In September 1802 Danish-born Christiane Koren travelled from Norway to Denmark in order to visit friends and family. It was her first trip to Copenhagen in fifteen years. Taking lodgings in Madam Møller’s boarding house on Vestergade, she found herself at the heart of literary Denmark. The young poet Oehlenschläger was her fellow-lodger; the Ørsted brothers also frequented the boarding house, as did the handsome Henrik Steffens, who in November of that year embarked on his famous and infamous lecture series at Elers’ Kollegium, in which he introduced a more or less dumbfounded audience to the new Romantic philosophy and concept of art.
“Doctor Steffens was with us. Another new acquaintanceship, my Koren, with one of the most agreeable people I know. It is probably high time I left. Truth to tell, I am a little enamoured of the handsome young man with large, dark-blue eyes (who is always speaking, speaking any and every language) and the ardent, lisping voice.”
Christiane Koren soon became an enthusiastic participant in the cultural life of the boarding house, at the Rahbek family’s Bakkehus, and in Norwegian circles in Copenhagen. “Moer Koren” (Mother Koren), as the then thirty-eight-year-old woman liked to call herself, rarely missed out on her daily trip to the theatre, she ate at the new dining establishments and took part in many a late-night session of drinking and discussing writers and would-be writers. Now and then, Oehlenschläger would courteously walk her home from the party, and then continue his nocturnal social round. Christiane Koren diligently described all the many diversions and entertainments in her travel diary – or, rather, her night-book, as Oehlenschläger called it, given that she had to make use of the small hours in order to keep a record of the varied events of day and evening. The travel diary – like her later diaries – was intended for family and friends back home in Norway; she had lots of news and a lot of exciting things to report. Christiane Koren had a wonderful time in Copenhagen.
“Sunday morning, 10 o’clock. With a mind quite dazed I address this work. In truth, yesterday evening I imbibed in more than one respect. But what an evening! Only a few like that come around in this life.”
Diary entry following a visit to Bakkehuset.
She was on friendly terms with Knud Lyhne Rahbek who, in 1803, published her attempts at writing plays, and she had the gratification of Oehlenschläger knowing one of her poems by heart. On one of their many excursions, he sang the poem for her: “The sea was so calm, the ships left no trace as they glided across the glassy surface – such a strange stillness prevailed. Oehlenschläger, who has a most extraordinary memory, recited a ballad, Løveridderen [Knight of the Lion], which will be included in his Poesier [Poems], and later sang my ‘Alvilde’, which I have not heard sung before. All this, I am sure you understand, was exceedingly agreeable to me.”
Christiane Koren was quite clearly more than pleased to tell this particular story. Oehlenschläger was not really too keen on her poems, and he had not shown much interest in the poems she had sent to him before she visited Denmark in 1802. In her travel diary, Koren writes with delight about all the exciting and famous people she has met.
“Now I have seen Bakkehuset, seen the good, gentle, happy, stout Rahbek, seen him in his domestic bliss, fashioned so fulsomely around him by his amiable Karen.”
At Bakkehuset she also sees little twelve-year-old Johan Ludvig Heiberg, Thomasine Gyllembourg’s son: “Rahbek has taken Heiberg’s only son into his home. He was with her [Karen Rahbek]. A handsome boy, with brilliant eyes. It drew from me a sigh, seeing Thomasine’s son thus. And yet, he could not be in nobler hands.”
The scandal surrounding the banished writer P. A. Heiberg had yet to subside.
The tension mounts as December approaches, the month in which Oehlenschläger’s Digte 1803 (Poems 1803) is to be published. The daily round passes with intimate gatherings, and while Oehlenschläger attends Steffens’ lectures, Koren enjoys confectionery and conversation with friends. The open and familiar tone between Koren and the young poet is such that she ventures into his room, after he has gone to bed, in order to discuss and settle a little disagreement they have had.
“But now all the nightwatchmen cry 12. We can hear Oehlenschläger talking in his sleep – his imagination is no doubt in perpetual motion – and the heaviness of my head tells me it is time to bid you good night, my precious ones, for there is too much left to tell about this evening to be able to finish swiftly. One day you will probably scold a little, my Johan, when you discover what night owls we are.”
Christiane Koren extended her stay in Copenhagen, but intimate friendship and pleasant boarding house life were marred when Koren’s husband wrote, taking her to task for being away from home and informing her that one of their daughters was ill. On the very day Koren received this stern letter, she was sitting with Oehlenschläger, who was reading his poems aloud to her, when his fiancée, Christiane Heger – beautiful and plump, according to Koren – turned up. The arrival of his fiancée unsettled Oehlenschläger, and he immediately stopped reading.
“There was a most uncomfortable pause, and things did not get back to how they had been, or at least, not fully. The poor girl was upset, perhaps I too. Disheartened were we every one, that is all I know for certain; yet, this I know too: never again shall I ask Oehlenschläger to read aloud. I dare say those few evenings will pass even so.”
“ – and in short, everything about the Bakkehus life is to my taste, and it was hard for me to say farewell to this place and its kind inhabitants […] Christiane Heger also wished me a tearful, much repeated farewell. She is no ordinary girl, nor should Oehlenschläger’s girl be so,” writes Koren, and ends by enrolling her friends in a corps of affectionate kith and kin: “Sisterly and brotherly and filial was your love, and pure – like mine it will endure, that I know.”
Koren’s travel diary is a first-rate and personal story about the dawning of the new century in Denmark. With elegant, spirited, and eloquent prose, Koren shares her experiences with her friends and family. The eighteenth century was irrevocably over, and Koren’s description of life in Madam Møller’s boarding house and at Bakkehuset tells us about the new female role of muse and ‘poet mother’ within an intimate circle of young men and up-and-coming geniuses.
These young men would soon be enthusiastically embracing folklore as a major literary genre.
Koren had often spent the evenings entertaining Oehlenschläger with folktales. For centuries, women had taken part in the oral tradition as singers, storytellers, and compilers of songbooks. It was this culture – the words of legend and song – that the male Romantics were beginning to show an interest in.
Translated by Gaye Kynoch