as a vivid portrait of the German group that launched Romanticism, a book that evokes the sounds and smells of the city. To the more imaginative it is a book thar suggests Silicon Valley where geeks open and re-wire our brains.

Magnificent Rebels – the First Romantics and the Invention of the Self


By Andrea Wulf

John Murray/Hachette Aust

ISBN: 978-1-529-39275-3

$34.99; 512 pp

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