The women authors of the late nineteenth century wrote in league with and as challenge to the women’s movement. The most self-assured of the women writers could be publicly involved in well-defined key issues such as electoral rights for women, and in private would form unofficial networks with other women, for example in a weekly salon where they could discuss matters of doubt.
These were women who did not pigeonhole moral conduct, for the very reason that they were open and therefore deeply affected by the change in mindset that triggered the controversy about morality: the sexualisation of gender. Very few of the women writers therefore spoke out in the ideological dispute. Instead, they used fiction to find their bearings in the state of womanhood. And here, they shaped a different and more dangerous picture of female sexuality than the clichés put on display in the public debate.
The women authors of the late nineteenth century wrote in league with and as challenge to the women’s movement, but on the whole they were too candid to allow themselves to be inhibited, be it by chastity belts or social theories. Erna Juel-Hansen’s demonstrative resignation from Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society) in 1887 is a typical illustration of resistance. Like Erna Juel-Hansen, the most self-assured of the women writers could be publicly involved in well-defined key issues such as electoral rights for women, and in private would form unofficial networks with other women. Henriette Steen, who was Viggo Hørup’s lover and kindred spirit, for example, held a weekly salon where Erna Juel-Hansen and other women of a radical disposition – such as doctors Nielsine Nielsen and Emmy Lange and writers Therese Brummer, Mathilda Malling, and Amalie Skram – could discuss matters of doubt. These were women who did not pigeonhole moral conduct, for the very reason that they were open and therefore deeply affected by the change in mindset that triggered the controversy about morality: the sexualisation of gender.
Very few of the women writers therefore spoke out in the ideological dispute. Instead, they used fiction to find their bearings in the state of womanhood. And here, they shaped a different and more dangerous picture of female sexuality than the clichés put on display in the public debate.
The female avant-garde took strong exception to all the commotion about morality. In a letter written to her friend Agnes Rambusch in 1887, Erna Juel-Hansen explodes:
“Just think what kind of plebeian women are dominating! I call them plebeian women because I place these Gruntvigian ‘angels’ in a class with the lowest. What they have done is to throw handfuls of mud onto that which we others worship as hallowed and inviolable. It is so back to front, so outrageously wrong, that they have pride of place and we others are on the dunghill that it is like running one’s head against the hard injustice every time one thinks about it. It is the triumph of temperance, sexlessness – which is being swilled down by the majority – both in speech and writing [...].”
Asta Nørregaard: Lesende kvinne ved åpent vindu, 1889. Oil painting, private collection, unknown photographer
Vilhelmine Zahle (1868-1940) only published two short stories, collected in Vildsomme Veje (1890; Pathless Ways). As the title suggests, the possibility of going astray in the new sexual wilderness is here put under scrutiny. The respective female main characters are of a marriageable age, and both go exploring in their own sexual landscape before they get married. In both cases, they end up in a sensible and traditional marriage – without any correlation whatsoever to the sexual forces that had raged in them earlier. In “I Sommerferien” (Summer Holiday), Valborg, having fallen head-over-heels in love while on summer holiday in a rural idyll of a rectory, returns to her reliable merchant. In “Ogsaa en Kærlighedshistorie” (Also A Love Story), Martha loses every spark of her otherwise so abundant, yet wild, capacity for love when her female friend – the object of Martha’s love – gets married. The latter story is remarkable. Partly because of its subject, which can be seen as manifestation of the fact that the new focus on gender had simultaneously bred a sexual norm for female sexuality. In part, this is expressed by the friend wondering “[...] if there really existed such strangely endowed women who are only capable of falling on love with one of their own sex.” And it is also apparent in the striking and incessant questioning of nature: from an ironic narrative stance, whence the statement is apparently denounced – “A singular, desultory, unnatural infatuation!” – and from a sympathetic indirect style, in which Martha’s own tone of voice can be heard.
The concept of ‘nature’ is discussed in every corner of the Modern Breakthrough. Here, Illa Christensen’s young woman in the novel Et ubetydeligt menneske (1885; An Insignificant Person) has tired of it:
“This novel, in which the heroine acquires for herself the one lover after the other; in which there is less talk of love than of necessity of nature; ... in which one has to trudge through the ramblings of long chapters while one’s thoughts, indeed even one’s mouth and nose, are tortured by tedium, crudeness, and fetid mire, without understanding why this laborious trek should be necessary.”
Throughout her childhood, Martha has been left to her own devices – and to books. Unstructured reading of all sorts of literature is therefore some kind of explanation for her inclination to “infatuation”. But the “unnatural” aspect cannot be directly attributed to all this reading. On the contrary, Martha tries “to conceive an infatuation for some gentleman, and work herself up to feel the emotions she had read that young women undergo when in love, but it never came to anything other than play-acting [...].”
The questions of natural versus unnatural and normal versus abnormal cause confusion in Martha’s mind and in the narrative of the text: “That this should be the course of nature! And that she should find this nature so terribly difficult to comprehend!” Once Martha has been ‘cured’, it is said that she is, in addition, “divested of her peculiarity”, which undeniably underscores the irony in the statement that judged infatuation for her friend to be “unnatural”. This love is now, on the contrary, characterised as her “second nature”, while the ‘natural’ looks like masquerade:
“ – but when she forced and restrained herself, made tremendous efforts, put on an act and fabricated and contrived with herself so as to resemble ‘other young girls’, well, then she was told: ‘Yes, there you see Martha, – you are such a sweet and natural little girl, after all – so why –... ’.”
Vildsomme Veje can be read as a contribution to the contemporaneous discussions about the ‘nature’ of woman. The short stories are naturalistic in the sense that they are written in an analytical, causation-seeking style, but at the same time they refute the idea of nature as the ultimate truth. There are no chaste angels here, but nor are there any women with a sexual instinct requiring to be satisfied in a ‘natural’, uncomplicated fashion. On the contrary, the two stories are full of sexual feelings that simply cannot be explained via biology.
The short stories are inquiring in tone, full of questions that lead to new questions – have, in fact, something of the ingenuousness that the ‘gauntlet women’ otherwise invoked. The stories were well received among the radicals, but were slated in the labour movement press – which tells us something about why the women writers could not be members of Kvindelig Fremskridtsforening (Women’s Progress Association).
In spite of all the banner-waving, Vilhelmine Zahle would seem to have needed the atmosphere created by the morality feud in order to put pen to paper. At all events, her published writing career came to an end with this promising debut; the only works later to bear her name were a couple of poems in Kvinden og Samfundet (Woman and Society).
Christine Mønster (1855-1913), writing under the pseudonym “Aage Vang”, explored other pathless ways. Her novel Agnete. Interieur fra et Pigehjærte (1885; Agnete. Interior of a Girl’s Heart) is a study in a version of female sexuality that might have been considered less ‘unnatural’ than the one depicted by Vilhelmine Zahle, but was by no means more expedient or navigable.
Just like the central character in “Ogsaa en Kærlighedshistorie”, Agnete is a relatively unmoulded and open child with no inner guidelines as to how an adult woman should plot her course in life. And therefore she does not actually know what she is doing, neither when compassion for her cousin leads her to get engaged to him, nor when she later falls in love with an absolutely off-limits man: her brother-in-law. She has to rely entirely on her own discernment. The disgust aroused by her cousin’s self-presumptive kiss makes her view the obligatory and imposed version of sexuality as “this alarming item” – something that makes her restless and a stranger to herself; an alienation that she only overcomes by falling in love with her brother-in-law. This love is hers, entirely a product of her own imagination – and therefore, of course, impossible to bring to fruition.
Sexual awakening leads Agnete into an imaginary hell. In a breathless style, where the sympathetic but also matter-of-factly all-knowing narrator is constantly a step or two ahead of Agnete, she is thrown back and forth in her own thought-mill: pitched from hopeful anticipation to pulling back from fear of rejection, from a dark sense of guilt to a vigorous sense of entitlement, because – she loves. Her brother-in-law knows nothing of all this!
The novel ends with a bang. Driven to the limit, Agnete gives herself away; since her brother-in-law is “good”, “perceptive”, “prudent”, and “honourable”, he rejects her on the spot.
Christine Mønster was one of the few women of the Modern Breakthrough to receive a positive mention in Vilhelm Andersen’s Illustreret Dansk Litteraturhistorie (1929-35; Illustrated History of Danish Literature):
“In Aage Vang’s ‘Agnete’ (1885), and also in some stories from the eighties, the affected subtitle ‘Interior of a Girl’s Heart’ encompasses a real precision in the portrait.”
To a considerable extent, the novel thus charts the same emotional energies, the same obstacles to sexual animation, as those described by Vilhelmine Zahle. The clash between a spontaneous, anarchistic sexual desire and its rather unimaginative, but pragmatic object. The ‘solutions’ are also similar. Both Martha and Agnete are driven towards suicide, but are saved; Martha by a real illness and a shallow marriage, Agnete by the same imagination that conjured up the sexual figment: “Her horror of the notion of madness was strong enough to awaken the dormant energy that a sense of duty had sought in vain to call to battle against her love.” She abandons suicide and instead leaves her childhood home, stripped of everything, setting forth into the world: “And life lay before her – so long and flat.”
Christine Mønster’s novel approaches the debate on moral standards from several directions. By, like Laura Kieler’s Mænd af Ære (1890; Men of Honour), illustrating a mental state in which “to love and be loved” features as the sole purpose of life. And by showing that this “outlook on life”, as Louise Nørlund called it, is not tenable. When Agnete sets forth into the world, it has become “flat”; she has not undertaken a training in anything, she has nothing to live on, she is thrown back on her own resources. Thus far, the novel was on the same wavelength as the progress women. Moreover, it was in harmony with the ‘women’s question’ by, on the one hand, presenting marriage as psychologically impossible if lacking mutual sexual attraction, and, on the other hand, by showing the impossibility of the qualified choice if the young woman’s only intellectual ballast stemmed from the reading of Romantic literature.
The artistic interpretation, however, propels these circumstances into a completely different dimension. Sexual awakening, notwithstanding the consequences of actions, does not feature as mere chance, but as an inner necessity. The ‘self’ is formed in the melting pot of desire. Despite the ‘flatness’, Agnete does manage to salvage a self that no amount of education, no amount of career would have been able to facilitate. This interpretation of being a woman thus cuts straight across the interpretation put forward in the general cultural debate. The modern woman is neither a construct of sexual instinct nor of virtuousness; she arises from a change in the scheme of things, in which desire now materialises from within,and where fantasies, in all their madness, have to be taken seriously. Sexuality has become a dimension of the individual identity, even though it can neither be verbalised nor practiced in social forms.
The year after the publication of Agnete, Christine Mønster was again in print with her novel I Brændingen (1886; In the Surf). Thematically, this book can be read both as a variation on and a continuation of her first novel. This time the ‘right’ lovers declare themselves to one another, but that is when the real trouble starts for the central character, Esther. Her sexual fantasies are not that easily kept under control, and they can but forge a volatile association with the flesh-and-blood object of her love. In nightmarish fashion, these fantasies become totally embroiled with religious scruples, with scenes of rape and murder, and Esther ends up running away from her fiancé to take paid employment in Copenhagen. But just as Vilhelmine Zahle’s young woman lost her “peculiarity” once her sexuality had been eliminated, so Esther loses her individuality in the asexual work. Lethargic and unfulfilled, she drags out her existence until she dies of heart failure the night before she was on the verge of reviving her relationship with the erstwhile fiancé. Sexual desire is not easily duped into waiting for better times ahead.
Christine Mønster wrote two more novels; in these, however, imagination not only overpowered the central characters, but also the storyteller. Tre Sind (1888; Three Minds) and Elisif (1911) have dramatic plots and dire fortunes, but lack the tautness and artistic discipline that distinguishes Agnete. In her real life, Christine Mønster acted just like her fictional Esther: she followed her religious impulses and joined Diakonissestiftelsen (The Deaconess Foundation) in Copenhagen.
While feelings were running at their highest during the dispute about moral conduct – and Elisabeth Grundtvig was claiming the right of the “cultural woman” to renounce a sexuality that could not encompass the demand for wholeness in life – Erna Juel-Hansen was writing the work that perhaps went deepest of all the documents that came out of the morality case in its analysis of the young woman’s gamut of sexual desire: the novel En ung Dames Historie (1888; Story of a Young Lady).
In Sex Noveller (1885; Six Short Stories), a collection published earlier, she had already sketched out the main character, Margrethe Holm, by means of her reactions on the day of her confirmation, in the story “En Konfirmand” (A Confirmation Candidate). Initially, this ceremony of entry into the adult world of womanhood puts Margrethe into a state of bewilderment – a scene in which she has no part to play – but later, when she is literally adorned with gifts, it takes on the dimensions of an almost sexual ecstasy:
“In a flash all hands were in motion, and everyone was of one mind: all of it should be mounted on Margrethe, chains, brooches, bracelets, rings, everything was to have a place. She trembled with impatience and delight. She had desired this the whole time, but was ashamed.”
This little vignette highlights the features that will be decisive for Margrethe’s fate in the overall sequence of the novel. She is well aware of what a good young girl is not allowed to do: she must not have sensations of the flesh, she must not shake with impatience and delight – but she knows this in a superficial manner; her connection with her body is so vivid, she is so open and ‘hungry’ that desire makes short work of shame.
The confirmation in Erna Juel-Hansen’s “En konfirmand” (Sex Noveller) (1885; A Confirmation Candidate, in the collection Six Short Stories) is a mesh of words and body, shame and pleasure:
“And then it was that Pastor Skou started his address. But at that moment his words were drowned out in her ears by the rustling of her silk dress. How amusing it sounded – crick, crack! With downcast eyes, hands folded on her hymn book, she surreptitiously made a gentle turn, only to hear the silk crackling once more [...] She looked up shyly, straight into Pastor Skou’s darkly burning eyes. Her face turned white from horror – had he seen something? and in the next instant scarlet, when a phrase in his address caused the church to resound with the final words of the hymn about ‘Vanity, Vanity’.”
The novel paints a picture of the inner process of disintegration in bourgeois gender roles. The father is liberal-minded and outgoing, and innocently enters into alliances with his daughter behind her mother’s back. The mother is narrow-minded and holy, and far too busy defending the emptiness of her life to be in touch with what is going on with her daughter. In the vacuum between her mother’s lived-out gender role and her father’s well-meaning, but in practice absent figure, Margrethe is thus left to her own devices. Her father’s broad-mindedness makes no inroads into her mother’s domain. In their day-to-day lives, Margrethe is subjected to her mother’s norms – meaning that she has not been allowed to learn anything. In her mother’s eyes, education and independent employment are an abomination for a woman, so Margrethe ends up spending her youth doing what the daughters of the bourgeoisie had done for generations – waiting: waiting for the visiting card of a suitable suitor to turn up, waiting for the stamp of approval.
A wife’s reaction in Erna Juel-Hansen’s En ung Dames Historie (1888; Story of a Young lady) when her husband finally insists that their daughter must learn something:
“But then Madame State Councillor had almost swooned and vowed that, even were he to take her last drop of blood, it would never happen: A tutor and physiology! That he did not blush from the shame of taking these two words in his mouth at one and the same time when they were discussing a young girl!”
Margrethe waits – but she does something else, too. Because the waiting period in the modern, moneyed bourgeoisie has been drained of useful female pursuits – those were now purchasable – idleness opens up for an activity of the imagination that is in glaring contrast to the suppression of the mysteries of the body practiced so unwaveringly by the milieu. Time passes with vague dreams: “An arousing pastime, which increased the simmering yearning in her blood, and from which she rose with a feeling similar to when she had over-eaten at the baker’s shop.”
The imagery is characteristic of Erna Juel-Hansen’s naturalistic pen. The sexual urge is illustrated as gluttony which, for lack of real food, has to be fed substitutes – fantasies or cream cakes.
All the while, Margrethe falls thoroughly in love with the men who loom onto her narrow horizon, and they all find a place in the forest of dreams that grows up around her. In her cousin Christian, a mildly scandal-ridden painter, she encounters the ‘modern’, but Christian is – as are most men of the Modern Breakthrough – caught up in a dual mindset as regards women. He registers – with the artist’s argus-eye – the very tension between innocence and unacknowledged passion that is “simmering” in the young woman, but he has no incentive to release it by slaking her craving for knowledge – by giving her, if we stick to the imagery, something proper to digest.
There is incentive to a fault for his doppelgänger, another painter, who makes Margrethe once more tremble with impatience – and with sexual desire. They embark on a proper carnal relationship, which fulfills his wildest dream, “that a delightful, warm-hearted woman would come to him, as she had today, ‘because she could not do otherwise!’” – and at the same time fills her void: “Since that day, there was no more emptiness and no more disgust, all the anxiety of idleness was gone [...] and no dream was barren any longer, yearning had no void, for she knew, every time they saw one another, she felt from the fervour of the kisses, the ardour of his embrace, that he loved as she did, yearned as she did.”
Unlike most other works written by women at the time, Erna Juel-Hansen is thus describing a case of female desire experienced as a sexual identity. Mental and physical “delight” form a harmonious whole in Margrethe’s self-perception. The perceptive point made by the novel, however, is that under moral pressure the sexuality that is lived out must nonetheless assume the same character as the fantasy. The relationship is – of course – clandestine, but it has to be in order to arouse Margrethe. A marriage would just ruin it all: “This was theirs alone and only as such entirely rewarding.” In this interpretation, female sexual desire seals itself off; gone are time, society, and any form of personal growth.
It is, therefore, not prejudice but isolation that puts an end to the relationship. The lovers draw sustenance for their liaison solely from the passion they share; this provides plenty of fuel for Margrethe, but the liberal-minded man finds that lack of intellectual ‘oxygen’ causes his flame to burn out.
Between the two painters, the novel inserts a third man – one to whom Margrethe becomes engaged – and he is in every way a contrast to the modern artists. He is a sober and purposeful scientist – and sexually ‘pure’. He confides in his future father-in-law that whenever he feels the stirrings of desire he reaches for the dumb bells – the author is here making ill-concealed figurative fun of this ‘gauntlet moralist’: he has an extremely well-developed physique – the result of all his sexual-hygiene workouts. But it is this physique that initially fascinates the fantasising Margrethe – she thinks so large a body must house a mighty capacity for love. By the time she realises that it does not, it is too late; too late and too inarticulately does she become acquainted with her own desire, and she therefore ends up contracting marriage with a man she cannot love.
This analysis of the options accessible to female sexuality is exceptional for its day. In all its impartiality, it shows that liberalism and ‘gauntlet’ moralism alike are pursuing the wrong path. With the crumbling of bourgeois gender roles, sexual desire will no longer remain tightly laced in behind chaste femininity, but at the same time liberalism cannot be lived unless women – in a more drastic sense than Elisabeth Grundtvig could have envisaged – are brought up to be “cultural women”. Margrethe’s lover does not, like the lover in Mænd af Ære, forsake her from cynical calculation; he forsakes her because he is stifled by love, because in every single other area than that of sexual desire Margrethe is undeveloped, not to say totally blank.
In spite of its hard-headed analysis, the novel is carried along by a freshness and spontaneous suppleness of language. The reader senses that the author is an optimist – she knows sexual delight and knows it all too well. In Margrethe’s case, it proved impossible to integrate sexual impulse into the woman’s lot in life, but this does not mean that it would never be possible.
Edvard Brandes was the Modern Breakthrough’s arbiter of taste, writing for the newspaper Politiken. On 30 April 1888, he gave his verdict on Erna Juel-Hansen’s Margrethe:
“It could be wished that En ung Dames Historie was richer in ideas and deeper in style – for it is always less than fortunate to busy oneself solely with an insignificant and inane person. But Mrs Erna Juel-Hansen has managed with much skill to maintain the readers’ interest in her young lady.”
In the short story “Enlig” (Single) from Sex Noveller, Erna Juel-Hansen shows one way in which this could be achieved. She presents a woman who is both a working and a sexual woman: “[...] she was a worker, pure and simple, and not at any price would she be anything else – but yet one thing, and that above all else!” Her life is one of subtle balance between independent employment as a bookkeeper and her relationship with a man disqualified from marriage for the time being due to financial circumstances. She has personal integrity, has long since freed herself of ‘the shame’, and there is not a shadow of doubt in the text – the love relationship is natural and ‘pure’: “[...] the fresh, exuberant sensuality of their young love had yielded to the claims that are the right of every physically and mentally healthy person to discharge in love!”
Nor does her belief in the legitimacy of love falter when the man breaks up with her in favour of a marriage of convenience, and she discovers that she is pregnant. This is not a realistic story in the sense of illustrating the social exclusion of the single mother; that aspect is deftly circumvented by making her employer both unprejudiced and interested in her as a person – he represents a potential future prospect for marriage.
One of the sources of Erna Juel-Hansen’s courage was the inspiration she received from her father, A. G. Drachmann. After reading “Enlig” (Single), he wrote to her:
“Has an independent, autonomous woman not a natural right to become a mother without entering into marriage? [...] It would seem to me that it must be highly exasperating for a woman with every prospect of being able to take care of herself and her children to be forced into pledging herself for life to a husband [...].”
On the other hand, the story addresses the issue of the single woman’s potential to live a full life. She in no way loses her sense of self when the man leaves her, even though the news temporarily knocks her for six. She is one of those women Louise Nørlund searches for in stories, women for whom: “Life has other purposes than to love and be loved! Life has a task [...].” And, indeed, first work and later the child provide her ‘cure’ for the wound. But not a cure for the sexual privation:
“And there were times when she understood that men could buy the blessing of an embrace [...] Long hours when, with a wringing of her hands, she abandoned the battle and in fervent dreams sought to alleviate her need.”
This frank, and in 1885 very brave,depiction of the anguish attendant on sexualisation, substantiates the description of the prerequisites for a free sexual relationship: “[...] the deepest foundation of their happiness was and would continue to be the inviolate freedom of the individual personality, which functioned as the cornerstone to the moral worth of their relationship.”
The story is thus idealistic in the sense that it idealises sexuality. But at the same time it is realistic in its historicisation of sexuality. The prerequisite for the viability of the sexualised relationship is that the woman who loves – unlike Margrethe – has a context for her personality. And she has that in her work! Erna Juel-Hansen’s short story thus takes its seat in the history of literature by virtue of being one of the first – perhaps the very first – to outline a modern sequence of female development – in which the woman grows into both an individual in the societal context and at the same time – indeed, in the same manoeuvre – personalises her sexual desire.
Translated by Gaye Kynoch