The Rector of Veilbye

Steen Steensen Blicher (1782-1848)

By Dorthe Sondrup Andersen, master's degree in literature and culture writer, 2006

A very nasty story indeed 

A person is murdered, the murderer is convicted, the death sentence is carried out, end of story. But the story doesn’t end there. The convicted man’s daughter and her sweetheart will never see each other again, and the prime witness of what is in fact a miscarriage of justice works abroad and doesn’t know anything about what has happened. The real murderer dies peacefully of old age, but is the cause of more deaths many years after his crime. For when the case is unravelled, two people are unable to bear it: the two who at the time didn’t have the slightest idea that they had just been useful idiots in the nasty plan of a cynical man. 

Creeping uneasiness 

Steen Steensen Blicher’s old crime story The Rector of Vejlbye has not lost its thriller qualities thanks to both his narrative style and his insight into the human psyche. Even if he uses strong words such as ‘terror’ and ‘abhorrence’, the short story is completely devoid of words designed to whip up the already heavy atmosphere of terror and abhorrence to new dramatic heights. This creates the creepy uneasiness of the story with Steen Steensen Blicher striking the reader’s emotional chords. 

We all know the fear 

The thought of losing the one we love because of a misunderstanding or being convicted on circumstantial evidence for something we didn’t do is enough to send shivers down our spines. Blicher taps even further into the reader’s fears by playing on the terror of what is hidden deep down in our own hearts. What if we really are guilty of the crime we thought was just a horrible nightmare? Or if we confess to a murder we didn’t commit just because earlier we did something crazy under pressure and then repressed it? 

Actors Johannes Meyer (tv) and Keld Markuslund in the TV theater's performance of The Rector of Vejlbye 1960, directed by Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt. Photo: Danmarks Radio.
Steen Steensen Blicher painted by Diedrich Blicher (1834). Made available by Museum Midtjylland.

Did you know?

Source: John Chr. Jørgensen (red.): Dansk forfatterleksikon. Rosinante, 2001.

The Rector of Vejlbye is a true crime according to the standards of the time, and even the first of its kind in Danish literature. The story is based on a more or less true story, which took place in the early 17th century - ie. long before Blicher's lifetime. Curious crime fans can read "the true story" in E. Pontopiddans Annales ecclesiæ Dannicæ from the 18th century.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Literature, 2006

“...cried aloud, and then I knew that he had been but a tool in the hands of the Devil.” 

This is a story of a miscarriage of justice. A young, inexperienced district judge in East Jutland is forced to pass a death sentence on his father-in-law-to-be, the titular character, after reaching his judgment based on entirely false premises. Through the young district judge’s diary, the reader learns day by day of the progress of the terrible events that ultimately lead to the unjust sentence and subsequent execution. However, the diarist, inexperienced both in law and life, is a victim of systematic fraud, in which the story’s principal villain, Morten Bruus, carries out his merciless revenge on the rector.

The plot revolves around a cunning staging of false accusations, the actual origin of which the naive storyteller is unable to discover. The district judge, the convicted father-in-law and the poor engaged daughter believe they are in the claws of pernicious fate, until – many years after the rector’s execution – it comes to light that human villainy has secretly controlled all the events. Christian devotion is then succeeded – much too late – by insight into powerful, all-controlling evil.
The story, which is a very early example of a Danish crime story, is a virtuoso composition, and the horrifying twist of the story is cleverly hidden, as the naive diarist doesn’t have the panicked imagination to even begin to conceive of the machinations he and the others have been subjected to. The style is full of elegiac pain and comfortless intense drama, and the story is hard to shake off.


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