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Boundless Womanhood

Written by: Lise Busk-Jensen |

When forty-one-year-old Magdalene Thoresen (1819-1903) let Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson publish her first book Digte af en Dame (1860; Poems by a Lady) while the author remained anonymous, the ‘women’s question’ had long been a topic of political debate and a literary theme. Thoresen’s oeuvre, which would soon prove to be one of the most extensive and significant of the period, addressed the issue in its own particular larger-than-life way, blending some of the most patriarchal notions of Romanticism with aspects of the new cultural departures of the decades to come.

Colour lithograph after K. Bergslien, in: Norske Folkelivsbilleder, 1858

The focus of Thoresen’s works is the depiction of nature and people in the Norway that became her adopted country. Her biggest popular success was the two-volume ‘travelogue’ from the northernmost area, Billeder fra Midnatsolens Land (1884-86; Pictures from the Land of the Midnight Sun). It may safely be said that she was a ‘naturalist’ in the sense of the word later used by Georg Brandes in discussing the English Romantics. In Brandes’s view, the ‘naturalism’ of the English Romantics was a variant of the continental Romantics’ nationalism; the English way of loving their country was to love its nature. Correspondingly, it can be said of Magdalene Thoresen that she celebrated Norwegian nature and folklife in her writing because the country had given her material for the myths that were to be the resonance chamber for her ‘woman’. Having grown up on the Jutland side of the Little Belt strait, she knew about the harsh conditions of life in fishing and farming communities. She was at home with the sea; in her writing she took a reality-orientated and sensual approach to investigating the relationship between humankind and nature.

In her own particular style, Thoresen interwove a new naturalism into the familiar gender and culture myths of Romanticism. As a woman writer, she did not have the male Romantics’ option of projecting the bond with nature onto the opposite sex. On the contrary, she ran the constant risk that nature would engulf her femaleness and obliterate its cultural identity. She therefore bears out the Romantic patriarchal hierarchy in which culture and man/God set the boundaries for nature and woman. Thoresen’s view of nature and woman manifested both admiration for the strength of the forces of nature and fear of their identity-subverting boundlessness. The admiration generated her many powerful women characters, the fear engendered a strong adherence to patriarchy.

Travelling in the Landscapes of Myth

Reference to Norwegian nature and folklife is often immediately apparent from the titles of Thoresen’s stories. In the first volume of Fortællinger (1863; Tales), four out of five titles contain Norwegian place names. “En Aften i Bergen” (An Evening in Bergen) was Thoresen’s first published short story; it was initially printed in Illustreret Nyhedsblad (1858; Illustrated News) in Kristiania (now Oslo). This was followed by “Vørringen”, “Fra Hardanger” (From Hardanger), and “Fra Sognefjorden” (From Sognefjord). In 1872 she published her first travel book, Billeder fra Vestkysten af Norge (Pictures from the West Coast of Norway), from the fjord and coastal landscape of the Sunnmøre district south of Ålesund. At the time of her marriage in 1843, Magdalene’s husband was the rural pastor of Herøy, one of the many islands in Sunnmøre, so she knew the area from personal experience. A decade after the publication of this first travel book, she spent a whole year staying with her youngest daughter, whose husband was commandant in the garrison town of Vardø; the visit resulted in Billeder fra Midnatsolens Land, an ambitious project charting the long journey by small ferry craft traversing the waters from the Arctic Ocean’s lower limits up to Varangerfjord, Vardø, Finnmark, and back via Lofoten.

Travel writing was a popular Romantic genre. Many had followed the tracks of Goethe’s Italienische Reise (1816-17; Italian Journey). Hans Christian Andersen and Fredrika Bremer found widespread fame in Europe with accounts of their journeys in Southern Europe and the Orient, and Bremer also wrote six volumes of observations from her travels in the United States. Magdalene Thoresen, in patent opposition to the wave of enthusiasm for Italy, chose to travel in the opposite direction. She wanted to show that the Nordic region could offer just as picturesque a folklife and just as fantastic views. Her comparisons with well-known tourist centres in the South turn out in favour of the North; the Arctic Ocean is “far more beautiful in its cold strength than Naples’s smiling bay”, and “the Alps and the peaks of all the Swiss mountains” are nothing to her as compared to the cliffs of Lofoten. Thoresen’s travel accounts opened the doors onto a fascination with “the land of the midnight sun”, to which Knut Hamsun, among others, later contributed with his novel Pan (1894).

One of Thoresen’s objectives in writing her travel books was to record Norwegian folk tales. In this, she was possibly inspired by the work of Just Mathias Thiele who had been publishing collections of Danish folk tales since 1818, and whose latest book was Den danske Almues overtroiske Meninger (1860; The Superstitious Beliefs of the Danish Peasantry).

Fredrika Bremer: Dreng med hund på en kaffeplantage i Amerika. Undated. Drawing, in: Fredrika Bremer: Hemmen i den nya verlden. Del 111, B. Stockholm, 1983

Thoresen’s travel literature mixes three genres. Outermost is the aesthetic description of nature seen from the perspective of the visitor, the experience of the sculptural and picturesque qualities, rock formations, the motion of the sea, winding coastline and the changing colours of the light. Then there are elements of cultural sociology, observing conditions of life for the local people along the route; norms of morality, religious practices, and cultural customs are described from the perspective of the fundamental battle to wrest from nature the resources essential to the maintenance of life; on this level, there are many factual details about species of fish, methods of fishing, trade, reindeer husbandry, and mining. Thirdly, Thoresen intersperses long or short stories; these might be legends and anecdotes about characters from the location – the earlier commandants at the garrison in Vardø, for example – or stories about individual fortunes that illustrate the ways of life in the various locations.

The Romantic myths tie the three genres together into an aesthetic whole. The descriptions of nature are humanised and the sociology is psychologised so that they can form the backdrop to the narrativisation of the myth in story. Thoresen’s narrator, our guide, continually evokes the mythical visualisation, which is designated “the stuff of destiny”:

“It is an arresting sight, the giant [North Cape] ahead, a cloak of snow around the broad shoulders, and the menacing brow turned towards the sea. He will not give way. The sea can set in with its wildest force, it moves him not; it can lay its bright countenance caressingly upon his breast, it stirs him not. He has thousands of years’ experience of the sea’s perfidious tenderness and its mermaid heart, and he will not be enticed! The encounter between them is the battle between two great powers, they can make peace for a while, but never friendship.”

The North Cape becomes an image of man and his spiritual power (the broad shoulders, the menacing brow), standing masterfully over the sea; the sea being a picture of woman and her volatile, urge-driven moods (the perfidious tenderness). The two great powers in Thoresen’s universe, the father-god – “the last cornerstone on Earth” as the North Cape is also called – and the mermaid, culture and nature, man and woman meet in a forever dramatic embrace.

The sections of cultural sociology present the same power struggle between the two basic groups living along the coastland: traders and fishermen. A well-calculated credit policy has turned the trader into master of the nature-bound fisherman. The fisherman risks his life in order to wrest fish from the sea; he then supplies the trader at the price set by that trader. If the fisherman overfishes and empties the sea, if the trader impoverishes the fisherman, or the man at home oppresses the woman, then the power relationship between nature and culture is turned around, and nature retaliates. Thoresen has many an ecological reflection on the ruthless exploitation of nature – for example, a critical analysis of mechanised whaling, a practice that does not allow the huge, playful marine animals a chance.

Billeder fra Midnatsolens Land concludes with a one hundred pages long story about Thames, who discovers a method of setting his nets at just the right depth and by so doing lands a larger catch than the other fishermen. With the earnings, he makes a good marriage into a commercial house, but hereafter his greed for culture in the form of social position and power turns against him. His wife and children die or forsake him; but one of his children – a poor little latecomer with a delicate state of health – teaches him how to share his wealth with his fellow human beings, and only then is he able to re-assume his culture-creating paternal role.

To mark the author’s eightieth birthday, her publishing house, Gyldendal, re-issued her first travel book. Thoresen wrote a new introduction, providing a succinct description of her cultural myth and its personal background. She writes that when she first arrived in Norway, as a young woman, the mountains and the sea inspired her with a tremendous fear, but they also stirred her into action and personal growth. Neither culture nor nature had hitherto given her any real opposition: “The great works of civilisation had never stimulated my mind to the same extent as when I sat on a bare rock by the beach and looked out across the sea […] In nature I had hitherto met my equal, now for the first time I had met more than my match, and that demanded action […] in this action my mind expanded and took on a wider encounter.”

A link was thus established, she writes, a guiding thread that “throughout a period of 57 years has supported the straight line followed in my writing activities, for it tied my mind to the mighty saga of life along the coast.”

Emotional Abundance

When she reached the age of eighty, shortly before the turn of the century, Magdalene Thoresen was celebrated in style. The kings of Denmark and Norway-Sweden respectively awarded her gold medals for services to literature. Dansk Kvindesamfund (The Danish Women’s Society) published a special issue of their members’ journal Kvinden og Samfundet (Woman and Society), and Kvindelig Læseforening (Women’s Reading Society) held a celebration at which she was made an honorary member. On 4 June 1899, the day after her birthday, Illustreret Tidende (Illustrated News), a weekly magazine read by the Copenhagen bourgeoisie, reprinted her first short story alongside an autobiographical sketch. Thoresen opened the sketch by remarking of her personal story that it had “transpired most unevenly”, a weak expression, it has to be said, for a particularly chequered life.

Magdalene’s father, Thomas Nielsen Kragh, was the skipper of a cargo boat service sailing out of Fredericia. Her mother supplemented his small income by running a hostelry in the largest room in their house. There was little time or money to look after the five children, so Magdalene grew up in the home of her paternal grandmother, who lived in the neighbourhood and made a living by preparing and selling fish. The old lady filled her with folktales and all kinds of fantasy; what is more, she also indulged her.

“When I was fourteen I was to be confirmed, and my grandmother would often speak of the wonderful change the occasion would make to my life. We would sit together in the fading evening light, when the front of every house in the road was swept clean and strewn with greenery. Oh the poor phantasts that we were! When we walked together to church the men took off their hats and bowed to us.”

Illustreret Tidende (4 June1899; Illustrated News)

Magdalene was an avid reader of everything that came her way, she wrote poems and at an early age conceived plans to “change station” in life, but her childhood setting could not help her to guide her talents in any prudent direction. In the autobiographical article she writes: “I was compelled to hide my imaginings; and as these were far too vivid to die from restraint, they grew secretly and gradually assumed more definite form. And yet my disposition had such abundance that, despite all good instruction on orderliness and duty, it nevertheless forced its way through in many stray and completely erroneous ventures.”

When she was twenty years old, she received financial help from a factory owner enabling her to move to Copenhagen and train to become a teacher. She worked hard for two years in order to acquire the education and culture that her background had not been able to provide. At the same time, she embarked on an amorous adventure that was quite exceptional for the middle-class women and female writers of the period. She entered into a lingering love affair with another student staying at her lodging house, Grímur Thomsen, an Icelander with no immediate prospects. As his feelings were far from the same intensity as hers, she left Copenhagen in disappointment and took up a position as governess in the home of a Norwegian pastor and local parliamentary representative, Hans Conrad Thoresen, on the island of Herøy. Twice a widower, Pastor Thoresen had been left with five children. He needed a wife and the children needed a mother, so within a year he and the new governess were married, and in 1844 the family moved to Bergen. Before this, however, Magdalene had made a brief visit to Copenhagen, where she gave birth to a son at a maternity hospital. The child, whose father was either Grímur Thomsen or Hans Conrad Thoresen, was placed in care in Denmark.

Apart from autobiographical sketches, Magdalene Thoresen also left a large number of letters. Most were written after the death of her husband in 1858, when she tried to make her name as a writer and build up a new circle of friends among Danish and Norwegian cultural figures. Her fellow correspondents were usually women in a similar situation to her own, widows or unmarried middle-aged ladies with cultural interests: the actress Johanne Luise Heiberg, professor’s daughter Mathilde Reinhardt, and Hanne Wiehe, sister of the actor Michael Wiehe.

Thoresen and Johanne Luise Heiberg understood one another, albeit their friendship was not always close; they had an impoverished childhood, the artist’s life, and a yearning for love in common. “To no one have I expressed myself in the way I have to you,” wrote Heiberg to Thoresen on 14 September 1866; Thoresen replied: “Eros – he is not only my God, he is also yours.”

She confided in them, as open-heartedly as she dared, experiences from her chaotic childhood and turbulent youth. She wrote to Hanne Wiehe in 1856:

“I outgrew my near relations in childhood […] Can you imagine what it is like to be in every way highly gifted? […] But nowhere is there any guidance, no timely pulling on the reins. […] following God’s laws, untamed and free like a deer in the forest, forgetting – or misinterpreting rather – the laws of the world.”

As can be seen, Thoresen had perfected the interpretation of her ‘uneven life’ at an early stage, the interpretation upon which she constructed her gender and cultural myth – it was not the “abundance” in her disposition, but the lack of someone who could exercise a “pulling on the reins” that had been the cause of what she considered to be her life’s misfortune.

Staying with Thoresen’s own imagery, it can be said that she had the sea in her, but she lacked the rocks against which to break; she had a strong nature, but for want of male comeback she had to learn to bridle it herself. Initially she was helped by the pastor; he was seventeen years her senior and therefore entered their marriage more in the role of a father figure than of a husband. Magdalene was a meticulous stepmother, and later mother for the four children they had together, and the pastor saw to it that she received further literary education. He encouraged her to participate in the cultural life of Bergen. In 1850 Magdalene Thoresen was one of the co-founders of Det norske Teater (Norway’s first national theatre) in Bergen, to which she contributed, anonymously of course, four (unpublished) plays – historical dramas and modern vaudevilles. She also wrote drama reviews in the local papers. In 1855 her husband sent her on a ‘grand tour’ to Paris and London.

While living in Bergen, Magdalene Thoresen got to know both Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Ibsen was the first director and resident playwright at the new theatre, where he stayed until 1857, at which point he left Bergen in favour of a similar job in Kristiania. Magdalene continued to have contact with him – in 1858 he married Susanna Thoresen, one of her stepdaughters. Once Ibsen had left, his job at the theatre was taken on by Bjørnson; her relationship with him had a profound influence on her life and work. In the letter to Mrs Heiberg quoted earlier, she names Bjørnson as her other great love, after Grímur Thomsen:

“Ten years ago I met another force of nature, and thus I stooped in the dust – but it was diamond dust – beloved friend! and I arose in my writing. I had found my match.”

When pastor Thoresen died, around the time that Magdalene had met Bjørnson, she had perhaps hoped for a permanent relationship. Then again, being thirteen years his senior and bearing a heavy load as sole provider for her children and stepchildren, she was not his ideal match. Three months after the pastor’s death, Bjørnson married Karoline Reimers. He maintained a strongly emotional link with Magdalene, right up until she published the story “Min Bedstemoders Fortælling eller De to Aftener” (1867; My Grandmother’s Tale, or The Two Evenings), which contained an intimate portrait of their ‘spiritual marriage’. This was too much for Karoline, and Bjørnson had to break with his friend.

“I wanted to depict the wonderful thing,” wrote Thoresen to Mathilde Reinhardt in reference to the love affair in “Min Bedstemoders Fortælling”. The religious dimension of sexuality is a notion also found in the character of Ibsen’s Nora: she expects “the wonderful thing” of her husband.

Up until that point, he had attempted to help her launch her writing career; financially, this career could supplement her meagre widow’s pension, and psychologically, it could bridle and divert her – for a woman so problematic – intellectual and sexual inclinations. He published Digte af en Dame, found her publication outlets in journals and anthologies, and provided her with translation work while her own books were but slowly finding a market.

In 1861 Magdalene Thoresen and her four biological children moved to Copenhagen, where she intended to launch her writing career. Now it was the cultural “cornerstone” – public literary opinion – into which she steered her boat. The woman’s encounter with the man and her self-realisation in the love affair was transformed into the author’s encounter with readers and critics and her self-realisation in the literary profession. But for the author, there was also something ‘left over’, as her correspondence and her literary texts indicate quite forcefully. Thoresen confided in Hanne Wiehe that when studying in Copenhagen, she had “learnt everything off by heart so as to be able to use my facts again quickly and correctly”. Education was in part external, something of the girl from humble beginnings remained hidden and mute, and the isolation from the world implied by this kind of non-expressible core is the very theme in two of Thoresen’s most important prose stories.

“Studenten” (The Student), the last and longest story in Fortællinger, links the isolation theme to the cultural myth. The story deals with the difficulty in converting an intuitive sense for nature into abstract knowledge. Country lad Brune spends his childhood pottering around on his own in his local countryside, his head full of hazy prospects for the future. He has an ability to find medicinal herbs and make remedies for the poorly; as quackery is banned, however, he receives assistance from his local community to study medicine in Bergen, and he later returns to the village as a trained doctor. But Brune cannot cope with the transition from experience of sensuous nature, “that whispers most intimately with the child”, to the symbolisation of experience put into words in books; reading plucks “thought from its cradle”. It proves impossible to tame Brune’s nature, nor does the impoverished lad have the resources necessary to make his way in the world:

“And yet Brune carried with him a grand thought; but it lay like an embryo in his being, shrouded in the heavy, misty cloak of form, and it could almost be said that he was that of which a second or third would develop. He was like one of these insects that produce varying generations, only the fourth or fifth of which have wings.”

Brune is an early version of the gifted student from the countryside who was to be one of the most characteristic literary figures of the Modern Breakthrough.

In the novel Herluf Nordal (1879), the theme of isolation is linked to the myth of gender. Benedikte is an orphaned governess who could not, as it were, afford to have any voice in the community: “Her soul was passionate like the rolling waves, but she realised that she must suppress this dangerous tendency lest it lead to sinful behaviour.”

When she thinks she is unobserved, she expresses this passion in a song which is “like a treasure she guarded in secret”. The singing opens Herluf’s heart: “[…] long after the song had come to an end he was still listening […] [it sang] him into a new world with new thoughts, new purpose and longing […] like a magic key [the song] had opened up the world of the wonderful thing.” Conversely, his knowledge opens her mind: “Every word he spoke was an expression of her strong feeling, the one she could never voice except in song.”

The woman’s song releases the man’s feelings, and similarly the man’s words convert the woman’s song (feelings) into thoughts. The novel ends tragically – Herluf forgets Benedikte’s magical song and chooses the wrong bride. On another level, however, he remains Benedikte’s ‘bridegroom’: “he who was her heart’s intended, her soul’s mate – chosen for all eternity.” This level is mystically religious and sensually erotic at one and the same time. Emotional abundance was a constituent feature of the Romantic notion of womanhood and a common theme in Romantic women’s literature. Few, however, depicted the strength of these emotions and their claim to citizenship like Magdalene Thoresen. Compared with a writer from the 1830s such as Thomasine Gyllembourg, Thoresen’s account of female sensitivity is more overtly eroticised, and the cultural aim is not so much that of marriage and life of the intimate sphere as it is sexual union in the love relationship.

The Embryo of Thought in the Misty Cloak of Form

Magdalene Thoresen achieved her greatest success, in the opinion of reviewers and readers, with her travel books, but these did not represent her main genre. Most of her literary output falls within two other genres: the ‘peasant tale’ and the realistic contemporary drama.

Thoresen’s tales of rural life did not achieve much recognition or success:

“[…] tell her to give up writing stories about Norwegian peasants. Both Bjørnson and I can make use of the vernacular because we can differentiate between what has its origin in old Norwegian and what is merely sloppy speech. But Mrs Thoresen is quite unable to make such a distinction, and her language has now become a hotchpotch of something which never has been and never will be Norwegian.”

Thus wrote Henrik Ibsen to Frederik V. Hegel, director of their publishing house Gyldendal, on 20 February 1869.

Mary Sophie Clarck, g. Schuhmacher. Undated. Drawing. The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

The ‘peasant tale’ as a genre concentrates on rural communities and their agriculture-based culture. Being an alien species to the cultured readership, they have been presented in changing perspectives throughout the annals of literary history, from satire to a romanticised rendering. Danish readers had been introduced to a realistic version of the genre in Steen Steensen Blicher’s short stories, and Bjørnson had recently introduced the genre into Norwegian literature with Synnøve Solbakken (1857) and a number of subsequent stories. Given that Thoresen was familiar with the Norwegian rural community from her years on the island of Herøy, and that the genre was additionally suitable as form for the mythical “stuff of destiny” with which she worked, it was natural to act on inspiration from Bjørnson. The first volume of stories contains three tales in the genre: “Vørringen”, “Fra Sognefjorden” and, to some extent, “Studenten”. This collection was succeeded by the novels Signes Historie (1864; The Story of Signe) and Solen i Siljedalen (1868; The Sun in Siljedal), and a considerable number of short stories, which were published in periodicals and magazines and then later in the collections Nyere Fortællinger (1873; Recent Tales), Livsbilleder (1877; Pictures from Life), Mindre Fortællinger (1891; Short Tales), Elvedrag og andre Fortællinger (1893; The River Valley and Other Tales), Livsluft (1895; Air of Life), Udenom Afgrunden (1897; Skirting the Abyss) and Skjæbner og Viljer (1899; Destinies and Willpowers).

In Signes Historie,the confrontation between nature and culture, female nature and male nature, is played out within the societal tension of a small rural village. The encounter is between the prosperous farmer and the learned pastor. These two men rule their respective families with the patriarchal rod of iron. While the fathers are busy exercising their power, the farmer’s daughter, Signe, and the pastor’s son, Gudmund, come together as one another’s ‘match’ in Thoresen’s mythical, sexual sense of the word.

The two young people meet by chance and look at one another “with the singular bewilderment that comes from recognition without acquaintance”. They do not know each other in the social sense, but they nevertheless recognise one another quite ‘naturally’ because they simultaneously see their own love instinct reflected in the other.

The fathers’ subsequent attempt to use their children as pawns in their power struggle leads to insanity and death. Although Signe is pregnant with Gudmund’s child, the young people are not allowed to marry. She is forced to undertake a ceremony of penance, walking to the church wearing the white headcloth of shame, but the sight of this breaks the power of both her father and the pastor. Signe’s father dies while attempting to save Gudmund’s life; the pastor is no longer equal to his calling and loses his mind. Nature and the nature of woman defy the power of culture and patriarchy when this is destructive rather than fulfilling.

The novel subsequently proceeds along two rival tracks. The one is that of women’s emancipation, a path that is rarely traversed in Thoresen’s work, nor does it prove passable in Signes Historie. The pastor’s sister, Rebekka, persuades Signe to set up a school for the homeless children of the parish, a typical project for Romantic women’s emancipation, which is also in its way a success. This is nevertheless refuted by the text: lightning strikes the parsonage, setting it on fire, and Rebekka dies in the study.

“Rebekka, as the pastor’s sister was called, was perhaps destined to something great in life, for she was possessed of powerful gifts; gifts requiring a sphere of endeavour to which her severe, masculine, almost ugly facial features denied her access. She was condemned to spend her days a spinster, it could not be remedied; and the plentiful talents and the hearty energy were subdued like naughty children who dash the toy to pieces because they need the grand arm movements in the realm of free expression.” Signes Historie

The character of Rebekka might well have been inspired by Fredrika Bremer’s Hertha, which also has a compelling description of a fire and a main female character who sets up a school.

The message of the novel follows the other track, that of reconciliation. The pastor and his son die in the church after Gudmund has removed the cloth of shame from Signe’s head. She lives on, reconciled with the fathers; and now she has her son, a new, little patriarch, to fill her life. Women’s emancipation as it emerged in the 1860s, with sexual abstinence, studies, and philanthropy, held no attraction for Thoresen. She preferred desire and suffering in the mythical contest between nature, sex, and culture.

The quickest route to fame and financial return for writers at the time was to pen plays for the theatre. Magdalene Thoresen had already set out along this route in Bergen. Ibsen’s first comedy of contemporary life, De unges Forbund (The League of Youth), was produced with great success in Kristiania in 1869, and was staged in February 1870 at Det Kongelige Teater (The Royal Theatre) in Copenhagen; just two months later, Thoresen had already seen the premiere performance of her first drama dealing with issues of the day, Et rigt Parti.

The ink had hardly dried on Thoresen’s manuscript of Et rigt Parti (1870; A Good Match) before Mrs Heiberg received it enclosed with a letter:

“On the stage, as everywhere else where intellect proclaims its laws – woman must join in the talking! […] we would rather have blood drawn in the fight than we would sit, in the routine womanly way, quietly in a corner and wither away.”

(10 November 1869).

Before she had finished her next play, Inden Døre (1877; Within Doors), Bjørnson had also made his breakthrough as contemporary dramatist with En fallit (1875; A Bankruptcy) and Redaktøren (1875; The Editor).

Thoresen’s dramas of contemporary life are obviously of a different character to tales of peasant life. Dialogue and setting are modern, tailored to the rapid conversation and social forms of a city audience. Thematically, however, the difference is not so great – which probably contributed to the limited success of the plays. Thoresen was not fully able to dramatise her mythical basic conflicts, to apply light and shade to the psychological portraits, and to display a broad gallery of individualised characters. But she was also up against overwhelming competition from her son-in-law and her lover. In the 1870s and 1880s, Ibsen and Bjørnson, and later Strindberg, conquered the Scandinavian stage to an extent that made it more than ordinarily difficult for a woman writer to get a foot in.

After the production of Et Dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House), which convinced Thoresen of Ibsen’s genius, she gave up on the idea of achieving success as a playwright.

“[…] if Mrs Thoresen was fortunate in much of her material to strike this national aspect, too – which made her name in Norway – in this particular area she was often purely original on the outside, imitating marvels in the style of a brilliant man to an extent that caused offence and, so much the more, the more she attempted to impose this upon us as genuine,” Jonas Lie wrote to Edvard Brandes.

The Female Claim

As sole breadwinner responsible for her four children and her elderly mother, Magdalene Thoresen was compelled to pursue an all-round writing career.

In 1869, with reference to her literary work, Thoresen put in a request to be allowed to keep the supplementary pension awarded to her by Stortinget (the Norwegian Parliament) in 1859, until her youngest child reached eighteen years of age; her request was turned down. That same year she applied for a grant from Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab (The Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters); her application was rejected by twelve votes to eleven.

Alongside prose works and plays, she published another volume of Digte (1887; Poems). This collection is more uneven than her first volume; occasional poetry, for example two poems written to Johanne Luise Heiberg, is inserted between poems that are of a personal – not to say intimate – nature. Lyric poetry was not a typical Thoresen genre, although it was an area in which she made greater inroads than her fellow women writers at the time. In 1867, in Kristiania, she was the first Scandinavian woman to give public performance of her own works to a paying audience, and in the following year she performed in Copenhagen.

”[…] has it come to this that our Nordic writers also start opening up shop and stand behind the counter themselves?” was the rhetorical question asked by Erik Bøgh in his review of Thoresen’s public performances, and he supplies the answer by pointing out the good sense in authors being thus able to earn some income; he praises Thoresen’s pioneering courage.

Folkets Avis (20 October 1868; The People’s Paper).

Thoresen was undoubtedly too controversial a figure to be accorded the public status that her talent, diligence, and efforts across a broad genre spectrum actually warranted. Her dual nationality, Danish and Norwegian, her dual class affiliation, a child of lowly folk and a professional writer, and not least her ambiguous womanhood – boundlessly desirous naturalness in the guise of Romantic sensitivity – made her difficult to place. Interestingly, resentment against her writing activities culminated after the publication of “Min Bedstemoders Fortælling”, which is her most candid text and most clearly manifests the platform of female subject and self from which she wrote. Bjørnson considered the story affected: “her writing, which in its intention alone is true, but in its articulation is more often than not awful”, he wrote in 1867. Mrs Heiberg, however, took the exact opposite view: “People cannot tolerate such honesty.”

Thoresen was by no means neglected. A very young Brandes wrote a reverent tribute to her in Illustreret Tidende (22 April 1866), and Danish literary historian Vilhelm Andersen called her “the writer of the sixties, just as Amalie Skram is that of the eighties”.

Leis Schelderup: Self-portrait, 1885. Oil painting. The National Museum of Finland, Helsinki

»“Min Bedstemoders Fortælling eller De to Aftener” was published in the anthology Ved Løvfaldstid (Kristiania 1867; Autumn Leaves), which also had contributions from Bjørnson and other well-known Norwegian writers. It is a frame narrative, the embedded tale of which is the story of the grandmother’s life as she tells it in old age to her two sons and their children. The frame narrative is told by her grandson, whereas the story within the story is told by the grandmother – she is Thoresen’s only female first-person narrator, and this fact alone gives the story a special status in her oeuvre.

At the heart of the grandmother’s story lies a dramatic love affair. After a number of years in a conventional marriage, Agathe, as the grandmother is called, is widowed at the age of thirty-five. She goes to a spa in order to recuperate, and here she meets a man who attracts her with mystical force. It turns out, however, that the man is married, and so their ways must part. Eight years later, Agathe reads in the newspaper that the man’s wife has died; given that her love for him is just as strong as it ever was, she decides – after a year of hesitation – to visit him in order, now, to fulfil their relationship. They marry, a son is born, but then disaster strikes. The man has been having an affair with a country girl. The young woman visits Agathe, entrusts her with their illegitimate child, and then brings about the man’s and her own death.

The tale is characterised by elements of great sensual eroticism. “What was this mighty urge of nature that had been awakened in my being? Were all my abilities and sensibilities not instantly employed in its service? […] All goodness flowed so plentifully from his being and poured over me like a warm stream […] I felt as if I was in divine waters with fragrance and intoxication a thousandfold.”

As is apparent from reviewer Clemens Petersen’s verdict in the daily paper Fædrelandet (The Fatherland) on 9 November 1867, it was not the sensuality as such that was so offensive – the outrageous and shocking aspect was that sexual desire should emanate as an active force from a woman: “A man thus excited by love can be noble, because man’s entire being is craving, desire, will; but a woman – the entire being of whom is submission, and who therefore cannot stir without first being asked to do so – in the case where she herself asks, is hideous, and can only be dealt with by the arts on the condition that she is rendered comical.”

By allowing Agathe to use a judicial language when referring to the nature of her love – “At that moment I felt my indisputable right to him […] I would show him my claim” – Thoresen had reversed the traditional active/passive relationship between man and woman.

Ten years later, Thoresen published a revised version in Livsbilleder. The grandmother’s story has been lengthened considerably; the sexual passages have not been watered down. On the other hand, Agathe’s sexual power and activity have been weakened, as can be seen, for example, when the couple meet again: “Oh how I loved him” has become “Oh how my heart throbbed”; “At that moment I felt my indisputable right to him” becomes “I felt a deep and blessed joy”; “I […] rested contentedly against his breast” becomes “Then he opened his arms”.

Thoresen had an ambiguous attitude to the relationship between activity and womanliness. On the one hand, she wrote of Agathe to Mathilde Reinhardt: “[…] it is as the result of the very highest degree of womanliness that she declares herself to the man”. On the other hand, she wrote about her “bird of prey” nature to Mrs Heiberg: “[…] how I have pounced greedily everywhere disregarding whether the prey was ready or not.” She believed in the rights of female emotions, but she also feared them if they took over.

Men of the Modern Breakthrough – those men who would soon accord the women’s cause so much sympathetic interest – had a more clear-cut view of the case. They were shocked and repulsed by this portrait of a sexually active and demanding woman.

In a letter to his mother, written in Rome on 3 February 1871, Brandes recalled a meeting with Thoresen a few years before:

“Finally, you must also know that one evening, while she was living in Klampenborg, she attempted in the most vulgar manner to seduce me, first by asking me to stay there for the night, later in a more corporeal manner; this caused me such disgust for the lumbering baggage that I wrenched myself from her.”

Translated by Gaye Kynoch