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A Passionate Lover of the Danish Language

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

In her 1673 autobiography written in French, Leonora Christina mentions a number of episodes from her travels: “une pièce digne de Romans” (that is, an adventure fit for a novel), is how she refers to one travel story. She was very interested in European novels, and she took inspiration from the novel genre for her autobiographical writings. While Leonora Christina made just one venture into translating a French novel, Anna Margrethe Lasson (1659-1738) decided to tackle the genre head-on by writing her own prose novel. This resulted in Den beklædte Sandhed (The Truth in Disguise), which was ready in manuscript form as early as 1715; it was published in 1723, and can thus actually claim to be the first published Nordic prose novel. “No living soul can stand to read it to the end,” wrote literary historian Rasmus Nyerup of Den beklædte Sandhed in 1828, and in the history of literature the novel has become something of a curiosity, which is only remembered because it was one of the few published Nordic pastoral novels to be written as a prose narrative.

Before her imprisonment in the Blue Tower, Leonora Christina had translated the first part of the French heroic-galant novel Cléopâtre (1647ff) by La Calprenède into Danish.

Copperplate engraving. From Honoré d’Urfe: Dend Hyrdinde Astrea (1645), The Royal Library, Copenhagen

The seventeenth-century European novel was a known genre in the Nordic region. However, literature, in Denmark-Norway from Kingo to Holberg and in Sweden-Finland from Haquin Spegel to Olof von Dalin, was dominated by writing in verse. When Nordic authors tackled the novel genre they did so in verse. Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-15) was one of Holberg’s models for Peder Paars (1719-1720), but the result was a comic verse novel. Holberg first got to grips with the prose novel form with his Latin tale Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum (1741; Niels Klims underjordiske Rejse, Niels Klim’s Underground Travels). A young student at the university in Uppsala, Urban Hiärne (1641-1724) was conversant in European literature, and together with other young scholars he established a pastoral order that promoted pastoral writing inspired by French works. He wrote the pastoral tale Stratonice (1666-68), which was intended to be read aloud to the learned ‘shepherds’, while the unfortunate Danish customs official Søren Terkelsen only managed to publish the first part of his translation of the Frenchman Honoré d’Urfé’s magnum opus, L’Astrée (1607ff).

Honoré d’Urfé’s pastoral novel L’Astrée was influential in mid-seventeenth-century Danish and Swedish poetry. Swedish literature of the period also has several extant fragments of pastoral novels.

Søren Terkelsen did, however, achieve success with his 1648 publication of Astree SiungeChoer, in which he collected his translations of German pastoral songs set to readily accessible melodies. It was not until around the mid-1700s that prose fiction reached the Nordic region in earnest, in the form of moral tales, didactic novels and travel novels, but this prose did not – like Anna Margrethe Lasson – take as its models seventeenth-century pastoral romances and heroic-galant novels. The ideal for this new prose was the essayist and didactic prose of classicism. The first actual Swedish prose novel, Adalriks och Gïöthildas äfwentyr (1742-44; The Adventures of Adalrik and Giöthilden), by Jakob Mörk and Anders Törngren, was a work about character formation and the rule of monarchs, along the lines of Fénelon’s 1699 Les Aventures de Télémaque with its instruction as to how a monarch should behave in times of war and peace. In Denmark, Fénelon’s tradition was adopted by the pietistic court chaplain Erik Pontoppidan, who in 1742 published his religious didactic novel Menoza IIII.

The point of reference for both Danish-Norwegian Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) and Swedish Olof von Dalin (1708-1763) was French classicism; in the eighteenth century they composed morally-didactic allegorical and essayistic prose. Olof von Dalin established the first Swedish weekly magazine, and fictional stories of a moral nature became popular in eighteenth-century magazine literature.

Lasson’s few contemporary female authors wrote hymns, like Dorothe Engelbretsdatter, or occasional poetry and religious poetry, like Sophia Elisabet Brenner. Mrs Nordenflycht, writing in the period after Lasson and Brenner, found ideas and ideals in the French précieuses, but she did not take their prose genres on board. Nordenflycht’s genres were the pastoral poem, the occasional poem and the philosophical poem. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a considerable volume of women’s literature – autobiographies, diaries and personal documents – but this autobiographical or genealogical prose primarily served religious purposes, or those of practical family history, and was but rarely inspired by prose fiction in the way that Leonora Christina’s autobiographical works were.

Anna Margrethe Lasson had various ambitions and ideas with her novel. She wanted to entertain her reader, demonstrate women’s writing abilities, and make her literary contribution to the national Danish language.

Anna Margrethe Lasson was born in Copenhagen shortly after Karl X Gustaf’s assault on the city, and she spent some of her childhood at the manor of Dalum Kloster (Dalum Convent) on the island of Funen.

Anna Margrethe Lasson’s father, High Court judge and landed proprietor Jens Lasson, was a large-scale supplier to the Danish navy during the 1657-60 war with Sweden. Dalum Kloster (Dalum Convent) was one of the securities made over to him for the goods he had supplied. As assessor at Højesteret (the Danish Supreme Court), he took part in the conviction of Corfitz Ulfeldt. Jens Lasson was later charged with making fraudulant deliveries, and when he died in 1706 his heirs had to take on his huge debts.

As an adult she lived in Priorgården (Prior’s House) in Korsgade, Odense, together with a younger married sister. Here she worked on her “little novel”. A manuscript was ready in 1715; in an unpublished dedication to Frederik IV, writing under her own name spelled backwards (“Ateragram Nossal”), the author professed that the manuscript had been found in Dalum Kloster. The novel was published in 1723 under the pseudonym of a “Passionate Lover of the Danish Language, Aminda”.

The title page of Den beklædte Sandhed presents the work as Aminda’s translation of old runes:

“A little novel formerly written in the cloak of runic letters now clad in the Danish language.”

The scientist and antiquary Ole Worm’s mid-seventeenth-century collection of runic inscriptions and scholarly studies of runes and Old Icelandic manuscripts may have given Lasson the idea to pretend that the novel was a runic text found in Dalum Kloster. In an appendix to the novel, Lasson/Aminda stresses that her reasons for presenting the novel to the reader are love of the Danish language and an ambition to strengthen and advance this language: “I note that many of my countrymen place more effort into learning foreign languages than into their own/ so that most barely know how to speak much less write in their own tongue/ wherein there is none the less just as much goodness and satisfaction as in any other language.”

This statement also reveals seventeenth-century interest in language and language history. Peder Syv, Henrik Gerner, Ole Worm and the female aristocratic songbook compilers and bibliophiles worked on a comprehensive exploration of the Danish language, of grammar, songs and proverbs, and the Baroque literature was itself characterised by endeavours to create a Danish-language writing based on the classical rules of verse.

Lasson also used this construal of the origins of Den beklædte Sandhed as a defence of women’s abilities as writers. In her appendix she stresses that the now so extolled “old” literature included the pens of many women: “I must confess/ that I in this respect have done something / unusual for my sex / as instead of wearing down my sewing needle/ [I have] cut my quill/ and this is the judgement/ the envious who cannot themselves achieve that/ for which they reprove me/ may pass on me/ [I] will however not assume that the opinion of all is in accordance with that of a few little experience when they recall what famed deeds the female sex in the persons of Semiramis/ Dido/ Tomyris/ Sappho and many others/ both in olden times/ and to this day of all Estates have accomplished.”

“Many a one
who entertains this thought
That to write like you
Is unlike womankind
They doubt this sex
can possess this gift
It must surely be a man
Who held the pen in his hand […],” wrote Lasson in her tribute poem to the Norwegian hymn writer Dorothe Engelbretsdatter, who returned the kindness in a poem inviting the “virtuous poetess […] Welcome in my guild”: “Aminda, I sense you have good in you.”

Duchess Elisabeth Sophie Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, c. 1732, Det Nationalhistoriske Museum, Frederiksborg Slot

The novel claimed its place in a tradition of illustrious women’s works; its ingenious, nonetheless transparently fictitious, origins located it at an interesting, obscure juncture between past and present.

Lasson wanted to please and entertain all “appreciators” of the novel as art form. There is “nothing on which to build your religious belief/ which will here be submitted to you / it is a story with which to while away your time”. However, this is no “mendacious fable”, for behind the various fictional characters there are “authentic people”. Den beklædte Sandhed fits into the French form of roman à clef. Frenchwoman Madeleine de Scudéry’s précieuse romance novels from the mid-1600s, including Artamène, ou Le Grand Cyrus (1648-53), served as Lasson’s model. Madame de Scudéry introduced the reader to famous men and women depicted in exotic and fantastical settings and disguises, involved in a complicated storyline turning on the ideal human community: the culture of préciosité and Platonic love as a meeting of minds. In all probability Lasson was acquanted with the German translations and adaptations of the French littérature précieuse. The German word order and phrases in Den beklædte Sandhed suggest that she was familiar with Philip von Zesen’s translation of Madame de Scudéry’s story of Ibrahim, ou l’illustre Bassa (1641).

Lasson might also have been familiar with Martin Opitz’ German translation of an unfinished novel written in Latin, Argenis (1626). Argenis, a roman à clef with pastoral scenes, was written by the Scottish humanist John Barclay (1582-1621).

In accordance with European precedents, Lasson set the novel in a distant, exotic past, that of antiquity, but used well-known people as the models for her characters. Lasson shifted scenes between Rome, Persia and Denmark, and Danish towns and localities featured with their names spelled backwards: “Nyf” for Fyn (the island of Funen), “Mulad” for Dalum, “Snesa” for Assens and “Nalis” for Sjælland (the island of Zealand. ‘Silan’ is a phonetic approximation of the Danish pronunciation). The story of the love between Prince Leonque from Nalis and a beautiful Persian princess, Diana, bears some similarity to the 1683 marriage of Christian V’s brother, Prince Jørgen, to the English Princess Anne, a union familiar and of interest to Lasson’s contemporaries. Den beklædte Sandhed is not, however, a sustained roman à clef. The lovers bear but a passing resemblance to the Danish prince and the English princess, and the political complications surrounding their marriage were used as material along with portraits of various courtiers and royal personalities, including Frederik IV who, in Lasson’s story, featured under the name “Sigefrid”.

Lasson refers to the great Sigefrid, whose “most delightful person” is a “refreshing element” wherever he goes.

Many complicated threads are interwoven in the plot of Den beklædte Sandhed, and en route Lasson loses track of a number of characters and intrigues. But an overarching idea can be detected. Lasson tried to depict various geographical and mental localities as opposites: the Rome of knights and warriors, a thoroughly male world, where princess Diana lives in prison-like exile with the emperor, who is going to force her into marriage with his son, Prince Javano; Persia, whence Diana’s mother, the queen, was expelled after barbaric intrigues and family conspiracies; and finally the faraway rural setting in the province of Nyf,that is, Funen, a landscape of freedom with no principality, where men and women can come together, and where Leonque and Diana are united.

In her description of the rural setting, Lasson displays the précieuse scheme of things. Nature and civilisation are unified in the beauty of pastoral life: “much merriment did take place every day in the whole part of the country I frequented,” says Leonque’s companion, Drogan, and after many a tribulation the lovers meet.

“Afterwards he decided/ that we should disguise ourselves in shepherd’s clothing; for shepherds were unaccustomed to associating with others / than their own folk,/ and the chivalrous clothes might perchance make them timid […],” explains Drogan of the two knights’ entry into the rural town.

The story of the lovers provides Lasson with the opportunity to describe love as a series of highly demanding emotional experiences and conditions. Fever, despair and longing for death rage within the lovers’ breasts; disguised, they get their lines crossed, believe one another to be dead, and are the victims of countless intrigues and confusions. “Alas! that love should be so full of torment,” sings Diana, and she tells us that the heart “is put in the prison of sorrow […]. Its place is filled with woe and suffering.” It is love that gives the characters their psyche and self-awareness, but it is only in relation to the beloved that the depth and emotional wealth of that psyche can be revealed. The many scenes of disguise and confusion symbolise how the lovers must hide and obfuscate their feelings in the face of their cold and calculating surroundings. Once they reach the landscape of Nyf, however, and are dressed in primitive shepherd’s garb, they can finally declare themselves to one another.

In her depiction of Nyf, Lasson forges congruity between the inner landscape of the mind and the outer landscape of nature. The springs, lovely forests, dense coppices, fragrant flowers and deep caves become a mirror for the physical and psychological occurrences between the lovers. In this erotisised nature, Leonque dreams of his beloved, and she surpasses nature in loveliness:

“[…] her whiteness shamed that of the newly bloomed lilies; her hair like silver of an uncommon length; the fire of her eyes I was not able to perfectly regard / yet I saw well/ that their blueness does outshine the most lovely cloud in the heavens; her body exceedingly erect and incredibly slender; her hands small and smooth / that you would have thought them made from white wax.”

“[…] this affliction has been brought upon me by Sleep! Do you rightly think then that anything can rid me of it other than he who is stronger, his brother Death […],” says Leonque, when he awakens from a dream about his princess.

When Leonque dies in combat with Javano, Diana seeks refuge in the temple of the goddess Diana, a symbol of the princess’s own body. In the temple, chaste virgins offer love gifts, doves and flowers to the goddess and listen to her prophecies. Lasson’s reflective attitude to nature, her arrangement of the scenery and the pastoral tableaux, bear the impress of elegant rococo, but when she makes nature the physical and psychological symbol of the various conditions of love, her novel bears similarities with a far later Romantic approach. Love is for Lasson, as it was for the Romantic poets, momentous and serious; love gives soul, it holds the possibility of transformation and death.

Despite the warning given by the first Danish literary historian, Rasmus Nyerup, it is worth persevering with Lasson’s 235-page novel. It played a role in the beginnings of a new eighteenth-century secular literature, even though Lasson’s models are seventeenth-century pastoral novels and galant-heroic novels. The passionate lover of the Danish language would soon have successors who would energetically cultivate Nordic national languages.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch