Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux is a mesmerising account of the chaotic life of the influential playwright August Strindberg (1849 – 1912). In this insightful article, Sue Prideaux relates the story of the house (and indeed, bathtub) where Strindberg created his most famous work, Miss Julie. As Prideaux reveals, the house holds some rather scandalous secrets…
Author article by Sue Prideaux
The libraries of Copenhagen were the destination of my first research trip in 2005. It was no secret that Miss Julie had been written in a house outside Copenhagen called Skovlyst and I was possessed by an entirely unreasonable obsession to see the kitchen. The same ancient photograph of Skovlyst appeared in all the expected books but the house of that name no longer seemed to exist. Disappointing, but hardly unexpected after an interval of some 120 years.
Gardens are one of my interests and when I go on a research trip I always see what’s around. An internet search turned up something called the Strindberg garden at a place called Geelgardskolen. It had been designed by an eminent garden designer called Helle Nebelong so I got in touch with her and arranged to meet up. Magical. Just as Strindberg had been led to Skovlyst by a mysterious woman selling vegetables, so Helle brought me to the same place. It had been renamed. That was why I couldn’t find it.
Skovlyst stands on the King’s road between the castles of Copenhagen and Elsinore. A long low building with a tower each end, it started life as a royal hunting lodge. The chestnut avenue and water were recognisable from Strindberg’s description. Not much else. It is now a school for handicapped children, the outbuildings have multiplied and Helle’s garden contains things like a set of real traffic lights to teach the children to cross the road and a sensory area for the blind. The interior is chopped up into offices but I had the company of two local historians and a music therapist, Bjørn Mortensen, who lived there for twenty years before the kitchen was remodelled.
Everyone knows the real life story behind the play: Strindberg’s suspicions of the intimacy between the Countess chatelaine of Skovlyst and her over-familiar servant Ludvig Hansen. Had Strindberg known that Hansen was the Countess’s bastard half-brother the play might have been quite different but he had no idea. The other life models are also well known: the act of lovemaking on Midsummer Eve, Victoria Benedictsson’s suicide by cutting her throat with a razor.
The local historians and I climbed narrow wooden stairs to the eastern hunting tower.
“This room is where he wrote Miss Julie,” they told me.
“And,” added Bjørn grabbing me roughly, for Bjørn has a highly-developed sense of drama, “where Strindberg had sex with Martha Magdalena on Midsummer Eve.”
I knew that Martha Magdalena, Hansen’s sister, had seduced Strindberg on Midsummer Eve, the night Jean and Julie have sex in the play. I also knew that afterwards Martha Magdalena charged Strindberg with the rape of a minor but as the trial loomed she revised her age upwards and retracted the charge of rape, disarmingly confessing that she thought it a pity they did it only once because she liked him. Strindberg had been sick with worry anticipating the trial. I saw the cramped and anxious handwriting of his Promemoria för eget bruk [Memorandum for my own use] that he prepared in his defence. What a strange place to find oneself, what an historic room. No time to indulge the biographer’s nostalgia for a time and a life they have never known. Onwards and, in this case, downwards.
“You know of course,” said the historian, “it wasn’t the first time Benedictsson tried to kill herself. Drama queen, that one. Sex, of course. Georg Brandes had thrown her over. You must have read the account of Strindberg’s seven-year-old daughter who Benedictsson persuaded to keep her company the first time she tried. That time she took poison.”
Actually I had. Drama queen indeed. Who else, having taken poison, knocks on the door of a seven-year-old in the middle of the night and invites her to keep her company because she is afraid to die alone?
Down the Skovlyst stairs, approaching the kitchen. All my life I have known Scandinavian kitchens. Strindberg’s friend, later his enemy, Carl Larsson invented the aspirational happy-families prototype upon which the multi-billion world-wide kitchen industry is based. Strindberg’s description of the kitchen in Miss Julie is of the Carl Larsson type, spacious and ineffably gracious with a glimpse through a large window of a fountain, a statue of cupid, Lombardy poplars, etc. Skovlyst’s kitchen is mean, north-facing and not much bigger than a boxing ring. It feels absolutely right for the emotional claustrophobia of the play.
The place was stripped out in the 1980s, Bjørn tells me and points to where the bathtub stood.
“You know how Strindberg loved to be clean. Before he arrived, Siri installed a bathtub for him, at an angle, just here.”
I stand on the spot. Strindberg wrote Miss Julie during the months of July and August. Every day he lay in the bathtub looking at three objects that fulfil a big symbolic function in the play. They are still there: the big old-fashioned bell, the speaking tube and the gaping maw of the dumb waiter, a wooden box on ropes that shuttled the Count’s boots up and down, reducing the servant in the play to ‘a state of slave terror’.
As far as I know, Strindberg’s bathtub is my very own literary discovery. Well, Bjørn knew about it of course. Does that count when he didn’t blazon it abroad? He salvaged the four gilt claws though, darted in and picked them up as the demolition crew swung their hammers to break up Strindberg’s bathtub. He has given me one. It’s rather big. Now we are working on getting a plaque put up on Skovlyst.
Strindberg: A Life is available now from Yale University Press.