Siri von Essen and Marie Caroline David
It caused a scandal when August Strindberg's (1849-1912) wife Siri von Essen (1850–1912) developed a close relationship with the Danish author Marie Caroline David (1865-1897).
The two women's relationship was opposed by both the norms of society and the law. Nevertheless, they managed to live together as a family for a period after von Essen divorced. Although the lives of the two women are described in many preserved letters, the nature of their private relationship remains a mystery - like most historical queer stories.
The two women met in an artist colony in Gréz-sur-Loing just outside Paris in the 1880s. Siri von Essen arrived accompanied by her husband August Strindberg. Marie David worked on becoming a writer and had the influential critic Georg Brandes (1842-1927) as a mentor. The two women developed a close relationship, which Strindberg clearly disapproved of. His great contempt for Marie David is evident in the autobiographical novel The Defense of a Fool (1893) as well as in his police report of von Essen in connection with their divorce. The contempt was reciprocated: "I told you last time that it is for the wife's sake that I associate with him", David writes in a letter to Brandes, which is part of Brandes' archive at Royal Danish Library.
During Strindberg's accusations of homosexuality, David writes a letter to Brandes, in which she asks him to oppose the rumours about her in Copenhagen. She particularly asks him to address his brother, Edvard Brandes, who had close contact with Strindberg :. "... will you not ask him [Edvard] if it is his opinion of me that I am "a bad Woman", and if he has stated this to Strindberg ...".
A tough life
After the accusations and the divorce, the women reportedly lived close together as a family in Stockholm and later in Finland for a number of years. Marie David, however, had alcohol problems, and painter and author Elise Konstantin Hansen describes her in her memoirs "Små kapitler af et langt liv": "Marie David's thread of life was spun out much faster. She was young when she sought refuge in a Catholic monastery in Germany - as a broken human being." Siri von Essen continued to live in Finland and supported herself and her children as a theatre pedagogue.
The Night of the Tribades
The word tribade is derived from the Greek tribein meaning "rub", and it has historically been used about gay women. In 1975, the playwright Per Olov Enquist wrote "The Night of the Tribades" based on the love triangle and the drama that arose between Strindberg, von Essen and David during rehearsals for the play "The Stronger" at Dagmarteatret. The play is about the power structure between Strindberg and von Essen and about his hatred of Marie David, who, without Strindberg's knowledge, shows up for the rehearsals.
The title alludes to the particular night in the theatre, on which the play's action takes place, but also to an event in the artist colony in France, where Marie David and Siri von Essen initiated a romantic relationship, according to Strindberg. The play reinforces the suspicion that a romantic relationship had actually taken place between the two women.
Get explicit queer stories
There are not many known sources for the relationship between Marie David and Siri von Essen. The only sources we have are David's letters to Brandes, Strindberg's portrayal of the two women and Enquist's fictional "Night of the Tribades". But none of these sources can give us clear evidence that the women had a romantic relationship. Because none of the women ever came out - and for good reason.
The story is a testament to how queer people have been treated historically. Their very existence was essentially prohibited.