This is the nineteenth essay in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Nordic artist’s life and work.
“I believe that everyone must rejoice in his destiny, in the fact that he has lived at all and achieved a destiny. Destiny is the only sure asset.”
Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen (1900-1938) is the author of the novel “Barbara”, the only Faroese book that have become an international best-seller. The author himself however died the year before the book was published in 1939.
The 29th of November 1900 Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen was born in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. His father was a merchant of mixed Danish, Faroese and Swedish descent, while his mother was Faroese through and through, and he grew up speaking Danish with his father and Faroese with his mother and siblings. In 1916 he moved to Denmark where he after finishing high school started studying History and French at the University of Copenhagen. In 1922 he fell ill with tuberculosis and long stays at treatment centres delayed his studies until he finally acquired his master’s degree in 1932.
Throughout his time in Denmark he engaged himself in Faroese nationalism (the Faroe Islands being a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, then and now), and he wrote on Faroese history, culture, language and nature. In the many letters he wrote to his friend the great Faroese author William Heinesen (from where the quote in the top of this essay also is taken), Jacobsen expressed a love and acceptance for life itself, with both its beauty and hardships:
“It is precisely the enormous tension between sorrow and joy that makes life great … I have had my greatest moments when the sparks have flown between sorrow and joy. And death is fundamentally the brilliant relief to life… Life is great and demonic, worthy of being loved and obeyed. And the greatest thing in life is again resignation.”
Among the sorrows of Jacobsen’s life of homesickness to the Faroe Islands and tuberculosis, his perhaps greatest sorrow was the relationship to his cousin Estrid Bannister, with whom Jacobsen was deeply in love. Estrid on the other hand saw Jacobsen only as a friend (if a close one) and she often told him of her many relationships with other men. This difficult relationship provided one of the main inspirations for Jacobsen’s Magnus Opus he began writing in 1934, the novel Barbara.
The other great inspiration came from Faroese history of which Jacobsen had a deep understanding. The novel is based on the semi-historical legend of the 18th century Beinta Broberg who through her beauty and elegance caused the death of her first two husband’s and great sorrows to the third. But in contrast to the legend, the enchanting woman in Jacobsen’s novel (here called Barbara) is not evil: The story tells of a Danish priest coming to the Faroe Islands and though warned by the locals of her earlier relationships that both ended in disaster, he falls head over heels in love with Barbara. She also loves him and in spite of an affair between Barbara and a visiting French sailor, they marry. However, the arrival of a young student from Copenhagen spells disaster: On a visit in the line of duty to the remote island of Mykines the priest is caught by bad weather and cannot return home for 11 days. When he finally returns Barbara has left for Tórshavn with the other man. When her new love leaves for Denmark without her, Barbara stands in the end, not as seductress who has got what she deserved, but as a pitiable human being who’s tragic inability to control her own emotions causes the unhappiness of herself and the people around her.
The whole story is permeated with the burning jealousy of the priest (Jacobsen based the character on himself) and is placed in the lyrical setting of the harsh landscape of the Faroe Islands.
In 1938 Jacobsen finally succumbed to his illness after nearly 16 years. His Faroese author friends had Barbara published in 1939 and it immediately became a success. It has been translated into many western languages but, as of yet, not Chinese. It has however been made into film twice, first in West Germany in 1961 and then in Denmark in 1997 – the latter can be found on Chinese streaming services.
Text: Skjold Andreas Arendt