Friday, 2 August 2013

Book Review: Jenny by Sigrid Undset past hundred years have seen many important changes. History books are full of their facts and figures, but also literature furnishes proof of everything that has been going on. Novels allow us a glimpse into the past, into a society which no longer exists and which amazes us by the differences and the similarities to our own world. Outside Scandinavia the Norwegian Nobel Prize laureate Sigrid Unset is known above all for her historical novels, but in reality she produced a greater number of contemporary novels like Jenny which I’m reviewing here today.

Sigrid Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, in May 1882. Until 1909 she worked as a secretary to support her family. Then she devoted herself entirely to writing although her literary breakthrough came only in 1911 with her third novel: Jenny. Her greatest success were the historical novels published in the 1920s. The first was the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, consisting of The Bridal Wreath (Part I, Kransen: 1920; in other editions The Wreath or The Garland), The Mistress of Husaby (Part II, Husfrue: 1921; also translated as The Wife), and The Cross (Part III, Korset: 1922). In 1924 the writer converted to Roman Catholicm. Between 1924 and 1927 followed the orginially two-volume and now four-volume series of The Master of Hestviken: The Axe and The Snake Pit (Part I and II, Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken), In the Wilderness and The Son Avenger (Part III and IV, Olav Audunssøn og hans børn) which earned Sigrid Undset the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1928. The later works of the writer are again based in a contemporary setting with an increasingly religious touch. During the German occupation of Norway between 1940 and 1945 she lived in exile in New York. Sigrid Undset died in Lillehammer, Norway, in June 1949.

The novel Jenny begins with Helge Gram's long yearned for arrival in Rome, the eternal city. When night falls, he gets lost in the maze of unknown streets, but he sees two young women whose appearance betrays them as Northerners like himself and who he ran across already earlier that day. Shy as he is, he has to work up his courage to address them and ask them for help. They are Jenny Winge and her friend Cesca Jahrman, two painters living in Rome. Since Helge is completely new in town, Jenny invites him to join their group which includes the painter Gunnar Heggen and the Swedish sculptor Lennart Ahlin. They all have dinner in a café. During the following weeks they pass much time together, above all Helge and Jenny. On her birthday in January Helge avows his love to Jenny and asks a kiss of her. At first Jenny is reluctant because she doesn't feel like him, but eventually she gives in.
"She was twenty-eight, and she would not deny to herself that she longed to love and to be loved by a man, to nestle in his arms, young, healthy, and good to look upon as she was. Her blood was hot and she was yearning..." (Jenny in Part I, Chapter VIII)
The next months are filled with billing and cooing each other neglecting their friends as well as their painting and historical studies respectively. When Jenny's return home is impending in spring, they agree to get married in a couple of months, but Norway is a completely different world than Rome. The atmosphere in Helge's family which is full of jealousy and hate weighs on Jenny. Against her will she is drawn into the net of dissimulation spun by Helge and his father Gert, a failed artist and a womaniser. Jenny and Helge get estranged from one another. When Helge realizes that he isn't and can never be everything in the world to Jenny, more than her work and her friends, he breaks up with her and leaves. Later that night Helge's father Gert visits Jenny to see how she is. Other visits follow and after a while Jenny gives in to his increasing advances. At Christmas Gert leaves his wife and Jenny knows that it's time to end their affair. She visits her friend Cesca in Denmark where she discovers that she is pregnant. She decides to have the baby alone. Hiding away first in Denmark and later in a German seaside resort at the Baltic Sea, she gives birth to a son who lives only six weeks. Grieve-stricken and desperate Jenny travels to Rome again joining her painter friend Gunnar Heggen who does everything in his power to cheer her up. After several months he declares that he loves her and asks her to marry him, but Jenny can't make up her mind to accept the proposal. Then Helge turns up in Rome all of a sudden.
"It all came back – the disgust, the doubt of her own ability to feel, to will and to choose, and the suspicion that in reality she wanted what she said she did not. .... She had pretended to love so as to sneak into a place in life which she could never have attained if she had been honest.
She had wanted to change her nature to fall in with the others who lived, although she knew she would always be a stranger among them because she was of a different kind. ... She felt as if she were dissolving from within" (Jenny in Part III, Chapter XI)
Helge knows nothing of Jenny's affair with his father or of the dead baby and believes that they can go on where they stopped two years earlier. Jenny isn't determined and strong enough to send Helge away and to resist his kisses. They spend the night together, but Jenny has already made up her mind to end her sufferings once and for all as soon as Helge leaves. Gunnar remains behind to mourn her at her grave.

Considering its time of origin, Jenny is not just a realistic, but also a very modern novel. It concentrates on the protagonist's inner development and the way how she copes with her surroundings and her desires. Consequently the stream of consciousness is an important stylistic device used to show Jenny's inner confusion and conflicts. On the one hand Jenny wishes to be independent and an artist; on the other hand she desperately craves for love. Sigrid Undset was the age of her protagonist when she wrote the novel and yet unmarried, but already in this early work she expresses her conviction that the biological nature of a woman inevitably implies the overwhelming wish to be a mother and a wife. Every feminist will feel challenged by this message. However, Sigrid Undset proved much psychological insight into the souls of her protagonists and an enviable skill to tell a capturing story.

As a matter of fact, I have been agreeably surprised by this almost forgotten classic of Scandinavian literature. Jenny was a read which I enjoyed very much although I couldn't always comprehend why Jenny and the others acted or thought the way they did. No doubt, I would have written a different story about them, but then I am I and it's hundred years later than in the book. In any case I'm ready to recommend this novel for reading. It's really worth the time.

An English edition of the novel (translated by W. Emmé) is available as a free e-book here. The new translation of Tiina Nunnally is said to be a lot better and closer to the original, though.


  1. This sounds like a great book...I'm going to have to add it to my TBR list!

    1. Happy to have inspired you to read it! Thanks for the comment Melinda!

  2. Thanks for sharing your review on the European Reading Challenge!

    Jenny sounds like a good one, but I have to get to Kristin Lavransdatter first because it has been on my TBR shelf for too many years.

    1. I try to review the less known works of established writers on my blog, so I picked 'Jenny' rather than 'Kristin Lavransdatter'. Besides I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction. 'Jenny', too, is an excellent novel worthwhile reading.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. This sounds like a book I'd enjoy. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I have L'âge heureux followed by Simonsen at home but I haven't read it yet. It's also about the condition of women.

    1. Thanks for your comment Emma!
      'Jenny' was the first book of this author which crossed my way. especially because I'm not too keen on historical novels set in the Middle Ages. The condition of women seems to be a favourite topic of Sigrid Unset although I'm afraid that I might not always agree with her opinion. Besides, her later work - after her conversion to Roman Catholicism - is said to have a certain focus on questions of religion. Not really my cup of tea, either. However, 'Jenny' was a nice surprise.

    2. If my reaction to The Scarlet Letter is any indication, I'm not too keen about historical novels talking about the condition of women and religion. :-)
      I'm even more curious about the one I have, now.


    3. Well Emma, let me know how you liked your book. I'm curious to know about your impressions.

  4. Woah, spoiler alert! Just kidding, I never read reviews etc., before reading a work myself. It only prejudices one's own reading of the text. I think you summarized it in a very clear way, as one can easily drown in Undset's sympathy for her characters. Much like the WWII film 'Come and See', these stories are so hard to take, because the creator doesn't allow you to be a disinterested God dissecting the psychology of the characters and clucking your tongue at their foolishness. She traps you in the mind of whichever character is the focus of her limited omniscience, giving you such a vivid experience that you won't emerged unscarred. Love it and recommend it!


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