“Reading Jenny is a powerful experience.” Aasne Linnestå, a journalist for the Norwegian daily newspaper Klassekampen, penned these words more than 110 years after the first release of the breakthrough novel by Sigrid Undset, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. This quote is a testament to the novel's continued relevance. Jenny still continues to captivate readers. The same could be said in relation to the parallels that can be found between Sigrid Undset’s life and that of her novel’s protagonist Jenny Winge. First and foremost, Rome was not only a common point of reference, but also of utmost importance for both. In essence, without Rome both of their lives would have been very different. It is in the Eternal City that Undset sets the life drama of her novel’s protagonist Jenny Winge and where she herself met the love of her life, the Norwegian painter Anders Castus Svarstad. Moreover, it was here that she will find the inspiration to write Jenny.
In Rome - for the first time
Sigrid Undset first arrived in Rome on 20 November 1909, (1) after following in her father’s footsteps, the esteemed archaeologist Ingvald Undset (1853-1893), by visiting Europe. Her final destination was Rome, the city not only where her parents spent their honeymoon and lived for a brief period, but also where Sigrid would have been born if her father hadn't fallen ill. Finally, she was here, in Rome! Alone and free, as she had always greatly longed to be. Sigrid enjoyed Roman life and lived an artist's life as other famous Norwegian writers such as Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsson had done before her. In a letter to her close friend, the writer Nils Collett Vogt, Sigrid wrote: "I'm so happy, like I didn't know a person could be.” (2)
Life as an artist and great love
At first Sigrid Undset lodged with two young women she met at Via Gregoriana 42. Their boarding house, called “Casa Block,” was where Norwegian artists and writers often stayed while in Rome. However, it didn’t take long before Sigrid desired to live on her own. She moved to an attic apartment on Via Frattina 138, close to the Spanish Steps.(3) This address eventually became her permanent residence.
Sigrid was immediately accepted into Rome’s Scandinavian artistic community. That artistic environment became important to Undset, who could now lead a happy life free from worry and family burdens. In short, she could finally concentrate on writing. Living in a metropolis so different from Oslo, the Norwegian capital, made young Sigrid profoundly happy. Undset, like many other artists who came to Rome, devoted her time to discovering the cultural, historical, artistic and architectural aspects the city had to offer.
To her friend Karen Gude Müller, Sigrid wrote:
Dear Karen, if you travel abroad, take a trip to Rome, just to drink this ungodly delicious wine here. God help me, how I shall miss it, even when I am no longer here! [...] You should see the sun rise over the Alban Hills one morning […] (4)
Via Frattina 138 was the setting of crucial events in Sigrid Undset’s life. During Christmas in 1909, she first met the painter Anders Castus Svarstad for the first time. Svarstad was a well-travelled, worldly, married man with three children, who was many years her senior. The 27-year-old Sigrid was instanty intrigued by him. In contrast to Svarstad, young Undset was inexperienced and full of dreams. She dreamt of true love, meeting a man to whom she could surrender herself completely. She saw Anders Castus Svarstad as that man.
In a letter, Sigrid confides the following to her friend Nils Collett Vogt:
I think I must lie down and kiss the earth out of humility - I think I owe it to every living being - because I am happy, as I did not know a human being could be. - Or - I've always known it. But I never thought I would become one. [...] And then I say to myself: if this is over and you are to be thrown into the blackest hell, then remember, you have no right to complain - you have had your grace period; you have received so much that you cannot reasonably ask for the slightest bit more.
Of course, I do, by the way - I demand that my friend and I be allowed to be together always. (5)
Throughout the winter and spring of 1910, Sigrid’s relationship with Svarstad consumed her. They explored Rome and traveled to Siena, Pisa, Orvieto and Viterbo. She found no time to write. Only when Svarstad traveled to Paris for a few months to work did Undset take her pen in hand and again begin to write. During those months, she transferred to Via delle Orsoline 31. (6) This is where she sat down to write Jenny.
Jenny – the Roman novel
"The musicians came up Via Condotti, just as Helge Gram turned into the street at dusk. They played ‘The Merry Widow’ […], but then he started humming along: "No, of women one will be none the wiser" - and continued down the street, in the direction he knew the Corso should be."(7) This is how the narrative of Jenny begins. Instantly, the reader is placed in the Centro Storico of Rome and propelled into the bohemian Roman life of the novel’s protagonist, the painter Jenny Winge, among Norwegians and Scandinavians, artists and writers.
The descriptions of Rome in Jenny are picturesque, captivating. In Sigrid Undset og Roma, Tordis Ørjasæter sums it up well: “[…] the artistic environment in Jenny sparkles, it explodes in corals, music and wines. Little is said about the sights: museums, obelisks and ruins. [...] It was just all there and made the weekdays colourful, amid Roman everyday life."(8) That Undset's first stay in Rome provided the inspiration and was a prerequisite for creating Jenny seems obvious. What makes Jenny a success, however, is Undset’s ability to tell the story about the protagonist’s sad and dramatic fate in a way that touches and moves us, Jenny both excites and infuriates. When the novel debuted in 1911, it aroused a loud reception that was at times furious and more often than not quite harsh.
Jenny – the narrative
The novel has been translated into several languages. English translations were published in 1920 and 1930, while Italian translations were published in 1945 and 1971. The story is set during the early years of the 20th century and describes Jenny’s socio-cultural environment, namely Oslo’s middle class along with the Scandinavian artistic circle in Rome. The protagonist is a young Norwegian painter, Jenny Winge. The other protagonists are Helge Gram, Jenny's fiancé, the painter Gunnar Heggen, her friend Fransiska (Cesca) Jahrmann, Mrs Berner, Jenny's mother, Gert Gram, Helge's father and others.
The novel is the tale of Jenny’s life from childhood to death. It is about Jenny as a mature woman, mother and emerging painter. Undset describes Jenny’s emotions and thoughts, namely her doubts in relation to the traditional role of women, views about motherhood, dreams about true love, and artistic aspirations and the challenges she faces in order to, in fact, become an artist.
In addition, the novel also touches upon political aspects such as women’s social and civil rights and their conditions of the day.
The novel commences with Jenny's first stay in Rome and the life she led among other artists belonging to the artistic and cultural environment of Circolo Scandinavo.(9) More specifically, it tells us about Jenny Winge and Helge Gram's first encounter, her artistic work, friends Gunnar Heggen and Fransiska Jahrmann, dreams, moral principles, engagement to Helge and her eventual return to Oslo.
After her engagement, the novel speaks of Jenny's life in Oslo, where she spends almost a year. During that time she lives with her mother, rents a studio to paint and introduces herself to her fiancée’s parents with whom she develops a problematic relationship, which torments Jenny: the jealousy of Helge's mother and of Helge himself, the secret advances of Gert Gram, Helge’s father e, and finally the breaking up of the engagement with Helge. The middle part of the book ends with the first hints of a love affair between Helge’s father and Jenny, who in that moment feels extremely insecure and vulnerable.
At the beginning of the last section of the book we are made aware of the fact that Jenny has become Gert's lover. To Gert Gram, who is almost twenty years her senior, Jenny is the love of his life, a manifestation of his lost youthful dreams. For Jenny, however, the relationship fills an emotional void. For her, this is not true love. She slowly becomes aware of the true nature of her feelings despite carrying his child and decides to leave him and Oslo behind in an effort to escape gossip and scandal. First, she travels to a small town in Denmark, but soon thereafter moves to Germany where she gives birth to her son, who dies before his second month birthday.
Devastated, still in tears and grief for the loss of her child, Jenny decides to return to Rome for a second stint: She wants to regain her mental equibrium and resume painting. There, her painter and friend Heggen helps her and their friendship deepens. Heggen eventually declares his love for her, but Jenny, who does not feel worthy of his love, solely wants to keep him as a friend.
Suddenly, Helge Gram reenters the scene: He seeks out Jenny, whom he still desires. He is determined to win her back. When she resists his advances Helge rapes her, beliveing that he is interpreting her will. This incident constitutes the story’s gripping crescendo. Jenny finally realizes that she does, in fact, love Heggen and loses her mind. In total anguish she takes her own life. Heggen finds her and arranges for her to be buried in Rome’s Non-Catholic Cemetery.(10) The novel ends with Gunnar Heggen's visit to her grave, where, mourning her, he reflects on her life, person and soul of Jenny, his great love.
Jenny – the reception
Jenny was published in the late autumn of 1911 and was reviewed in several newspapers. The first review for Jenny appeared the in Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet on 23 November. A few weeks later, on 12 December, the Aftenposten, ran a review with the following title: "Statement about the new Sigrid Undset: Jenny.” It said: “This book is nothing less than a masterpiece, one of the gems of literature, which will shine with undiminished splenor when most of what the book market has to offer this year has faded into dust and oblivion". Undset was described as: “[…] the young author, who now, in one fell swoop, won a place among the best of our modern Norwegian literature.” The words of praise continued: “But then, she has also managed to create a work of lasting value and a female character, who is one of the rarest in all of our literature.” And in conclusion: “And what, perhaps more than anything else, contributes to the book's high human stature is the feeling that we are dealing with an author of intelligence and heart.”(11)
The Norwegian author, poet, playwright and children’s writer Gabriel Scott also applauded Undset’s novel: “So let me immediately say that Jenny seems to me to be a unique phenomenon in Norwegian poetry, one of the most beautiful, truthful and eloquent novels ever written in this country.” And Scott had these words for the novel’s main character: "Jenny stands out to me as the most beautiful woman I know in all of literature."(12)
As already mentioned, Jenny also received criticism. Both the writer Theodor Caspari (1853-1948) and the ardent feminist Fernanda Nissen (1862-1920) were among its harsh critics. (13) Throughout the winter, indignation increased to the point of scandal. On 19 February 1912, the “Women’s Suffrage Club” organised a conference on Jenny at the Grand Hotel in Oslo. Approximately 300 women participated in the gathering, which soon turned heated and resulted in an onslaught of accusations. Sigrid Undset herself, who participated, found the commotion amusing and is said to have told her friend Nini Roll Anker: "I never expect anything but nonsense in women's assemblies. I think everything was so comical, I had had enough watching and listening to the ladies […].”(14)
The uproar, however, only increased attention and interest for Jenny, the tale about the unhappy and tragic fate of the young painter Jenny Winge, who ended her life in Rome. Regarding both the novel Jenny and Sigrid Undset, I and others might say, “Once met, never forgotten.” For Undset, this statement would most certainly also apply to Rome; the city that influenced her writing and shaped her life. Sigrid Undset forever remembered the Eternal City.
More than 110 years old – still relevant?
The story about Jenny and her life in Rome is still read and discussed, as Aasne Linnestå revealed in Klassekampen on 14 August last year. Her essay begins as follows: “Masterful: Sigrid Undset's Jenny (1911) reveals both a concrete zeitgeist and eternal human conflicts.” Undset's novel remains timelessly modern because Jenny speaks of something fundamental in the relationship between men and eternal human conflicts.(15) It speaks about feelings, hope and despair, pride and contempt, doubt and faith, lust, hate and love.
The quality and vitality of Jenny in its day, as aforementioned, was well illustrated by Scott's statement in 1911: “Jenny seems to me to be a unique phenomenon in Norwegian literature, one of the most beautiful, truthful and eloquent novels ever written in this country,” while Linnestå's essay and her description of her own reading experience, 110 years later, confirms that Jenny is still relevant: “Reading Jenny is a powerful experience.”(16)
(1) Ørjasæter 1996, p. 28
(2) Ørjasæter 1996, p. 21
(4) Ørjasæter 1996, p. 33
(5) Ørjasæter 2011, p. 108
(7) Undset 1973, p. 7
(8) Ørjasæter 1996, p. 56
(9) The Scandinavian Circle of Artists and Scientists was founded in 1860. Since then, it has been a reference point and meeting place for Nordic artists and intellectuals. Among the frequenters of the Circle are the most significant Nordic artists and writers, such as Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Selma Lagerlöf, Sigrid Undset, August Strindberg (Stockholm, 22 January 1849 - Stockholm, 14 May 1912) and others.
(10) Il Cimitero Acattolico (Non-Catholic Cemetery) is a private cemetery in the rione of Testaccio in Rome.
(13) Slapgard 2008, p. 126
(14) Slapgard 2008, p. 129
(15) Linnestå, 2021, p. 4
(16) Linnestå, 2021, p.4
Google Maps, address-linker.
Linnestå, A. 2021. Klassekampens bokmagasin. 14.08.2021
National Library of Norway, newspaper database: Aftenposten 5.12.1911 and 12.12.1911
Slapgard, S. 2008. Dikterdronningen: Sigrid Undset, Oslo, Gyldendal.
Undset, S. 1973. Jenny, Oslo, Aschehoug.
Ørjasæter, T. 1996. Sigrid Undset og Roma, Oslo, Aschehoug.
Ørjasæter, T. 2011. Menneskenes hjerter, Sigrid Undset - en livshistorie, Oslo, Aschehoug
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Ph: Torill Rambjør 19 10 2022