Category Archives: Writers

Anatomy of a Breakup: Søren Kierkegaard & Regine Olsen

“You, my heart’s sovereign mistress (‘Regina’) stored in the deepest recesses of my heart, in my most brimmingly vital thoughts, there where it is equally far to heaven as to hell–unknown divinity!  Oh, can I really believe what the poets say:  that when a man sees the beloved object for the first time he believes he has seen her long before, that all love, as all knowledge, is recollection, that love in the single individual also has its prophecies, its types, its myths, its Old Testament?  Everywhere, in every girl’s face, I see features of your beauty, yet I think I’d need all the girls in the world to extract, as it were, your beauty from theirs, that I’d have to criss-cross the whole world to find the continent I lack yet that which the deepest secret of my whole ‘I’ magnetically points to – and the next moment you are so near me, so present, so richly supplementing my spirit that I am transfigured and feel how good it is to be here…” 2 February , 1839.

Regine Olsen by Emil Bærentzen (1840)

The tormented philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard pursued Regine Olsen for two years before he proposed and ultimately regretted the decision he’d made.  They met in the spring of 1837 while Kierkegaard was still a student.  His liking for her was immediate.  He pursued her as a friend and then a suitor before he confessed his true feelings, which he recounted in his writings about the awkward event nine years later:

“On 8 September I left home with the firm intention of settling the whole thing.  We met on the street just outside their house.  She said there was no one at home.  I was rash enough to take this as the invitation I needed.  I went in with her.  There we stood, the two of us alone in the living room.  She was a little flustered.  I asked her to play something for me as she usually did.  She does so but I don’t manage to say anything. Then I suddenly grab the score, close it not without a certain vehemence, throw it onto the piano and say: Oh! What do I care for music, it’s you I want, I have wanted you for two years.  She kept silent.  As it happens, I had taken no steps to captivate her, I had even warned her against me, against my melancholy.  And when she mentioned a relationship with [Johan Frederik] Schlegel [future husband and former teacher], I said: Let that relationship be a parenthesis for I have first priority…She mostly kept silent.”

Not the stuff made of ladies’ dreams, is it?  Despite his fumbling, Regine agreed to marry Kierkegaard, and they were engaged for almost a year before he sealed his engagement ring in a breakup letter and put it in the post on 11 August, 1841.  Is that today’s equivalent of breaking up via text?  Among a few other lines which aren’t necessary to relate, he wrote: “Above all forget the one who writes this: forgive someone who whatever else he was capable of could not make a girl happy.”

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard, 1840. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard.

Regine was rightfully devastated.  She thought herself in love with a melancholic heart, and the poor girl threatened to commit suicide.  She was so put out that Kierkegaard stopped writing her “I don’t love you anymore” letters (he thought indifference would convince her of his unworthiness) and finally visited her in person on 11 October, 1841…where he said some dick things:

“…I received a letter from him [her father] saying that she had not slept that night, that I must come and see her.  I went and made her see reason.  She asked me: Will you never marry.  I answered: Yes, in ten years time, when I have had my fling, I will need a lusty girl to rejuvenate me.  It was a necessary cruelty.”

Kierkegaard was capable of intellectual romantic excesses and though he broke with Regine because of his depressive nature, his inability to be writer and husband, and what he decided was divine opposition, the complicated man remembered her fondly for the rest of his life.  Upon his death, he wished Regine to have “whatever little I  may leave behind… [his books and author’s rights].  What I want to express in this way is that to me an engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage, and that therefore my estate is her due exactly as if I had been married to her.”  It was later revealed in 1896 that her husband Schlegel refused the inheritance.  Regine is also said to have destroyed her letters to Kierkegaard, so there isn’t much from her point of view, but Kierkegaard, who some biographers say suffered from hypergraphia, later reflected:

“I cannot quite place her impact on me in a purely erotic sense.  It is true that the fact that she yielded almost adoringly to me, pleaded with me to love her, had so touched me that I would have risked everything for her.  But the fact that I always wanted to hide from myself the degree to which she touched me is also evidence of the extent to which I loved her… Had I not been a penitent, had my vita ante acta not been melancholic, marriage to her would have made me happy beyond my dreams.  But even I, being the person I unfortunately am, had to say that without her I could be happier in my unhappiness than with her – she had touched me deeply, and I would so much, ever so much, have done everything.”  24 August, 1849

You can read more about Kierkegaard’s writing on Regine in Papers and Journals: A Selection. I also did a series of posts a while back on Napoleon’s letters (Achy Breaky Heart part one or part two) to Josephine if you find yourself in an epistolary reading mood.

Elizabeth Milbanke, Viscountess Melbourne by Richard Cosway (1784)

Byron’s BFF in Lady Melbourne

In 1812 Byron burst onto the London literary scene with his first two cantos of Childe Harold.  Almost instantly, the ladies of the ton were scrambling to have him at their house parties.  Elizabeth Milbanke Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, was one of the first to issue an invitation and soon prided herself on playing hostess to Byron.  She was much older than Byron at the time–she was 62, he, 24–but they struck up an intimate friendship.  He once wrote of her, “If she had been a few years younger, what a fool she would have made of me had she thought it worth her while, and I should have lost a most valuable and agreeable friend.”

Elizabeth Milbanke, Viscountess Melbourne by Richard Cosway (1784)

Elizabeth Milbanke Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne by Richard Cosway (around 1784)

Over the years of their correspondence, Lady Melbourne was to influence him in unexpected ways, encouraging his relationship with her niece, Anna Isabella Milbanke, later made Baroness Byron in 1815.  Given Byron’s history with Melbourne’s family, this event might have been shocking to outsiders.  In personal matters, however, it was practical. In 1812 when Byron first became acquainted with Lady Melbourne, he commenced a tempestuous and highly public affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Melbourne’s daughter-in-law.  It was disastrous.  Lady Lamb went crazy over him, stalked him, and generally made a fool of herself.  By September of 1812, Bryon had abandoned his doomed love affair, writing to Lady Melbourne in reassurance:

“I presume you have heard and will not be sorry to hear again, that they (Lady Bessborough and Lady Caroline Lamb) are safely deposited in Ireland, and that the sea rolls between you and one of your torments, the other you see is still at your elbow. Now, if you are as sincere (as I sometimes almost dream) you will not regret to hear that I wish this to end, and it certainly shall not be renewed on my part.  It is not that I love another but loving at all is quite out of my way.  I am tired of being a fool, and when I look back on the waste of time, and the destruction of all my plans last winter by this last romance, I am–what I ought to have been long ago.   It is true from early habit one must make love mechanically, as one swims. I was once very fond of both, but now, as I never swim unless I tumble into the water, I don t make love till almost obliged, though I fear that is not the shortest way out of the troubled waves with which in such accidents we must struggle.”  (Cheltenham, September 10, 1812).

Anne Isabella Byron by Sir George Hayter (1812)Anne Isabella “Annabella” Byron by Sir George Hayter (1812)

Whatever Lady Melbourne’s schemes were regarding Byron’s attachment to her niece, she formulated them quickly.  By October of 1812, Byron’s proposal was presented to Miss Milbanke (supposedly by Lady Melbourne).  Miss Milbanke refused him.  It was a wise decision she later reversed.

Byron offered a second proposal in September 1814, and Miss Milbanke married him on January 2, 1815.   To the mathematically gifted heiress, Byron made a scoundrel of a husband. Meanwhile, Lady Caroline gladly spread (and perhaps concocted) vicious rumors about domestic violence,  infidelity, and Byron’s propensity for sexual deviance.  Finding the situation intolerable, Miss Milbanke left Byron a year after she’d stood beside him in Seaham Hall, giving credence to her husband’s scandalous behavior, whatever it might have been.

Upon Miss Milbanke’s first refusal in early October of 1812, Byron had already acknowledged that she “deserves a better heart than mine.”  In a letter to Lady Melbourne days afterward he writes of Miss Milbanke, “She is right in every point of view . . . Finding I must marry, however, on that score, I should have preferred a woman of birth and talents, but such a woman was not at all to blame for not preferring me; my heart never had an opportunity of being much interested in the business further than that I should have very much liked to be your relation.”  (Cheltenham, October 17th, 1812).

A typical opinion toward marriage given the time, but disheartening when coupled with Byron’s socially ruinous affairs.  No woman wanted wreckage to litter her household or to follow her like a stench wherever she went.  And Miss Milbanke was not a tart to be tasted and put back on the shelf.  Where his previous lover Lady Lamb was fiery and obsessive in response to Byron’s impassioned temperament, Miss Milbanke was rational, an intellectual to the core. In light of Byron’s rock star status, he attracted all kinds of awful while Miss Milbanke was interested in mathematics.  Hardly a match made in heaven.  His intentions in acquiring a wife didn’t aspire to poetry, and marriage didn’t change his tune.  The sensitive side of Byron was funneled into his work and the fellow that was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” as Lady Lamb so aptly defined him, strolled through town gathering scandals.

It makes you wonder what the “sagacious” Lady Melbourne was thinking.  During their exchange of letters regarding Miss Milbanke’s refusal, Byron confided somewhat naughtily to Lady Melbourne, “Tell Annabella that I am more proud of her rejection than I can ever be of another’s acceptance; this sounds rather equivocal, but if she takes it in the sense I mean it, and you don t blunder it in the delivery with one of your wicked laughs, it will do for want of something better. It merely means that the hope of obtaining her (or anybody else — but skip this parenthesis) was more pleasing than the possession of St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins (being a greater number than have ever since existed at the same time) in that capacity could possibly have been to her ‘disconsolate and unmathematical admirer, X. Y. Z.'” (Cheltenham, October 20th, 1812).

Despite being friends, why would Lady Melbourne have desired a connection to Bryon? I fear that any explanation shines poorly on Lady Melbourne’s moral character but, after all, Byron was THE literary celebrity of the Regency.  She increased her family’s stature by the association, and in the very least something brilliant did come out of Byron’s union with Lady Melbourne’s niece: Ada Lovelace, the self-described “Analyst (& Metaphysician.”

Ada Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon (1840)By Edward Alfred Chalon (1840)

In Defense of Novels: Jane Austen’s Perspective

In December 1817 Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was published posthumously.  She’d been a novelist in print since 1811, and presumably, like all novelists, had occasioned to meet with derisive, if not outright patronizing, commentary when she’d discussed that activity which had brought her the most joy and possibly the most angst: writing novels.

The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer
The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer

In the 18th century, as well as throughout the 19th century, reading fiction was a questionable avocation.  It led the mind toward fancies and illusions; for weak-minded females, reading romances could turn the potentially perfect wife into an Elizabeth Bennet, a bluestocking, a virago with irrepressible opinions.  Gentlemen cautioned against these idle amusements, but Jane Austen and erudite intellectuals like herself offered their vehement replies.  Her sentiments on the matter appear within Northanger Abbey.  Couched within is a soliloquy in defense of novels, and I can put her argument in no cleverer words than she already has.  The passage of interest appears shortly after a description of Catherine’s and Isabella’s progressing friendship and informs how novels allow for invaluable ingress into the human condition:

” . . . and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.  Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding–joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages in disgust.  Alas!  If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it.  Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.  Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition have been so much decried.

Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs
Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs

From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.  And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  ‘I am no novel reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.’  Such a common cant.  ‘And what are you reading, Miss –?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.  ‘It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbably circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

Hurrah for Jane!  The above is a total smack-down, and I can’t say I blame her for the rebuke, but I do adore history. Of course today’s society is much more approving of novels, but I, too, have heard many an opinion on the uselessness of fiction–from people who have obviously never read Austen! The bottom line is: can we not applaud both pursuits and be all the more finely tuned by what the two subjects have to offer each other? I like to think so, but I also can’t help but wonder that if Austen were alive today, would she be writing incisive commentary on modern day life, something along the lines of (don’t smack me) Lena Dunham’s Girls? Or even Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary?

An 18th Century Perspective on Elizabeth Bennet

In anticipation of an upcoming review I’ve been reading Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece.  I’ll be posting the full review on December 16th, Jane Austen’s 237th birthday, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you an 18th century perspective that shows just how incredible the character of Elizabeth Bennet truly was.

Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny
Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny

Jane Austen started writing Pride and Prejudice in October 1796 at the age of twenty.  She would no doubt have been exposed to the popular publications of the period, including the ever so entertaining Lady’s Magazine: or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex.  A few years prior to Austen putting pen to paper for what was then called First Impressions, The Lady’s Magazine published in their 1791 edition “A Letter from a Father to his Daughter on Relative Duties,” part of which is excerpted below.

“Of all the weaknesses the younger part of your sex are most prone to are pride and affectation, and there are none scarce which render more contemptible in the eyes of the thinking and sensible part mankind; therefore as you value the esteem of your friends, crush them in the bud.  The ingenious Mr Addison says “Pride in a woman destroys all symmetry and grace; and affectation is a more terrible enemy to a fine face than the small pox.  

And yet there is no passion so universal or steals into the heart more imperceptibly than pride; at the same time, there is not a single view of human nature, under its present condition, which is not sufficient to extinguish in us all the secret seeds of pride.  As nothing appears more odious and disgusting than pride and affectation, to nothing is more amiable in your sex than humility; it adds a beauty to every feature and a luster to all your action.”*

These epistolary tutelages served as continual nudges against youthful waywardness, advising sons on achievement in politics and education, and daughters on obedience and humility.  Based on works they produced, writers like the young Jane Austen must have felt the thorn in these infuriatingly narrow instructions at one time or another.

From 'Pride and Prejudice' film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005
From ‘Pride and Prejudice’ film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005

Elizabeth Bennet was a character written from the breed of proud, independently-minded women who were mightily disapproved of by the majority of gentlemen (and a whole lot of gentlewomen) during the 18th century. She is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the ideal gentlewoman and her genius, of course, is in being appealing nevertheless.  As Fullerton says, “She was a highly unconventional, new sort of heroine, and it is easy for modern readers to underestimate just how astonishing she was for readers of the time.”  What’s interesting is that Austen made Elizabeth THE favorite daughter of her father and despite all obstacles of temperament, she is our heroine.  As Fullerton points out, according to the values of the time Jane Bennet would’ve been the appropriate choice.  I think we can all say thank goodness she wasn’t Austen’s choice, as today only Elizabeth would be ours.

*Find the full letter on page 42 here

The Bird Still Sings: Underrated Poet, Anne Finch (1661-1720)

Yesterday I received an email from a musician specializing in the 18th century who had recently begun a YouTube project on the poems of Anne Finch, née Kingsmill.  If you’re not familiar with the Countess of Winchilsea, she was one of England’s earliest celebrated female poets and served as a trailblazer to all aspiring stanza scribblers of the feminine persuasion during the 18th century.

Only a handful of collections by female poets were published prior to her, and Anne herself was nervous of the negative reputation gained by her predecessors.  For a long time after coming to court at St. James’ Palace, where she served as Maid of Honour to the Duke of York’s (later King James II) wife, she kept her scribblings private.

When she married in 1684, her husband Heneage Finch strongly supported her work.  Since she possessed hopelessly illegible penmanship, he eventually transcribed her poems into a folio manuscript around 1694 -1695.  His encouragement, along with that of her friends, played a signifcant role in getting her poems before the public eye.

Anne’s daily struggles provided fodder for her writing.  The Finches led an exciting life of political upheaval, starting with their refusal to swear an oath to William of Orange during the Bloodless Revolution.  Stressors regarding her husband’s arrest and their subsequent exile resulted in Anne having a depressive period, which produced one of her most famous poems, The Spleen.

Although Anne is not part of the popular British canon today, she was a well-heeled wit who could hold her own against contemporary poets.  She was unusual for her time not only because she was a published female poet, but unlike many of her peers, she was happily married.  These unique circumstances turned Anne into an upper class observer, and lucky for us, her poetry provides a window into the 18th century elite without being too firmly entrenched in the inside view.

Many of her poems center around love and friendship, but her topics went beyond proper female preoccupations of the time.  They ranged from keen political observations to feminist commentary on sufferance and repression.  And as poets are wont to do, she had a satirical devotion to the human condition, though, unlike some of her male contemporaries, she posessed a tendency to temper her barbs.

If you like your poetry read to you with music accompaniment and video, please consider visiting Anne Finch Poetry on Youtube.  I’ve embedded ‘Tis Strange, This Heart’ for your enjoyment:

If you’re interested in Anne, a more complete history can be found at Celebration of Women Writers, Biography and Links to Works from UPenn.  I will also provide links to Anne Finch’s poetry and the YouTube channel in the 18th Century Reading Room for later reference.