Marie Grubbe is a new English translation of a novel written in 1876. It is loosely based on the true story of a Danish noblewoman who lived from 1643 to 1718. The real Marie Grubbe had a tempestuous life, with three marriages and many affairs. Her first marriage was to the king’s favourite illegitimate son, and the last to a penniless coachman, but it was this final relationship that was said to be the happiest.
The novel is set against the backdrop of the war between Denmark and Sweden, and there are frequent references to the political intrigues and social structure of the late 17th century. However the book’s real focus is on the inner lives of the characters. Marie herself is presented as a passionate woman whose narrow and restricted life provides no outlet for her romantic imagination. Without any real education, and lacking female friends or sympathetic partners, she struggles to express her feelings. It is no accident that the nearest she finds to happiness is with a man who has no need to observe the conventions of polite society.
Jacobsen’s use of inner thoughts and philosophical discourse was innovative at the time, and his style influenced later writers such as Strindberg and James Joyce. There is more introspection than action in this novel, but the power of Jacobsen’s descriptive prose and his insight into Marie’s character and motivations make it a satisfying read. With its numerous historical footnotes, Marie Grubbe will also appeal to anyone with an interest in this period of European history.