True History of the Kierkegaard Household

Master Kierkegaard: The Complete Journals, Ellen Brown, Cascade Books

Ellen Brown’s rich, wise book is a piece of fiction that makes a light-hearted pretence to being real, much like Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. The diarist is Magda, who describes herself as a “fallen woman”. We learn she is a former (well-educated) governess who fell pregnant, lost the baby and wound up a domestic servant in the household of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard during the early nineteenth century. He is described as a serious young man with a penetrating gaze. She notes his hatred of pretension and hypocrisy, and is, she says, too serious to be a minister, but he has a certain amount of kindness towards Magda. Her journals are detailed and cathartic meditations on her situation, her conversations with Kierkegaard, and her reading of the Luther Bible and other books, including Goethe’s Faust. “I prattle on here worse than a preacher”, she notes at one point, perhaps too harshly.

goethecartoon

Goethe

Sometimes the writing is so insightful it strains the credibility, much like when John Updike’s characters spout things that only a writer of the calibre of John Updike could produce. And the journals contain perhaps much more detail on Faust than a reader not prepared to read them in parallel with Faust can appreciate. Still, Magda’s domestic situation allows some intriguing angles on biblical interpretation and life in general. One could as readily read this as devotional material as fiction. And some of Kierkegaard has rubbed off on Magda. She too is critical of staid, superficial “Christendom” (as Kierkegaard called it), though she is also not beyond criticising him. About the pall of darkness that hangs round his house, she asks, “Is this the life Jesus came to give us?” She also notes that he is “more in love with questions than answers”.

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