A teenage girl in 19th-century Denmark navigates first love and widening life prospects in this rich historical novel based on the life of artist and ethnographer Emilie Demant Hatt.
In the summer of 1887 in the village of Selde, 14-year-old Emilie—“Nik” to her family—is delighted when Carl Nielsen, a 22-year-old musician and budding composer, arrives for an extended stay, along with Nik’s rich Aunt Marie, his benefactress. Carl is talented, charming, and soulful, and the two are soon inseparable—until Nik’s prettier older sister, Maj, returns from teachers’ college. She starts monopolizing Carl’s time with piano duets while also vacillating over Frederik Brandt, an army officer who’s courting her. Sjoholm weaves these romantic entanglements with subtlety and sensitivity and sets them against the growing suffragist movement; Maj’s desire for a career and Nik’s artistic and scientific interests sit uneasily alongside their expected roles as wives and mothers. The novel’s second half takes Nik, Maj, and Carl to Copenhagen, where these conflicts only intensify. Nik and Carl secretly agree to marry once his musical career takes off, but Nik is put off by his incessant pawing and evidence that he’s an unreliable cad. Meanwhile, Maj gravitates further to the women’s rights movement, spurred by a deep relationship with feminist Eva. Throughout, the sisters brave a sexist world that imposes exasperating constraints—Nik can’t respectably walk city streets without a chaperone, for example—while offering new glimmers of freedom and self-fulfillment. Sjoholm (The Palace of the Snow Queen, 2007, etc.) fictionalizes the real-life stories of Hatt and Nielsen (who later became Denmark’s greatest composer) by joining time-honored marriage plots with a socially acute novel of ideas. There’s plenty of Jane Austen–like drollery here—“Oh, to be loved by a young man who has an opinion about sculpture,” trills one character—but also earnest engagement with contemporary intellectual debates on everything from Darwinism to free love. The latter can lead to some stilted dialogue: “The message of Nietzsche, correct me if I’m wrong, is that there’s room at the top for only a few, and those few are not women.” Still, Sjoholm gives readers vibrant characters whose personal travails are all the more engrossing for the cultural upheavals that energize them.
An entertaining, thoughtful story of
old-fashioned romance complicated by dawning modern mores.