Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Writing Historical Fiction about the Young Carl Nielsen and (Younger) Emilie Demant Hatt

I first encountered the name of the Danish artist and ethnographer Emilie Demant Hatt (1873-1958) in Northern Norway in 2002, in connection with the Sami wolf hunter and writer, Johan Turi. Together they collaborated on a book he wrote, Muitalus sámiid birra [An Account of the Sami], which was published in 1910. She published her own book, With the Lapps in the High Mountains, a few years later.

Her life as an early woman anthropologist and expressionist painter begged for more investigation. I began that work—translation and essays, mostly—within a year or two of first hearing her name. I then wrote about her and Turi in my travel narrative, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland in 2007 and in the introduction to my English translation of With the Lapps (2013). My research on her has gone on for many years now, in archives in Copenhagen and Stockholm, and in multiple visits to different landscapes in Scandinavia. I’m two-thirds through a long manuscript about her ethnography and art, with a focus on her relationship with Turi.

Yet there’s always been another aspect to Emilie Demant Hatt’s life that’s intrigued me, and that on the surface has little to do with her later career. This is her youthful romance, in the late 1880s, with Carl Nielsen, Denmark’s best-known composer. She was fourteen when they met; he was twenty-two and decidedly unfamous. From a very poor family in Odense, Carl had been taken up by Emilie’s wealthy aunt and uncle, who moved to Copenhagen to give him a home.

This part of Carl’s life was something of a mystery to his later biographers; that it is known at all now is due to Emilie’s memoir, Spring Waves [Foraarsbølger] that was discovered as a typescript around the year 2000 in a box in Denmark’s Royal Library by John Fellow, a Danish writer who was putting together a collection of Carl Nielsen’s complete letters. With the typescript were some letters from Carl to Emilie, a few photographs, and a gold locket in the shape of a heart. Spring Waves, written sometime in the 1940s, when Emilie was in her seventies, was a memoir of her adolescence and the relationship with Carl. It had been delivered to the library on her death in 1958 with instructions that it not be read for twenty-five years. By that time, it was forgotten. John Fellow published it with a brief introduction and additional photographs in 2002. I read it the following year when I was in Denmark to take my first look at some of Emilie’s artwork.

In my early writing about Emilie Demant Hatt as an ethnographer, this attachment to Carl Nielsen could only be mentioned in passing, as a curious biographical fact. There wasn’t much more information than what Emilie provided in her memoir or that was to be found in Carl’s handful of passionate, amusing, self-revealing letters. Still, I often thought about writing something more about their relationship. John Fellow’s view was rather romantic I thought—and of course the attachment was romantic, for both of them. Yet the complexities of the era and of their different experience of life–––gender-wise, age-wise, class-wise––showed tension and conflict as well. In Emilie’s memoir are hints of sexual pressure from the older and more experienced Carl and more than a few references to her worry about their age gap and his personality. She was far too young to marry and his inability to be with her made him troubled and moody. Secrecy and dramas developed: he threatened suicide and flirted with girls in Copenhagen; she suffered silently in her provincial village. They parted. He married, she became engaged. Later in life they came to know each other again, with their spouses, and even to play cards together occasionally in the late 1920s in Copenhagen.

The secrecy, the silence, the lack of sources all intrigued me. In my research on Emilie’s career I had been all too aware of an abundance of material, much of it uncatalogued: books, articles, photographs, piles of newspaper clippings, bundles and boxes of correspondence, and of course many works of art, from sketchbooks to the dozens of canvases with motifs from Sápmi she painted in her sixties and seventies. If anything, I had a surfeit of archival material, most of it in Danish, much of it in her handwriting, little of it organized. Carl Nielsen and Emilie Demant Hatt's relationship didn’t fit into my nonfiction project where everything must be followed up and verified, sourced and footnoted.

The Young Carl Nielsen
Yet I still wanted to write about the pair of them. I wanted that increasingly. I wanted to write about Denmark, its provinces and its capital. I wanted to write about the violent discussions about male and female needs and desires during the “Morality Wars” of the 1880s, and about a young girl who meets a young man who opens up the world to her. I wanted to write about the village of Selde on the Limfjord, and about the island across the fjord, Fur, which is known for its geology and Eocene fossils. I wanted to write about Emilie’s family, her father and mother, and her Aunt Marie, about her cousins and uncle Hans in Odense, who had a bicycle factory. I wanted especially to write about Emilie’s relationship with her sister Marie, five years older, who became a schoolteacher. I wanted to write about women’s friendships and their love for each other. I wanted to write about the feminists of the era and the conflicts they faced regarding marriage or art or work, for they could rarely have everything. 

And so, tentatively, I began to sketch out a novel, modeled on the nineteenth-century novels of love and marriage and women’s emancipation, about a girl named Nik (her family’s name for Emilie), a tomboy who met a man the summer she was fourteen and whose life was changed. That novel became Fossil Island and, because nineteenth-century novels are long, it eventually had to be divided into two, with a sequel, The Former World. It took me a long time to think about what I wanted to say and how to say it fictionally, and how to keep Nik’s story separate from the other story (the researched and verified biography) about the real person, Emilie Demant Hatt. I kept to the correct years, and the history provided in Spring Waves, and to the main cast of characters in her life, who preserve their true names except for the nicknames I give them (Nik and Maj). And I did masses of historical research, in Denmark on the ground and through reading, to verify all the details of dress and food and what was in the newspapers and what events were taking place.

Whether I’ve succeeded in the novels in recreating that world, I don’t know yet. After all, I’m not Danish and my understanding of the time period is second-hand and filtered through other books I’ve read from Scandinavia. But I do know that when there are few sources, there is an opening for the imagination. It is through that door that fiction flourishes and perhaps makes an invented reality that is just as true, or at least as convincing, as what really happened. As I wrote in my Afterword to The Former World, 

“All historical fiction is an attempt to revisit and to some extent rewrite the stories of the past through the prism of our contemporary understanding. Many aspects of Emilie’s early biography are familiar from nineteenth-century novels about women’s constricted lives. What was unusual for the time is that Emilie eventually made a life for herself as an independent scholar-writer, adventurous traveler, and expressionist painter.”

These novels, then, are an attempt to piece together and imagine the life of the young girl who became the woman I would later study for her many contributions to ethnography and art in Scandinavia.

Both Fossil Island and The Former World are available as e-books from Amazon and other e-book retailers. If you don't have an e-reader you can still read the books on your computer through Amazon's free Kindle app.

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