Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson - picture from "Bibliothek des allgemeinen und praktischen Wissens. Bd. 5" (1905), Abriß der Weltliteratur, page 57. (Wikimedia commons).
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson - picture from "Bibliothek des allgemeinen und praktischen Wissens. Bd. 5" (1905), Abriß der Weltliteratur, page 57. (Wikimedia commons).

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was a Norwegian writer who in 1903 received the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. His books were read widely outside Norway, particularly in Germany, and he was a prominent public intellectual both in Norway and abroad. What is probably not commonly known, however, is that Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was a gay rights pioneer. The Norwegian poet and nation builder was one of the first European celebrities to publicly defend homosexuality. Already in 1891 Bjørnson wrote in the newspaper Dagbladet that homosexuals are not amenable to punishment. He regrets not bringing up the topic two years earlier, in 1899, when the penal law was debated and revised in Stortinget (the Norwegian parliament). Bjørnson claimed that sexual acts between men stemmed from an inclination that was "strong and deep-rooted", and that there was overwhelming evidence to abolish the criminal law against "Humans, who wander a sexual byway (there are so many)".

In December 1901 he became internationally known as a defender of homesexual rights by supporting the german sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld's campaign against § 175 in the German penal code, which criminalized sex between men. In a letter to Bjørnson, Hirschfeld explains that it is about the liberation of a certain class of humans, those who fall in love with their own sex. He furthermore writes:

Kraft-Ebing, Moll, the most famous physicians who have studied this question, have reached the conclusion that prohibiting the practice of this disposition is an injustice; that man should not forsake practicing one of his innate natural desires, as he does following § 175 in our penal code; that in all countries where such a prohibition does not exist, this homosexual, i.e. same-sex love, is not more common than in countries where it is threatened by severe punishment.

Bjørnson did not hesitate to answer. Two days later he wrote back from Aulestad, Norway, in German: "Most honored sir! For more than 20 years I have been of the same opinion as you, and had I been German, I would have provided my signature. Loyally yours, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson." The following year, Bjørnson's reply was printed in Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (Annals of sexual intermediates), a channel for the German homosexual rights movement that Hirschfeld started in 1897.

Clemens Petersen

Bjørnson was a man of friendships with a good sense for what was called romantic friendship, an asexual relation close to what we often call platonic love. Bjørnson's most intense relation was with the Danish critic Clemens Petersen: "Thank you, you are half my life!" Bjørnson wrote to Pedersen in 1865. They met in Copenhagen the summer of 1865 and quickly developed a close relationship. Their letters are full of bombastic emotional outbursts and intense assurances of a very special friendship: "Never have I witnessed a comprehension as great as yours of what friendship is" and "Dear, good friend, so tender and soft, finer than a woman ...", Bjørnson wrote. Whereas Petersen replied: "when you touch me, I spark".

In 1869 events take place that reveal Clemens Petersen's deviating sexuality, and he flees Denmark, first for Vienna and then the USA. The until then highly regarded critic is defended by no one – except Bjørnson, who also helped Petersen with money for his trip. Right after the scandal he said: "Clemens Petersen has from the beginning been of exceptional use and blessing through his noble, rich intercourse", and the year after: "that I have loved and love with my greatest affection". Bjørnson also suggested, on several occasions, that Petersen should move to Aulestad, and be his secretary.

Clemens Petersen is strongly complicit in Bjørnson changing the first edition of Arne (1859) to make the main character more masculine and the end more probable. Bjørnson had to make it clear that Arne had erotic feelings for Eli, and that he married her. Earlier Arne had namely not cared for girls, but waited in vain for letters from his best friend Kristian who had gone to America. He did not know that his mother hid the letters from Kristian, and even took the money that was meant to cover Arne's travel expenses. Arne is still an interesting read, also in the substantially edited version we know today.

Ivar Bye

Actor and theater personality Ivar Bye had been so in love with an older friend that he went to prison for him. Bjørnson felt sorry for the former convict and took care of him. In the fall of 1857, violonist and composer Ole Bull asked Bjørnson to become artistic leader of Det Norske Theater [The Norwegian Theater] in Bergen. Bjørnson accepted the offer and sent money to Ivar Bye, asking him to follow. Bye died in 1863, only 39 years of age, while Bjørnson was visiting Bergen. His death was made public by Bjørnson and another friend. At Bye's deathbed, Bjørnson promised himself to one day tell the full story of Bye's life. However, because of the theme, Bjørnson had to wait.

In 1894 Bjørnson finally published the story Ivar Bye, a portrait of the beautiful man whose mouth could

"[smile] erotically with a gleam of splendid teeth in a wide circle. These grey eyes and the mouth served him well, ceaselessly conquering men and women, young and old. But quietly. [...] they noted his handsome gait, as they felt its pleasant rhythm. Never had anyone anywhere seen him in the foreground: but where he caught their eye, he attracted the finest of natures."

Bjørnson wrote a poem for Ivar Bye in 1861, Alone and repentant, which begins as follows

A friend I possess, whose whispers just said,
 "God's peace!" to my night-watching mind.
When daylight is gone and darkness brings dread,
  He ever the way can find.
(translation by Arthur Hubell Palmer, 1915)

H. C. Andersen

Before Bjørnson met the Danish poet Hans Christian Andersen in Rome in 1861, Clemens Petersen had told Bjørnson about Andersen: "We met each other at a party and we have understood each other." Despite their large difference in age, Andersen 56 and Bjørnson 28, their meeting was cordial: "Naturally, I fell quite incomparably in love with him, and I believe it was mutual. There were stories and blabbering without end." Bjørnson writes to Petersen.

Bjørnson isn't afraid of flattering and "cuddling" him, and admits that thinking of him makes him warm inside: "Here in myself you bloom in spite of winter, and I have sunshine and warmth in spite of distance." And then follows the declaration of love: "I love you, almost as a young girl, I adore your faults, your foolishness." H.C. Andersen is more careful, but is not afraid to declare himself as "blød" [soft]: "I belong to the soft animals [translators note: the Danish blød-dyrene usually refers to molluscs], if I may. You will then understand my feelings." Later Andersen writes – now with informal pronouns [nuances not directly translatable]: "You walk your path, the one your nature dictates [...] I understand your whole spirit, you are soft, like you are intense."

The mystery of friendship

In Bjørnson's time the bounds for acceptable masculinity were different. Strong expressions of friendship were not uncommon between men, and could not be misunderstood. Bjørnson "loved" his friends. He loved getting lost in the idolization of friends, which he called falling in love. He had a relentless need for friends – "I need friends, attentive, warm friends!" Bjørnson specialist Per Amdam claims that Bjørnson's unusual need for friends comes from his extroverted character, and a strong libido that reinforced his desire to make contact. This is why Bjørnson idolizes romantic friendships with other men, be it Clemens Petersen, Ivar Bye or H.C. Andersen. Notably, all three of these also fell in love with other men, but in an entirely different manner. Maybe this is why Bjørnson pled the case for homosexuals?

These are glimpses of a side to Bjørnson not very well known, but Bjørnson was a socially engaged and versatile personality. He was both the unprejudiced and socially aware poet, the understanding and loyal friend, the generous and warm expert judge of character, and the infatuated and impulsive letter writer. He wrote about himself: "I am, as you know, of an incurably 'sentimental', 'soft', 'female' nature."


Translated from Norwegian by Simon Mitternacht


Bjørnson, Bjørnstjerne. 1859. Arne. Bergen: H.J. Geelmuydens Enke.

Bjørnson's short story Ivar Bye (1894) can for example be read in: Bjørnson, Bjørnsterne. 1932. Bind X (Volume 10) of Samlede værker (collected works). Oslo: Gyldendal.

Gatland, Jan Olav. 2002. Mitt halve liv. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnsons vennskap med Clemens Petersen – og andre menn. Oslo: Kolofon.

Palmer, Arthur Hubell. 1915. Poems and Songs by Björnstjerne Björnson - Translated from Norwegian in the Original Meter. London: Humphrey Milford.

Magnus Hirschfeld's letter to Bjørnson in 1901 and Bjørnson's answer are for example available here