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Heitdís Jokullsdottír Reventlow was an Álengsk† novelist and socialite chiefly remembered for the gothic novel Ianthe. The narrow appreciation of her most famous work often overlooks her vast bibliography, extensive travels and often quite radical political writing but that is beginning to change.
Heitdís was born on 14th October 1802 in the Ohlone city of Romonan. She was the seventh child and third daughter of Jokull Arnarsson, a Snjorjamark Álengsk, and Helene Sunyer, daughter of the Aragonese-Ohlone general Jeroni Sunyer. Both Jokull and Helene were from wealthy families, however the seizure of Snjorjamark by the Chinese Leifian army in 1781 (see Atsugkriga) saw Jokull's wealth evaporate. The loss of most of the Sunyer estates to Esselenmark in 1803 threatened ruin for the family. Along with the extreme squandering of funds by Helene's half-brothers Garcia and Mariano, the future stability of the young family looked poor. Relying on Helene's inheritance they leveraged out the two wastrel brothers and began to rebuild the family's fortunes.
While Helene's more business minded brothers concentrated on shipping, Jokull and Helene bought into mining interests in the Leifian Northwest. As the families fortunes improved so they left Ohlonemark and the relative comfort of the Sunyer villa in Romonan to be closer to their interests in Ktunaxa. Their mine at Oropelem produced silver, copper and lead and although were exhausted quickly allowed the family to invest in other concerns and even buy an island, 'Karfayar', in Yaqannuki Bay on which a modest summer house was built.
Heitdís would later write that the two summers spent on the island, with her family were the happiest and most carefree of her life. It was interrupted in 1813 when Helene decided to send both Heitdís and her brother Gísli to Álengiamark for a 'decent' education.
They were put into the care of Haukur Óskarsson, Lord of Reyrvatnstadh. Heitdís cared little for her studies or Óskarsson but revelled in his extensive library reading and re-reading the Norse sagas and Italian poets. Heitdís was soon introduced to a circle of artists who would come to define her life. The town of Reyvatnstadh, with its small university, had long been regarded as a liberal bastion as opposed to 'stuffy' St. Hafdiss or 'selfish' Kristjanaborg, and in the early 1800s was awash with poets, novelists and painters. Even at the age of fifteen Heitdís was said to the equal of graduates in composing poetry and headstrong, she had rebuffed Óskarsson's attempts to marry her into the gentry on at least two occasions. The second time she ran away to Ílaekjurland with the novelist, and Heitdís's future publisher, Daníel Karlsson.
In 1818 she was introduced to the painter, David Kristinnsson. Twenty years her senior Kristinnsson was a minor lord and most definitely married. She however was smitten and the pair scandalously courted. In August the dalliance was close to being exposed and Heitdís's friends thought it best if they laid low for a while. With the poet Kristófer Sverrirsson, the painter Hilmar Jakopsson, and his fiancee Jóhanna Benediktsdottír, the party travelled south to the Álengsk run Carib Island of Humareyja. From there they would travel to Hewanorra, the island where her grandfather had been brought up. It was here that she not only began writing in earnest but also gave birth to her first child, a girl named Freyja. Though probably Kristinnsson's daughter, Kristófer claimed to be the father, and the pair were wed in 1819. Her writings of the party's travels through the Carib islands, Letters from the Carib was eagerly received back home. Letters from the Carib was a deeply personal travelogue which flitted between the scenery of the islands, events that her party had witnessed and more abstract musings on the education of women and happiness of the islanders. The news that she and Kristófer were married with a child did much to pour water on the rumours that still circulated.
Receiving a small sum, a 'wedding present' from Lord Óskarsson the quartet moved onto Europe taking part in 'the Grand Tour' a rite of passage that many well-to-do Álengsk and Vinlanders were undertaking. They sailed into Valencia harbour in August 1820, As she was later to admit, this was possibly the worst moment to visit Aragon as the country would soon be under severe duress thanks to the ongoing Iberian Revolution. Jakopsson and Benediktsdottír appeared enthralled by the new, and potentially dangerous ideas swirling around Valencia at the time and the quartet parted ways. Heitdís and Kristófer moved Northwards, Heitdís translating Kristófer's poems into Catalan and getting them published providing a small income. It would be in Zaragoza, the birthplace of her grandfather that Heitdís would write her first novel, Tómas & Lára, a romance. But the year would end in heartbreak. In December Freyja, always a sickly child, died of tuberculosis. Heitdís attempted suicide but was stopped by a passerby however Kristófer, equally distraught at the loss of his adopted daughter threw himself into the Ebro. His body was never found.
Meanwhile Jakopsson had been imprisoned for his association with revolutionaries in Valencia (he would be executed in 1822). Benediktsdottír escaped attention however and sought out her friend. United in grief the pair decided to leave for Germany as news of the fall of Valencia to del Olmo came through. They travelled widely in Europe living off the small sums Heitdís received for her writings. Letters from Aragon discussed grief and what the Iberian Revolution was doing to society. While Letters from the Danube, addressed, as always, to 'My darling Gísli...', delved more into politics comparing the relatively liberal Swiss Cantons and enlightened Vienna to the autocratic Hungary and Byzantium. Eventually however Benediktsdottír was proposed to by a wealthy Danish Baron, Joseph Ruud, and the travelling largely ended. In September 1825 Heitdís moved into a small apartment in the centre of Copenhagen, writing and editing the works of her circle of friends.
Heitdís's most famous work was a product of her long stay in Copenhagen, a time she cherished but was equally fraught with heartbreak and disappointment. While she flitted in and out of Danish high society there followed a swift succession of light, breezy novellas often satirising the circles she moved in. She married David Reventlow, a widely read intellectual, in April 1827 but she lost three children in quick succession; two daughters were stillborn while a son lasted only a couple of weeks. Meanwhile she could not ignore the seemingly endless columns of men headed for the front lines of Francia or the Rhine. The novel is the product of those times and carries an air of lost innocence and dread.
The narrative largely revolves around two Danes, Christian and Arvid who are on the 'Grand Tour' of Europe returning home from Greece where they have, rightly or wrongly taken taken many artifacts to line their homes as was the fashion at the time. In Budapest they mix with a group of young hedonists who on a debauched night eventually end up at the house of the secretive Lady Ianthe. Although she appears in her mid-fiftes the whole party are enraptured by her and over the coming days the more confident Arvid takes ever more drastic steps to woo her, confronting and assaulting several of the other hedonists who are equally smitten. Ianthe appears to encourage and derive pleasure from the orgy of violence. Eventually there is a duel between Christian and Arvid outside Budapest's walls. Christian, injured, flees Hungary and in an effort to forget both his friend and 'the most beautiful woman he has ever met' joins the Luxembourg army serving in several battles in Francia.
Losing a leg at the Battle of Nancy, Christian returns home to find Copenhagen high society beholden to Arvid and his wife, the noticeably younger Ianthe. The same cycle of violence is beginning to show and Christian confronts the couple. He and Arvid argue and, with Ianthe on the side-lines gleefully urging both men on, Arvid is accidentally killed. Christian flees the scene but is plagued by nightmares. The police do not come for him however and when he tries to confide in a friend, Conrad, he finds him comforting Ianthe, now looking 'barely out of her teens'. Christian confronts her in her house that evening. At his wits end he stabs her with a letter-opener. She laughs as she pulls the weapon out of her chest. The pair fight with Ianthe having 'unnatural' strength but in the fray the house is set alight. Christian escapes the burning building but the last thing he sees of her is "a shadow in the flames. And a laugh. A laugh that haunts me still."
The novel was quickly praised as a masterpiece and was well-received in both Europe and Leifia and it appeared to chime well with the gloomy mood on both continents. Europe, still wracked by war, identified with Christian 'rooting out evil in its midst but losing innocence in the process'. Leifia meanwhile was still struggling with the after effects of various catastrophes collectively known as the 'Leifian Crisis' and saw the novel as a lament for a passing golden age. However its real popularity was only secured once it was adapted for the stage in 1837 and as an opera in 1839.
Back to Leifia
David Reventlow died in 1831 of a fever. The couple had already been estranged for several months but the death of her long time companion hit her hard. Deciding to return to Álengiamark she spent a year travelling through Hordaland, Iceland, Greenland and Vinland before finally returning to Álengiamark. A final book of 'Letters...' ; Letters from the North, was a reminiscence of her time in Europe and a poetic description of the Arctic. She settled on Ílaekjurland in a house she named 'Freyja' . Her residence there produced six more novels and a wealth of political work cheifly concerned with the welfare of the growing industrial class, the rights of women in Álengiamark and utopian ideals of a Leifian Confederation modelled on the Swiss Confederation.
She married her third husband Jón Ingisson, a whaling magnate, in 1835. The couple were rewarded with a healthy son, Fridrik, in December that year but suffering from childbed fever she would die on 1st January 1836, only 33 years old.
†Though Álengiamark has claimed her as one of their own whether she ever saw herself as Álengsk is up for debate. Born in Ohlonemark, to a Aragonese-Snjorjask family, Catalan was her first language while her later teachers commented she was easier to understand in Danish than in her 'poor' Álengsk. Possibly the only time she was ever pressed on the matter was during the Danish census of 1829. "I contrived to leave the space [recording nationality] blank but the official insisted I answer all the questions. After some seconds' hesitiation I wrote 'Leifian' . This seemed to me the best answer."