The Danish Girl
The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff opens in Copenhagen in 1925 with a wonderful enigmatic four word sentence –
‘His wife knew first.’
Greta asks her husband Einar to wear silk stockings and feminine shoes to pose for her, so that she can continue painting a portrait in the absence of the female model. This is the first act in both of them beginning the gradual process of acknowledging Einar’s effeminate tendencies. Once begun his awareness of his feminine side, his longing to be female, accelerates, but not without misgivings and trepidation. Lili, his alter-ego emerges as a real person and increasingly Einar behaves as if they are two separate people.
Einar’s transformation into Lili, his wife, Greta’s amazing love and support and the pioneering work of the surgeon who helped him achieve his desire to have a female form is based on a true story. In The Danish Girl it is told with sensitivity and grace.
The setting, pre-war Copenhagen and later Paris and Dresden, is evoked wonderfully. Greta and Einar live in a world of art and culture in the heady days before recession and the bleak war-years. The richness of their lives is beautifully drawn, the characters are very empathetic and the story is moving and bitter-sweet. According to Lili’s diaries the surgeon found ovaries in her body when he operated, suggesting that she was actually hermaphrodite.
The novel is based on the diaries of Lili Elbe and newspaper stories about her from the time, when she was, for a while quite famous.
The author makes it clear that he has written a novel and all but the two main characters are fictional, but they are representative of the circles in which they moved and the attitudes they encountered.
The book is now an equally sensitive and visually stunning film. I recommend reading the book first!
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