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Becoming a Writer

Written by: Inger-Lise Hjordt-Vetlesen |

In 1891 a young man in love wrote a poem to his fiancée:

And you are mine, you gentle, golden girl and as yet I have met none your equal, so true and sweet and womanly…

Many years later, this same man – Jeppe Aakjær – took stock of his failed marriage:

“Everywhere I turned I met my wife’s accusing countenance with its hard, severe Bregendahlian features. In my holidays I fled as far away as possible […] All my fervent words and entreaties were disarmed with one single term: the rent!”

The woman and writer Marie Bregendahl (1867-1940) is the subject of these various interpretations. How could one and the same man harbour such different pictures of her? And how is the contrast between the “gentle, golden girl” and the “hard, severe” woman put into play in Marie Bregendahl’s writing?

A Wealth of Pictures

Wedding at Fly school. 1895. Photo. Fjandboarkivet, Stoholm

For the most part, Marie Bregendahl’s works are set in a district reminiscent of her childhood world – the village of Fly in northern Jutland – and take place between the years 1864 and 1885. This was in the days before the new world – Grundtvigianism, the co-operative ownership movement, changes in agricultural practices, and the emancipation of women – had entered minds and life styles.

Sødalsfolkene III, (1935; The People of Sødal), is a collection of “Pictures of Life in Sødal”, which were originally published individually from 1914 to 1923. The stories are mutually independent, but most of the characters go from picture to picture. The varied gallery of farmers and fine folk, young and old, includes a few characters who deviate from the norm. They are not the central characters, they are not the ones tracing the epic arc, but they are the ones who paint the underlying tones.

Marie Bregendahl furnished the publication of Alvilda. Billeder af Sødalsfolkenes Liv (1914; Alvida. Pictures of Life in Sødal) with a preface in which she writes:

“They are in no way dependent one on the other, these stories, and they have no more in common than that they all take place in the same old-fashioned, somewhat out-of-the-way part of the country, and in the period between 64 and 85. Some of the characters, however, appear more often than others, and two individuals, the rural dean and Jørgen Damgaard, are more or less prominent figures in most of them.”

This is not a case of Bildungsroman, but of free composition that associatively links the separate sections by other means than those of chronology. The account is episodic and situative, and the narrator is often noticeably present; the text is studded with a wealth of phrases and particles that give it a sense of familiarity, which makes for a local forum with a touch of orality. The many threads, ingeniously elaborated strands, and characters who are sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, present the people of Sødal in a wickerwork of contrapuntally linked stories.

Lise from Broholm is just such a character; she represents that which is different, possible, not yet experienced – the transformational power of the written word with which the series of pictures is also imbued. She is the one with the different take on life. Lise puts in her first appearance at an early stage, in Marie Bregendahl’s artistic breakthrough, the novel En Dødsnat (1912; A Night of Death); she plays a significant role in Sødalsfolkene I, which is set Blandt de Unge (1919; Among the Young) as one of the ‘pictures’ is called; she also crops up in Sødalsfolkene II, which is otherwise more concerned with the spikey old people and the odd-ball eccentrics. In a way, she is also present in the major collection of stories Med aabne Sind (1926; With Open Minds) – here she is not called Lise, but Elsbet. Nor is it hard to see similarities between the central character and Lise in the large-scale posthumous publication, the autobiographical Birgitte Borg (1941), which Marie Bregendahl was writing up until the time of her death.

The Bregendahlian narrative is not short story, novel, or folktale, but, like the Lise figure, a hybrid form – dialogic, processual, and moving smoothly between oral and written word. In this twofold approach, Marie Bregendahl is both highly old-fashioned – the old culture of popular laughter resounds in her writing – and highly modern.

There are two instances in her oeuvre, however, where Lise’s significance is crystallised in a single scene.

In En Dødsnat, when Lise’s mother, farmer’s wife Anne Gram, dies in childbirth, Lise and her siblings provide the central point of view. The children are left to themselves in their paternal grandmother’s nearby croft, and the story unfolds by means of their ongoing interpretations and reinterpretations of the situation. Being the eldest, twelve-year-old Lise is the most knowledgeable and also the one who is affected most intensely. She throws herself into the most wanton and wild games with her younger siblings and is then weighed down by a sense of guilt over her faithlessness. But the next moment she nonetheless finds herself joining in with her cousins’ mischievous daydreams about the “advantages and liberties to be gained if one had no mother to keep a firm hand on the reins”. During the night of death, Lise wanders through all the chambers of her mind – her rebelliousness and her humility, her love for her mother and her aggression towards her – and, following a harrowing mental battle, she at length arrives at a point where she is able to say the third and hardest petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.”

“No … Mother mustn’t die and leave us,” Lisa wailed. “It would be dreadful if Mother died! – She’s our mother and looks after everything for us – and helps Father, too! Things can’t go on without her at all – nothing can go on! […].”

Marie Bregendahl: En Dødsnat (1912; A Night of Death)

During these mental ups and downs, the children have moved closer and closer towards the farm-house and room where Anne Gram lies bleeding to death, and at the tragic culmination of the story they are together with the rest of the family at their dying mother’s bedside. Face to face with death, Marie Bregendahl finally reveals Lise as the meaning and perspective of the novel. The old doctor is sitting on the commode – a fixture of confinement – and when his jolting movements make the chamber pot inside this commode roll from one side to the other, Lise is the only one to react:

“But suddenly Aunt Karen saw that Lisa’s face was breaking into a smile … in the midst of her tears and grief it flickered out.

“And when at that moment the doctor gave yet another thump to get settled in his seat as he wished, and the thing began to trundle round afresh, boom, bump, bumpety-bump – well, then the smile flashed over the little girl’s face with a gleam both of humour and wit and finally of mischief and malice.

“‘The doctor will hit them, all nine of them,’ she murmured in a whisper, and, half-hidden by tall Kristensa, she made a feint at a throw with her arm.

“It made Aunt Karen feel rather irritable to see all this. That the girl could be so taken up with a thing like that – at such a time! It wounded her feelings.”

Lise is the open mind, which is alert both to its story and its body. She is therefore able to rouse herself and take in the grotesque comedy triggered by the clash between the sublime and the extremely prosaic “thing”. And, like Lise, the narrator spans many planes – is both a fellow traveller and a chronicler – and can thus relate the drama from the dual perspective of wit and humour. Lise draws this dual perspective, these reserves of imagination, into the rest of Marie Bregendahl’s works.

The ‘pictures’ Blandt de Unge and I Fest og Trængsler (1921; Party and Plight) tell of a generation of young people i Sødal, the joie de vivre and merriment of whom is condensed in Mikkel from Møllen. He is the most popular bachelor in the district, likes a dance, and is much sought-after – envied by the other lads, loved by the girls. They all dream about Mikkel – except Lise! And she is the only one Mikkel thinks seriously about. So, not being in a position to give her anything else, he showers her with confidences. Mikkel might well be unhappy that Lise does not want him, but that does not mean he has been idle: “Mikkel’s frank account of his difficulties trying to keep things afloat with all the girlfriends, of his troubles trying to work out which of them he should marry, of his risky visits to the young daughters of the neighbourhood, and as, in particular, the words with which he told of his visit to gentle Maren in Vinde were ringing repeatedly in Lise’s ears, and the gurgling laughter she had had difficulty suppressing almost all evening now forced its way up and escaped […] She abandoned herself completely to laughter.”

The disclosure of Mikkel’s love expeditions, which seem to end at the door of Maren in Vinde with her expectation of “the twenty-thousand rix-dollars”, causes a shift of consciousness in Lise – a shift that releases liberating laughter, but also sadness. She had previously rejected Mikkel on grounds she did not quite understand: “[…] being a Sødal wife, that was too easy.” This now gives a shuddering sensation: “What, then, did she long for? – Where was it she wanted to go?”

Lise is ‘beside herself’. In this labile state, boundaries between past and present, between subject and object, vanish; in a climax of euphoric laughter she steps out of her life so far, out of Sødal and Mikkel, and into her own story: “– and Lise’s laughter now burst out across all bounds. – But she had Mikkel anyway! In here, in her breast or in her thoughts, – or where was it now? – she had him, – entirely – The young, the glorious, the joyful, the dancing Mikkel, – and Mikkel in distress and trouble, because he could not find his way with all his girlfriends, …yes, she had him in here, utterly lifelike. – And, for the first time, Lise sensed a strange bubbling abundance within, a wealth of pictures, and new and hitherto unfamiliar delight, for which she knew no name, gush up inside her, and in total ebullience she flung her arms about Dorthee and danced round with her, right there in the corridor, jubilant with laughter and merriment.”

The oral culture of laughter is on the line in Marie Bregendahl’s Sødalsfolkene, both as motif and as tone. Here in the mock-serious coverage of the Sødal lads’ attitudes when preparing to go before the draft board:

“– Well, they were going to have to wear clean shirts on that day, and they would have to give themselves a wash-down too. This latter was not exactly something they dreamt of fooling around with on an everyday basis. You see, in the heat of summertime, well then it could be all very well to take a dip, provided you could find time for it; but later in the year, when it had turned sleety and cold, – no, to hell with that, no damn way would you get a wet hide if you didn’t have to.”

The breakthrough Lise here experiences is, of course, partly due to becoming wiser. Mikkel’s expedition into young female hearts has not been quite as innocent as she had thought. He has taken what the girls let him have, but only given anything in return if it was worth his while. This is quite simply an acknowledgement of male sexual exploitation of women. But it is more than that! In its way it is a replay of the scene from En Dødsnat, but with the chronicler as an element within Lise herself. The story encapsulates this young woman’s artistic calling. A genesis in which the innocence of unsophisticatedness is forever abandoned, but where an existence which had earlier seemed subject to randomness is now personalised as “a store, as something she could draw on when it suited her”. In keeping with this scene, Lise can be heard as a joyful undertone throughout Marie Bregendahl’s oeuvre – also in the stories of enticement that are woven all the way through it.


The real central characters in the dramas that are played out in Marie Bregendahl’s works are women – everybody talks about them, everybody wonders about them, but they rarely take the stage personally in the texts. Between concealment and conjecture, however, there emerges a common pattern underlying their fortunes in life. Like the women created by Bolette Sørensen (1855-1931) and Nicoline Kirkegaard (1859-1924), they are enticed away. Under the allure of a mysterious stranger, they are led away from home and out into the unknown. The point of view is usually that of those left behind, and what has happened to the women who have travelled away is therefore often uncertain. But Marie Bregendahl occasionally lifts the veil and takes us directly into the seduced woman’s life.

Marie Bregendahl’s enticed women are desirous:

“And with fire in her body and her face sobbing into the pillows she has lain there in the big bed designed for two, and remembered time and time again evenings when Christian had come bouncing up here to her, happy and crazy like the merry lad he was.”

Sødalsfolkene I (1921, 1935)

This she does in the story “Else ved Bækken” (Else by the Brook) from I Fest og Trængsler. Else is Lise’s friend, and in many respects she can be seen as her double. They are similar in circumstances, in temperament, and in appearance, but the difference is that the man who seduces Else is not a Mikkel. Christian Mollerup, the ‘fine’ regimental musician from Viborg, and country bumpkin Mikkel might well be equally artless in their ruthless exploitation of the pleasures of the moment, but had it been Mikkel who had made a young woman pregnant then pressure from his community would have made him stick to his duty. On the other hand, there is nothing to keep Christian Mollerup in line. He is a strange bird in Sødal, where no one knows him, and in the proletarianised Viborg petite bourgeoisie from which he hails there is no adequately effective status that would prevent him from carrying on as he chooses. He likes to ‘look good’ – but not, however, if it costs him anything. So when Else becomes pregnant, he excuses himself:

“Get married, indeed, that could be all very well, but have you got anything with which to marry … – Yes, because I damn well haven’t. – What I earn, well, that I have sore need of myself.”

Christian is able to stall Else in this way for years – without her rebelling or even simply following the gossipy but well-meaning neighbours’ advice to apply to the authorities for child benefit payments – because when she went with him to Viborg she lost her sense of locality. She is unfamiliar with the social ‘rules’ that obtain in the town, and has no knowledge whatsoever of those that apply among the semi-proletariat milieu in which she has landed – one thing she does know, however: “What had happened between her and Christian had been done and could not be undone. Now they belonged together – for ever.” This is Else’s law – having given yourself sexually, then you have also invested total trust in the other party. Therefore she deceives her naive parents back home in Sødal, therefore she settles in Viborg working as an underpaid seamstress, and therefore she puts up with an existence in which every day is a race against time and energy to sew enough money together to pay for even the most humble fare for herself and her son. That Christian makes no effort to help her does not shake her trust, for trust is all she has left of her former identity. If she loses that, she will be a fallen woman who has simply given in to her desire, so she hides from her family and receives Christian with a smile and a willing body when it please him to visit her and their child.

Marie Bregendahls enticed country girl:

“[…] Else sews and sews. Needle in, needle out, arm up, arm down, head bent, body doubled up, she goes at the sewing like a madwoman, thus has she now sewn for ever and a day, she knows no other tempo. It looks as though she must go on until she drops.”

Sødalsfolkene I (1921, 1935)

Finally, finally – when Christian arrives in high spirits and tells her that he has got a good job in Copenhagen, but says nothing about her and their son coming with him, and when at the same time he taunts her for losing her looks, then finally a form of realisation breaks through. But, in the interpretation given in the text, it is too late. The everlasting daily race has long since shattered her sense of time, and her body and her mind have long since lost contact with one another. And with the snapping of the last slender thread to the man who should have kept it all whole, things go wrong. After hectic sexual intercourse, with Else abandoning herself to the oblivion of lust, she wakes up, takes her child, and leaves the oblivious Christian sleeping the sleep of the innocent. Her only thought is that her son must go home to her parents, because that is where he belongs. We are not told what happens on the homeward journey – the point of view leaves Else as she rushes through the door – corresponding to Else no longer being aware of herself – and she only comes back into focus when her parents are confronted with the inevitable: the boy lies strangled in the outhouse of the farm, and Else has gone mad. She can only repeat the same shrill howl: “Father! Father! – Why doesn’t father come!”

“Else ved Bækken” is a stark, realistic story about the country girl who lost her way when she went out into the world. Proletarisation and madness are heightened manifestations of the price paid for her departure. Apart from Hanne in the story “Hanne ved Højen” (Hanne from the Hill), from Tre gamle Kvinder (1918; Three Old Women), none of the women in the Bregendahlian universe succeed in coming home. The story cannot be reversed. For, in the modern world into which the young Elses go forth, there is no longer any father! The father has been transformed into a flighty being who sucks in for as long as there is honey to be drunk, and then dances off with his music and his ways. When Else strangles her son, she does so in order to silence his cry for this fascinating, foreign, and flighty father – and the cry then echoes in her mentally disordered calling out for her father –the one she lost.

But this is not the end of the story. When, in the morning, Else’s father drives to Viborg with his screaming daughter in the cart, he stops to ask two young cobbler’s apprentices the way to the madhouse. And for a moment the story slips into another pitch where a new realisation glimmers faintly:

“‘Yes, hey Chris, why the devil doesn’t father come too?’ said the one of them and laughed.

“‘Rubbish, you bastard! You ain’t damn well got no father, have you,’ replied Chris. “And bright and early he gave the other a couple of clouts on the head with his leather apron.

“– Soon afterwards they heard the gate of the madhouse slam shut.”

Well, this is indeed a completely different tone. No, bastards have no father – Else just did not know this – but the Modern Breakthrough writer knows. Her child is also in a sense fatherless. But, all the same, he may well be quick-witted and up bright and early.

The Man of Her Liking

One might ask why the young women in the stories do not get married to “Per and Povl, from just down the road?” They do not – as a matter of course, that is – because Marie Bregendahl is depicting a community that, despite all its old-fashioned ways, is nonetheless on the threshold of something new. And in Sødalsfolkene the women are seized by a strange unrest, a longing for something that “simply could not be spoken” once this ‘newness’ has overcome them. The rural dean’s daughter Agnete and her relationship to her fiancé, Captain Bülow, gives them a glimpse of another world, which fuels their longings. Kathrine of Thinggard tries to explain to herself what it is she has seen transpire between Agnete and Bülow, but there is nothing concrete, simply an indefinable togetherness:

“Well, there was nothing more to it than Agnete placing her hand on his arm, just in an easy and calm way; – yes, and then they just looked at one another.”

Holten, Suzette Skovgaard (1863- 1937): Dragen, der vogter indgangen til bjerget. 1888. Designmuseet, Copenhagen

It is the urge towards this different way of being that makes the young women set off along new avenues. The romantic dream of the sexual union in which the individual comes into existence and reaches his or her personal state of perfection through the gaze of the other. The problem is, however, that the men in whom the more ordinary young women seek their reflection might indeed be sexual beings, but they are not the men to give sexuality a historical dimension. They change into phantoms – reflections of the women’s own seeking in the dark for an unknown self.

Both in terms of forum and of character, the Bregendahlian story is grotesque realism. As regards the indirect style, the oeuvre is a continuation of naturalism, but unlike naturalism the figures and characters are not ‘finished’ – in Marie Bregendahl’s writing, humankind and nature cannot be unequivocally differentiated one from the other.

Nevertheless, only these men can make the women come alive. Marie Bregendahl investigates this phenomenon in her two major novels of marriage – these being her first published novel, Hendrik i Bakken (1904; Hendrik down the Hill), and Holger Hauge og hans Hustru III (1934-35; Holger Hauge and His Wife, vols. I-II), which is also an account of the history of the Danish co-operative farming movement. Hendrik is a singular and inflexible type, honest, upright, and caustic – a man one must “esteem”, as his wife Mariane puts it, but not a man to captivate her passion. The novel ends with her wasting away and dying from a lack of the will to live.

Holger, on the other hand, is related to a Mikkel and a Christian Mollerup. He is dynamic, outgoing, an artist in his line of work – farming – and with no real grip on himself. “What did it mean to have affection for someone?” he ponders – he does not know, because he is as inconstant and impulsive as a child, and his instantaneous feelings are not assimilated as heartfelt elements of his personality. But his wife knows it! Kirstine loves Holger precisely because of his mental easiness and suppleness. The same artistic and playful nature that Else ‘fell’ for makes Holger in Kirstine’s estimation “the man of her liking and her heart”. It is not that she cannot spot his faults. She sees them more clearly than anyone else does. But he is the man who can extract the hidden gold from the Danish sod – and from her locked-up nature. She would be in no way fulfilled in her love were her husband not also a child she could fashion in her own image. She, therefore, imperceptibly sows ideas in him, while he, with his carefree and restless nature, is the man to realise them.

Female passion in Marie Bregendahl’s novel Holger Hauge og hans Hustru II (1935; Holger Hauge and His Wife, vol. II):

“‘Yes but Holger, do you not understand, just so long as you are close to me, indeed, just so long as I see you appear among the others, then I am so happy and so moved that I am frequently at a loss for words.’”

The marriage depicted in Hendrik i Bakken is traditional – Hendrik and Mariane are tied together by property and necessity – but the psychological erosion of both parties shows that people can no longer stay in this ‘closet’. Hendrik wants it filled with feelings that Mariane cannot give him, and Mariane’s feelings have been left behind in the openly erotic interactions of a distant youth.

Holger’s and Kirstine’s marriage, on the other hand, is modern – it is free in the sense that its vigour lies in the effortless sexual attraction between the parties. At times, therefore, Kirstine also feels the cost of love when she is rankled by anxiety that Holger will fall in love with someone else – because then the basis of their life together would disintegrate. That risk, however – which goes hand in hand with the modern individualisation – cannot be denied or wished away. And Marie Bregendahl’s life and works show how vulnerability became the source whence art flowed.

The Writer

The author thus had to dance along with her Else, before she was conscious of her Lise. As a young woman, and in love, she moved to Copenhagen with Jeppe Aakjær

1866-1930. Celebrated Danish poet and novelist.

, and they were married in 1893. In 1894 they had a son, and Marie Bregendahl used her paternal inheritance to set up a boarding house – Det jydske Pensionat – in an attempt to keep the family afloat. It had to close a few years later, and the free life was all in all so intensely taxing for the couple that they divorced in 1899. Jeppe Aakjær was a man of the times – dynamic, an impressionable heart, a lover and enricher of language – but he was not particularly steady when it came to the more down-to-earth obligations relating to home and family. And Marie Bregendahl was no Kirstine! Which was why he had such a rude awakening when, out of the romantic haze of love, there loomed the “hard, severe Bregendahlian features”.

Marie Bregendahl coped with life as a single mother by keeping house for her brother who owned a dairy in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen – for nor was she able to go back! Exodus and city were forever part of her make-up, and the tension between the rural culture of her childhood and the anonymised city life, in which the individual had to create an identity for her- or himself, became the empirical sounding board for her entire body of works. In this, she carried on the Modern Breakthrough’s naturalistic portrayal of reality, but in her very own distinctive way in which the traditional narrative forms and the modern woman’s chaos of conflicting experience both found a voice.

She is naturalist in the sense that her characters are deployed in the nuts-and-bolts everyday world. Everydayness and work are the material whence imagination and feelings originate and are moulded. Haymaking, the setting for Else’s passion and unrest, is thus not just a matter of fragrances and moonlight, but of physical fatigue and worry about being able to cope with the next day’s toil having spent half the night on exhausting expeditions in the fields of love. Nor are Kirstine’s agonies of the heart played out in detachment from the world. No, when her weary thoughts are spinning round, they do so while she is discharging her never-ending job as housewife and is running “round, too, like one of the other many cogwheels”. Work is not an interior or genre painting – work is a dimension of the psychological landscape constructed in Marie Bregendahl’s writing.

But this writing goes beyond naturalism’s nailing down of the setting as an object that can be described in neutral terms. Reality only exists as interpretation – often as collective interpretation. The fortunes depicted are thus seldom monitored directly. They are reflected and reported by others – very ordinary everyday people – and the more dramatically the action comes to a head, the further away is the point of view from the field of action, either temporally or spatially.

Jutlandic rhythm and dialectal turns of phrase colour the prose – but not as a naturalistic art of illusion. The descriptive elements are always in tension with the narrative ones, by which means speech and writing are continually interwoven. Through these smooth transitions between forms of experience and minds, Marie Bregendahl’s pictures of reality have a validity extending far beyond depictions of characters and settings. It is not the ultimate dramas in themselves that give significance, but the way in which the story is carried on – by the others. Just like Else’s wretched scream is retold with a completely different ring by the two young cobbler’s apprentices, so are all the women’s fortunes rendered as a story that, in the midst of weeping and madness, brings wisdom – and delight. The major fractures close up, but simultaneously shift language and meaning – in the rural mind and in the text. Marie Bregendahl’s writing does not turn a blind eye, but nor does it despair. Laughter is a reconciling factor, so what is lost becomes new meaning on a different level. In all its gentleness, in all its severity, the writing is underpinned by an essentially humorous attitude.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch