Jenny by Sigrid Undset (thoughts)
Dear Ms. Undset,
Actually, can I call you Sigrid? I think we would be friends, if I could ever finagle myself back to turn-of-the-century Norway. We could go on tour together, see the Continent! I too love the Middle Ages; I delighted in Kristin Lavransdatter and now that I’ve read The Sagas of the Icelanders, we could gossip about those crazy settlers. But I’m actually writing to you about Jenny, a novel you set in its current time. You wrote it after your own trip to Italy, and before your conversion to Catholicism, and I must admit I was startled at how vivid and modern it felt. The way you bring to life the expat experience was so perfect, I couldn’t help thinking back to my own study abroad days! And I wished I could join Jenny and her circle of artist friends: she was so alive, probably happy to be free from her school teacher days. Now Sigrid, I hope this isn’t too much of a liberty, but I suspect Jenny had more than a bit of basis in yourself. You too went to Rome in your late twenties and made friends with a group of Scandinavians living there. And you also found love. I was saddened to see how love and ‘womanly’ responsibilities interfered with women artists; the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Of course, the similarities only go so far. When I realised you were an author of the Wharton school, it made me nervous to keep turning the pages, although of course I did. You drew me completely into Jenny’s life and her head, and the whole novel entranced me. I’m surprised it’s so little known in my time: the writing and character profiles are just perfect. And you did win that Nobel! I think even readers who didn’t, forgive me, get along as well with Kristin Lavransdatter will love Jenny. The new Tiina Nunally translation I read helped as well: it’s found in The Unknown Sigrid Undset. I’m very happy I read it, and I look forward to exploring more of your works.
Suggested Companion Reads
- Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (I read this in 2009 but apparently didn’t blog about it! Anyway, I’m a confirmed James fan and this is definitely a favourite: it features another Italian expat community, although of a different class and a generation earlier)
- Miss Leavitt’s Stars by George Johnson (a short biography of an American woman living in the early 20th century and her dismissed-by-men contributions to astronomy)
- “Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen (another famous Norwegian author, once again a generation or two earlier)
- Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi (a frank discussion of love and sex amongst women living in a society that expects them to confirm to a narrow ideal)
- The Grand Tour by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (a much more lighthearted approach to visiting the Continent)
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin (written at about the same time and also featuring a woman who goes against societal norms)