How far can you legitimately mine someone’s life in a novel without transgressing? That is the question I asked myself while I was reading the biography of Monica Wichfeld.
Christine Sutherland has written a comprehensive and beautifully nuanced biography of a very famous Danish heroine of the Second World War. So I wonder what Danes feel about a novel that has pillaged her story and given it a happy ending? It is as if Carve Her Name with Pride and any novel with the same subject had taken everything that Violette Szabo did, but ending with her returning to her family to live happily ever after.
Monica Wichfeld grew up in Ireland among the landed Anglo-Irish gentry, she led a vivacious, delightful life with brothers and a loving family until her favourite brother and confidante was killed at the very end of World War One. From then on until shortly after she married, she never travelled to Germany, or spoke its language and if her brother was mentioned, she quietly left the room. Indeed, it was not until her own son, Viggo, reached the age at which Jack was killed that she was able to speak about him without dissolving into tears.
She met and married a slightly vapid but eminently kind Dane, Jorgen Wichfeld who was living a playboy’s life in Europe while leaving agents to manage his estate in Denmark.
Eventually however, the couple returned to Engestofte, a house in a large estate on Lolland, an island in the Baltic off the southern tip of Denmark. In the 1930s what was then the longest bridge in the world was built linking the two islands, Lolland and Falster, to the mainland. Monica set about putting her own stamp upon this sadly neglected property, restoring its character – she found that the original Empire decorations were still there, hidden under layers of wallpaper.
Monica spoke no Danish when she arrived on this near-feudal estate, Jorgen loved the garden but had little or no interest in the management of the estate, or in the interior decoration of the house. What he required was a suitable backdrop for his exquisite floral arrangements, and an appropriate setting for entertaining as scion of a noble and ancient Danish family with, albeit distant, royal connections.
Monica and Jorgen embarked on a round of reciprocal visits, but there was one estate that Monica flatly refused to visit. The home of the Haugwitz-Reventlow brothers, Hardenburg Castle, since they were German. Eventually, the two brothers Heini and Kurt, pay a visit to Engestofte themselves. Initially the visit is not a success, but it quickly became apparent that Monica had to give in. Subsequently, this rapprochement had a significant impact on her private life.
It is probably well known that at the beginning of the Second World War, Germany simply annexed Denmark, and the Danish parliament and the King (Christian X) requested that the population accepted the situation. At first this was a benign arrangement, the Danish parliament was allowed to proceed autonomously, but as the war progressed there were significant changes, privations and an undercurrent of unrest.
Exactly when Monica became involved in the underground movement is not clear, but her contribution was significant, important and outstandingly brave. Keeping her family completely in the dark, she helped in ammunition drops, agent concealment, and was an active leader of a network of resistance workers, every one of whom was risking their lives. Eventually her daughter, Varinka also became involved.
Monica and her network were betrayed and there followed a round-up of her associates, including her son Viggo but not her daughter. At the trial she and three of her male associates were sentenced to death, the uproar that this caused in Denmark was tremendous. No woman had been executed in Denmark for centuries. Monica was told that if she asked for clemency she would be granted a reprieve, but on learning that no such reprieve was available to the others, she refused. It was only at the behest of another female prisoner, Claire Schlichting, that she finally consented to file for clemency. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
The war was entering its final stages and so life imprisonment seemed to give people hope that she would be released before long. In spite of strenuous efforts to prevent her being taken away, Monica was transferred to Germany. The reprieve was a hollow gesture, she endured several months of hideous privation and intense suffering, even the firing squad might have been preferable.
She died, as she had lived, courageously upholding the spirit of her companions, proud, elegant and admired by her fellow captives and captors alike.
To this day, her countrymen honour her memory.
So how it is possible that an English author feels entitled to pirate her life, barely transposing place names and characters and effectively using the same skeleton to hang a mildly romantic story of resistance and derring-do in wartime Denmark without ever acknowledging the debt she owes to the truth?
The book in question is the subject of an earlier post, and I was taken with it at the time. But somehow, having read the biography of the real person behind the novel I am left with a bitter taste, there is a puckering about my mouth, rather more than a moue of disapproval.
Should you have already taken my advice to read the novel, I apologise. Monica Heroine of the Danish Resistance is incomparably better.