Elisabeth Møller Jensen’s ’family saga’ is primarily the story of her mother, Gudrun – a brilliant, charming, outgoing woman, but with a challenging and fiery temperament that veered increasingly out of control. As a teenager, Gudrun was hospitalised for treatment of mental health problems; after a passionate relationship with a German soldier during the Second World War, she married a hard-working and principled baker’s assistant, a Dane called Tage, with whom she had four children, Elisabeth being the oldest.
Tage bought a bakery in Lemvig, trade was not brisk, and the business went bankrupt; he then got a job at the nearby Cheminova factory, the global supplier of agrochemical products, but Gudrun’s condition was worsening, not helped by her massive abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol. This inevitably affected her husband and children; filled with alarm and despair, they were witnesses to Gudrun’s downward spiral. She died in 1975, at 53 years of age.
Elisabeth Møller Jensen tells this story without any window dressing; an especially powerful authenticity is added by passages quoted from letters and diaries in which Gudrun writes about her situation, about her anxiety – especially her worries about harming her children – about her love for her husband and about her struggle with trying to live a conventionally normal life.
“The idea that equality could be achieved via education was a motivating force throughout my childhood. I was an able pupil at school, and if I came home with anything less than top marks, no matter how close, my father’s only comment would be to ask why I hadn’t done better. So it was neither fate nor fairytale that I went to university and graduated with a Magister degree – we were four siblings, and we all went to university. It has become so fashionable to talk about ‘breaking the social heritage’ or ‘breaking the mould’, but that is not how I see myself – and actually, this concept has irritated me ever since I first heard of it. The wherewithal, desire and opportunity for social mobility do not simply materialise out of thin air. I have always felt that I was following tracks laid down by generations who went before me, following a pattern and a dream that I and many others in the first ‘welfare-state generation’ had the prospect of achieving. That I went to study at the University of Copenhagen, rather than the local teacher-training college, was not a strategic move in any wider plan. My mother had dreamed of becoming a teacher, her ultimate ambition, and had I been studying at the nearby teacher’s college then that dream would virtually have been fulfilled. So she was disappointed when I left for Copenhagen. She felt as if I was disappearing, that she was losing me – and she was right.”
Translation: G. Kynoch