Norwegian Playwright in Love with Youth


Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) was married to Suzannah but was addicted to the friendship of young women. More than one hundred years after Henrik Ibsen’s death, his words are just as relevant, and the influence of those young women just as evident. Read more about the Norwegian playwright in love wuth youth.

Stockholm, March 1898: The little man with busty white hair and beard sits on a sofa in his hotel-room. On the table before him is a pile of signed photographs of himself. Henrik Ibsen is 70 years old and a Scandinavian celebrity. In his hotel room he receives a stream of young women and gives them his autograph. One of the girls says shyly that she has seen him before, but has never had the courage to say hello. He replies: “Do you know what I would have done? I would have taken you in my arms and covered you with kisses.”

Norwegian Playwright in Love with Youth
Henrik Ibsen quote

The man behind the groundbreaking and shocking plays such as A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts admitted that he needed youth to live and write. He knew more about women than most. When he died in 1906, they were all left behind – Suzannah, Emilie, Helene, Hildur and Rosa, the role models for Nora, Hedda, Rebekka, Elida, Hilde and other enduring characters.

Related: In the Footsteps of Henrik Ibsen

Illegitimate son
Henrik Ibsen had his first – unhappy – experience with women in Grimstad when he was 18. Three years before he had been sent from his boyhood town of Skien to Grimstad to be apprenticed to the local pharmacist. On 7 December 1846 the teenage Henrik writes to the town registrar: “(…) Unfortunately, I have had physical relations with her, occasion for which was provided in equal measure by provocative behavior and concurrent service with me at Apothecary Reimann’s.”

Norwegian Playwright in Love with Youth
Social structure in A Dolls House

The 28-year-old maid Else Sophie Birkedalen has given birth to a son, and Henrik Ibsen admits being the father. For 14 years he pays maintenance for his son Hans Jacob Henriksen, but tries his whole life to keep the boy’s existence a secret.

Henrik Ibsen travels to Christiania (present-day Oslo) on the pretext of studying medicine. But what he wants to do is write, and that is just what he does. In 1851 he heads west to Bergen to direct plays at Det Norske Theater. The regular salary that he is finally earning is spent, among other things, on elegant black overcoats and tan, lambskin gloves. He is short in stature, shy and introverted.  He has a dark brown beard covering his face and a mane of thick hair.

Norwegian Playwright in Love with Youth
Frim Arden Great Theatre’s perfromance of A Dolls House, 2018

Related: The World Celebrates a Fine Old Gentleman

Norwegian Playwright in Love with Youth
In July 1853 he becomes secretly engaged to 15-year-old Rikke Holst. They tie the rings together with a thread and throw them in the sea as a symbol of true love. Some moments later Rikke’s father discovers the relationship and ejects the poor thespian out of her life.

Rikke Holst is reported to have said that Henrik Ibsen’s appearance was “more interesting than actually handsome.” The Danish writer German Bang describes the young aspiring author thus: “But those who dismissed him as unimportant had never seen his eyes. They could light up and cast a spark which shot through a person so you remembered it long after.”

Norwegian Playwright in Love with Youth
Henrik Ibsen portrait

On a bitter January evening in Bergen in 1856, Henrik Ibsen, now 28, met 19-year-old Suzannah Daae Thoresen for the first time. They do not bother dancing, but sit and talk. Henrik Ibsen has found the woman in his life. When, late that evening, he returns to his room, he writes the romantic poem, “To the Only One”. Later he describes his sweetheart thus: “She has the kind of character I need, illogical, but with a strong poetic, instinct; a generosity of thought and an almost violent hatred of all petty-mindedness.” They call each other “Teddy Bear” and “Cat”. Their wedding takes place in Bergen in June the following year, and their only child, Sigurd, is born a year later. Suzannah does not want more children, and there are those who believe that Henrik and Suzannah stopped sharing bed after this.

In 1864 Henrik Ibsen and his family leave Norway. With a travel bursary in Ibsen’s pocket, they stay in Italy, Dresden and Munich. Ibsen feels misunderstood in Norway and does not return for 27 years.

Related: A Norwegian Heritage

Norwegian Playwright in Love with Youth
Henrik Ibsen quote

Young inspiration
Summer 1889: On holiday in the Tyrolean village of Gossensass, 61-year-old Henrik Ibsen meets 29-year-old Emilie Bardach. “Never has he admired anyone as he admires me,” she writes in her diary. When the summer is over and Ibsen has returned to Munich, she writes: “No more sun. All gone – disappeared.”

Later he would describe Emilie as a bird of prey who was out to capture him, and she is supposed to have been the model for Hilde Wangen in the Master Builder. Shortly afterwards, in the streets of Munich, Henrik Ibsen meets the 24-year-old German painter Helene Raff. He is a frequent visitor to her atelier, he flirts and kisses her. Nevertheless, many years later Helene Raff said that their relationship contained no element of infidelity. It was all about his need for youth.

Henrik Ibsen writes about women’s liberation, incest and syphilis. He creates as storm throughout Europe and is finally recognized in his own country. “All the ladies are in love with him,” writes the author Anne-Charlotte Leffler in the 1880s. When he returns to Christiania in 1891, people flock to pay tribute. Relations with Suzannah are cool. Rumors fly of his relations with younger women, particularly of how he strolls in arm with the pianist Hildur Andersen.

While Suzannah spends most of her time at spas in southern Europe, he lives in an apartment on Victoria Terrasse, with the maid Lina Jacobsen to look after him. Suzannah is livid. She ensures that Lina is dismissed, and that Ibsen finds them a new place to live, in Arbins gate no. 1.

Norwegian Playwright in Love with Youth
Henrik Ibsen quote

After his 70th birthday celebrations in Stockholm, Henrik Ibsen meets the 26-year-old suffragette Rosa Fittinghoff. He keeps her letters in a secret drawer in his desk, and looks at her picture every morning before starting work. At the same time he resumes his friendship with Hildur Anderson. In a letter to Hildur he writes: “My wild forest bird! (…) Oh, how I long for my princess! Long down from the heights of dreams. Long to descend to the earth again and do what I said – so many, many times.”

Nevertheless, it is believed that Henrik Ibsen was never physically unfaihful to his wife, Suzannah. He flirted with young women, he talked to them, was inspired by them. But it was Suzannah he always returned to. His last words are reported to have been: “My sweet, sweet wife, how good and kind you have been to me!”

Norwegian Playwright in Love with Youth is based on the book Ibsens kvinner (Ibsen’s Women) 2006,  edited by Ellen Horn (not translated into English). Compiled by Tor Kjolberg

Feature image (on top): Photo by Joanna Butler/Marianne Thallaug.

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Journalist, PR and marketing consultant Tor Kjolberg has several degrees in marketing management. He started out as a marketing manager in Scandinavian companies and his last engagement before going solo was as director in one of Norway’s largest corporations. Tor realized early on that writing engaging stories was more efficient and far cheaper than paying for ads. He wrote hundreds of articles on products and services offered by the companies he worked for. Thus, he was attuned to the fact that storytelling was his passion.