Sigrid Undset’s Doomed Flâneuse is
a Cautionary Tale

Lauren Elkin on Jenny, a Novel of Rome

In 1929 Walter Benjamin wrote that Rome does not have much to offer the flâneur:

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved. And isn’t the city too full of temples, enclosed squares, and national shrines to be able to enter undivided into the dreams of the passer-by, along with every paving stone, every shop sign, every flight of steps, and every gateway? The great reminiscences, the historical frissons-these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist. And he would be happy to trade all his knowledge of artists’ quarters, birthplaces, and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile—that which any old dog carries away.

Rome was too monumental to interest the flâneur: too official, too well-paved. But what did Rome have to offer the flâneuse, the woman on foot whose very presence on the city street was an act of defiance, for whom walking in the city was a subversive act, but a liberating one as well?

In 1909, the Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset moved to Rome, where she fell in with a group of young artists and joined them in their jaunts around the city by day and by night; looking at all the art their eyes could take in, staying out all night in the cafés, watching the sun come up, and then going to morning Mass.

Undset drew on her time in Rome to write her 1911 novel Jenny, about a group of young Norwegians abroad in the Eternal City, engaging with the idea of female independence, discovered in a city, and ultimately drained from her because of her involvement with men and her distraction from her work.

Interestingly, Undset chooses to open the novel not with an image of a young woman experiencing freedom in the city, but with that of a young man feeling just that. Jenny begins with Helge Gram walking up the Via Condotti at twilight as music “surge[s]” around him (3), imagining that he could walk the Corso every day until it became “as familiar to him as Karl Johans Gaten back home.” “Oh,” Undset writes, “he had the urge right now to walk and walk, through all the streets of Rome, gladly all night long […] He suddenly felt happy just from reading the street names on the corners of the buildings, the white inlaid marble plaques with the clean, Roman letters chiseled into them.” He feels, walking in this southern city, so far from home and “everything he had been longing so feverishly to leave behind,” like he had “escaped from prison.” Jenny is in some ways a novel in drag: Sigrid the flâneuse dressed as a flâneur.

Jenny seems like it will be a künstlerroman, but it is actually about the limited possibilities open to women who defy convention.

If Sigrid’s heroine is a flâneuse, she is a thwarted one. The novel’s plot, and its tragedy, are set into motion when Helge Gram notices a pair of young Norwegian women in the street. He follows them and annoys one of them, who says to the other (who turns out to be the eponymous Jenny): “‘I can’t stand those darned Italian louts who won’t ever leave a woman alone.’” This is Gram’s cue to speak. He is so awkward, so Norwegian, that the girls take pity on him, and invite him to join them. Within a few months Jenny and Gram are engaged.

Jenny—last name Winge (singular, one wing)—is, when we meet her, an ambitious, talented young painter, a lively young woman living the artist’s life in Rome, who can drink Helge under the table and get right to work the next day. She and her roommate Fransiska, another young Norwegian painter, scrimp on meals so they can buy themselves little luxuries like coral necklaces. They speak Italian to each other so Jenny can improve. Jenny appears “blithe” to Helge; she is worldly; she has lived in Paris; she paints in a “modern” style. She explains that when you have had to struggle and fight for your existence, you earn a self-confidence that no one can take away from you. She is, essentially, an optimist.

Helge is besotted with her freedom, her way of being in the world, and persuades himself, and Jenny, that he is in love with her. What he offers her is too enticing to turn down: it ignites a longing in her that had not, previously, been at the forefront of her mind, a desire for an “all-consuming” happiness, for someone “who could take her completely, so that no gift within her remained unused, poisoned, or rotting away somewhere deep inside.” She knows Helge is not that man, but she allows herself to be loved by him anyway, out of “pure intellectual curiosity,” wondering, “What would it feel like if I had simply tossed away my will, my self- control, and my old beliefs?”

She spends the rest of the novel paying the price for the transgression of becoming engaged to a man she does not love (though they only kiss; they do not consummate their relationship). Faced with the toxic family drama to which he exposes her back home in Norway, she breaks it off with Helge and somewhat inexplicably goes to pieces as a result. She then begins an affair with his father (whom she does not love either), and when she becomes pregnant, she leaves him to raise the baby on her own in an attempt to recapture something of her own independence. The baby dies, and she returns to Rome, in a kind of pilgrimage to her earlier self.

But it is too late; she is ruined—not socially, or not only socially, but, more importantly, psychologically. Helge tracks her down in Rome, and, unaware of what she has lived through, he rapes her to finally know her intimately—to “make her his own,” as he puts it. Jenny, feeling now that her body is “sullied,” a thing completely apart from herself, kills herself.

Some of Undset’s contemporary readers have found it hard to reconcile the Jenny of the beginning of the novel with the Jenny who loses hope. Bruce Bawer, writing in The New York Times in 2001 when Tiina Nunnally’s new translation was published, asks, “How, one wonders, did the vibrant, self-assured Jenny so quickly become an emotional wreck? […] One longs to see her chatting it up at an art opening; instead she dwindles before our eyes.”

But it makes a kind of sense to me, maybe because I have spent so much time reading the novels of Undset’s near-contemporary, Jean Rhys, for whom life was never quite as bleak as it was for Jenny, but for whom a driving energy of her novels is the hope that love will rescue the heroine from her loneliness, from her fears of inadequacy. Jenny seems like it will be a künstlerroman, but it is actually about the limited possibilities open to women who defy convention. The role of the young bohemian artist is not open to Jenny the way it is to her friend Gunnar, who gets involved with women here and there but gets out of it scot-free, and travels around Europe making art and having exhibitions. For Jenny, and the young women like her who fill Undset’s fiction, their bodies are the site upon which bohemian freedom is enacted or taken away by force; their bodies bear the consequences of that freedom.

So what of Jenny’s work? What are we to make of the fact that she is a painter, and of the several moments when she contemplates the city? Part of the freedom the flâneuse finds in the city is the freedom to take control of the gaze, to no longer be looked at but to look long and hard at the world, following the thread of her interests within it. For the artist-flâneur, or flâneuse, this liberty is validated by the creation of a work of art, born of their engagement with the city. The issue of gaze and perspective in Jenny points to a way in which we can read it as a novel of frustrated flâneuserie, an ultimate denial of Jenny’s perspective and an invalidation of her work as a painter.

In the novel’s opening, that scene of ventriloquized flânerie, Undset sets up a classic scene of tourism: Helge studies the city from above, attempting to make sense of what he sees and parceling it out into comprehensible visual categories: a “wide plain of rooftops,” “a jumble” that “looked as if they had been put up quite haphazardly and as big as was needed at the time” with only occasional places where the “streets cut regular clefts through the mass of rooftops.” He goes on:

And this whole world of disorderly lines that intersected each other at thousands of sharp angles lay rigid and motionless beneath the pale sky, in which an invisible sinking sun sporadically ignited a tiny rim of light on the edges of the clouds. The sun hung dreaming under a delicate, whitish mist, […] Around the edges of the terraces stood silent, dead agaves in urns, and from the cornices twining plants spilled in silent, dead cascades. Wherever the upper story of a taller building loomed above its neighbors, dark, dead windows stared out from a red-yellow or gray-white wall—or else they slumbered with closed shutters.

This is a downright gothic rendering of the cityscape, in which the word “dead” repeats three times in as many lines. The city is a vision of disorderly stillness, of life having been spent and silenced, closed off, at best asleep, at worst forever motionless. Rome is going to be a city of emancipation and liberation, but also a city of endings, of death.

Jenny’s own view of the city—what she thinks of it, what inspires her in it—is blocked from view, displaced by Helge’s perspective. From the moment he meets her he follows her around the city, and as she tells him the names of the palaces as they walk, they are lost to our—that is, Helge’s—hearing. She keeps eluding him, forever several steps ahead. Perhaps Jenny is attempting to lose him in the city; she is out with her palette to paint, and he trails at her heels.

She takes him to the Temple of Vesta in the Forum and begins to set up her easel and paints. Finally, he understands that she wishes to be alone, and leaves her to it. Jenny wants to paint the Temple of Vesta, a site of pre-Christian worship as far back as the 7th century BCE; importantly, Vesta was the virgin goddess of the hearth and home, was tended to by a host of vestal virgins, and was often represented by fire and by the phallus. I’m not sure of the degree to which Undset was aware of Freud’s theories—his theory of castration was one of the earliest he developed—but it seems significant that Undset chose to locate the first scene of her painting in this place of female power deriving from virginity, and the threat female power posed to masculinity.

The first time we learn anything about what Jenny sees and what she paints she is already back in Norway, inspired by her meeting with Helge’s father to make a new painting:

The large canvas showed a street disappearing off to the left, with a row of buildings in sharp perspective—office buildings and warehouses painting greyish green and a dark brick-red. To the right of the street stood several stalls belonging to junk dealers. Behind them the dividing walls of a few big buildings rose against the sky, which was an intense blue. And drifting into the distance were heavy rain clouds—gray-blue like lead and silvery-white. Bright afternoon sunlight fell across the scene, on the stalls and dividing walls, which gleamed reddish gold, and on the burnished green crowns of a few trees just starting to bud; they stood in the lot behind the stalls, with the wall as a partial backdrop. There was an array of workers and carriages and delivery carts in the street.

This canvas stands in contrast to the imitation Italian baroque and romantic paintings Helge’s father produced in his own youth. It is telling that the first of Jenny’s works that we learn about is of a Norwegian city rather than an Italian one; this is what makes Jenny a good—or at least a promising—painter, where Gert Gram is a failed one. She has the ability to look at the world as it is, instead of romanticizing about another time and place.

At this point in the novel Jenny is still the optimist she was in Rome. She tells Helge: “‘While I walked around town, waiting for you, […] I saw the blossoms of the maples and chestnut trees appearing int he clear, bright foliage against the sooty buildings and red walls… and the magnificent spring sky above all the black rooftops and chimneys and telephone lines… and then I had such an urge to paint it all. The delicate, bright sprouts of spring in the middle of the dirty, black city.’” No matter how things stand with her lovers, she regards the world with an eye to reproducing it in paint.

After she leaves Helge, we see her looking, really looking, at the city again. “Slate roofs and chimneys and telephone wires. […] the clatter of carriages and the shriek of trolleys on the tracks,” the “drear[iness] of the street. The shop windows, the office buildings, the businesses “selling wallpaper and plaster rosettes for the ceiling or stoves and fireplaces; furniture stores with mahogany beds and varnished oak chairs that looked as if no one would ever sit on them”—a similarly dark and empty view of the future, echoing that seen by Helge in Rome. Because her work, a rendering on canvas of her vision of the world, is not enough to live for. “‘Smearing oil paint on canvas. You can see for yourself, that’s all they are now: dead blobs of paint […] I can’t even paint anymore.’” When she leaves Gert, her “longing for work” returns, and she is rid of “that sickly urge to cling to someone, to be pampered and coddled and called his little girl.”

Jenny has spent the whole novel attempting to be an artist flâneuse, but Helge, by forcing her to submit to his amorous narrative, ultimately deprives her of her vision.

In the final section in Rome, after Jenny has lost her baby, Gunnar encourages her to get back to work, to return to the basics of nude drawing. He understands that she lost her will to live with her son, or rather lost her belief in the will itself, since she could not will him to live. She is skeptical; work, she tells him, is “so selfish. The deepest joy it holds is your own happiness when you’re doing the work—and you can’t share that with anyone else.” Nevertheless, she takes his advice, and the final chapter in which we features begins with her sketching in Monte Celio, walking home past the Arch of Constantine, when she runs into Helge Gram, who she has not seen in three years. She is too startled to speak to him; once again, he impedes her work and keeps her from walking uninterrupted in the city. He follows her home and assaults her, telling her that she belongs to him. Afterward, Undset writes, her body no longer belongs to her, an “object she had flung away”; she lies in bed and considers her foot as if she would draw it, “as if it were a foreign object.”

Jenny has spent the whole novel attempting to be an artist flâneuse, but Helge, by forcing her to submit to his amorous narrative, ultimately deprives her of her vision. The decision to end her life is a non-decision, Undset tell us; the only choice is how to do it.

Jenny condemns herself for “offering [Gert] pretense, over and over, in return for his genuine passion,” the emotional equivalent of ersatz baroque paintings in exchange for his unique vision. She has a sharp idea of how she wants to live her life: “in such a way that I would never have to be ashamed, either as a human being or as an artist. Never do a single thing that I didn’t think was right.” Undset’s modernity comes through in the negative spaces of the novel: Jenny should have been able to be master, or mistress, of her own body, instead of letting herself be lured into a sentimental love story. In so doing, she made herself her own object, to be tossed away on the first undeserving man to come along, when what she desperately wanted was to make herself her own subject, a seeing, perceiving, independent entity.

When they gave her the Nobel Prize in 1928, the committee specifically did not reward Undset for her earlier work, but for her magisterial medieval epic Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22). In his presentation speech, Per Hallström, the Chairman of the Nobel Committee, acknowledged that in her “remarkable” first novels, Undset wrote of women in the big city, of her own “restless generation,” who were “obsessed with the pursuit of sexual happiness.” The young women of this generation, Hallström says, “were strangely isolated in this disconcerting world.”

Hallström congratulates Undset for moving on from this troubling material. With their “more varied inner li[ves],” and their interest in “honor and faith,” the medieval Norwegians offered Undset’s “genius” (his word) more worthwhile material. Undset’s work really began to take off, he said, “as soon as she abandoned the disunified and uprooted beings of the present time who had attracted her attention, in order to dedicate herself to the life of a distant past.”

It seems to me that it is precisely Jenny’s strange isolation that makes the novel so striking. The thwarted artist-flâneuse allows us just another glimpse of Undset’s daring, feminist vision, which was remarkably diverse in its subject matter. Undset was that rare author capable of letting readers immerse themselves in the “distant past,” and also of confronting them with contemporary reality as she, and many women like her, saw it.

Lauren Elkin
Lauren Elkin
Lauren Elkin is the author, most recently, of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (Chatto & Windus/FSG), which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2017, and was a finalist for the PEN/Diamondstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She is the translator of Claude Arnaud's biography of Jean Cocteau (with Charlotte Mandell), which won the 2017 French-American Foundation Translation Award, and of Michelle Perrot's The Bedroom: An Intimate History, just out from Yale UP. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the London Review of Books, the Guardian, frieze, and Vogue, among others, and she is a contributing editor at The White Review. A native New Yorker, she has lived in Paris since 2004.





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