How come a daughter of the liberal, albeit conservative ultra-respectable professor and hofmedicus (court physician) Carl Henrik Horn Nebelong was fooling about like a bohemian in Copenhagen cafés with her female friends and aspiring writers, and also writing audacious novels about the straitened circumstances of women’s desire in petit-bourgeois and double-standards patriarchal Denmark?
Edith Rode (1879-1956) made her debut as a novelist in 1901. She was immediately successful: reasonably good reviews and slightly scandal-ridden attention. Because how come a daughter of the liberal, albeit conservative ultra-respectable professor and hofmedicus (court physician) Carl Henrik Horn Nebelong was fooling about like a bohemian in Copenhagen cafés with her female friends and aspiring writers, and also writing audacious novels about the straitened circumstances of women’s desire in petit-bourgeois and double-standards patriarchal Denmark?
Misse Wichmann (1901) was the title of her first published book. A novel about the woman who insists on her desires in spite and in defiance of men who are outraged by female seduction, and men who demand ‘purity’ of a wife. That same year she published Maja Engell, about the woman who wants to take responsibility for herself and her happiness, followed in 1902 by the sequel Gold (Barren). Tragic novels, in which desire and the will to be happy go to ground when confronted with men who cannot cope with women’s freedom and independence.
Caricature drawn by A. Koch. in Dansk Forfatter-Tidende, 16 February 1919. The Royal Library, Copenhagen
It is a familiar pattern. Many women writing colleagues publish their first works in the same year, depicting ‘free’ women who, affected by the double standards of the day, go to the wall. The stories themselves might not shine, but the tone and the style, the aggressive humour, the ability to bring the female central characters’ intellect and skewering arguments to life, are victorious. “She ought chiefly be prized,” writes Edvard Brandes in his review for the newspaper Politiken, “for her undaunted wit.” The novels are, in other respects, youthful. Battle cries from a young woman who has indeed encountered opposition, but has of yet not learnt what it means. There is no great distance between the young Edith Nebelong and her female leads. This will come! And in this respect the poet Sophus Claussen will be of assistance.
After the publication of Gold, more time was spent living than writing. In 1902 Edith Rode marries the brother of one of her girlfriends, the couple go to Italy for their honeymoon; here, in the Scandinavian artists’ colony, she meets Sophus Claussen and his wife, and also Helge Rode – and she runs off for ever with the latter. It is not until 1905 – two years after the birth of their daughter Asta, and the year in which the little bohemian family was finally able to return to respectable Denmark with both divorce and marriage sorted out – that the novel she had been writing in Italy, Tilfredse Hjerter (Contented Hearts), is published. A picturesque novel about the woman caught between inconsistent Giocondo – Catholic priest, Don Juan, and financial swindler all rolled into one – and the honourably sensitive artist Henry Scott; a novel which also has ambitions to be a picture of inauthentic exile. While working on the novel, Edith Rode had been uneasy about the lack of distance between herself and her main character, Englishwoman Margaret Gray: “all at once I see that a young woman painter from England is Edith Nebelong from Copenhagen, and so it of course has to be changed,” she writes in 1903 in a letter to the publisher Ernst Bojesen. It is never completely “changed”, however, and after publication Sophus Claussen writes to give her a good telling off:
“And what the hell kind of stupid book was that you wrote about Rome? You who have always been so on top of things – you who in your little books had constantly flown elegantly over it all in an aeroplane, you hung onto your first proper love affair like a poor, artless little creature with the rope around your neck, and confessed in a thick, thick book that you had stayed hanging on. Would it not have been more correct, much better in keeping with your talent and your intellectual abilities, if you had written a thick, thick book – making Helge the laughing stock – in which you confessed that it had simply been fear of the dark and anxiety-for-sleeping-alone that had made you a resigned mistress. Then you’d have gone to three printruns. And you could still have had three children with Helge anyway.”
Edith Rode replies in a calm manner, but takes his words to heart! The genre of novel is shelved for the time being, short stories start taking shape – from a combination of external necessity and inner compulsion. She and Helge Rode were both children of the well-to-do bourgeoisie, with no flair for finances, with a growing family, both used to having menials in attendance and – after four years of bohemian life in Italy – wine on the table. Helge Rode loved, wrote, and took writing retreats with his wealthy Norwegian family. Edith Rode loved, went hungry, looked after the children, and took a job – on the newspaper Berlingske Tidende. The beginning of a life as journalist, which put food on the table, and gradually put her writing into the short form – essay, tale, short story, poem. The short form, in which observation, imagination, and experience came together. But also a form that provided the opportunity to return to herself and the lack of distance. She does this in Pige (1914; Girl). A fictionalised memoir which, in six main chapters, follows Edele’s development from solitary, frightened child to strong young woman. Stylistically, it starts with essayistic snatches of memoir, gradually becoming realistic narrative – a transition from before to now based on key defining moments: “She was eleven years old when she definitively understood that there is a gap like the one between planets, between the adults’ incoherent world and the deep coherence of the children’s.”
“We have difficulty letting go of the dream or the ideal. We were carried so high by love, it was so far to fall. We were told that we would be carried in lady-chair. – Yes, but we had to haul the carrier’s cart. Our loved ones imposed heavy burdens on us and then fell for ‘the light brigade’. At one time, everything we said and did was so right that nothing like it had ever been said and done before. And then it turned and became quite wrong. – It is our fault that Jeppe drinks. Well, I think it is nice if we take on half the blame. And I do not think we can accept more than that. I will side with Eve, without defending her, but I refuse to admire Adam.”
Edith Rode: Livskunst uden Filosofi, (1948; The Art of Living, Without Philosophy)
Edith Rode rounds up a motley band in her narrative field. The South, the bohemians, the women artists are centre stage. The omniscient, authoritative narrator is made redundant. In her literary universe, the first-person narrator is either inquisitively questioning, wondering and ignorant, intensely postulating and desperate for acknowledgement, or silently listening. The first-person narrator shifts, and so do the stories.
Around the end of the nineteenth century, the Bernina restaurant in Copenhagen was one of the favourite meeting places for the bohemians – frequented by the older and well-known ones: Peter Nansen, who had just been made director of the Gyldendal publishing house, made his presence felt in the company of journalist Andreas Vinding and Poul Henningsen’s father, author and flâneur Carl Ewald. Future budding writers would also put in an appearance. So it was here that the young Edith Nebelong met Thit Jensen’s controversial brother, the young provocateur from Jutland Johannes V. Jensen – a meeting that made sparks fly and left literary footprints. In Misse Wichmann (1901) she put him in his place through her portrait of Ole Hein. He retaliated in Digte 1906 (Poems 1906); Emma in the poem “Ved Frokosten” (At Lunch) is a front for his relationship to the young Edith.
As a premise for many of the short stories there is the moment of confidentiality, the intimate dialogue between female friends. “‘In love? Yes, of course I’ve been in love!’ said Grazia Vitallini. ‘I’m not made of stone [...]’.” The narrative voice has asked the question and thereafter steps into the background. The young, much-feted dancer Grazia Vitallini does the telling! Her narratives start in the short story collection Af Kundskabens Træ (1912; From the Tree of Knowledge). They continue in Grazias Kærlighed (1919; Grazia’s Love) and – despite the short-story form – they make for a little novel following this passionate but virtuous Italian artist into her love paradox: she is young, she is beautiful, she is loved and sought after, but she loves and yearns only for he who once adored her, who she made a star, and who is now in his self-centredness hardly worthy of her love. In this series of Grazia stories, the narrative voice is composed as a cool, liberated Nordic counterpoint, the function of which is primarily the inquisitive wonder that throws Grazia’s self-imposed masochism into relief.
The Corinna stories from the collection Det bittersøde Æble (1926; The Bittersweet Apple) are a variation on the Grazia suite. The model is the same, but the poses are different. In the Grazia stories, the suffering, romantically loving story-teller is confronted with the cooler, more matter-of-fact narrative voice. The Corinna stories are more mischievous. The hard-and-fast women’s liberationist first-person narrator clashes with the woman of the world Corinna who knows that life is a complicated matter, and that women are not simply in the right because they are women. But Corinna does not lecture in a didactic way. By means of her stories, she thrusts a wedge into the black-and-white landscape of the first-person narrator and leaves it up to her – and the reader – to draw her own conclusions.
As the oeuvre progresses, the position of the first-person narrator becomes increasingly central. The spectrum goes from the role-determined voice to the openly listening and personally involved. The technique culminates in the collections of memoirs – De tre smaa Piger (1943; The Three Young Girls), Der var engang (1951; Once Upon a Time), Paa Togt i Erindringen (1953; On Expedition in Memory) – in which the encounter between present and past determines the form. Edith Rode characteristically always holds onto the present – it is from the now that she thinks back. It is from here that her truth can be seen, relived – as in Paa Togt i Erindringen – from this rented house where the summer humidity and rain set in, where she battles with arthritis and the stove, while her thoughts drift into the past. In dialogue with herself from back then. Not in a chronologically ordered sequence with which we, as readers, can identify. No, in thoroughly composed essayistic gems, a fusion of the now of journalism and the always of literature, which is, above all, discreet. Meeting Edith Rode for the first time here, the experience is both informative and enigmatic. She tells – and yet she does not tell.
She gives of her life, of her experience, of her experiences, but most of it is – as in Corinna, with her fortune-teller name – teasingly hidden in the composition. Even in her sketched reminiscences, Edith Rode puts herself in the listening position and leaves the conclusions open. The rendition makes for the art of distance and discretion. And this makes it possible for her also to write novels that do not merely link the stories cyclically in epic sequence. Ellinor from the novel Ogsaa i de andre Huse (1947; In the Other Houses Too) represents a culmination in Edith Rode’s writings. A woman who, in her constant considerations of everyone who loves her, loses love herself. At the bottom of this novel, the freebooter shouts and screams, but the narrative adheres to the psychology that makes it impossible for Ellinor to hurt anyone other than herself.
Picking up Edith Rode’s work from this point, the reader will be fascinated. Behind it lies the frightened dreaming child, the father-fixated Edith Nebelong, who became the young, self-aware, successful budding writer, who fell fiercely in love while in Italy, and who took the consequences: looked love and scandal in the eye and transformed herself from writing dreamer to modern realist.
Edith Rode took on her own Corinna position in 1937 when she was asked to be ‘agony aunt’ on the magazine Familie-Journalen. Pity was not Edith Rode’s cup of tea, and her advice was not simply a matter of affirming the justice of a correspondent’s cause – she was more likely to recommend taking personal responsibility and taking one’s life seriously rather than handing it over to other people!
Translated by Gaye Kynoch