Photograph of Siri von Essen and drawing of Marie David

Photo: Det Kgl. Bibliotek

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.

Page from Silkeborg Avis about August Strindberg's assault on Marie David
Strindberg's great hatred of Marie David led to an unmotivated attack on her person in Djurø Søgn in 1891. The page reads that "the Woman Hater" Strindberg hit Marie David in the back and then grabbed her and threw her down the stairs. Source: Silkeborg Avis, 24 October 1891.

Photo: Silkeborg Avis

Close friends

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 ...".

Letter from Marie David to Georg Brandes
Marie David corresponded with Georg Brandes for years. Their mutual letters are a part of Brande's archive in the library's manuscript collection. David began writing Brandes under the impression that he was her father, as her mother had a close relationship with him. Marie David confided in him as her mentor with great veneration. It was difficult for her to ask for help in connection with the feud between her and Strindberg, as the letter evidences. The letter was written on 5 June 1891. You can read the letters in our digital collections.

Photo: Det Kgl. Bibliotek

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.

Photograph of Siri von Essen and drawing of Marie David
There are no publically available photographs of Marie David, as she, being an unknown author, is primarily known as the women who broke up August Strindberg's marriage to Siri von Essen. There are numerous photographs of Siri von Essen, however, as she, in her trade as an actress, appeared in several plays written by Strindberg. Photograph: Augusta Zetterling (1840-1898). Drawing: Valdemar Andersen (1875-1928).

Photo: Det Kgl. Bibliotek

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.