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Moses of the Women’s Cause

Written by: Beth Juncker |

Four years after Gyrithe Lemche (1866-1945) had left her post as national president of Dansk Kvindesamfund, she published Tempeltjenere I-III (1926-28; The Temple Servants) – a large-scale autobiographical series in which she gave a fictionalised version of the contradictions within the Danish women’s movement, as she saw them, and the conflicts that resulted in her leaving her post as editor of Kvinden og Samfundet.

From 1910 until 1922, Gyrithe Lemche was a leading light of the Danish women’s movement. As the historian of Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society), chair of its executive committee (1913-18), organiser of new members’ groups across the country, editor of the society’s magazine Kvinden og Samfundet (1913-1919; Woman and Society), and national president (1921-22), she was strategist and foremost ideologist in the turbulent years during which the campaign for the vote was on the agenda. When it was finally in the bag in 1915, and the contentious procession of gratitude made by 12,000 women to the square in front of the Amalienborg royal palaces in Copenhagen had been carried out, conflicts came to the surface.

“For me,” writes Gyrithe Lemche in Kvinden og Samfundet in 1919, after being sacked as its editor, “the Women’s Movement has not, as for so many others, simply been an offshoot of the democratic movement; it has been one of a kind, with its own goals, far beyond formal equality, and its own obligations. I have therefore never accepted the dogma that women must join one of the male-made parties.”

Gyrithe Lemche wanted to make a women’s party, a majority in Dansk Kvindesamfund disagreed, and Gyrithe Lemche had to go.

Tempeltjenere has indeed also been viewed as Gyrithe Lemche’s deposition and defence. But it is more than that. It is a novel about the activist murdering the artist, about the victory of novel of formation over novel of development and about differences in the energies that drive the artistic cognitive processes and those driving the campaign for a common cause.

Gyrithe Lemche (right) and Julie Arenholt. Photo: Julie Laurberg, 1922. Statsbiblioteket/Kvindehistorisk Samling

Tempeltjenere is not the foremost work from Gyrithe Lemche’s pen – that honour goes to Edwardsgave I-V (1900-12) – but it is the master key to an understanding of the artistic upheaval that occurred from 1910 until 1922 when Gyrithe Lemche had left her study in favour of the women’s cause. “It is not novel-writing ladies that the women’s cause needs. No, what we need are campaigners, women with intuition, prophets in women’s clothing”, we read in Tempeltjenere. The novel is composed of two patterns, which Lemche attempts, unsuccessfully, to intertwine. The one is a searching passion-pattern. It follows the female Faust and, in its fascination with the ways of passion, leads directly into the novels Gyrithe Lemche wrote before feminism called: Folkets Synder (1899; Sins of the People) and Edwardsgave. Novels which, in the zeal of indignation and in exposing patterns of sexual instinct and psychological splitting, are parallels to the contemporary novels written by Elin Wägner, Sigrid Undset, and Thit Jensen. The other is a revelation-pattern which, like a Romantic Christian-idealistic interpretation of life, is connected to the calling,and which has an inherent requirement of renunciation: delimitation of personal passion in favour of the common cause. A pattern that makes seers and campaigners, and which forms the basis for the literary and journalistic writing activities which – in the service of feminism – succeeded Edwardsgave. Taken together, they represent Gyrithe Lemche’s understanding of the relationship between art and proselytising. The first and second parts of Tempeltjenere follow the progress of a woman artist. The third part conducts a reinterpretation of the pattern, renouncing the artist and transforming her from a Faust of women’s literature into a Moses of the women’s cause. The seeds of critical realism have to give place to idealistic campaigning. This, in outline, is the profile of all Gyrithe Lemche’s literary output.

Libido – the Central Interpretative Point

Many women writers of the Modern Breakthrough depict childhood as a paradise. An endless state of freedom in which gender and sexuality have yet to attain formative and restrictive power. The point at which pictures of childhood end sees the start of narratives about the shocking encounter with sexuality, about inequality and oppression, about women’s split between tenderness and solicitude, independence and instinct. These narratives are found in the work of a number of writers at the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth century, but now seen in the light of a religious interpretation as Paradise, the Fall, and a dream of the point from which a new reconciliation, a freedom and equality between the sexes that does not let loose desire, can be created.

This also applies to Gyrithe Lemche’s oeuvre and to the central character in Tempeltjenere, Karen Sofie. She spends most of her childhood on her grandparents’ farm – a rural paradise where she is at liberty to live out her boyish inclinations. At the age of ten she encounters original sin. In nightly narratives, a guest at the farm outlines what the narrator calls “Gaardens Roman” (The Farm Novel) and initiates the eagerly attentive child in the material that was to be the fertile soil of her future writing: “And then she arrived, she did, the other one, who possessed everything your poor grandmother lacked: musicality, dramatic talent, in short an appreciation of higher things, and she aroused the passion that slumbered under his apparently so calm surface […] For your grandfather is by nature of a very passionate character.”

“Gaardens Roman” is quite straightforward. It is about the way in which passion in artistic sensual form breaks into a practical down-to-earth marriage and disrupts it.

A ménage à trois is set in motion on the farm, until the children intervene, get the artistic Miss Barner – as the “the other one” is called – removed, and the silent neutrality of hatred established; a neutrality that can only be maintained because their daughter, Elisif, sacrifices her love life and becomes a messenger between the two former partners. The farm, previously paradise, now seems to Karen Sofie like a libido-ravaged site. With this insight into the lust of men and women, the paradisiacal state of childhood is over. A fascination with passion kicks in.

This is the crucial point in Gyrithe Lemche’s entire body of works: an artistically inspired sensuality that renders the libido independent and allows it to follow its own paths – cutting across marriage, children, and family.

Poet and Realist

“You are not like other children. There is something about you of the poet and the realist rolled into one.” Thus is the child Karen Sofie described in Tempeltjenere. It is also the split between poet and realist that colours Gyrithe Lemche’s writing. To her, being the realist means going into her day and age and taking its problems and tasks to heart. Being the poet, on the other hand, means abandonment to imagination and using visionary visualising energy to breathe life, emotion, and interpretation into the past. She wants both aspects, but constantly experiences the one stepping in the way of the other. When a child, she invented her own world under the lime tree on the farm; when a young student, the imaginative fountains run dry when faced with the university’s requirement of scholarship:

“I do not think men are at all fond of women like me who always want to compare with them in ability and learning. I will probably become an old schoolmistress with a master’s degree and a masculine manner, and the trouble is that I do not actually want to do so in the least […] I think what I most want to do is let my imagination run free […].”

In this situation, Gyrithe Lemche’s ‘memory alter ego’, Karen Sofie, meets her Mephistopheles – the piano-playing physician and man of letters Hans Brock: “It was the scene between Faust and Gretchen he played, she had heard ‘Mefistofele’ herself last year.” Everything in the setting and the music should have warned her. Only the reader knows that we are here faced with the tempter – the masculine counterpart to the artistic Miss Barner in “Gaardens Roman”. Karen Sofie on her way into her own version of her grandparents’ love drama. To her inner eye, Hans Brock looks like her saviour – the one who can release the woman and the poet in her at one go, the fertile and creative founts. But to Hans Brock, women only have one single mission: to be men’s Muses.

The story of Karen Sofie and Hans Brock is a fictional rendition of Gyrithe Lemche’s own meeting with passion. From it – from deceit, grief, and the unfulfilled desire – springs the distinctive fascination with passion that underpins her early writing. It is a well-known source of artistic energy. From Johannes Ewald’s Arendse to Sophus Claussen’s poems, the desire that is not turned into actuality is turned into writing – and that is also the case for Gyrithe Lemche, albeit in a particularly female organised form. Both she and her alter ego, Karen Sofie, get married. Given that the story of Karen Sofie and Hans Brock is a Faust-Mephistopheles story, it must also have its Gretchen: Karen Sofie’s husband, Preben Bille.

“She had told him honestly, when he asked her to be his wife, that she had never been in love with him as with another so that she felt as if shattered, but if he could bear with that then she would do everything to ensure that he would not regret his choice.”

She invests all her solicitude and tenderness into marriage with Preben Bille, a relationship that makes room for both the realist and the poet. The passion that cannot be integrated is turned into novels – a writer’s strategy that could be realised because Karen Sofie was part of an affluent upper middle class with servants in its employ, and because her husband supported her: “I want to see you happy, with shining eyes, and I want to listen to you in the evening and the morning when you tell me all the strange things that go on in your unique skull. Therefore, I married you and not a housekeeper.”

The portrait of factory owner Preben Bille is one of the most affectionate depictions of a man in Danish literature written by women. The picture of his marriage with Karen Sofie is one of the happiest – and is maintained throughout the novel. But the artistic enterprise, which is a mainstay of their relationship, is reinterpreted.

Novels of Passion

Might libido be one route to liberation? asks Gyrithe Lemche in her private moments. The answer is no! Desire is blind, egoistic, and anti-social. It will always pursue its own gratification. It has no consideration, no solicitude. It clears away all obstacles and seeks only itself – both in art and in love. She writes her way to this insight in the novels Folkets Synder and Edwardsgave.

After an unheeded debut with the collection of character portraits Soedtmanns Jomfruer (1898; Soedtmann’s Young Ladies), Gyrithe Lemche plunges into an indignant attack on the concealment of venereal diseases, Folkets Synder. Roman fra Halvfemsernes Kjøbenhavn (1899; Sins of the People. Novel from Copenhagen in the 1890s). While her male colleagues barricade themselves in Taarnet, (The Tower), the symbolists’ journal, where they explore psychology, religions, and the inner life of the mind, she picks up the baton from the discussion over sexual morality that had raged in the 1880s and puts the issue to debate.

The poet and the realist have taken one another by the hand, and the result is a propagandist novel. The reaction to the novel startles Gyrithe Lemche:

“A propaganda book from beginning to end, conceived by a fanatical overheated mind. Her purpose has been to throw a torch between man and woman. If this authoress gains access to the Danish Parnassus, then we can continue to expect from the same gentle hand new novels about care of the skin, harmfulness of the corset, the effects of tobacco poison, and such like.”

This is how she repeats the criticism in Tempeltjenere. She feels stung. So stung that she has it written by someone else, which gives her the opportunity both to defend the novel as necessary and yet distance herself from its form and the particular inspiration whence it came into being.

Folkets Synder is a condemnation of irresponsible male libido and a defence of motherhood as key female value. The theme recurs in Edwardsgave, but here time, material, and form have been changed. This is a five-volume work in which Gyrithe Lemche follows the development of Danish culture and society from the onset of what is known as the florissante period, fifty years of flourishing trade starting in the mid-eighteenth century, up until her own day. The actual material is taken from family on her mother’s side. She disguises her interest in contemporary affairs, moving into cultural-historical and familial material under cover of which to investigate a matter of personal – and, at the time, topical – interest: desire. If we disregard the cultural-historical settings, the discussions of politics and trade policy, in Edwardsgave, the love affairs emerge as the controlling element. It is neither daring policy nor disappointing trade that causes the decline in fortunes of merchant families Valeur and Krüger. It is sexuality, rendered independent and going astray. In that sense, Edwardsgave is a grand cultural-historical revision of “Gaardens Roman” from Tempeltjenere. The country mansion Edwardsgave, which is newly-built at the beginning of the novel and falls into disrepair during the course of the story, is the symbolic monument to libidinal decadence.

As is the case in Mathilde Fibiger’s Clara Raphael. Tolv Breve (1851; Clara Raphael. Twelve Letters), in Edwardsgave it is a platonic loving couple who represent a unified whole and the possibility for again embracing – not blind desire, but ethically responsible passion.

With Edwardsgave Gyrithe Lemche brings her day as an inquiring artist to an end. When feminism became the governing idea, her writing changes character. After 1912 its function – both in her fiction and her journalism – was to clarify, illustrate, and canvass for the idea. An undertaking which Gyrithe Lemche, with self-assured humility, categorises as service in the temple. Like another Moses, she leads the women forward to the point where the Promised Land can be seen. Like another Moses, she passes on her rod of authority to the next generations of women. But not without binding testament.

As a new building, the mansion is a monument to unity and harmony – between culture and nature, between the mystery of the East, the sensuality of the South, and the coolness of the North – given as a gift of love and obligation by Edward Valeur to his children and his staff. Edwardsgave (Edward’s gift) is an invocation, a poem: “The old and the new world here meet in paradisiacal unity.” A merchant’s attempt to shape the future in his own image. This is made clear to the son and heir, Charles Edward, when his father makes an inspired speech as he ‘christens’ his work:

“It is a poet, not a merchant, who speaks. And what he sees around him, the island and the foreland, the house and the park teeming with life, in his imagination assumes the form of a poem, a grand festively sonorous epos on merchant enterprise and merchant glory.”

Edward Valeur and his wife Henriette have a marriage in which everything forms a synthesis. Love and passion, art and trade policy. She is for him, house, and children what he is for her, trade, and his employees. Loving, intimate, and mutually advisory. Gyrithe Lemche’s dream vision of marriage and loyalty. This marital unity has secured the family’s prosperity and happiness – from which springs the paradise of Edwardgave. For son and heir to this paradise, Charles Edward, however, there is no synthesis. He is split between art and politics, desire and solicitude:

“Charles Edward was very young and very sensitive, something of a poet, something of a musician, but, at this juncture in his life, least of all a merchant. A Corinna could excite his senses into the wildest desire, and a Klara lull them into a gentle pastoral dreaminess.”

Without a serpent, no paradise. Corinna, a West-Indian love-child, becomes Edwardsgave’s serpent. For family reasons, Charles Edward marries his cousin Klara, but his desire is forever bound to Corinna. And thus is the fate of Edwardsgave sealed. Desire is disconnected from marriage and reproduction, spreading up through the family line causing oppression and misfortune, while the mansion closes around itself in disintegration and decay.

This is our first encounter with a constellation that would go on to be dominant in Gyrithe Lemche’s writing: the divided man and the split woman. The aesthetically erotic Corinna, who is at one with desire, and the dreamy, considerate, and self-sacrificing Klara, who has next to none. Two sides of a femininity (and a masculinity) that are not allowed to meet, and therefore become the reason why Edwardsgave and the Valeur and Krüger families founder. Throughout the series of novels, Gyrithe Lemche examines – via a continual flow of new characters and constellations – the misfortunes of isolated desire. She does this openly, inquiringly, and with deep fascination of desire. And for this reason Edwardsgave lives as a novel. The result of her examination is, nonetheless, a rebuttal of desire. Split femininity and divided masculinity will only be reconciled in a marriage that is not based on desire, and then Edwardsgave can be reconstructed as paradisiacal symbol.

In the Name of the Law

When Tempeltjenere picks up the themes in Edwardsgave, passion is at a distance. Gyrithe Lemche has by this time resisted her Mephistopheles, married her Edward Valeur, had her children, and established her own Edwardsgave where, like a modern Mrs Henriette, she can support and advise the young people who continue to go passionately astray in her park. Karen Sofie of the autobiographical novel is a passion voyeur. She watches the Mephistopheles from whom she happily escaped suck the life and art out of her sister Edith. She watches Jenny and Morten Fiedler (Ingeborg and Viggo Stuckenberg), the artist couple who rent accommodation, battle their way to death and flight as free bohemians. She registers them all – in line with the list of unhappy fortunes from Folkets Synder, from Edwardsgave, from her short stories and cultural-historical narratives – in a female rewriting of an Old Testament pattern of interpretation.

The Book of Genesis begins with the Creation and the expulsion from Paradise. This is Karen Sofie’s childhood on the farm. It is not until the Book of Exodus, in which the people of Israel, like the women of Denmark, are ‘serving with rigour’ in Egypt, that we hear about Moses himself. He is called upon by the Lord God to lead the people out of their bondage and conduct them to a land flowing with milk and honey. At first Moses resists. As does Karen Sofie when the old leaders of the women’s movement call upon her.

A central point in the complex of laws that Moses receives from the Lord God on Mount Sinai, turns on the regulation of sexual instinct and the family’s possibility to continue the lineage. Thou shalt not commit adultery, reads the Sixth Commandment (in the Lutheran breakdown). But the Lord God does not leave it at just the one directive. Leviticus provides an exact list of the unlawful lustful acts that must not be committed if the pact between God and the people of Israel is to be sustained and they are to reach the land of milk and honey. This is where Gyrithe Lemche finds the core of her female preaching. The external, legal basis for equality between men and women has been procured. But the inner basis is still in disorder. Liberation affects motherhood, which is where Gyrithe Lemche says stop. The pact between men and women has to be renewed:

“No, the visible laws did not do it on their own; there was a women’s cause behind the curtain, too. Atonement between man and woman, lust and reproduction should be accomplished on the other side. Yet one more woman should go in there [i.e. the Ark of the Covenant], denounced and insulted by her own sex she should lift the lid and take out the old tablets, and in a clear voice she should read the indestructible commandments to the people – to him: In the sweat of thy face shalt though eat bread; and to her: In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.”

As proselytising artist, Gyrithe Lemche differs from the greater part of her female writer colleagues. They also had ‘issues’ to campaign for. But whereas their view of the world constantly breaks up into contrast and makes the truth difficult to pin down, Gyrithe Lemche has seen the light and is governed by that light, for better or for worse. She links this light to motherhood. Not motherliness in Ellen Key’s figurative sense. No, biological motherhood understood as Old Testament woman’s calling and duty – in a new interpretation.

In Tempeltjenere this woman is Wanda, Karen Sofie’s niece – daughter of her sister Edith and Hans Brock. She takes over the Moses rod from the old ones and leads the women into the Promised Land:

“I read in the newspapers that you are busy back home, just like in the States, eradicating children so that the population can recline on soft cushions and the women become liberated […] Just do not forget to tell the people back home that I, Bachelor of Divinity Wanda Fiedler, formerly Brock, am sitting over here in the primeval forest with three illegitimate children, the one lovelier than the other, and would not mind three more. Here, to where Poul and I have emigrated, and in the whole virgin land around the great rivers, millions of young couples could find work and a livelihood and live a natural life together as the family’s reproducers. Here there is no time for impropriety or wife-swapping; […] who is the motive force in this battle without the life-giving mother? To walk ahead and bring out the man’s strength we liberated woman – not to weaken him by betraying our own female nature.”

Motherhood is sacred. Gyrithe Lemche sends this Old Testament message like a condemnation of the “sexual tendencies” of the day and of the emancipation that claims the legitimacy of libido independent of motherhood. By the irony of fate, the primitive idyllic dreams against which Ingeborg Stuckenberg warned in her letters from New Zealand are here inscribed into Gyrithe Lemche’s restoration of Paradise – in the fiction Poul, Wanda’s husband, is the son of Jenny Fiedler, alias Ingeborg Stuckenberg!

There are literary references and name symbolism on many levels in Gyrithe Lemche’s autobiographical novel and also in her other works. Hans Broch lives up to the sound of his surname – Danish brok = mess – lays his nauseous inner self bare and makes for – a mess!

Ingeborg Stuckenberg’s fictional name, Jenny Fiedler, portrays her as an ethically responsible bohemian, made up as it is of names from Sigrid Undset’s Künstlerroman and bohemian novel Jenny (1911) and Jenny Blicher-Clausen’s verse novel Violin (1900). Karen Sofie’s younger sister Edith takes her name from Holger Drachmann’s Forskrevet (1890; Prescribed) and, as a character in Tempeltjenere, gives a different view of woman as the artist’s muse.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch