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Kathryn Davis: The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf

Frances Thorn lives in Canaan, in upstate New York, which may or may not be this one. She is the mother of ten year old twin girls, Flo and Ruby. There is no father on the scene; indeed, she says that she disgraced herself, at least in the eyes of her family. The children’s teacher, Mrs Sprague, is the stage manager for the local operatic society. It is she that proposes Ruby for a small role in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. At the performance, Frances meets Helle Ten Brix, a Danish composer, who is living with her niece and the niece’s husband. The two women hit it off immediately, not least, as Frances explains because they are similar. (As this is a feminist novel she says that women of similar temperament are happy to acknowledge this; men, however, think that they are unique.) They become very close friends.

The novel actually starts with Helle’s death. She has left a package for Frances which contains various items but, in particular, the manuscript of an unfinished opera she was writing and she asks that Frances finish it. Frances feels that Helle left her the opera because she wanted to haunt me forever. The opera is the story of The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. This was originally a Danish song but was made famous in a story by Hans Christian Andersen. The basic story involves a girl, Inger, from a poor family who goes to work for a rich family. They take to the girl and, when she goes home to visit her mother, she is given a new pair of shoes and a large loaf of bread for her family. However, she has to cross bog and, in order not to spoil her new shoes, she puts the loaf down and walks on it. As a result, she is punished by being transformed into a statue – on the surface in the song but at the bottom of the bog in the Andersen story. Helle’s opera, however, takes a feminist approach, with the loaf seen as a symbol of her oppression, meaning that she is right to walk on it, while God and the Bog Queen are the enemies.

We learn a lot about Helle’s early life and this is relevant not just to learn who she is but because many of the things that happened to her as a child will appear in her song cycles and operatic works. Of course, we are learning about these things through Frances Thorn who has a mishmash of evidence to go on – notes and diaries left by Helle, letters and so on as well as comments by Helle herself when she was alive and people Frances Thorn contacts after Helle’s death, which can contradict Helle’s views. For example, Helle has always told her that Helle’s parents met when Anders was out in a bog and came across Ida sitting on a hill. Helle’s half-brother gives a much more prosaic account of their meeting. One key story occurs when Helle is going with her mother to visit her mother’s lover, Viggi Brahe (allegedly a descendant of Tycho Brahe). Ida uses her daughter as cover to deceive her husband. They are walking through the bog when they get separated. Helle is worried but not too concerned. She comes across her mother’s boot. Instead of rescuing it, she picks it up and throws it with all her strength into a murky pond. Instead of sinking slowly, the Furies rise from the pond and seize the boot. This scene becomes key to one of her early song cycles as indeed does the whole ethos of the bog, including the burials of young women two thousand years ago to appease the spirits and who are occasionally found, so well preserved that they look like recent burials.

But we also follow Frances’ life. She has an affair with Sam Blackburn, the husband of Helle’s niece, which makes Helle somewhat jealous. Helle, however, has a clever plan. Flo and Ruby have a trailer which they use as a playroom. One day, Helle decides that she wants to move away from the Blackburns and turns up at the girls’ trailer and effectively moves in. Neither Helle nor the girls tells Frances and she only learns from Sam. Helle will remain there till she dies.

We are still learning about Helle’s life – or the features of her life that she conveys to Frances, either directly or through her documents and work, which may or may not be true. Was she thrown out by her father because he tried to poison her stepmother? Her half-brother never mentions this but it does appear in her work, not least one entitled The Evil Stepmother. According to Helle, you can choose a life of crime or you can compose operas. Those were the alternatives. And sometimes the boundary between them got confused.

Helle is both a Lesbian and a feminist. She keeps a notebook of idiotic things said by men and Davis shares some of these with us. She fell in love with Inger, a schoolfriend but Inger was heterosexual. Men had proposed to Helle, even though she had a boyish figure but had, of course, got nowhere. Brahe, after Ida, died, tried his luck with her and though he wanted to help her in her career, he wanted more. It is clear that her feelings towards Frances were, at least in part, sexual.

This novel is really a superb work, which deserves to be far better known. We follow the life and career of Helle, from birth to death (and after), with all the problems of her life and her struggle for her art. We follow the story of Frances, her twins and her relationship with Helle, both during Helle’s life and afterwards, as she struggles to make sense of what Helle’s life was and what the The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf was really about. At the same time, we deal with key ideas, including the intertwining of life and art, how real life – which often but certainly not always means relationships, both romantic/sexual and otherwise – can suddenly come along and knock you off course and how nature, often perverse, can and does affect us all. Art may be the key theme. Helle says The sad truth was, no-one’s life had ever been saved by art . This opinion can certainly be debated but there is no doubt in this book and elsewhere that art has certainly coloured many lives.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Knopf