Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Somatic Gaps and Embodied Voices in Agnes Henningsen's Memoirs

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Somatic Gaps and Embodied Voices in Agnes Henningsen's Memoirs

Article excerpt

Isj da! Det dumme kongeriket vil jeg ikke vite noe av. Jeg vil ha meg et ganske annet et, jeg! (Henrik Ibsen, "Bygmester Solness" 453)

(Ugh! I don't want any of that stupid kingdom. I want quite a different kind of kingdom!)

Jeg arbejder jo for den storst mulige frihed i elskov, som desvorre er mit eneste fag.

Men ikke tung elskov. Let som en lysebla sommerfugl. (Agnes Henningsen, Jeg er levemand 49)

(I strive for the greatest possible freedom in love, which unfortunately is my only metier. But not heavy love. Light as a pale blue butterfly.)

TO MANY WOMEN BORN in Denmark during the first decades of the twentieth century, Agnes Henningsen (1868-1962) was a cultural icon to reckon with. She was a writer, a Bohemian, a divorcee, and a self-supporting single mother. To some she was a sinful woman, to others the very model of independence and free-thinking. The author Gyrithe Lemche, her contemporary, refers to her as a "romanskrivende hetaere" [novel-writing hetaera] to which insult Henningsen retorts: "Fru Lemche stakkel er jo kun romanskrivende. Hetaere skal der sa meget mere til!" (Dodsfjende--hjertenskoer 73) [Mrs. Lemche, the poor thing, is only a novelist. It takes a lot more to be a hetaera too!]. Georg Brandes, on the other hand, became a moral support for her in the early 1890s, and with regard to their first formal meeting, he declared that Agnes Henningsen's characteristic "letsind" [light-heartedness or frivolity], which is generally perceived as an evil trait, is in fact the best gift for which one can hope (Letsindighedensgave 172). In his assessment, Brandes might have agreed with Ibsen, who in Bygmester Solness [The Master Builder, 1892] depicts the young and forward Hilda Wangel as a woman who makes no bones about her erotic desire and who will not make do with a silly fairy-tale kingdom for children such as Solness's invented Kingdom of Orangia. Like Hilda, Agnes demands her right to a different kind of kingdom founded on thrill and erotic excitement, which she then pursues in both her own life and her writing.

Henningsen's works of fiction that appeared between 1891-1938 deal primarily with love relationships between men and women. Many of the titles reflect her interest in romantic themes, but they do not in themselves disclose the highly controversial treatment of these themes: Elskerinden [The Mistress, 1906], Den elskede Eva [Beloved Eve, 1911], Den store koerlighed [Great Love, 1917], Den guderne elsker [Loved by the Gods, 1921], Den fuldendte kvinde [The Perfect Woman, 1925], and Koerlighedens aarstider [The Seasons of Love, 1927]. What outrages her detractors and excites her admirers is her unconventional depiction of female desire and passion. She in fact revolutionizes the norms of women's sexuality that prescribe purity and faithfulness and denounces in particular the ideas of female monogamy and the quest for the one and only love (Juncker 86). Rather than depicting women as victims of male sexual dominance, she views women as partners of men in open relationships where women, like men, must take responsibility for any consequences that may arise. As noted by Beth Juncker, many writers explored women's liberation struggles during Agnes Henningsen's time (e.g. Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Erik Skram, Sigrid Undset, Thit Jensen, Gyrithe Lemche), but no one treated the topic of female desire with as much frankness and affirmation as did Henningsen (Juncker 85).

Agnes Henningsen dared to live life flatly with all the risks that accompanied the Bohemian life style. In her memoirs, she agrees with Georg Brandes that she is "letsinding," an adjective that implies light-heartedness, vivacity, a carefree disposition, flightiness, and even child-like and impulsive behavior. The first two volumes of the memoirs are thus appropriately and provocatively titled Let gang pa jorden [Light Steps on Earth, 1941] and Letsindighedens gave [The Gift of Being Carefree, 1943]. …

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