As a proponent of family planning and contraception, Danish writer Thit Jensen was a both loved and controversial participant in the public debate of her day. Unsurprisingly, the ‘personality project’ – to be a person, standing on one’s own two feet, following one’s resolve, and having the courage of one’s convictions – is a motive force in all her works. The dream of a unified whole steers the personality project: to be able to love and to work, develop one’s self and serve others, combine private and societal, be an artist, not just in name but in fact.
Thit Jensen’s personal and artistic visions are united by a structure of female solicitude. She wanted to do more than the conventional forms of the novel could manage. She combines novel of formation and novel of development with social commentary, bordering, but not finding, a collective form. She thus bursts open the form, but does not find a new form that could unify and support her desire for accomplishment.
“I think you have read a bit too much Ellen Key, too much women’s rights altogether.” Thus we read of the central character, Birgitte, in Thit Jensen’s (1876-1957) story about Familien Storm (1904; The Storm Family). It is true that the young Thit Jensen puts Ellen Key on her central characters’ bookshelves, and it is also true that this ‘personality project’ – to be a person, standing on one’s own two feet, following one’s resolve, and having the courage of one’s convictions – is a motive force in all her works dealing with contemporary subjects. Thit Jensen manifestly takes up Ellen Key’s challenge: she will be a new type of artist. From Johanne Marie in the story of To Søstre to Birgitte in Familien Storm, Sarah in Martyrium (1905; Martyrdom), Eleonora in Ørkenvandring (1907; Futility), Mona in I Messias’ Spor (1911; In the Footsteps of the Messiah), and Gerd in Gerd (1918) and in Aphrodite fra Fuur (1925; Aphrodite from Fuur) this urge towards the personal profile is considered from every angle, taken apart and put together. The dream of a unified whole steers the personality project: to be able to love and to work, develop one’s self and serve others, combine private and societal, be an artist, not just in name but in fact. Thit Jensen’s personal and artistic visions are united by a structure of female solicitude.
Seen in this perspective, her actual writing career is launched in 1905 with the social problem novel Martyrium (1905; Martyrdom). Her first two books, the debut novel To Søstre and the story of Familien Storm, depict the conflicts of being a woman artist, and read as deeply personal confrontations and preludes. Anxiety about the costs involved are a dominating factor: to grow in terms of the art form, but lose in terms of humanity; to win love in the pen, but to lose it in reality; to write one’s way out of life instead of growing into it.
In both these books, a key role is played by the radical cultural circle around her brother, Johannes V. Jensen. Thit Jensen writes against the backdrop of his manner of administrating a role as artist, a radical liberalism, and an ambiguous attitude to women. We meet him as Oluf in To Søstre and as Vally in Familien Storm, the budding writers with unimpaired confidence in their own talents and their own judgement. They pursue ‘free love’, plead the cause of women’s inalienable right to live as they chose. They write books “the like of which the world has never seen”. Grand of word and with faith in their own infallibility, but weak on humanity, is Thit Jensen’s verdict. A milieu in which everyone is “material” for the clan, in which you go against personal artistic conviction and praise “friends’ books” to the skies in the press, in which you call for strong, liberated women, and yet end up cultivating that which is “gentle, slightly simple, which gives the woman her charm”.
Can a woman choose art, work, without losing love? asks Thit Jensen in her literary debut To Søstre (1903; Two Sisters). An instant response would be: no! But viewing the sisters as two branches of the same mind, as poles in a culturally conflicted universe, the response would be a hesitant: yes! If the sisters themselves can be made to cohere, if the urge to observe and investigate can be enriched with the ability to love, then it would be possible. But which kind of love is under discussion?
To Søstre is actually about three. Lilli Rosen is in the middle, between the two sisters. Despised by monogamously loving Agda, worshipped by cold Johanne Marie. With more significance than the subordinate role suggests. She is Thit Jensen’s first disrespectful hetaera, here in the satirical guise of the woman who pursues ‘free love’, but who deepest down longs for husband and stable relationship. As representative of sexual drive, she is the third sister – later on, Thit Jensen has to acknowledge that it is not possible to isolate or marginalise her. Desire exists, and it makes neither the personal nor the artistic project easier.
Jørgensen, John: Thit Jensen at the opening night of the play Valdemar Atterdag, Nyborg Castle. 1954. Photograph. The Royal Library, Copenhagen
Thit Jensen invokes aggressive images of a bohemian – and the aggression proves creative: she responds by reinterpreting artistic practice. To forsake oneself is to forsake others, is to forsake art and its meaning in life, she concludes, and in so doing couples personal growth with societal and artistic considerations. ‘Forsakenness’ becomes the mainstay – not only for her critique of a radical cultural milieu – but also for her visions of an art that allows both itself and its artist to grow in humanity.
In Thit Jensen’s version, ‘forsakenness’ is rendered as a condition of life for women. From it springs the energy that can destroy or conquer. It can degenerate into vengeance and die in sterile self-destruction, as is the case for Johanne Marie in To Søstre. It can also, however, viz. Birgitte in Familien Storm, be turned round and become a creative force that converts personal despair into social indignation over the inequality between men and women in a system under patriarchal control. An indignation that insists on the ability to love as being fundamental and on belief in the improvements possible by means of social, political, and artistic effort as being necessary. The balance is thus turned around. Art does not exist for its own sake, nor for the sake of the artist. It has become part of an extensive social, political, and humanist commitment.
Seen from a modern perspective, it might seem strange that it should have taken so much fuss to articulate a platform for a critical female realism. But Thit Jensen was challenging strong forces, both within herself and in her day. The lovely images of an art and an artist growing in humanity cover up the lurking issue of a new identity. Hitherto, women had found their identity in love. Now they will have to find it in work. This is the only way in which to neutralise the oppression that has typified love, marriage, and family life, and to ensure that men and women meet on an equal footing. This is the intellectual vision underpinning the critical female realism of Thit Jensen’s early social problem novels. And it is through them that form and aesthetics make themselves felt as an independent issue.
In the person of Birgitte, the central character in Familien Storm,we the readers are again thrown into the conflict between art and love. But the conflict is kept in one forum – forces within Birgitte herself are engaged in battle. She has to take Thit Jensen’s route through travel, work, hunger, and a room of her own before she is able to state that “only through her work could some man be of lasting significance to her”. This little comment holds the key to the novel’s artistic breakthrough realisation: identity via love has been dropped. This does not mean that desire has been abandoned and friendly fellowship put on the agenda, but that it is only where she meets total respect for her person as independent artist that there is basis for a sexual relationship. Being torn apart and having to make involuntary renunciations recurs in her later works, but up until 1918 this is underpinned by a vision of new coherence and reconciliation: art can show the way towards the changes that are necessary.
With Familien Storm Thit Jensen had found her platform. Anxiety has been vanquished, the choice made, the pulling apart laid to rest. Focus is moved from herself towards those societal factors that need changing. Her first novels systematically scan the wretchedness of Danish relationships, be they of love or marriage, around the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth century. They depict the subversion of women’s abilities and energies that occurs because even strong women, like Sarah in Martyrium, choose love rather than independence and believe that it will enable them to sort out the weak-willed, whining men with too high an opinion of themselves. A shift gradually takes place. From Mona in I Messias’ Spor (1911; In the Footsteps of the Messiah), to Karla Blume in Stærkere end Tro (1915; Stronger than Belief), to Gerd in the novel of the same name (1918), “the twentieth-century woman” makes her entrance into Thit Jensen’s novels and stories – the woman who braves her own desire, will not be caught by loving assurances, but wants to be a human being above all. Up to and including 1918, Thit Jensen’s reforming zeal is borne forth by her unshakable conviction, her mercilessly revealing, teasing, and self-confident gaze – in journalism and in works of fiction. With this new woman, the contradiction between work and love is temporarily laid to rest. From here, the female desire for goodness and solicitude will spread and convert: hypocritical religious communities and double-standard preachers will learn that religion’s only mission is knowledge of the human mind and charity. Desire will find its place in new, companionable forms of marriage; female sexuality will have conditions that strengthen desire and make childbirth and motherhood safe. Thit Jensen’s belief is deep-rooted, her commitment total. She wants it all, and preferably at one and the same time.
In her social problem novels Martyrium, Ørkenvandring and I Messias’ Spor, female indignation pervades the writing and establishes Thit Jensen’s novel-collage: start at mythical symbolism, run-up via family history, and then – with a rapid leap – on into the contemporary world – where the social and psychological project of the female lead carries the action. However, subordinate characters and subplots constantly take the floor with satirical attacks on religious hypocrisy, on the wimpish stock of male alcoholics, morphinists, and syphilitics who undermine women’s health and work and menace children’s lives, and with lecture-like inserts on the key women’s issue of the day: lack of personal authority in marriage, in relation to the children, to money, to work, and to politics, that make it impossible for women to take the reins where men fail. The course of female development provides a framework for various ‘texts’: with aggressive propaganda, satirical ridicule, the commonality of identification. Coherent and vivid as a picture of the times, but not as novelistic form. The mythical-symbolic element involves a metaphorically depicted determinism that comes into conflict with belief borne by social commitment in the significance of reform. Family history, which should supply roots and continuity, is isolated. Thit Jensen wanted to do more than the conventional forms of the novel could manage. She combines novel of formation and novel of development with social commentary, bordering, but not finding, a collective form. She thus bursts open the form, but does not find a new form that could unify and support her desire for accomplishment:
“[I was] informed by competent critics that my social propaganda weighed down my books and was harmful to the writing. And that was true, as I understood when I was told directly. Perhaps that is why I chose to give lectures as well, for there I had all possible outlet for my desire for social reform,” she writes in her memoirs, Hvorfra? Hvorhen? (1950; Wherefrom? Whereto?). There need not be conflict between social commitment and artistic commitment. In parts of these novels, social insight and indignation find artistic resolution. And thus they come to life – today, too. But – each novel contains enough material for five novels. The one is resolved, the others are left half and quarter discharged with improbable characters and incomplete strands. She was therefore right to take the consequence she did from the criticism.
From round about 1909, involvement in topical social and feminist issues was channelled into articles, polemics, lectures, and setting up and working in societies and associations. Thit Jensen toured the country – and abroad. In Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society) forums, in cinemas, in community halls, she spoke about Moral (1909; Morality), Kvindens Plads (1912; The Woman’s Place), Forstandige Ægteskaber (1914; Sensible Marriages), Forældreglæder (1916; The Joys of Parenthood), Amerikas Mand (1921; The American Man), Feminismen (1922; Feminism), Frivilligt Moderskab (1923; Motherhood by Choice), Den feminine Mand (1923; The Feminine Man), Børnebegrænsning (1924; Birth Control), and Kammeratægteskab (1928; Companionate Marriage). In 1917 she was a founder member of Københavns Husmoderforening (Copenhagen Housewives’ Association); in 1924 she co-founded, with physician Jonathan Høgh von Leunbach, Foreningen for seksuel Oplysning (Association for Sex Education); and for thirty-five years she was on the board of Dansk Forfatterforening (Danish Authors’ Society). This widespread use of the media of the day made her a famous – and infamous – figure. She was pro sex education and birth control, pro abortion on social grounds, pro divorce. Quick of repartee and not afraid, in the heat of battle, to let fly with opinions that in more reflective moments she might perhaps have toned down. In Thit Jensen’s mouth, the ‘battle of the sexes’ was not going to be won with vague tact. Reactions were not slow in coming.
“The sum of harm and misfortune, which the authoress’s years of anti stork and pro companionate marriage propaganda add up to by way of leading our young people astray, is just as immense as it is immeasurable. It is most likely even far greater than that perpetrated by all those male sexual criminals currently serving time in Danish prisons for their offences.”
Thus raged professor in economics K. A. Wieth Knudsen in the newspaper Nationaltidende in 1929, and the cartoonists had a field day.
Her critique of Church and marriage, her campaign for sex education, birth control, and motherhood by choice, made Thit Jensen seem tremendously radical. She was not. Her indignation and aggressiveness stemmed from the forsakenness; her unshakable confidence in reform, on the other hand, stemmed from the little Romantic figure of destiny that is an inextricable ingredient of it, and which walks undauntedly onwards in her fictional works: the one-and-only, the twin-soul of love that, once experienced, lives on in us forever and undiminished. It is this figure which, after 1918, re-opens the split in Thit Jensen’s writing: the split between independence and work, which she thought she had written her way out of. Up until that point, however, the inner calm and outer conviction that characterise her journalistic activities are also felt in her fiction.
The main themes are given, she has more than enough subject matter, and she now embarks on experiments with form. She gets to work on the characters’ psychology, with the significance of descriptions of setting and of nature. The truth must grow from the configuration of the material, not from the conviction of the author. Thit Jensen has the ease of mind to try over and over. She throws herself into the mystical-spiritualist, into the lyrical-sentimental, into the satirical, and into variations of the psychological-realistic. Not always successfully. Sagn og Syner. Mystiske Fortællinger fra Island (1909; Legends and Visions. Mystical Tales from Iceland), Det banker. Fire Historietter (1911; There is Knocking: Four Anecdotes), Elskovs Forbandelse. Nutids-Roman (1911; The Curse of Love. A Contemporary Novel), and Stærkere end Tro are variations on familiar themes. They are intriguing when read as exercises within the context of an entire body of works; otherwise, they are of little interest.
From 1915 onwards, however, she begins to have a good grasp of material and form alike. A psychologically based realism that can do something more and different than simply profile its writer’s convictions about men’s libidinal decadence, the perils of homosexuality, and the new woman’s revolutionary mission. With Jorden (1915; The Earth) and Jydske Historier (1916; Jutland Stories), she leaves the Sodom and Gomorrah of the city, which had hitherto been her primary cache of material, turns her gaze on the Jutland of her childhood, and here encounters a quietness of voice and character that proves artistically fulfilling. With this, and with the indirect mirroring point-of-view technique she develops to perfection in her affectionately satirical take on marriage, Hr. Berger intime (1917; Mr. Berger, intimate portrait), she returns to the central theme of her contemporary writing – woman between identity gained from love and from independence – and writes her novel Gerd: the artistic highlight of her literary output and without question the best Danish novel of the day written by a woman.
“Even if she got married – and even if it was to a man who understood her work – she would nonetheless always live her inner life on her own.” (Familien Storm)
If we read Thit Jensen biographically, this statement could be taken as indicative of the spiritualist belief in immortality that she had inherited from her father, and which put her in contact with spirits of the past and the future. In the context of her writing, however, this spiritualism plays a subordinate role. We mainly come across it as a sixth sense, an ability to listen inwardly and feel when independence and the care of others is violated. A special ability, and one that in Thit Jensen’s world differentiates the female parameters of perception from the male – not, however, that it is reserved for women. Men also possess it, but they rarely acknowledge it.
Munch, Anna Elisabeth (1876–1960): Vestjyske kvinder på vej hjem fra kirke, 1909. Oil on cancas. Vejen Kunstmuseum. Photo: Lars Bay
This is the context in which her statement should be understood. Men and women look at the world and at each other differently. They see one another, but instead of understanding what it is they see, they resort to society’s dream and horror pictures (angel/witch, madonna/whore) that impede progress and cast both parties back into each their loneliness. The seed that should be released by the other remains unseen, and the space around them is filled with power, misunderstandings, and ambiguity. What ought to be happiness becomes quarrelling and strife. It is this inner loneliness of the genders that Thit Jensen seeks to capture in structure, in dialogue, in sharp and reflective points of view. In Gerd she succeeds. Everything is built up on contrasting male and female points of view; only the descriptions of nature disclose bias.
Red-haired Gerd, a clergyman’s daughter on the island of Fuur, is motherless, boyish, greedy for knowledge, strong-willed, and sensual. She learns early on to master two versions of herself: the gently virtuous and the unruly sexual. The women around her know this. The men pay it no attention. To her father, pastor Palludan, she is, all the while in her mind placing dolls in blissful intercourse, a “little mother candidate [...] she would be able to make a man happy, so gentle she was of nature and so dutiful.” Her many suitors find her puzzling: a flower who coquettishly asks to be plucked, only to refuse a moment later. Only one person offers intellectual challenge, morphinist Dr Hvit. She falls in love with him because he sees her as she is. When she finally both falls in love with and gets engaged to the curate Philip Bull, disaster beckons. He is intoxicated with her, but he nonetheless sees her insistence on being taken seriously intellectually merely as a sign of the pampered only child needing to be brought up. Not the seed that has to be nurtured if falling in love is to grow into love. At the end of the novel he therefore, wondering and disconsolate, has to acknowledge: “the incomprehensible. That Gerd had left him in order to be a man, just like him.”
For Philip Bull the world is still divided into a Romantic-dualist female and male part: the sensitively loving and caring, the intellectually conquering and providing, which when they meet in marriage become one. Gerd – and Thit Jensen – know that social norms and patterns of upbringing abide by this gender view. But they also know that it is fatal. It is a view that oppresses the female in the male and the male in the female, and from this oppression springs both social inequality and the irreparable loneliness of the genders. Philip Bull is mistaken. Gerd does not leave in order to be a man. She leaves because that is her only option to be a human being and whole. Thit Jensen ensures that all of Fuur’s nature agrees with her. Gerd is where Thit Jensen’s critical realism has its artistic breakthrough, and in having so it comes to an end. Her writing of contemporary novels is definitively over.
In ‘forsaking’ strikes in her personal sphere, and the foundation for the critical realism crumbles. The eyes with which Thit Jensen looked firmly out into the world after Familien Storm are again turned therapeutically inwards. In Den erotiske Hamster (1919; The Erotic Hamster), belief in the one-and-only is shaken, the vision of the new terms for love and society, which will grow from independence, is shattered, and the style is fragmented. It is a deeply personal novel, written in distress and swinging between powerless hatred and shocking despair, which is experimentally, but unsuccessfully, fended off by stylisation. The man in Thit Jensen’s life had left her.
Thit Jensen’s literary pen falls silent for six years, and then comes the sequel to Gerd: Aphrodite fra Fuur, with the following dedication:
“To Henrik Pontoppidan. When, for some years, the world had taken away my desire to produce art, you gave it back to me. You called it temple service!”
“[...] how should we women, who have grown up in what has been, for women, the greatest period of upheaval of them all, how should we avoid personal upheaval! We stand with our feet in the new land, but with our hearts back in the lost one. [...] What you who come after us will find of greatest value in life, what will quash your privation and quench your longing, what might flow of deep and dizzying sweetness through your every vein, I know not – new times, new aims – new aims – new battles, new weapons. But we from the time of upheaval. [...] We long nostalgically for each our Philip.”
Thit Jensen: Aphrodite fra Fuur.
In Gyrithe Lemche’s literary universe, temple service is linked to relinquishing a personal passion in favour of communality. A self-sacrificing triumph. In Thit Jensen’s universe, it is a case of looking a defeat in the face. Composure has been recovered, but the vision has been lost. Aphrodite fra Fuur is both a continuation of Gerd and a new and inverted version of Den erotiske Hamster. Hatred has been vanquished, the time for acceptance has come. With school teacher and member of parliament Gerd Palludan in the hated mistress position, form and narrator identity dissolve into infighting voices, and the vision of a female coherence, linking work identity with love, is devalued to zero.
Thit Jensen is back where she started – in the divide.
When reality rebuts her vision, she writes it into Danish history instead. It is no coincidence that she chooses the periods of great unrest and upheaval between nobility and royal power, Catholicism and Protestantism as interpretive forum for the relationship between women and men, power and desire, that remained the driving force of her writing. The ideality denied by her day, she creates in history. Nor is it a coincidence that Thit Jensen’s memoirs Hvorfra? Hvorhen? – unlike those of Agnes Henningsen, Gyrithe Lemche, and Karin Michaëlis – are both highly selected and concise. Her own life had the material, but not the room for the vision she wanted to pass on. Danish history, however, was there like a forum in which she could invent and interpret freely. The historical novels that conclude her writing career – Af Blod er du kommet (1928; From Blood you have come), Jørgen Lykke I-II (1931), Stygge Krumpen I-II (1936), the series about Valdemar Atterdag I-VII (1940-53), and Den sidste Valkyrie (1954; The Last Valkyrie) – contain a revision and adaptation of the issues addressed in her contemporary novels. The energy that, in the early part of her writing, breaks up the novels in a collage-like landscape is here invested in a splendour-fascination and sensuality that makes the novels swell and the storylines diminish. Page after page filled with detailed descriptions of festivities, colours, fabrics, patterns and clothing fashions, jewellery, belts, and bags, sometimes focusing on a single main character, sometimes focusing on groups, sometimes starting from a feast, an overwhelming bill of fare. Thit Jensen’s dogged demonstration of a historically correct knowledge of period detail – which carries the fictions of the action. Questioning the historical accuracy of the novels angered her. It must nonetheless be noted that analysis of libidinal configurations carries the novels, not political-historical insight. But what does not succeed in the early novels – to make the mythical-symbolic basis merge interpretively and explanatorily with the modern material – actually succeeds here.
From red-haired Gerd’s retreat to Fuur and Philip, a direct line leads – via Jørgen Lykke, Stygge Krumpen, Valdemar Atterdag and Queen Helvig – to the myth of the red-haired Karlsdøtre, (lit.: Daughters of Karl) on Fuur, the ‘virgin island’, where matriarchy rules and almighty mother Cybele is the deity. This myth, and its development through the historical novels, links the oeuvre’s present and past and contains Thit Jensen’s definitive proposal for the legitimacy of desire and for reconciliation between the masculine and the feminine.
Thit Jensen’s revision starts in the dream-matriarchy Virgina Insula. The descriptions of this Datterhuus (lit.: Daughter House) Convent on Fuur Island borrows features from Ancient Greece, from seraphic visions of heaven and match them with a sensuality of innocence. A female paradise in a world that is otherwise ruled by blind desire. A dream of the beauty, fruitfulness, and tenderness that could govern the world if sexual instinct did not exist. Datterhuus represents Thit Jensen’s counterpart to Gyrithe Lemche’s Edwardsgave. But Thit Jensen knows from the outset that the dream is impossible. A society within society, both cultivating nature and opposing it. A female provocation. The paradise on Fuur only endures because animal instinct is sworn in to keep guard. Large, smooth-coated, brown-grey and reddish glistening dogs that slink like snakes, breathe lasciviously, and have evil eyes protect this Eden against male intrusion. For every version of Datterhuus that Thit Jensen renders, these symbols of masculine sexuality become more and more hideous. In the first versions of Datterhuus, the masculine sexuality of the outside world is manifested in brutal rape, which shatters the female paradise. The series of novels about Jørgen Lykke contains the first twist. Jørgen Lykke sails to Datterhuus disguised as a woman. The experience proves transformational. Until this point he had pitied the poor Karlsdøtre who, against their nature, had been put in a convent on Fuur.
“Is he the one who had said this is a wretched life for young maidens? Did any of them look wretched? – – – – They looked happy, like angels in Eden’s fair grove, lovely as the flowers amongst which they stroll, pure as the high-topped glade mirrored in the cove, in which they dipped their innocent bodies [...] Why was he made a man? He wished he was a woman, wished to walk among the innocent over there, bathe, be one of theirs. He suddenly comprehends the riddle of paradise, where souls walk without desire amongst one another. He knows he wants to walk without desire, gentle and innocent like them.”
But the revolution in his mind does not help him. In Thit Jensen’s literary universe, one neither can nor should go against one’s libidinal nature, but one can – also if a man – match it with tenderness, with patience, with solicitude. This is what Jørgen Lykke does when the woman of his choice, Ethelreda, comes to him from Fuur. It is in this encounter that Thit Jensen shows the hidden unnaturalness of the ‘virgin island’. Ethelreda sees all Jørgen Lykke’s advances, even the most tender, as an assault. Eventually he has to resort to cunning. This female sexual withdrawal contains its own assault on woman’s nature. Ethelreda could have ennobled Jørgen Lykke’s instincts. But she refuses, and in so doing casts him into a longing that proves destructive – for her, for him, and for his exercise of power.
The non-desiring and thus fundamentally barren Fuur has to founder so that the desireful, but law-bound Fuur can arise. Thit Jensen already projects this in the tragic Jørgen Lykke. She nonetheless gives the same issue a large-scale staging in Stygge Krumpen – merely with an inverted cast list. Here it is Stygge who, both as man and as religious leader, defies his libidinal nature, while Elisabeth, his secret beloved, hopes to the last. The story of Stygge and Elisabeth takes place during the Reformation. Catholicism as authoritarian double-standard power system is confronted with a popular Protestant revolt; asceticism and celibacy versus the right to a sexual life – also for a religious leader. In the midst of these opposites stands Stygge Krumpen. As a reformer he is seeking to root out the Catholic system’s worst financial and sexual excesses, to bring the Church into line with his own message, and bring its priesthood back to celibacy. His project fails – in Thit Jensen’s context because authoritarian systems and the requirement of asceticism are inconsistent with humankind’s innermost nature. In Stygge Krumpen,we meet Thit Jensen’s chosen alter ego, Dorete Due, the vigorous Mother Superior of Mariakloster (Convent of the Virgin Mary), foster mother for Stygge Krumpen’s beloved, Elisabeth, the secret protector of the Protestant community, the woman who happily abandons celibacy and abandons herself to her maternal nature when opportunity arises. And in Stygge Krumpen, too, the anti-democratic nature of Datterhuus is revealed. Elisabeth lives with her invisible little friend, Lucie, who comes to her in visions and gives her knowledge of threats and coming perils. In order to protect her, Dorete Due takes her to Datterhuus, where peace reigns, and where play and doctrine add up.
Elisabeth settles in, overcomes the tests of will to which she is subjected, and is appointed ‘minor mother’ for a group of eight little girls – including Alfrida, who lacks the compliant disposition required by Datterhuus.
“[…] Mother Superior walks past and hears unfathomably coarse terms of abuse coming from a child’s mouth. She places her supple hands on Alfrida’s cheeks and gazes at her with the intense eyes that enchant everyone into submission: ‘Little Alfrida, we would so hate to lose you. But if we cannot teach you daughterly awe of the Almighty Mother and kindness to others, then the Almighty Mother will send her messenger after you to give you some rest. For you are not allowed to teach your little playmates bad habits, to the detriment of their souls. Smile now.’
“Then the unimaginable happens. The seven-year-old hits out.” Datterhuus does not tolerate any kind of disobedience or any kind of violence. Little Alfrida is “laid to rest” – given a beautiful funeral. In other words, this female paradise is based on eradicating the forces that are not in harmony with its established order. Datterhuus has to founder because its particular form of fertility disowns women’s sexual nature, and because its hierarchical structure – despite the peace, love, and cultivation of nature – is of an authoritarian, fascist type. Stygge Krumpen is Thit Jensen’s best historical novel. Her composition plays out the issues on coherent ideological and mythical levels, and her inverted narrative technique, in which the hero, despite his qualities, becomes an anti-hero, and in which even Catholicism’s most depraved representatives are depicted with loving nuance, works both in terms of the psychology and the tension. A vision of the sexual drive as force of nature capable of felling even the mightiest plays an underlying – controlling – role.
In the seven-volume series about Valdemar Atterdag and Queen Helvig this vision is expanded upon, and Datterhuus is re-established on a new foundation. “We learn, says Bishop Karl the Red to the royal couple, not renunciation of the flesh, for that goes against Sisu. For God is in everything, also in desire. Does anyone believe God created with cold loins! Desire is the God-created creature’s richest fervour, which was in God when He conceived the universe. In fire the blazing forces of life have come into being, in desire God gave life to Life. In jubilation, in passion, in intoxicated rapture everything living came into being [...] Desire in itself cannot be impure, being part of the Creator. It only becomes impure when it is aimed at impurity: to desire thy neighbour’s spouse, break one’s vow of fidelity, violate a virgin. For then it is lust, and lust is slave to the gizzard.”
With this as its base, Karl the Red establishes the ‘sister house’ on Fuur as a kind of retreat. No one is bound by convent vows, everyone can leave and get married if they want, and men are not banned from the island. Karl the Red’s base for the ‘sister house’ is Thit Jensen’s base for her picture of the marriage between Valdemar and Helvig. They are twin souls: independent, and yet bound together in a monogamous love and work partnership. Helvig is intellectual, lover, wife, mother, and ruler; Valdemar is a strong, active, social, and fair ruler, a tender, all-attentive lover, a charming master of the house, and a considerate father. As is the case with the central couple in Gyrithe Lemche’s Edwardsgave, it is the special relationship with Helvig that enables Valdemar to reconstruct Denmark. However, with the hero and the heroine established at the outset, and with the ideality as controlling project, seven volumes is a lengthy business. It is pure popular literature, but accomplished with such empathy that we feel the intensity of the pain when the reality refused to fulfil this vision of an integrated life.
Every factor relating to the dream of a love and marriage relationship must be made quite clear in Valdemar Atterdag, so Thit Jensen constantly involves complicated occurrences to show us the extent of this vision of marriage: Valdemar, who is coveted by the Queen of Sweden, can he resist? Helvig, who is plagued by unresolved guilt and goes mad – will he remain faithful? Children who die, putting their relationship to the test, and so on and so forth.
With the series about Valdemar Atterdag, Thit Jensen has completed her investigation of the ‘desire issue’ she took into the historical material. Thoughts of matriarchy are rejected, the ‘virgin island’ is destroyed, desire – and with it monogamy – placed as the basis of all life and all social conditions, lust isolated as the destructive, anti-social element. Her mission is over and the trust in women’s strength and ability, which she lost midway, has been re-established. She demonstrates this in her final novel, Den sidste Valkyrie, where paganism and Christianity are in combat and the legendary Danish Queen Thyra Danebod, like an inverted Stygge Krumpen, is the central figure. The women here articulate a critique both of war and of patriarchal power whence a modern track points back through the series of historical novels. They are driven by the issue of desire, but they also have their own topical comments on both the First and the Second World Wars.
Translated by Gaye Kynoch