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“Mother” Koren – Woman and Dramatist

Written by: Åse Hinderaker |

Christiane Birgitte Koren (1764-1815) was born in Denmark, but her writing career took place in the setting of married life with Norwegian circuit judge Johan Koren. As a mother and the wife of a public official in rural, provincial Norway she fulfilled a responsible maternal role, and her writings are to a large extent coloured by family matters.

“It is impossible, without denying her entire being, for the woman and mother to see beyond her circle, and indifferent to the present simply look with joy to the distant future. Yet above it all we lift our gaze as high, if not higher than the man,” writes Koren in her diary.

Diary Writing and Carer Duties

Most of Christiane Koren’s diaries were written between 1808 and 1815, but they were not published until 1915, as: “Moer KorensDagbøger (Mother Koren’s Diaries).

“The old desire and habit to keep a diary has been rekindled. It has often made itself felt in this time when my overflowing heart has felt such deep need to open itself to the absent loved ones, and I unlike previously cannot find refuge in letter-writing,” we read in Koren’s diary.

The diary genre gives the text a twofold nature. On the one hand, it is a private forum for writing and represents the everyday function of a diary: a place of refuge and an intimate friend. On the other hand, Koren’s diaries are substitutes for direct approaches or letters to others, and are intended for a wider readership than is normal for the private letter. For the most part, the writer addresses herself to her closest family at home in Hovind, primarily to her husband Johan, but there are also texts addressed to friends and acquaintances in Denmark and Norway. Both target groups of readers are referred to as “children” (sons or daughters), thus matching the telling choice of “Mother” in the title.

“I wish […] with all my heart, that my Hanna, my Adolf, my Flower Garlands, and what more there is and might be, will outlive me”, we read in Dagbog for Kristiane Koren.

Christiane Koren’s diaries are intended, however, to be something more than merely an extension of maternal solicitude. They are also an outlet for the expression of emotion and intellect. The mother’s role in the family involved being an agent of humanity and culture in the home, and within this parameter Koren could apply herself to theatre criticism, literary reviewing, the telling of folktales and anecdotes, and, not least, to passing on knowledge of human nature and her experience of life. It is in the depiction and evaluation of diverse types of people that Koren reveals her own nature. Given that understanding of character is so closely linked to the maternal role, she sees no reason to keep quiet about her capacity for appraisal and insight. In Dagbog for Kristiane Koren paa en Reyse fra Norge til Dannemark begyndt den 6. september 1802 (Kristiane Koren’s Diary on a Journey from Norway to Denmark, Begun 6 September 1802), first published in 1945, we thus read:

“But, this much I venture to trust my knowledge of human nature, that, having heard nothing whatsoever about him, I would by two conversations, being the first we had […] detect the man’s way of thinking […]and by many a small trait, not detected by most, I have learnt to understand the innermost heart after but brief acquaintance, and rarely have I felt obliged to change my opinions.”

“My not untrained eyes, too, I have much to thank for. An expression, a glance, a shrug, has often taught me what using my ears alone would have taken long to comprehend,” writes Koren of herself.

Koren expressed herself with certainty when it came to the characteristics of her fellow human beings. She exercised more caution when writing on literature, theatre, and dramatic art, stressing that in this context, her words should not be read as professional pronouncements, but should be seen as personal and imperfect evaluations.

“Attempts” at Drama

Christiane Koren published three plays, Dramatiske Forsøg (Dramatic Attempts) in 1803; the reason she had the opportunity to do so can be found in her ties to Denmark. She maintained contact with her native country by means of letter-writing and the trip about which she wrote in her very first diary, Dagbog for Kristiane Koren paa en Reyse fra Norge til Dannemark begyndt den 6. september 1802. While staying in Copenhagen she met Adam Oehlenschläger, the leading cultural figure of Danish-Norwegian Romanticism. Koren did not take any of the Romantic concepts on board in her work, and Oehlenschläger was not particularly impressed by her plays.

Christiane Koren also visited Bakkehuset in Copenhagen, the home of Kamma and Knud Lyhne Rahbek – and it was Knud Lyhne Rahbek who arranged for the publication of Dramatiske Forsøg. Furthermore, he wrote a testimonial to the works in the form of a “Preface”, in which he pointed out that, genre-wise, the first two dramas in particular, Adolf and Blomsterkrandsene (The Flower Garlands), were close to the singspiel, a lively forerunner of operetta. Unlike most opera at the time, the singspiel libretto was in Danish. Her plays also have features in common with the idyll, in which depictions of nature play a significant role.

Christiane Koren’s plays were not performed in her lifetime, nor has posterity shown them any interest. Her diaries, on the other hand, are valued as documents of cultural-historical interest.

Personal Feelings and Family Demands: Love and Duty

Schematically, the three plays are variations on the same theme: personal needs versus duty to the outside world. Hanna, which is the last of Christiane Koren’s “attempts” at writing drama, differs in several ways from the two others. In particular, Hanna seems the more modern piece by virtue of its personality portraits; the characters are more individualised and they are each attributed a more complex psyche than is the case in the two earlier pieces. The use of prose dialogue and the absence of songs are also modern features.

C.A. Lorentzen, 227×208, Pencil sketch, Td 535,72, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

From an ideological perspective, Hanna is ambiguous and full of contradictions, especially in its depiction of women. The women are allotted central positions in more than one sense. Viewed from the outside, we see a love triangle fuelled by Hanna, Konrad, and Karoline. Konrad, nineteen years old, leaves home in order to acquire ‘culture’ and experience. A friend of his late father takes him under his wing, seeing in Konrad a potential husband for his daughter Karoline. The problem is, however, that Konrad is already attached to Hanna, his mother’s foster daughter, and she is pining away because he has forsaken her. Hanna is carrying his child, but Konrad is unaware of her pregnancy. When the time comes, Hanna believes the infant to be stillborn, whereas in fact, the baby is taken from her as soon as it arrives.

In all this discord, Karoline represents the pure woman. She embodies the ideal female of the era: she is pure, lovely, and motherly. Hanna, on the other hand, is impure. She is the victim, the passively suffering woman with no other end in sight than flight and self-annihilation. Apart from this distinction between pure and impure, Karoline and Hanna would seem to be almost identical. Konrad and the reader alike see them as a virtual fusion into a single portrait of a woman.

“Truth and innocence bloom in her cheeks – as once they bloomed in mine,” the eponymous heroine in Hanna says of Karoline.

Maria – an Active Director

Between Karoline and Hanna on the one side and Konrad on the other, Christiane Koren placed a female figure of a very different nature: Maria, Konrad’s sister. She is the one who drives the plot onwards, she pulls the strings, sets up confrontations, and facilitates possible resolutions. Her role is that of the director, as is made quite clear by the specific use of theatre terminology in connection with her person.

Maria’s strategy exploits family ties: she wants to create a sympathetic forum with regard to Hanna’s right to Konrad. As an active and energetic director, Maria is a bold counter-image to the traditionally objectivised Karoline and Hanna. Unlike these two, Maria’s status is manifestly that of active subject in the drama.

The Maria character would seem to have a direct link to Christiane Koren’s own life. Koren’s sister was called Maria, but the fictional Maria is ascribed the author’s personal qualities: knowledge of human nature and experience of life. Like Koren, she is aware of these qualities. It is tempting to draw the conclusion that Maria the director is Koren’s spokeswoman in Hanna.

Christiane Koren was a wholehearted adherent of the Enlightenment belief in reason and duty. As was the case in a number of poems written by her contemporary, Magdalene Buchholm (1758-1825), Koren ensured that duty prevailed at the expense of individual feelings and desires. This is manifested in a quite specific context in Hanna: the man’s duty vis-à-vis the woman. Konrad acknowledges that he has obligations to Hanna, and that he must give her that to which she has a claim. To all appearances, Hanna becomes Konrad’s wife, and in corroboration of this she gets her child back – the symbol of their union of interests.

“That she was no longer innocent like her – o! that in itself should have given her the first, the most sublime right to your love,” says Maria of Hanna in the play of that name.

Karoline and Konrad must thus sacrifice their love. In return, Karoline attains a kind of sisterly status in relation to both Konrad and Hanna. In other words, the play has a happy ending on all levels. The pieces in the family jigsaw fall into place.

In one of the most well-known novels of what is known as the “Modern Breakthrough” in Scandinavia, Constance Ring (1885) by Amalie Skram (1846-1905), love is presented as an impossible project because of the woman’s role and the gender ideology of the times. For Constance Ring, there is but one alternative: death. Love is also impossible in Christiane Koren’s eighteenth-century universe, but the final solution is another: reason – not death – must carry the day; harmony in the family sphere is restored. The forsaken woman is reinstated in her rightful place, and the child grows up with its rightful parents.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch