Writers' Houses: Kathleen Jones wanders round Ibsen's home in Oslo

I  love browsing round other people’s houses - particularly writers’ houses.   From the Wordsworths’ Dove Cottage to Stephen King’s billionaire penthouse, I’d be happy to put my hand in my pocket for a glimpse.  So, on a visit to Oslo, I couldn’t resist the temptation to have a wander round the home of Henrik Ibsen - one of Europe’s most influential writers, purveyor of dramatic doom and gloom on an industrial scale, but also a proto-feminist whose plays are good  illustrations of the struggle that women had to gain equality.

The Dolls’ House, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts - I’ve harrowed my way through all of them. Ibsen is highly political.  This is the man who wrote that ‘the majority never has right on its side’. An Enemy of the People has a very contemporary plot - a doctor discovers that a tannery in a Spa town is contaminating the water supply and spreading disease to its visitors.  Instead of applauding his revelation, the residents ostracise him, vandalising his house and destroying his practice. For whistle-blowers obviously very little has changed.

Ibsen’s home is in the centre of Oslo; a narrow town-house a short walk from shops and museums and coffee houses, and it was empty when I pushed open the door.  I was there off-season and early enough to avoid the school parties.  Visits to Ibsen’s apartment on the first floor have to be accompanied, but I was fortunate to have the guide all to myself.

Who would have thought that Ibsen was into hats?

Ibsen moved into this apartment in 1895 when it was first built.  He’d been living in Italy since 1864 (amazing how northern writers are drawn to the sun!) but never learned the language and was very homesick for Oslo.  However, his wife refused to move back to Norway unless he could offer a beautiful apartment with central heating, electric light and all mod cons.  Sensible woman.

Ibsen at his desk
Ibsen’s study is a big airy room with large windows overlooking the street.  The whole apartment is in the original state of decoration - only one or two flooring materials have been replaced and where walls have been redecorated they’ve been painted or papered with exact replicas of the originals.  The furniture, paintings and decorations are completely original, though some of them had to be tracked down by careful research and bought after fund-raising.  Ibsen’s bath was found in a farmer’s field being used as a cattle trough.  The farmer didn’t part with it easily.

Ibsen in 1866
The author used a traditional Victorian wooden desk with drawers in the pedestals.  There were lots of surprises.  Ibsen hated Strindberg - his greatest rival - but he had a portrait of him on the wall positioned so that it was watching him.  That’s courage!
August Strindberg looking sternly down
On his desk is a small cabinet with little carved figures inside it.  Ibsen called this ‘The Devil’s Orchestra’ and when he was suffering from writer’s block, or just looking for ideas, he would take the figures out and construct scenes with them.
Note the cabinet to the left of the desk
Suzannah Ibsen was a remarkable woman.  She spoke several languages and translated texts for her husband - often reading aloud translating as she read.  She encouraged Ibsen to write - some would say driving him to do it.  At 11.30am every morning Ibsen would put down his pen mid-sentence and walk down to the Grand Café for his coffee.  But if he was late getting up, or Suzannah didn’t think he’d written enough, he wasn’t allowed out!  Their son Sigurd (who became Norwegian Prime Minister) said that both he and his father would have been too lazy to do anything much without Suzannah to spur them on.
Suzannah Ibsen 1866
It is firmly believed that it was Suzannah’s views on the position of women in society that Ibsen put forward in many of his plays, but Ibsen had also witnessed the way his father treated his mother, Marichen.  She wrote that ‘Ibsen's sympathy with women came from his understanding of their powerlessness, and his education began at home.’   The relationship of Suzannah and Ibsen was not ideal - she left him twice and at the end of their lives they had separate bedrooms and she rarely appeared with him in public.  There’s a good biography of her written by Astrid Saether, who talks passionately about Suzannah here at the National Library of Norway.

Henrik Ibsen’s personality still inhabits his home in Oslo, as well as the ghost of Suzannah.  She had her own library and died reading a book, in the shabby armchair which still bears the impression of a human form.

Kathleen Jones is a biographer, novelist and poet, published both traditionally and independently.  Her most recent publications are a biography of the poet Norman Nicholson 'The Whispering Poet' and a novel set in Croatia - 'The Centauress'.  An award-winning collection of poetry, 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21' is published by Templar Poetry.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life' and has a website at www.kathleenjones.co.uk


JO said…
Sounds fascinating. Much more interesting than Agatha Christie's house in Devon which tells you much more about the national trust than it does about her!
CallyPhillips said…
Yes, v interesting. Have just been reading about connections between Ibsen and J.M.Barrie (and modernism etc) Good to be able to 'see' the place without leaving the house! Thanks.
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks Jo and Cally. Yes, Ibsen's house was more the writer's home than any other writers' museum I've ever been to. It told a story and still had the imprint of its owners.
Lydia Bennet said…
Keats' house in London is well worth a visit, they still hold poetry events there. his death mask is suspended in a glass pillar with ghostly lighting in a bedroom which is a bit spooky. it is interesting to see where people wrote their books, and sometimes unexpected - the Brontes' house is much more light, comfortable and posh than I'd imagined, however the church nearby became raised on a high island of dead people and you could see how water running through this overpacked graveyard would not be good for the health of those living next to it...
Susan Price said…
To die while reading a book! - That's the way to go!
Dennis Hamley said…
We were in Oslo for a day in May. I wish we'd gone alone to Ibsen's house instead of on a tour of the city with the most boring guide - nay, person - I have ever met in my life. Yes, Dove Cottage is marvellous. Keats's house has an incredible quiet charm: Keats's presence is somehow more there with you than the author is in most literary houses I have seen, except perhaps for Jane Austen's in Chawton. I must go to Howarth again, forty years after my supernatural experience. Kipling's Batemans is an extraordinary experience. The heavy wood panelling somehow speaks out about his grief for his son, who he pushed into the army and then blamed himself when he was killed. This year we MUST get to Coleridge's cottage in Nether Stowey on a day that it's actually open.
Susan Price said…
Anybody fancy the idea of their house becoming a visited shrine after their death? I'm glad I'll never be famous enough. Otherwise the tour would begin with everybody having to fight their way in, past the milk-crates, discarded boxes of folders and other junk behind the front door. At the end, instead of a visitor's book, everybody could write their name in the dust.
Dennis Hamley said…
By the way, Sue, Peter Carter was found dead slumped over his typewriter. Ron Heapy said to me, 'That's the real writer's death.'
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks Susan - you made me smile. My house occasionally (wry understatement here) resembles Miss Haversham's boudoir. You can always write your name in the dust!
Dread to think what the general public would think.
Kathleen Jones said…
Love your anecdote about Peter Carter Dennis! And - yes, you missed a gem in Oslo.
Great post, Kathleen!
(With a very haunting last sentence)

I always remember the story of Knut Hamsun going to Ibsen, half-starving and seeking help with his writing, to be told by Ibsen that he would never make a writer, but might perhaps make a good actor...

A few years later, Hamsun has his first novel, Hunger, published, aged 30. He also begins a lecture tour in which he assails Ibsen and makes the case for a new art needed to replace Ibsen's...
(And Ibsen turned up for the lecture and sat in front row etc!)

Later, of course, Hamsun had that Nobel Prize for Literature to keep him warm...perhaps the rivalry had all faded by then...maybe Ibsen's enmity for Strindberg softened too, over the years, hence the portrait!

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