Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Marie Grubbe

Marie Grubbe, by Jens Peter Jacobsen

This post is about a 19th-century Danish novel you've almost certainly never heard of.  But stick around till the end for a real surprise...

J. P. Jacobsen is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, but he was quite important in European literature.  I studied his more famous second novel, Niels Lyhne, in college, and re-read it a few years ago.  In that post, I gave a little background, and here it is again for your convenience:
 ...a major classic of the late 19th century -- for literary middle-Europeans interested in Romanticism and Naturalism.  Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke considered it to be among the greatest of novels.  Henrik Ibsen and Stefan Zweig cited Jacobsen as an influence.  Both Zweig and James Joyce even wanted to learn Danish so they could read this novel in the original!  But J. P. Jacobsen remained obscure in the English-speaking literary world, and Niels Lyhne was not translated into English until 1919, forty years after it was published in 1880.
Jacobsen's first novel was Marie Grubbe, published in 1876, and it too made something of a splash.  It's historical fiction about a real person; the actual Marie Grubbe was a 17th-century noblewoman (she lived 1643–1718).  Jacobsen begins his story with Marie as a young teenager, where she develops a huge crush on the old king's dashing son, Ulrik Christian Gyldenløve, but he dies and she is soon married off to the new king's dashing son, Ulrik Frederik Gyldenløve.  This works for about a year.  Ulrik Frederik becomes viceroy of Norway, but Marie is miserable.  After a divorce, her father marries her off to a neighboring landowner, Palle Dyre, and that is miserable too, but she meets Søren, a stablehand on the property, and falls in love with him, although at this point she is over forty and he is about half her age.  Marie and Søren marry and live in dire poverty.  She is finally happy, but this comes at the cost of her downfall; having started off a lovely, delicate lady of the court, she has been defeated, and has descended through degradation into a gross sensuality.

It's not all that easy to keep track of the characters -- there are two kings, each with illegitimate sons, and they mostly seem to be named Ulrik, a name I have always disliked -- and there's a handy foreword to help, explaining that illegitimate sons of Danish kings were always given the surname of Gyldenløve, which means 'golden lion.' 

I wasn't gripped by the novel; whatever Rilke and Joyce and Zweig saw in it, I did not.  It was fine, but I did not love it.  I would read Niels Lyhne again, but I doubt I will bother much with Marie in the future.  Clearly I'm a Philistine.

Now for the really wild part.  Marie Grubbe was translated into English in 1917, and although some few English literary types loved it, it remained pretty obscure and was practically unknown in America.  Except for one remarkable exception: a copy made the rounds among Harlem Renaissance writers, and Zora Neale Hurston read it.  Then she used the framework -- a woman marrying three times, only finding happiness with the third, seemingly inappropriate, husband and a life of poverty --  for her amazing novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I only read for the first time back in February).

That was pretty surprising to me, and I wanted to know more.  I tracked down an academic paper on it,* and read up a bit.  It seems Hurston didn't love Jacobsen's treatment of Marie, and wanted to write the story her own way, with 'Marie' undefeated.  And good for her, I say!  I liked that novel much more.

As far as blogging goes, just call me Ms. Procrastinator.  But hey, I finished a quilt top, got a kid's wisdom teeth taken out (and was driven nearly mad by the recovery) and painted a bedroom.  Now I'm very much not looking forward to the start of school.  I have to do this paperwork, and there's shopping stuff, and they have to pack lunches every day.  Homeschooling was easier.  But!  Before that, we're going to go see the solar eclipse.  Have you got eclipse plans?? 

* Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God and the Influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen's Marie Grubbe
Author(s): Jon Woodson
Source: African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 619-635


Kristen M. said...

I wish we were going to Oregon for the eclipse but instead we'll be standing in our front yard and enjoying the 90% eclipse. Better than nothing! Are you guys traveling?

Jean said...

Yep, we are going to Oregon! At this point I'm pretty sure my husband would walk there over broken glass; he's been waiting for this for years.