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Jenny

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Sigrid Undset, Jenny [Kristiania; 1911]

A bracing, clear-eyed novel that I've only just now learned I didn't get all of (the original English translation was apparently expurgated; I'll be hunting down a newer translation soon). But what I got was still excellent, and didn't leave much to the imagination: the unsentimental, non-moralizing way Undset tells her story of a woman betraying her principles (which only incidentally includes flouting conventional morality) would be hugely influential in the 1920s. The men in the novel are, to a one, revealed as laughable, self-absorbed sentimentalists: I found her portrait of the egotistic idealism of the older generation particularly cutting, after having learned a bit about the Scandinavian bohemian writers who broke taboos in the 1880s. But Jenny's own internal dilemmas struck me as consistent and true throughout: I even found echoes of despairing or self-critical thoughts I've had in her 1911-era dialogue.

The downer ending (following on the heels of Woolf's same) suggests that Undset might be at least in part criticizing a society which allows women to hope for more fulfillment than marriage and motherhood: so her later turn to Catholicism and historical fiction might be understood as a consistent rejection of modernity. But I'm too struck by the clarity of her insight, and the economical elegance of her prose, to consider her a distaff Norwegian Waugh.

September 16, 2017