Anna-Leena Harkonen



Keith Bremner


When Aino Met Jean

I recently read a biography of Aino Sibelius, the wife of composer Jean Sibelius. The book included a great deal of the correspondence between Aino and Jean. I wasn’t expecting a book of this type to make me laugh aloud—or to sometimes irritate me.

The old-fashioned language in their letters is fascinating. Indulging is a euphemistic expression for getting drunk with the buddies. Indulging was inspiring for the great composer: it gave him much-needed impressions for his work.

When the couple was still engaged, Aino was not worried about his drinking. Jean had realized that proposing a toast to her was always a viable excuse for drinking. “Thank you for the toast you proposed in my honor, and thank you for thinking of me, my dear,” Aino writes in one of her letters. Such innocence!

LATER HIS DRINKING caused discord. Once, when Aino asked Jean when he would be back from the bar, he replied: “How should I know? I am a composer, not a fortune-teller!”

With all its gentleness, his attitude toward his wife was patronizing at times. “Dear friend, please do not bother your beautiful head with thoughts of emancipation,” he writes. “A girl like you should only love and be happy, take care of herself, and learn the art of waiting.”

And Aino mastered that art. “I have no other life than yours,” she confesses in one of her letters. Good heavens! Jean also seemed to expect that Aino should always be happy, which feels unreasonable to say the least.

Aino gave birth to six daughters and worked as a translator to support the family. Judging from the book, she had no artistic ambitions of her own. “You play the leading role in our marriage,” she wrote to Jean. Help!

PERHAPS I’M JUST JEALOUS of such an ability to surrender unconditionally. Modern experts might call it codependency. On the other hand, I think some degree of dependency is an element of love.

I have imagined Aino and Jean attending a couples counseling camp, perhaps on a reality show. What would the psychologist tell them? Whatever that might be, Jean would probably be overcome with a sudden urge for indulging.

Aino was more conservative than her friends. They thought she “felt inferior to men because she belittled herself.”

“Everyone is now smitten with emancipation,” Aino complained. “Yet they do not even understand what the whole idea is about.”

ROMANCE WAS ANOTHER story. Aino was virtuous, inexperienced in the desires of the flesh, but Jean chivalrously promised that he would “take care of that side.” And he did—so diligently that he caught a disease in Vienna. But he was very possessive of her. How come this sounds so horribly familiar?

Jean occasionally felt self-destructive in the throes of the creative process. This made her sad. “I would like to kiss you until your heart feels lighter,” she writes. Even though Jean was self-centered, as many artists tend to be, he seems to have been genuinely concerned about her well-being.

Sometimes he escaped her bouts of depression abroad because the atmosphere at home was so dark and heavy. Has anything really changed here? The man can always take a break, while the woman stays home with the kids.

DESPITE AINO’S DOTING, Jean was unsure of his powers of attraction. “I have been agonizing over my weight again,” he writes. “Obesity takes so much away from one’s more poetic qualities.”

Touching. They stayed together until death did them part.

By Anna-Leena Harkonen

Published with permission from Rights & Brands

New Terrain Press 2024. All rights reserved.

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