THE TRUTH BEHIND “A DOLL’S HOUSE”
“A woman cannot be herself in modern society. It is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint. I must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement. Without any conscious thought of propaganda, my task has been the description of humanity.”
– Henrik Ibsen on “A Doll’s House.”
“Are you thinking of continuing to write? Much more is needed than mere talent. One must have something to create from, some genuine experience. If one lacks that, one doesn’t write in the true sense, one just makes books. Intellectually, man is a long-sighted animal; we see most clearly from a distance; details distract; one must remove oneself from what one wishes to judge; one describes the summer best on a winter’s day. The main thing is to be true and faithful to oneself. It is not question of willing to go in this direction or that, but of willing what one absolutely must, because one is oneself and cannot be otherwise. The rest is only lies.”
– Letter from Henrik Ibsen to Laura Petersen.
In 1870 Laura Petersen had sent Ibsen a sequel she had written to his play Brand, called Brand’s Daughters, and Ibsen immediately took an interest in the pretty, vivacious girl, nicknaming her “the lark.” He invited her to his home, and for two months in the summer of 1872, she visited him constantly. Then she married Victor Kieler, and gave birth to several children. Years later Laura claimed Ibsen had first used the term “a doll’s house” in reference to her marriage.
But Laura, like Nora, could not remain a doll. Victor Kieler developed tuberculosis, and his doctors warned Laura that he would die unless he moved to a warmer climate for a while. Without her husband’s knowledge, Laura took out a loan to pay for a trip to Italy. The trip cured Victor’s illness, but Laura found herself unable to comply with her creditors’ demands for repayment.
Laura was afraid to inform Victor, who exploded over mere household expenses, that she owed a large sum of money. So she sent Ibsen’s wife a novel she had penned hastily and a letter begging her to persuade Ibsen to have it published. Ibsen refused, insisting that the book was a rush job and inferior to Laura’s previous writings. He wrote to Laura, advising her to tell Victor the truth. Instead Laura tried to get the money she needed by forging a check. But the bank detected her forgery, so she finally had to tell her husband the whole story of the secret debt she had incurred to save his life.
Instead of helping Laura settle the matter, Victor treated her like a criminal and decided she was an unfit wife and mother. When this caused Laura to have a nervous breakdown, he had her committed to a mental hospital and obtained a legal separation from her so that he could remove their children from her care. Laura was released from the asylum after a month. She eventually got back together with Victor despite his cruel betrayal. However, Victor did not allow Laura to see her children for another two years. It was during Laura Kieler’s confinement in an insane asylum that Ibsen began to write the play.
While writing A Doll’s House, Ibsen told his wife he could actually feel Nora’s presence in the room; and that he could sometimes see her and described her blue woolen dress. He said her real name was “Eleanora,” but that she had been called Nora since childhood.
Laura Petersen Kieler returned to her husband and children in Denmark and continued to write novels about her homeland until her death, and tried all her life to escape the identification of being the inspiration for Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House.