The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff


Inspired by the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener and his California-born wife, this tender portrait of a marriage asks: What do you do when someone you love wants to change?  It starts with a question, a simple favour asked of a husband by his wife on an afternoon chilled by the Baltic wind while both are painting in their studio.  Her portrait model has cancelled; would he slip into a pair of women’s shoes and stockings for a few moments so she can finish the painting on time?  Of course, he answers.  Anything at all.  With that one of the most passionate and unusual love stories of the twentieth century begins.1

Though it is not a topic I’ve done any research on at all I can’t say I’ve ever heard of the story of Lili Elbe or Einar Wegener before.  When I saw the preview for the film I knew it would be something worth watching and when I had the chance to listen to the audiobook before seeing the film I took the chance.  There are always differences between a book and its movie adaptation, but I wasn’t expecting this.

Greta Wegener came from a very promonant family in California who made their fortune from orange groves.  While her family had a very clear image of what a girl of her status should be, Great was very head strong and would do as she pleased.  Greta was an aspiring painter who mainly did portraits but was relatively unknown.  She was first introduced to Einar Wegener when she attended an art school in Copenhagen where Einar was a teacher.  Einar was a small quiet man who had soft features and great talent for landscapes.  Planning a party for her 18th birthday while living in Copenhagen, Greta needed to find an escort for her party or face having her twin brother take her to their party.  Taking it upon herself Greta approached the timid Einar and made her intentions known.  Einar could only stumble on a response and say that it would be best if she were to simply forget him.  Before she can even have her party, her parents chose to take the family back to America to escape the war.  Although Greta sent many letters to Einar he simply responded with the same suggestion that it would be better off to forget him.

A few years later Greta had married an artist from America, but after his premature death she returned to Copenhagen to explore her art once again, though this time on her own without her family.  Greta sought out Einar Wegener once again and the two married.  While the two did not have much of a sexual relationship they lived companionably spending their days painting together.  Einar was well known for his landscape paintings, but Greta was still struggling to find the right subject matter to catch the publics attention.  Attempting to complete a commissioned portrait under a timeline Greta requested Einar’s help by putting on the stockings and shoes of her client to finish the painting on time.  Einar was uncomfortable with the request and was confused by his conflicting emotions while wearing the pieces of women’s clothing.  Greta always knew Einar was a pretty man, but while wearing pieces of women’s clothing it was easy to see how he could also be a pretty woman.  Taking inspiration from a flower in the studio, Greta dubbed this new version of Einar as Lili.  Little did Greta know that the transformation would unlock something that has been wanting to break free from within Einar.  Lili became Greta’s new inspiration that helped to bring her into the limelight and became well known for her Lili paintings.

The Danish Girl is based on the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener who became the first man to receive gender reassignment surgery.  The story explores the relationship between Greta and Einar, though much of their story and history is fiction.  Greta Wegener was actually known as Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb and grew up in Denmark.   She did in fact marry Einar and the tale of him wearing the stockings is said to be true.  Einar did undergo the gender reassignment surgeries, but was the second person in history to have done so, not the first as the hype around the story would suggest.

Greta, or Gerda, is just as unique as Einar/Lili with a history and story worth telling.  Gerda was known for her erotic paintings and caused quite a stir in the art community when it was revealed that her husband Einar was the true face behind her Lili paintings. Unfortunately, this is not the story we get in The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff.  Instead we get a young headstrong girl from America who came from a wealthy family.  Always looking for the attention and to be in the spotlight, Greta’s intentions with Einar could be questionable, especially when she seems to push the persona of Lili onto Einar to help boost her own career.  Though Gerda had been known for her erotic paintings and this would have added something more interesting to the story, we get a very different fictional telling of Greta, her American origins and her twin brother who helps Einar to see doctors to find out what is wrong with him.  Greta’s story becomes more of a time filler and time waster as if the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe wasn’t enough to be able to write a whole story of its own.

I was confused by the relationship of Greta and Einar and all the conflicting information and details between fiction and reality that made me really question the story.  We can only assume that much of the true details of Gerda and Einar’s history has been lost over time forcing the author to create a fictional backstory, but surely something more fitting and interesting could have been concocted?  Book summaries are usually full of spoilers and embellishments, but to say there was any sort of passion in this story would be the boldest piece of fiction as passion was something the story was truly lacking.

While I did not care for the story I was still really looking forward to the movie and to see Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe.  If interested in more of the story of Einar/Lili I would suggest reading the story Man Into Woman which was published in 1933 after the death of Lili and includes excerpts from Lili Elbe’s personal diaries.  This at least would hold some more truth and would probably be a much more interesting read.


  1.  Book summary courtesy of Hoopla book summary.

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