Pure Victoriana, the idealized love of the unattainable maiden, is the crux of this novel illustrating the sensibilities that informed the writing of the 1890s. This carefully constructed psychological study reads almost like a fable, the protagonist viewing the world through the distance of class and opportunity. Johannes is the son of a mill owner, trapped in a society that separates him from the children of a prominent family.
Watching covetously from afar, fourteen-year-old Johannes witnesses the adventures of those who live in the local manor - what he thinks of as “The Castle” - their fairy tale lives a far cry from his daily labors, the pampered children of wealth frolicking on the Norway coast. Johannes is fascinated by Victoria, in awe of her beauty although she is only ten years old. Like the others, Victoria treats him like a servant, someone to do their bidding but never part of their social circle. A dreamer, Johannes writes the poetry that will define his youth, inspired by Victoria and his secret yearning for her affection.
As the years pass, Victoria is not immune to Johannes’ charms, frequently indulging in repartee, encouraging the love she knows is blossoming. To Victoria, this flirtation is amusing, knowing as she does that their romance can never come to fruition given the vast differences in their backgrounds and social status. Johannes nurtures his secret love, writing to assuage the pain, but leaves home the better to endure an unrequited love.
Meeting with some success abroad, Johannes pens poetry and novels, his longing heart comforted by his fantasies. Ever practical, Victoria struggles with family obligations and eventually becomes engaged to a young man of means. After his return, Victoria is surprised by the power of her reaction to Johannes. Now a man of the world, Johannes is less constrained than in his youth, hoping that Victoria will finally entertain his affections, but her response is ambiguous, the message unclear.
The scenes repeat themselves in an interesting construct, reality and Johannes’ imagination evolving in a unique “sequence of episodes” as Victoria pushes and pulls Johannes in a private tug-of-war. Regardless of time or unfolding events, Johannes remains Victoria’s prisoner, acting out their drama over and over without resolution, erotic impulse governed by psychological constraints. The beloved never escapes from the imagination, the wanting more powerful than the deed could ever be.
To the end, Johannes’ inspiration is inextricable from his yearning, the passion for Victoria giving birth to his talent, the unavailability of his muse a catalyst that informs his prolific work, a perpetual source of unfulfilled adoration. Johannes exists in his fantasy world, destined to dance forever on the edge of unrequited romance, the lover always out of reach.