A Keeper of Love’s Flame: Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard

By Morten Høi JensenApril 9, 2014

A Keeper of Love’s Flame: Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard

Regines gåde by Joakim Garff

ON MARCH 17, 1855, the 33-year-old Regine Olsen was due to leave Copenhagen for the Danish West Indies, where her husband of eight years, Johan Frederik Schlegel, had been appointed governor. The appointment would keep the couple abroad for more than five years, making the toll of saying goodbye to family and friends especially great. After all, one did not embark on a journey of almost 4,500 miles in the middle of the 19th century without courting very real dangers — shipwreck, weather, disease, to mention a few. Regine was well aware of the risks: her oldest brother Oluf Christian, employed as a toll inspector on Saint Croix from 1845 to 1857, lost both his wife, Laura, and his younger sister Olivia, during his difficult time on the island.

Whether in spite or because of the ominous journey ahead of her, Regine made an important decision, it seems, on the day of her departure: she sought out a strange man to whom she had once been engaged; a man who had left her, and to whom she had not spoken in 14 years. But if they had not spoken, Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard had not exactly remained strangers either. For years they had passed each other on their walks throughout the city, often in an openly calculated fashion. On Kierkegaard’s 39th birthday, for instance, Regine suddenly appeared on the street in front of his home on Østerbro. “As often happens to me of late, I can’t help but smile when I see her,” the melancholy Dane wrote in his journal. His smile was returned, whereupon the birthday boy removed his hat in greeting. Then, as if by agreement, the old lovers again went their separate ways.

The silence between them remained unbroken until the day of Regine’s departure. Suddenly, in the midst of her travel arrangements, she rushed from her apartment in Nybrogade out into the Saturday morning crowds. After a frantic search she eventually came across the familiarly stooping figure on a random Copenhagen street. Quietly she approached him and exclaimed, in a delicate voice, “God bless you — may good things come your way!” Then she departed again, leaving her ex-fiancé standing there with his hat in his hand, speechless, stupefied.

It was the last they ever saw of each other. Regine left for the Caribbean later that day, while Kierkegaard, after a final paroxysm of intense literary production, departed this world permanently just eight months later, on November 11, 1855.

This, more or less, is the story that opens Joakim Garff’s biography, Regines gåde: Historien om Kierkegaards forlovede og Schlegels hustru (Regine’s Mystery: The Story of Kierkegaard’s Fiancée and Schlegel’s Wife), published in Denmark just last year. The book is a moving, penetrating insight into one of the greatest and most perplexing love stories in literary history, written with the same scholarly vigilance and imaginative affection that made Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard (Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, published in 2000 and translated into English in 2005) such a monumental achievement. Garff’s new book is the first to render its particular kind of attention to Regine, and it goes further than any previous attempt to explore and understand the relationship between Regine and Kierkegaard. Scholars as well as gossips have been fascinated by the relationship since it first became public, over 150 years ago — conventionally, Regine is imagined as a more or less brokenhearted victim of Kierkegaard’s philosophical disregard. Garff challenges this account, describing a surprisingly intimate bond between them, behind and alongside the dissolution of their relationship. And yet Garff’s is also a radical attempt to free Regine from Kierkegaard’s embrace, to allow her to step a little further into the light so that we may attempt to see her on her own terms, as an individual human being and not merely a recurring, if invisible, central character in Kierkegaard’s literary-theological oeuvre.

Garff would surely be the first to admit that any such attempt is bound to fail. To begin with, no single book could undo the mythologizing of Regine that Kierkegaard’s massive output commenced 170 years ago. Secondly, and more practically, Regine is fated to remain a mystery because she left so little of herself behind — no confessions, no diaries, no howling indiscretions. Even the discovery, in 1996, of several hundred letters Regine wrote to her sister Cornelia from Saint Croix offers precious little insight into her innermost being. From these letters, Graff explains, we learn about the public Regine — Regine’s husband would often read or add his greeting to the letters — rather than the private. There are hints, allusions, intimations, but nothing more. What the two sisters spoke about in private, we can only imagine or guess at; Regine remains hidden, her relationship to Kierkegaard a secret between lovers. But perhaps this quiet itself is a small key to the romance; as Kierkegaard’s Aesthete A says of Antigone in Either/Or, “Perhaps nothing ennobles a human being so much as keeping a secret.”

A strength of Garff’s book is that it simultaneously acknowledges the lack of decisive knowledge about Regine and Kierkegaard’s romance and renders it movingly, almost viscerally. As Garff recounts, the couple first met in 1837, though it would be another three years before Kierkegaard, as he later wrote in his journal, “left home with the firm intention of deciding the matter.” On a September day in 1840 he showed up in front of the house in Børsgade where Regine lived with her parents. They met on the street outside and went upstairs. Standing uneasily in the parlor room, Kierkegaard asked Regine to play him some music on the piano. She obliged, but Kierkegaard quickly seized the music book and exclaimed, “Oh, what do I care about music? It’s you I’m looking for, you I’ve been seeking for two years.” This event marked the beginning, as Garff writes in his biography of Kierkegaard, of “one of the great love stories of world literature.” Drawing comparisons to, among others, Dante and Beatrice, Abelard and Héloïse, he says of the couple that they are “together in eternity because they never could be together in earthy life.” Indeed, Kierkegaard and Regine’s story often reads like the stuff of folk tales and verse epics (cryptic notes and secret gestures abound). For instance, the 31 letters Kierkegaard sent Regine between their engagement and its dissolution a year later, Garff says, are “not ordinary communication; they are art” (the passage in Regines gåde appears word-for-word in Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography):

[…] by virtue of their indisputably aesthetic qualities, the letters make it clear that their author was to become not a husband but a writer. So they were actually farewell letters, grandiose exercises in the art of indirect communication: With enormous discretion and employing the entire panoply of the most nuanced shades of language, they try to make Regine realize that the person who sings her praises in letter after letter has long since disappeared from her life because he has lost himself in recollection of her and is thus utterly unsuited for married life. Indeed, recollection, from which fantasy draws its life, is also the source of the death that divides the lovers. In looking back upon events, Kierkegaard claimed that the very next day after Regine had said “Yes,” he had already realized that he had “made a mistake.”

Reading Kierkegaard’s work, it’s hard not to see an ongoing scrutiny of this mistake. Repetition (1843), for instance, is haunted throughout by the specter of Regine Olsen. In that book the narrator, Constantin Constantinius, befriends a Young Man who has fallen in love and become engaged only to regret it almost immediately: “He was deeply and passionately in love, this was clear, and yet he was already, in the earliest days, in a position to recollect his love. He was basically finished with the whole relationship.” His love had already become a memory, the young woman a muse of the past: “She had permeated every aspect of his being. The thought of her was always fresh. She had been important for him. She had made him into a poet, and with this signed her own death-sentence.”

The Young Man desperately confides in Constantin Constantius, who tells him that in order to break off the relationship he must, in effect, become a villain. Constantius reasons: “It is despicable to deceive and seduce a girl. It is even more despicable, however, to leave a girl in such a way that one avoids becoming a scoundrel, but instead makes a brilliant retreat in that one puts her off with the explanation that she was not the ideal, but comforts her with the fact that she was one’s muse.” Therefore, he implores the Young Man, “lay waste to everything. Transform yourself into a contemptible person whose only pleasure is in tricking and deceiving. If you can do this, then you will have established equality.” In other words, he will have pushed the girl so far that in the end it is she who breaks off the relationship, and thereby gains the moral high ground.

This cunning plan, in fact, was more or less what Kierkegaard himself embarked on in August 1841, when he returned his engagement ring to Regine along with a break-up letter of such artifice that it would eventually appear “word-for-word” (Garff’s italics) in Stages on Life’s Way (1845). The ensuing months, during which he fought to disentangle himself from the relationship, Kierkegaard referred to as “the time of terrors.” Regine, predictably, was devastated by her fiancé’s decision, as was her family. In early October, Kierkegaard was summoned to the Olsen home by Regine’s father, a man he greatly respected, and who feared the worst for his lovesick daughter. Kierkegaard reluctantly agreed to speak with Regine. Years later, he recalled the conversation in his journal:

I went there and made her see reason. She asked me: Will you never marry? I answered: Yes, in ten year’s time, when I have had my fling, I will need a lusty girl to rejuvenate me. It was a necessary cruelty. Then she said to me: Forgive me for what I have done to you. I answered: It is I, after all, who should be asking that. She said: Promise to think of me. I did so. She said: Kiss me. I did — but without passion — Merciful God! […] I spent the nights crying in my bed, but in the daytime was my usual self, even more flippant and witty than called for. My brother told me he would go to the family and prove to them that I was no cad. I said: If you do that I’ll blow your brains out. The best proof of how deeply concerned I was.

The “time of terrors” lasted until October 25. On that day, Kierkegaard, whose dissertation On the Concept of Irony would afford its author the degree of magister in philosophy just 24 hours later, left Copenhagen for a four-month voluntary exile in Berlin. The collapse of his relationship and the rise of his intellectual reputation were perfectly timed.

This meant, of course, that in addition to those nights spent crying alone in his apartment, Kierkegaard also had to face the gossipy world of the Copenhagen bourgeoisie, ever hungry for a little scandal to occupy their time. In this sense, his plan to vilify himself was a runaway success; in the court of public opinion he was widely, eagerly denounced. On his return from Berlin in March 1842 he had written the majority of Either/Or, a work that stumped the Copenhagen literary world when it appeared in Reitzel’s Bookshop a year later. “You have no idea what a sensation it has caused,” a friend wrote to Hans Christian Andersen, then in Paris. “I think that no book has caused such a stir with the reading public since Rousseau placed his Confessions on the altar.” More to the point was Kierkegaard’s nephew, Troels Frederik Troels-Lund, who observed: “It was quite a peculiarity for the runaway villain, who had broken up with his sweetheart in Copenhagen, to sit in a hotel in Berlin, despite winter cold, arthritis, and insomnia, so that he could labour strenuously and restlessly on a work — in praise of marriage.”

If she read Either/Or at the time, what did Regine make of it? How did she react to the aesthete A’s analysis of seduction and betrayal in the work of Mozart and Goethe? Did she think, as A suggests Goethe’s Marie Beaumarchais might have, “perhaps he loves me still, yes, it was out of love for me that he left me”? Or did she exclaim, like Elvira, “No, I will hate him; only so I can find rest and occupation”?

We don’t know. What does seem likely is that, in the weeks and months after the engagement was broken, Regine was neither “finished with the interrogation, nor with the verdict.” It would be another 15 years before she could begin to piece together the story of her engagement to Kierkegaard. Until then, she could glimpse her reflection scintillating between the lines of books that have since acquired lasting fame: Fear and Trembling, Repetition, Philosophical Fragments, Works of Love.

Regines gåde attempts to show us what Regine’s life was like after Kierkegaard, when she had ceased to be Regine Olsen and become Regine Schlegel. Her story, after all, is the story of a woman who lived on long after Kierkegaard passed away; a woman who, out of respect for her husband, never uttered a public word about her increasingly famous former lover, even as the past occasionally turned up quite literally on her doorstep.

On November 19, 1849, Johan Frederik Schlegel received what Garff calls “one of the most curious letters he ever received.” That’s probably putting it mildly. The letter, addressed to Schlegel, contained a letter addressed to his wife, Regine, which the sender left it to the recipient to decide whether to pass on. “For of course I cannot defend approaching her, least of all now, when she is yours, and for that reason I have never availed myself of the opportunity that has presented itself — that has perhaps been presented — for a number of years.” The author of these provocative, insinuating words was Kierkegaard. “It is my belief that a little information concerning her relationship to me might be of service to her now,” he wrote to Schlegel. What exactly that information was we don’t know for certain, because Schlegel returned the letter unopened to Kierkegaard accompanied by an “indignant, moralizing note.” Understandably, of course. The contents were presumably related to the volume of journal entries Kierkegaard had written shortly before, entries he titled “My Relation to ‘Her,’” in which he provided an account of his and Regine’s relationship. Many of them are very revealing. As Garff perceptively observes, they are not the words of a seducer but rather those of one seduced. “I came, I saw, she conquered,” Kierkegaard wrote submissively in 1840; nine years later, he wondered: “Perhaps even the entire marriage is a mask, and she is more passionately attached to me than before. In that case, all would be lost. I know well what she is capable of when she gets hold of me.”

Regine didn’t know of Kierkegaard’s interpretation of events until after his death in 1855. On January 1, 1856, a letter arrived on Saint Croix from Peter Christian Kierkegaard, informing the Schlegels of the death of his younger brother, Søren. What’s more, the letter disclosed the bizarre fact that Kierkegaard’s will mentioned only Regine, to whom Kierkegaard, for all intents and purposes, apparently considered himself married: “It is, of course, my will that my former fiancée, Mrs. Regine Schlegel, should inherit unconditionally whatever little I may leave behind. If she herself refuses to accept it, it is to be offered to her on the condition that she distribute it to the poor. What I wish to express is that for me an engagement was and is just as binding as marriage, and that therefore my estate is to revert to her in exactly the same manner as if I had been married to her.” Another note, enclosed in a sealed envelope, read: “‘The unnamed person, whose name will one day be named,’ to whom the entirety of my authorial activity is dedicated, is my former fiancée, Mrs. Regine Schlegel.”

Regine asked that the will be disregarded and instead contacted Henrik Lund, Kierkegaard’s nephew, asking him to send her a few personal effects along with the letter exchange from the period of the engagement. After receiving these items, she wrote once more to Lund inquiring about the contents of a palisander cupboard — contents she believed may or may not have been intended for her. The packages Lund eventually sent to Regine included, among other things, the “My Relation to ‘Her’” journal entries, the bizarre letter sent to Schlegel in 1849, and many other posthumous papers. Fifteen years after the fact, 4,500 miles away from home, and almost a year after Kierkegaard’s death, Regine could thus discover a whole aspect of her relationship to the eccentric author that had remained obscured from her until now.

No doubt this caused her grief. Garff charts some traces of her emotions: for instance, in her letters to Henrik Lund she admitted to having always felt there was something unresolved between herself and Kierkegaard, something she thought they would resolve in the tranquility of old age. Instead, she was filled now with regret and the sense of having done Kierkegaard wrong. This makes for rather painful reading, yet as Garff shows it also reveals Regine’s perceptiveness of her former fiancé’s unusual mental constitution. In the letters to Lund she speaks of Kierkegaard’s “innate tendency toward self-torment,” his “inner call from God,” and the belief that it was for God that he sacrificed her. Finally, she begins to wonder whether it might not be advisable to speak publically about the whole ordeal, something she had previously shied away from but which Kierkegaard’s death now prompted her to reconsider. “I feel a desire to have it cleared up for myself,” she writes, “I no longer want to silently postpone it, I’ve done enough of that in this life.”

The Schlegels returned from Saint Croix in 1860 and spent the rest of their lives in Copenhagen. They were thus first-hand witnesses to the cementing of Kierkegaard’s fame, both in Denmark and, increasingly, abroad. His diaries were published between 1869 and 1881, amidst a storm of controversy regarding the injustice of the publication toward still living members of Copenhagen society, particularly Regine herself. Nevertheless, Regine asked her husband to purchase a copy, though Garff reports that she was made almost physically ill by the personal nature of the entries regarding her.

The first biography of Kierkegaard appeared in 1877. Søren Kierkegaard: En kritisk Fremstilling i Grundrids, by the radical critic Georg Brandes (who would later bring renown to a little-known German living in Italy by the name Friedrich Nietzsche), was a huge success, and within three years had been translated into both Swedish and German (Rainer Maria Rilke, who translated Kierkegaard’s letters to Regine, called it “an excellent study”). Despite having only limited access to the posthumous papers, Brandes rightly intuited the influence of Regine, or Kierkegaard’s notion of Regine, on his work. Writing of the peculiarity of the philosopher’s conduct toward his one-time-fiancée, Brandes wrote, “There isn’t the slightest reason to condemn him, but every call to attempt to understand him.” And yet even Brandes eventually came round to the conclusion that Kierkegaard is “the mystery, the great mystery.”

Though Brandes knew the Schlegels and visited them on several occasions in their home on Nørrebrogade, we don’t know how they reacted to the publication of his book. What is interesting to Garff, however, is Regine’s growing openness about her relationship to Kierkegaard in her old age, particularly following the death of her husband in 1896. By then a small, white-haired old lady with a kind expression, she appears to have become quite protective of her old fiancé. Garff mentions an episode in which she reprimanded a priest for not being familiar with Kierkegaard’s work. Such a thing, she objected, was unthinkable in the country where Kierkegaard was born, especially of a priest!

Touchingly, Regine emerged at the end of her life as the final and most passionate keeper of Kierkegaard’s flame. The letters and diaries still in her possession she donated to Copenhagen University where, per her instruction, they were to be kept until several years after her death. She reached out to the librarian Raphael Meyer to ask if he had any interest in the memories of an old lady. Their conversations, which took place in the winter and spring of 1899, formed the basis of Meyer’s introduction to the posthumous papers surrounding the period of the engagement, published in 1904.

But what is especially interesting is that Regine’s openness about Kierkegaard was never a matter of “setting the record straight.” On the contrary, by not writing any memoirs of her own, by not explicitly contradicting Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the events, she allowed their love to be exposed solely on the terms of the past, as it existed in Kierkegaard’s posthumous papers.

Thanks to Garff’s book, we can more fully appreciate the extent to which the perception of Regine as a woman cruelly seduced by an eccentric philosopher is inaccurate. On the contrary, she proved to be at once selfless and cunning; her final gesture, this glorious double-act, allowed her to reveal the nature of her relationship with Kierkegaard while simultaneously disappearing into posterity, the innermost secrets of her being intact. Though their graves at Assistens Churchyard in Copenhagen are separated by just 50 yards, it is in the papers Regine received on an island in the Caribbean that the remains of their love are buried. “Posthumous papers are like a ruin,” the aesthete A writes in Either/Or, “what haunt could be more natural for the interred?”


Morten Høi Jensen is writing a biography of the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen.

LARB Contributor

Morten Høi Jensen is a writer and critic from Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017). Photo by Niels Hougaard / Kristeligt Dagblad.


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