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The Dangerous Life

Written by: Beth Juncker |

Postcard, c. 1912. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Setting out into Karin Michaëlis’s very first works is like entering a chamber of horrors. Her debut collection of short stories, Højt Spil (1898; High Stakes), and particularly her second collection, Fattige i Aanden (1901; Poor in Spirit), strike up what were to be the main themes of her works of fiction, but both collections also attest to a degree of uncertainty in terms of style and genre. Sometimes the writing is dominated by journalistic reporting, directed by an outside observer recording lives on the margins of society; sometimes the observer has vanished in short-story forms clearly inspired by Herman Bang’s Stille Existenser (1886; Quiet Lives), but without his dramatic-impressionist mastery. Compassion tends to pity, pathos to sentimentality. There is a perplexity in the writing, which in the short stories demonstrates talent, but in her novel Birkedommeren (1901; Eng. tr. The Governor) degenerates into pure disaster. Here, she is poaching on the territory of her husband, the writer Sophus Michaëlis, and she completely loses the personal tone that sustained the collections.

In her autobiography, Vidunderlige Verden (1948-50; Wonderful World), Karin Michaëlis writes about publisher Salmonsen’s reaction to her manuscript for Birkedommeren (Eng. tr. The Governor):

“‘Had I followed my desire, I would have thrown it on the fire having read the first score or so pages. It is long, long since – if ever – that I have read anything so detestably raw, brutal, and hideous […]’.

‘And yet … you are going to publish the book anyway’ ‘For your husband’s sake, yes, not for yours. You, by the way, I would have done a greater service by rejecting the manuscript!’”

A review by the writer Erik Skram in the newspaper Politiken gave the kiss of death needed to make Karin Michaëlis recognise that she was not her husband, and that she should write with her own pen. She sent Sophus Michaëlis abroad, and then, in a burst of creative energy, she wrote two novels: first Barnet (1902; Eng. tr. The Child Andrea), followed by Lillemor (Little Mother). In these two works she liberates herself both from Herman Bang and from her husband’s ‘guardianship’, and she finds the combination of epistolary and diary novel, the intimate genres, which she would go on to develop into her sphere of excellence. In letters and diary entries alike, she can let her characters speak in their own voices, without intervention from an omniscient narrator. The pathos comes into its own as an element of the inner lives and authenticity of the characters. She becomes gradually bolder, giving these personal documents more and more space in her novels. Barnet and Lillemor were promptly translated into German, and from there into many other languages; Karin Michaëlis became famous, and much in demand for public lectures. With the novel Den farlige Alder (1910; Eng. tr. The Dangerous Age) and its sequel, Elsie Lindtner, (1912; Eng. tr. Elsie Lindtner) she became notorious. Up until that point, she had written a number of novels focussing on the upbringing that keeps women in the role of dreaming children – and makes them unfeasible as mothers. In Den farlige Alder, she tunes in to the dissimulation and untruthfulness exercised by her sex: to the need for desirous signals from men – a need which increases with age, and which with the prospect of menopause and old age assumes forms of ‘madness’. She develops her combination of diary entries and letters into a piercing philosophical instrument wielded in an almost criminalist narrative arc. The first part sets out Elsie Lindtner’s illusion; the second part reveals it to be just that.

With her vision of the twentieth century as the century of the child, Ellen Key had thrown herself optimistically into the dualisms of libido. Women’s newly-won civic rights had ironed out inequality between the sexes, the battle was over. Women could go their own way socially and politically, they could put caring capacity and social responsibility centre stage, and let motherliness be the controlling value of the 1900s. Karin Michaëlis’s works retaliate in kind. Where, she asks, should women who are physically and mentally marked by patriarchy find a solicitude and a motherliness with which they have never personally been treated? With that question, and with a gradual development of masochism as deliberate writing style, she focuses on the women who were going to create the century of the child, and on the children who were going to live it, if given the chance.

At the beginning of the novel, Elsie Lindtner gets divorced and, saying that she longs for solitude, moves alone into a house designed by the young architect with whom she is secretly in love. The ‘madness’ of menopause is not going to get her. Through her letters and diary we can see that her ‘convent life’ is completely counter-productive and eroticises everything around her, and we follow her as she loses an objective view of herself, but views her female friends with a naked, piercing, and revealing gaze. She feels self-righteous, until her dream of the grand romantic love shatters, her former husband remarries, and she is stripped bare. It is not until the sequel, Elsie Lindtner, that Karin Michaëlis lets her – via a re-reading of Den farlige Alder! – acknowledge her menopausal madness.

Focussing to such an extent on the secrets of the female sex created a sensation. Demand for her lectures grew. Despite their virtuous indignation, people wanted to see this fiend!

Karin Michaëlis, called “Trold” (Troll) from the Danish provincial town of Randers, afflicted by strabismus, daughter of a woman who made wreaths to keep the family afloat, was ushered into paradise when she met her publisher, Gyldendal’s Peter Nansen. And the earthly paradise continued; from that day forward Karin Michaëlis felt loved. This feeling was the root of her courage, her analytic energy, and her entire humanist commitment.

In her masterpiece Syv Søstre sad (1923; Seven Sisters Sat), Karin Michaëlis lets all the calculations vanish, and she writes a novel that exclusively describes and indirectly analyses by means of the sisters’ exchanges of letters. Everything is in the composition – and from this springs, simultaneously, insight into the necessity of the sisters, into the strength of female friendships, which in the tragic portraits of adult life are a parallel vision to the gingerbread houses and characters of her later books for children. Preserving your relationship with sisters, with girlfriends, gives you a chance of surviving both a childhood and an adult life. These novels seemed to indicate that Karin Michaëlis had put journalism behind her.

In Syv Søstre sad (1923; Seven Sisters Sat), three of the sisters are free spirits – opera singer Ragnhild, art historian Gitte, midwife Ville; the other four are not – director’s wife Lisaveta, professor’s wife Laura, doctor’s wife Sidse Rose, and widow of the city treasurer Alvilda. The letters between them reflect their different lives; the characters’ psychology and the nature of their conflicts are revealed via a pattern based in the relationship between independence and social status. Both the composition and the pattern recur in the series of books about station master’s daughter Bibi and her girlfriends – where fervent, outspoken Ville finds her twin sister in Valborg, and Bibi herself is a combination of Lisaveta and Gitte.

Casualties of War

With the outbreak of the First World War, however, Karin Michaëlis simply had to reach for her journalist’s pen.

While the war raged, she travelled around Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, and in 1916 she published her collection of reports as Krigens Ofre (Casualties of War).

“At an exhibition in Vienna, there is a wall hung with pictures under the one title: ‘Causes of Exile!’. These blazing villages, exploded bridges, and shot-to-pieces churches could just as well be in Belgium or East Prussia, in Northern France or Serbia, as in Galicia and Bukovina. Sadly, they are international. Destruction has reached the pinnacle where neither nature nor the works of humankind can be located.”

This is Karin Michaëlis’s only direct reference to the external devastation of war; otherwise, she concentrates on the human costs behind the trenches.

As reporter, she makes no secret of her contempt for war. She does not take sides, nor does she make political analyses. She has only one concern: to call attention to the enormous human costs of war, and through them to highlight the selfless humanitarian relief work that does not distinguish between friend and enemy, and is therefore alone in holding peace, hope, and future aloft.

Here, she is an author who composes, an author who carefully chooses her figurative language, and an author who can for once give free rein to the pathos which, in her fiction, must constantly be held in check.

The individual and the edifying and alleviating cultural work are at the centre of all her reports from prisoner-of-war and refugee camps and her accounts of private humanitarian relief initiatives – with one exception: her report from the arms manufacturer Škoda Works. Here, the machines rule: a dehumanised world, the only objective of which is destruction, but which she nonetheless constantly compares with children, childhood, and growth – provocative figurative language highlighting the absurdity in this inversion of every value. Her description of steel undergoing a stress test brings together the painful insight into upbringing that governs her educational book Glædens Skole (1914; The School of Happiness), Krigens Ofre, and all her works of fiction:

“I see a machine, a fabulous iron monster holding a finger-thick steel rod. The steel is worked back and forth with little rhythmic thrusts, while a secret clock counts the blows. The machine works day and night without supervision. Once the steel gets ‘tired’ and snaps, the machine comes to a standstill, the clock stops, and everyone can read how much pressure this kind of steel is able to bear.

“It is so extremely, uncannily human. Every thrust is a small misunderstanding, a small disappointment, a small anxiety. No one pays it any attention – and one fine day even the toughest succumbs.”

We inquire about the steel, but not about the human being. Such is the inverse life of war, but so, too, is the life of the women, the children, the poor people in a society where conventions and lack of rights have become forces apparently not to be disputed.

The Evil Mothers and the Good Ones

“Sonja, a mother must be able to understand her children, otherwise she has no right bringing them into the world. And mother did not understand everything I said to her without words. She was scared, scared. Scared and strict […] I wept because you others wept, because I always have to weep when I see others weeping. In the theatre too, when I know it’s all just play-acting. It helped to weep. But I didn’t weep over mother […] While mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground, I stood and carried on writing my book.”

The destinies of two women, a mother and a daughter, cross tracks in the conclusion to Karin Michaëlis’s five-volume fictional memoirs Træet paa godt og ondt (1924-30; The Tree of Good and Evil). The daughter, Gunhild, weeps from the relief of finally having found herself and what she wants to do, and from the sorrow that it took so many years and so many indiscretions to acknowledge that her mother was capable of neither understanding nor forgiveness. It is not possible both to adapt and to go one’s own way.

Træet paa godt og ondt is a novel about liberation and about an artist. It tells the story of Gunhild, the girl who can look through her pieces of coloured glass and magically transform monotonous provincial life into fascinating scenery and staging, and taciturn clerks into romantic lovers. This childhood ability continues into adulthood until – after a number of private tutoring jobs, an attempt at a career as pianist and composer, a series of hopeless love affairs, and a marriage that ends in psychological terror – she finally abandons her urge to make everyone happy, moves to Berlin, and starts to write. This is a novel about the petit-bourgeois upbringing of girls that denounces imagination as falsehood, delight in storytelling as embarrassing bragging, and which puts consideration of reputation higher than consideration of the child and her growth. Gunhild’s naive spontaneity, her constant embellishment on circumstances and events, gets caught in a masochistic structure which requires that the needs of family, husband, town, and the others always take precedence over her own needs, and which promptly calls down shame, blame, and self-reproach on the head of the one who offends against them – which is what Gunhild does all the time.

Træet paa godt og ondt was read as if it was a work of memoirs. Midway through the series, however, Karin Michaëlis had to demur and emphasise the fictional nature of the work:

“Gunhild has now grown up – yes, she is so grown up that it would be somewhat compromising for me were there to be a continuation of the hitherto equating of Gunhild, her foolish and prudent undertakings, with me and mine. My feelings for Gunhild are, of course, independent of the way in which she conducts herself in various phases of life. I am fond of her as she is, with her virtues and her flaws. But she is not me and her life is not mine.”

In the works of other writers, this masochism is celebrated as female sacrifice – leading to the myth of solicitous mothers. Karin Michaëlis’s works exorcise this myth. The perspective is turned one hundred and eighty degrees and opens up for a completely different series of images: women without tenderness, women without reserves of energy, women who forsake their children from fear of losing their husbands, women who can but be powerless and ‘wicked’ mothers because they do not understand that growth requires independence, and independence requires support. They are the norm in her writings.

We already meet the first one in a short story, “Arme Søster” (Poor Sister), from her debut collection, Højt Spil. Tormented to madness by a marriage spent in an isolated lighthouse, she sends her sister one cry for help after the other, but nothing happens – until, that is, her niece visits the lighthouse and to her horror witnesses the situation: her maternal aunt, masochistically broken in body and mind, and her uncle, a sadistic alcoholic. She murders him. The aunt returns to the mainland, to the funeral, to her own life as a child – simply and blissfully sucking a sweet. This story launches Karin Michaëlis’s accounts of a back-to-front world: adults who behave like children and children who, contrary to all good sense, have to shoulder adult responsibility. This line is expressed most vigorously in her two early breakthrough novels, Barnet and Lillemor, but it is an ongoing element throughout her writing career.

Gunhild’s mother in Træet paa godt og ondt is not evil, she is just caught in a web of petit-bourgeois shame. She works all the time, and she is scared all the time: scared that the facade will crack, that male acquaintances are not posh enough, that her shortage of money will become the subject of gossip in the small town. In this constant anxiety for not coming up to scratch, Gunhild is an added encumbrance. Nature has not instructed her in the virtues expected of petit-bourgeois society, so she talks and fabricates, lives spontaneously, and is a persistent threat to her mother’s concepts of propriety. Gunhild’s childhood and adolescence are a battle against the shame and guilt inflicted on her by her mother, her naivety, and her fantasies – not because her mother wants to, but because she is incapable of doing anything else. Gunhild is victorious in the face of all the odds. Out of the nightmares, the embarrassments, the anxieties, the pain, and the breakdown grows the writer and the insight that also becomes Karin Michaëlis’s artistic motive force: eating from the tree of knowledge is associated with deprivation of paradise, but there is no getting round it. We have to forget our Lord and listen to the serpent if we want our seed inside to grow and bear fruit. Træet paa godt og ondt was Karin Michaëlis’s third success with the readers. She wrote it in the middle of her career, and the five volumes actually represent a watershed in her work. Up until then, book after book had dealt with the endlessly crippling effect of the way in which girls and women were brought up and treated.

Collin, Hedvig (1880-1964): Bibi in Bibi bliver landmand by Karen Michaëlis. 1939. Drawing. Photo: Geert Nicolai Vestergaard-Hansen

Gunhild is her first character who does not give up – and from then on Karin Michaëlis can give form to the visions of growing up in security and freedom that have been a latent, pulsating foundation under her many accounts of children and women who founder. Out comes the series about station master’s daughter Bibi I-VII (1929-39), the almost science-fiction-like account of Den grønne Ø (1937; Eng. tr. Green Island), and stories about Lotte Ligeglad (1936; Happy-Go-Lucky Lotte) from the Nyhavn harbour district in Copenhagen. A new departure in literature for children and young people, and one that carries the vision running through all of Karin Michaëlis’s writing: the childhood freedom that would be able to create a new world order – independent women, mothers who have retained their sense of self and can therefore love husbands and children alike, children given the vital freedom and security. At the same time, these books provide a corrective to all those ‘evil’ mothers. In creating the person of Gunhild, Karin Michaëlis is extrapolating an artist. Distilled in suffering. She uses the same premises in her novels for children in order to extrapolate mothers, women who have the capacity to carry new generations: Velsigne (Blessing) in Bibi bliver Landmand (1939; Bibi Learns to Farm) and Syltesørine in Den grønne Ø. Neither of them has sacrificed so much as a jot of herself. They have both been affected by loss, grief, illness – and have grown from the experience. Velsigne is a widow with five sons; she was struck down by paralysis, but her children took care of the work, of her, and she recovered. This combination leads to one of the Bibi series’ many connected visions of peace and paradise, a harmony of ecology, art, and gender.

Syltesørine is a ‘witch’ – midwife, of course – on Den grønne Ø, with a personal background that enables her to be the ‘mother’ for the children’s restoration of life on the island while the rest of the world founders and the adults are scrapping and squabbling their way to death because of property and entitlement. Syltesørine could have led a wretched life, but good Jewish people helped her. She had a child and trained as a midwife, but the child died, and Syltesørine created her own ecological, solicitous universe on the island. For the children, she is the dynamic force that makes a new social order possible. The description of her house and accounts of her miracles with flowers, fruit, and vegetables are a direct parallel to the picture of Velsigne’s house. In Karin Michaëlis’s world order, it is possible to be a mother without being one. It is not biology, but philosophy of life and caring capacity that governs motherliness – in this sense she fits in with Ellen Key’s ideas!

The portraits of real-life damaged women and the visions showing children as levers for a new world are not antithetical images in Karin Michaëlis’s literary universe. The one is always indirectly present in the other, rooted in the indignant pathos that was the weakness at the beginning of her writing career, but which later – with the development of the intimate genres – became its strength.

Backfische. Sommerfortælling (1904; Backfische. A Summer Tale), a forerunner to the series of books about Bibi, involves Karin Michaëlis’s other prototype of the ‘evil’ mother: the woman doll, who has indeed had children, but only has use of them as accessories to provide her with a suitable backdrop. Like a sadistic child, she derives huge enjoyment from pulling the feathers out of a peacock – a mortal sin in this literary universe, where animals and love of them is of vital significance – and from continually making her husband jealous. “Mamma torments Pappa”, notes their daughter Lily.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch