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God’s Masterpiece

Written by: Lotte Thrane |

When a very young Elisabeth Hansen (1774-1853) had the opportunity to observe, through an astronomical telescope, a thunderstorm over the sea, she witnessed nature’s “extraordinary production” as a battle between the forces of fire and of water, between the male and the female elements. This “world-drama” first filled her with horror and then with joy. Horror, because it is overwhelming and dangerous, and joy, because it is also a spectacular sight to which she can eventually abandon herself. She is able to surrender in this way because the sight is in reality at a distance. The telescope, the workings of which she was familiar with, only makes for an illusion of close proximity and of being in mortal danger. She discovers that she can overcome horror, created by her imagination, with common sense. And that is a joyful experience.

Many years later, when writing about the thunderstorm incident in Min Reise i Aaret 1788 til det gode Haabs Forbjerg (1833; My Journey in the Year 1788 to the Cape of Good Hope), Elisabeth Hansen allows her young self to see it as corroboration of God’s creative power and existence. This is a powerful, loving, and just God; He has, after all, created her and, moreover, placed her “in the middle of the stage itself”, at the centre of events. Furthermore, God has given her senses and sense, the ability to see, take in, and think lucidly, and to experience joy when these abilities complement one another. “Divine powers,” as she exclaims euphorically.

Sublime experiences generally leave the individual with a sense of personal insignificance – not to be confused with powerlessness – whereas in Elisabeth Hansen’s case it proved a corroboration of her greatness. She is “God’s masterpiece, which nothing in the whole of nature can surpass”. She maintains and improvises on this self-image throughout her life. The rendering of her human self as divine is connected with an enthusiastic curiosity and love of all creation, along with a desire to initiate her fellow creatures in what she has seen and learnt.

Being “God’s masterpiece” she almost has an obligation to do this, because the life force, the need to pass on the news, is in her blood like a pledge to God, like “blazing fire”. In so saying, she identifies and justifies her role as mediator and writer. This she does with a good deal of non-contemporaneity, given that she writes and publishes in a nineteenth-century bourgeois elite culture, but that her experience and consciousness are associated with an eighteenth-century project of enlightenment. In addition, she was of rural stock.

The Infinite Opportunities – Utopia and Infernal Strategy

Elisabeth Hansen was happy to act the teacher, bringing light into the darkness of superstition and religious fanaticism that in her opinion prevented the peasant from being “free” and enterprising. But she did not stop there; it was nothing short of humankind to whom she appealed when she thundered against “prejudice” – conventional thinking and unthinking acceptance of authority – which she saw as being the cause of war, revolution, lack of freedom, and lust for power in the world.

Alterpiece from Birket Church on the Danish island of Lolland. Carved by Benedict Dreyer. Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen

When her project of enlightenment proved unsuccessful – people did not improve, nor did they appreciate her efforts – she extended the period of “apprenticeship” to eternity. In Mine Ungdoms Drømme om Sjælens Udødelighed (1832; My Youthful Dreams on the Immortality of the Soul), she develops ideas on a comprehensive further education of souls after death, so that “the seed placed on earth for the improvement of humankind, here [in eternity] bears the most glorious fruit”. This “fruit” is an ideal society, found on the sun. Here, caring cohabitation, equality, and religious liberty, intellectual and artistic development, and work with the soil enter into a synthesis.

With this text, which takes the form of an eye-witness account – her own – from a journey to the land beyond death, Elisabeth Hansen professes to the preoccupation with the afterlife that is seen in the work of theologians such as Grundtvig and Martensen and authors such as Ingemann.

Many nineteenth-century theologians saw the land of the dead as a two-part process: an intermediate state has been inserted before the final judgement. This gives the soul an extra chance of improvement in an ongoing work in progress. That the idea of an intermediate state gained a footing in the bourgeois elite culture has to be seen in association with this culture’s growth-based philosophical framework and its ideal of personality and notion of personal development, which was extended, as it were, to apply after death as well.

In B. S. Ingemann’s epic poem Tankebreve fra en Afdød (1855; Philosophical Letters from a Deceased Person), we read about “the life” in the intermediate state “where now I grapple still with my pursuits / Progress beyond death, even in time / And in a space, fixed infinity”.

In Ingemann’s epic, development means religious commitment and conversion. The soul can die, as it were, one more time. Rationalist theologians (an approach Ingemann certainly did not share), however, were also interested in the intermediary state. Christian Bastholm, for example, writing in De Dødes Opstandelse (1805; Resurrection of the Dead), states that his intention with the book is to provide a “comforting hope”, and this is delivered in the form of a down-to-earth, one is tempted to say, description of the appearance, weight, needs, and potential of the resurrected body – wherever he might have gleaned that information. Elisabeth Hansen also considered the intermediary state after death in her poems “Udødelighed” (Immortality), “Sang til Maanen” (Song to the Moon), and “Ønsket” (The Wish), all from 1833.

The intermediate state is also, however, an “infernal strategy”, one which Elisabeth Hansen examines in her text. She wants to quell “superstition” about hell, as she calls it. The writer’s method is didactic. Her narrative voice is partly that of the inquisitive reporter, asking questions of her guide, an angel of higher order, partly that of the eye-witness. The purpose is to appear as the representative of the ‘ignorant’ or prejudiced reader.

The expression helvedesstrategi (infernal strategy) comes from the book of the same name written in 1964 by professor of theology P. G. Lindhardt. The book studies concepts of hell from ancient times up to its date of writing. The analysis proposed is that hell as ‘location’ is a pinning down of human needs and projections. According to Lindhardt, the intermediary state, which takes much of its inspiration from the apocatastasis doctrine of the early Church, is the nineteenth-century dogmatisation of a psychological need for religious certainty. It is particularly in this context that the intermediary state must also be understood as a potential ingredient in the layman’s religious configuration.

The narrative voice asks, observes, and reports back: about everyday life at the “educational establishment”, which buzzes with practical activity, and where there are lessons in mathematics and astronomy; about the sight of the moon at close range; about the happy life in the city of the sun; and about a visit to the highest sphere at the throne of God the Father. A discussion with the angelic authority about how it all began is also reported: with God’s creation or possibly even earlier with “earthquakes and revolutions” in the cosmos. Elisabeth Hansen herself would seem to lean towards the “revolution” theory; the angel’s assertion, however, that this either/or position is a clear-cut illustration of the limitations of human comprehension, is allowed to bring the debate to a close.

The purpose is thus not to alarm the readers or sow doubt about the existence of God. The lesson learnt by the narrator on behalf of the reader is that the cosmos is beautiful, created by God and, not least, infinite – and that our opportunities are also ‘infinite’, even after death. No one need suffer torment or be lost, “all created beings are gradually moving towards their improved nature” – although some need longer in the crucible than others. But this “staggering” certainty rarely pertains on Earth, the writer somewhat bitterly remarks towards the end of the text, because people “and especially the Christians have not yet reached the edified culture of which they believe themselves to be in possession”.

Mine Ungdoms Drømme om Sjælens Udødelighed is thus not so much theology as it is a discussion paper directed at “egoism”, narrowness of outlook, and self-righteousness. It is also a utopia, because the author projects what could look like her own visions of the ideal human community onto her city of the sun. At the same time, the text is a veritable little encyclopaedia of topics that interest Elisabeth Hansen – and these are not topics ordinarily associated with women and women writers in the 1830s.

This could be because she was fifty-two years of age when she published the text. She had a long life behind her and, like her contemporaneous writer colleague Thomasine Gyllembourg, she was positioned between two eras. Unlike Gyllembourg, however, she had great difficulty in harmonising her experiences and ideals with reality.

Life would seem to have dealt harshly with the woman Elisabeth Hansen, but the writer, her desired public profile, apparently refused to forsake optimism. Her shift of focus as regards the most interesting or good place to be in the universe can be read as a misanthropic retreat – but for the author and ‘celebrity’ it should be seen as a ‘rational’ rider to the – in spite of everything! – best of all worlds, And, furthermore, as fascination with ‘the infinite’. Elisabeth Hansen would also prefer to see her own opportunities as boundless.

She wanted to do it all: instruct humankind; write edifying and entertaining novels; describe foreign countries; and discuss the economy, social conditions, and the role of the arts. And thus she did, quite fearlessly, but her greatest gift was displayed in the role of journalist; she had a distinct flair for vivid depiction of detail, and when at her best she had a dry and intelligent wit.

Recognition was not forthcoming, however, where the writer would really like to have seen it: for her novels – even though, in Litteratur- Kunst- og Theaterblad (Journal of Literature, Art, and Theatre), a highly critical review remarked, with a form of inverted pride, that Hansen was “the first Danish female novelist”. That was in 1821. In 1827 in the preface to her second novel, the author reacted fiercely to the lack of recognition for her work. But this book, and her last one in 1836, was likewise found undeserving of praise. There seemed, in fact, to be a conspiracy of silence against the books.

“One [dares] have hope that the lack of buyers for her first creation (titled Dido and Don Pedro) will result in the said also being her last, just as we at all events could not omit the kindness of advising Madam Elisabeth Hansen rather to employ her leisure hours in training her rare talent for embroidery, in which she possesses an extraordinary proficiency that will surely meet with deserved recognition by the art-loving public.”

(A. P. Liunge in Litteratur- Kunst- og Theaterblad no. 1, 1821).

Elisabeth Hansen responded to this in the preface to her next novel:

“That ladies ought have nothing to do with writing novels is, most often, told us by the kind of immature geniuses who themselves possess neither the ability to produce something nor the requisite knowledge to pass judgement on the products of others; […] Indeed, whoever writes something in Denmark lays themself well and truly open. The most wretched bunglers set themselves up as judges, not just of the book but also of the author’s or the authoress’s most innocent actions.”

Thyras Datter Hulda (1827; Thyra’s Daughter, Hulda)

At the Centre of Events – Globetrotting Woman of the World

Elisabeth Hansen obviously felt most at home when she was “in the middle of the stage itself”, at the centre of events. And, if we are to believe her autobiographical writings, she was often in the thick of things. These reports are found in Fragmenter af en Dagbog paa en Reise til Engelland, Frankerige og Italien, i Aarene 1819 og 1820 (1833; Fragments of a Diary on a Journey to England, France, and Italy, in the Years 1819 and 1820), Scener af min Barndom (Scenes from my Childhood) published along with Mine Ungdoms Drømme om Sjælens Udødelighed in 1832, and a travel diary with the thunderstorm experience in Africa from 1833.

During her lifetime, there was great interest in these works. Her London diary was serialised in Elmquist’s literary magazine Sneeliljer (Snow Lilies), and before its actual publication, excerpts from her last book were printed in the popular weekly paper Allernyeste Skilderie af Kjøbenhavn (Most Recent Pictures of Copenhagen). The reviews were also favourable.

“This little, unassuming publication contains a fragment of the authoress’s autobiography. In a fluid and spirited style she depicts the merry and sad scenes from her childhood with laudable modesty and candour […] In a psychological respect, this little publication is rather interesting. We would like the authoress to grant the reading world the whole of her autobiography, collected in one volume.”

H. C. Wosemose’s review of Scener af min Barndom (1832; Scenes from my Childhood) and Mine Ungdoms Drømme om Sjælens Udødelighed (1832; My Youthful Dreams of the Immortality of the Soul) in Allernyeste Skilderie af Kjøbenhavn (2 March 1832; Most Recent Pictures of Copenhagen).

A. von Tromlitz: Vielliebchen, 1820. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

It would seem that no one doubted the veracity of her accounts, even though the tone is exceptionally self-assertive, and even though improbabilities are rife. The Elisabeth Hansen who journeys to the Cape of Good Hope and impresses everyone with her knowledge and intelligence is, for example, only fourteen years old and travelling with a tremendously wealthy girlfriend who is, meanwhile, poisoned by a wicked priest. And in 1820 the Elisabeth Hansen who shines in distinguished London society, and who becomes the poet Byron’s confidante and later courier during the Greek War of Independence, is three years too quick off the mark. In her reminiscences of childhood, the description of a much-loved child prodigy in her princess outfit, who later languishes as a Cinderella, at length to be vindicated when, aged eleven, she sets forth to Copenhagen and charms the mansions in Bredgade, in a way supplements the picture of the adult genius – but reliable it is not. Elisabeth Hansen came from a rural environment on the northern part of the island of Lolland; she was born out of wedlock and brought up by her maternal grandmother, her mother having died in 1782. It is quite likely that she was sent into service when twelve or thirteen years old, as was normal practice in this community.

The Copenhagen readers were unaware of her childhood background. Lolland was very far away, and Elisabeth Hansen, now a married woman living a middle-class life in the capital, was not one to give herself away. That the readers and reviewers seemingly passed lightly over all the improbabilities and, moreover, urged the author to tell them more, can only be because her imaginative narratives chimed with the 1830s’ Biedermeier hunger for novelty, for exotic and ‘interesting’ topics. In addition, however, it was also ‘interesting’ that she, a woman, had experienced all this. Not only her narratives, but also Elisabeth Hansen the woman was good copy – almost a myth in her own Copenhagen lifetime, as demonstrated by various references to her comings and goings.

“The Deepest Pain is Always Mute”

Being a myth has its price. Elisabeth Hansen had overstepped the narrow bounds of womanhood in pretty well every direction: as an author without the protection of a pseudonym, as a traveller without a male companion – but, above all, by stepping out of the private sphere and becoming a public figure. At the same time, she lost respectability – a woman who did not conduct herself as a woman should was not respectable. It is in this light that we should see the aspect of her self-presentation which time and again assures the reader of the virtuous life led by the writer and of her housewifely prowess. There is, however, bitterness lurking behind all the assurances and self-glorification. We sense that ‘Elisabeth, who conquers the world’ also felt like ‘Ane Lisbeth alone in the world’. We know nothing about the private nature of her marriage with merchantman captain H. P. Hansen. It endured until the captain’s death in 1848, but his wife only wrote about him once: the death notice in Kiøbenhavns Adresse-Contoirs Efterretninger (Copenhagen Address Office News). Bourgeois home life and happy marriage – or unhappy, for that matter – is never mentioned, not in her travel diaries, autobiography, essays, or fiction. Whether real-life or fictional characters, they are always alone in the world and very far from home.

Elisabeth Hansen’s entire and highly productive writing career, which was launched when she was forty-seven years old and lasted for fifteen years, would seem to have been conducted from and against an experience of loss. Loss, however, is never made into a theme. “The deepest pain is always mute,” as she often writes. But the consequence of loss, the vulnerability, is the theme in her two novels written in the 1820s, both of which have a female protagonist: her debut novel Dido og Don Pedro (1821; Dido and Don Pedro) and Thyras Datter Hulda (1827; Thyra’s Daughter, Hulda).

War and Chaos – Virtue and Death

In both novels Elisabeth Hansen puts her heroines in the midst of highly dramatic events: Spain during the Napoleonic Wars and England during King Canute’s conquest of the country, respectively. The author airs neither national sympathies nor antipathies, her aim is to shed light on war as perpetual circumstance and its effect on human life and psyche. War causes chaos – “instability”, in which “chance” prevails. Families are broken up, moral concepts disintegrate, and humankind appears in all its “injudicious” passion and brutishness.

In Dido og Don Pedro, Dido’s sexual fall is thus explained both via the absence of parental authority and via the intense, but unusual, situation that arises when two childhood sweethearts find one another again and are reunited, to the accompaniment of thundering guns, in the summerhouse where they played as children. Thereafter, misfortune rains down upon the young couple: pregnancy, Pedro’s call-up, infidelity. The second half of the novel is a long, drawn-out exposition of Dido’s painful route to religious cognition of sin, which ends with her reconciliatory death and Pedro’s penitent suicide at the edge of the grave. In an orgiastic scene, with coursing blood and rolling eyes, the two can finally be united in a way that does not challenge the novel’s moral compass.

In Thyras Datter Hulda the heroine’s death is also one of reconciliation, but what needs reconciling here is the enmity between Hulda’s beloved, English Edmund, and her father, Danish Knud [Canute]. Hulda never ‘falls’; she is portrayed as virtue personified, a truly fine soul. At the same time, she also has to undergo a lengthy religious crisis before she is ready to face up to her ‘destiny’, that of reconciliatory death; she is tormented by thoughts of original sin and the possibility that it could reveal itself in her, given that she is the fruit of a nonmarital relationship between King Canute and Thyra, who died after the birth of her daughter.

Elisabeth Hansen was good at self-promotion, and she also had useful connections among printers and magazine editors. It could be this to which A. P. Liunge is referring somewhat sourly when, in his review of Dido og Don Pedro, he writes that “this product has, thanks be to its ostentatious message, already been publicised in advance in a number of foreign periodicals”. Elisabeth Hansen needed the publicity; she had a large sum of money at stake as several of her books were issued by her own publishing house. That she was highly aware of market forces is also obvious from the send-off she gave her debut novel Dido og Don Pedro:

“Go, my daughter! Out among your kind sisters. Caution them through your example, and teach them, in every situation and occasion of life, to take careful heed, so they never for a second deviate from the path of virtue, and if it is possible for you, then make your mother liked by those in whose hands you come […].”

“Humankind Can do Anything it Wants”

Elisabeth Hansen insisted that women also had need of learning and intellectual development. This message, however, could not be delivered directly in the context of a novel – she reserved it for the self-portrait that she put on public display. The dogged determination, and the essentially male conduct she chose, was quite remarkable. It could have stemmed from the very fact that she was not a daughter of the bourgeoisie and had therefore not experienced the self-control imposed by a conventional middle-class girls’ upbringing.

It is as if she converted her experience of loss or ‘lack’ – which could very well also be due to this social handicap – into determination, into the energy that powered her huge need to express herself, “the eternal fire blazing in the blood”. And, as she often wrote: “Humankind can do anything it wants.” So saying, she also linked the two centuries that she straddled: the eighteenth century with its belief in human reason and the nineteenth century with its philosophical liberalism.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch