Set during a working holiday in Rome, then a disheartening return to Norway at the turn of the twentieth century, Sigrid Undset’s Jenny is one woman’s heartwrenching journey to determine her own fate.
Jenny and art school friend Cesca share lodging while they paint in Italy. Out with male friends Ahlin and Heggen, they meet another Norwegian, Helge, who, like many others, falls first for the vivacious, capricious Cesca, but later discovers a deep affection for Jenny’s steadfast and more sober love. When Jenny and Helge both move back to Norway, she meets his unhappy parents. Unwilling to enter into their revengeful lives, Jenny also pities them, endeared particularly to Helge’s father, Gert. She’s torn between the joy she finds in her work, in art, and her pursuit of love. She leaves Norway for Germany, then Italy again.
For Undset, Italy serves as a sort of alternative universe in which Jenny develops as an artist, in a natural, less rigid environment. Italy’s idyllic, carefree beauty contrasts with the reality of Jenny’s Nordic Home, her impoverished, forbearing mother and Helge’s dysfunctional family. Jenny resides in both these worlds, a passionate idealist holding out for one whom she can love wholeheartedly, and who will love her for independent, artistic herself, as well as a frugal pragmatist who can “expect the worst… and reap quite a bit of good from it” (23). Although much of the novel takes place in Jenny’s head, in her stream of consciousness, she is beautifully drawn as a product of her time and place. She is on the cusp of modernity, of untold freedoms, expansions travel affords, yet still beholden to her own and her society’s principles.
Jenny is a particularly Norwegian tragedy. It may be set in glorious Italy, but is grounded in Norwegian tradition. Each of the Norwegian characters expresses his or her views on Norway’s relationship to the past. Gert is stuck in the romantic period. Helge himself is a historian. Heggen is a critic of women’s rights and a staunch socialist. Cesca opts for marriage over work. Jenny wants to create something new, to bring beauty to whatever she sees. “Never will we women reach the point where work is enough for us,” she tells Heggen. She wonders if it possible to succeed in her work as an artist and as a woman, who needs love, who needs to be in relationship. She embodies the creative tension of her era.
Jenny’s wonderings are never fully resolved. Jenny doesn’t end, but, rather, becomes a recurring dream that nurtures and torments many women still today. Undset exquisitely renders a female character in the midst of becoming, without dictating what she becomes.