One Long Variation on the Word "Will"

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Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf achieved her international breakthrough when she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909. At this point, she was already one of the most reputable and respected writers in the Nordic countries. The loss of her beloved childhood home, Mårbacka, resonates as a pain point in her work - a recurring theme that undergoes a number of variations in one novel after another.

And through this essential lack in life, the enforced exile, Lagerlöf, who ostensibly had nothing left to lose, entered a world of memories and retrieved from it an original language which permeated everything she wrote, and which spoke to all social strata and to both children and adults. She wrote that she wanted to be read by all, including the farmwives in rural areas.

And she still is.

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  • Andrén, Ann: Photo manipulation, Selma Lagerlöf. 1992. Private collection
  • Sjöberg, Axel (1866-1950): Landarbejderkvinde med børn, V. Klagstorp, Skåne. 1902. Photo. Nordiska Museet, Stockholm
  • Heilmann, Gerhard: Vignette from the book cover of Niels Holgersens vidunderlige rejse gennem Sverige by Selma Lagerlöf. 1907
  • Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan. c. 1908. Photo. Private colletion

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One Long Variation on the Word "Will"

Written by:  Ulla Torpe

Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) started off as a representative of early modernism but soon turned her back on it. Her narrative style resonates with self-confidence, rhythm, and a magical timbre that is unique in Nordic literature. While there is no lack of banality, sentimentality, moral lecturing, or old-fashioned spookiness, her vigilance whittles the language down to a state that is manageable for both the narrator and the reader.

As a young writer, she thought that the poetry of Johan Ludvig Runeberg and Carl Michael Bellman provided the paradigm that would help her find the choicest material. But one day she had an epiphany on Malmskillnadsgatan in Stockholm: “The whole street rises towards the sky and falls again”. She would find her stylistic footing not in the urban jungle but in the Värmland province of her childhood.

In a 1927 obituary, Lagerlöf called Georg Brandes “one of the most distinguished promoters of my work”. His review in Politiken, a Danish newspaper, gave her the courage to continue writing. Nevertheless, he acquitted himself like a typical male literary critic when he wrote that “the author is an unmarried lady for whom a large area of life, even of life in Värmland and her dreamland, is a closed book [...]. The intimate embraces are as cold as snow at night."

In a 1927 obituary, Lagerlöf called Georg Brandes “one of the most distinguished promoters of my work”. His review in Politiken, a Danish newspaper, gave her the courage to continue writing. Nevertheless, he acquitted himself like a typical male literary critic when he wrote that “the author is an unmarried lady for whom a large area of life, even of life in Värmland and her dreamland, is a closed book [...]. The intimate embraces are as cold as snow at night."

Poets like Esaias Tegnér, Erik Gustaf Geijer, and Gustaf Fröding also had their roots in Värmland, poor and out-of-the-way but with a singular, authentic popular culture. Part of its secret was the confrontation between a population of independent small farmers and the emerging system of rich mill owners and exploited workers, forest owners who felled trees illegally and poor crofters. The vernacular was saturated with ambiguities, laconic comments, and humour based on risqué tall tales, off-colour jokes, and grotesque flights of fancy. With its barbs aimed at the authorities, everyday speech was a means by which the oppressed could maintain their self-esteem.

Andrén, Ann: Photo manipulation, Selma Lagerlöf. 1992. Private collection

Andrén, Ann: Photo manipulation, Selma Lagerlöf. 1992. Private collection

The instability of the milieu in which Lagerlöf was born struck her with the force of an auctioneer’s gavel. Her family eventually lost all they had. Lagerlöf’s childhood home, Mårbacka, was a small estate in the sense that her parents belonged to the gentry and their children were given a ‘refined’ upbringing, but it was a middle-sized farm from an economic and organisational point of view. She encountered every aspect of life that typified a self-subsistent rural household: practical issues surrounding finances, livestock, forestry, and crops, as well as the ethics of close living quarters, self-control, family, and self-sacrifice. She was socialised into a structure that she eventually had to leave behind. Not only did she want to attend teacher’s training college in Stockholm, but the home was auctioned off and she had to support both herself and part of her family. She dreamed constantly of buying the property back. While her beloved father was blamed for the catastrophe, the underlying cause was a region that had been shaken in the late nineteenth century by insolvent mills and failed initiatives in the world iron market.

Author Sven Delblanc wrote condescendingly in the fourth part of  Den svenska litteraturen (Swedish Literature) about Lagerlöf’s attempt to save jobs in her district by starting Mårbacka Havre-Kraft (Mårbacka Oats):

“Swedes preferred Selma’s novels to her gruel; she had to take a deep sigh and return to her desk and the daunting task of being a female Homer. The self-sacrificing Sibyl of Love stood, albeit one leg shorter than the other, with both feet on the ground."

Author Sven Delblanc wrote condescendingly in the fourth part of  Den svenska litteraturen (Swedish Literature) about Lagerlöf’s attempt to save jobs in her district by starting Mårbacka Havre-Kraft (Mårbacka Oats):

“Swedes preferred Selma’s novels to her gruel; she had to take a deep sigh and return to her desk and the daunting task of being a female Homer. The self-sacrificing Sibyl of Love stood, albeit one leg shorter than the other, with both feet on the ground."

Lagerlöf began to develop her literary idiom in Gösta Berlings saga (1891; Eng. tr. The Story of Gösta Berling) against the backdrop of this shattered ideal. The want that she had encountered allowed her to descend into a world of memories and excavate a primeval language that pervaded everything she wrote and that was comprehensible to people from all walks of life, adults and children alike. According to one of her letters, she wanted everyone “in kerchiefs” to read her as well.

If she was born to describe and interpret Värmland, its people and culture, she did not have the chance until well after her thirtieth birthday. At that point she had become a teacher in Landskrona and was supporting her mother and aunt. Gösta Berlings saga provided her with a means to explore her past. The book returns to the life that had once been so dear to her and touches the pain points that are omnipresent in her writing, albeit in differing guises. The pain was triggered by the loss of her home, but had deeper roots in the emotions and instincts of childhood.

The fifth of six children, Lagerlöf was born on the Mårbacka estate in Värmland in 1858. Her father, Lieutenant Gustaf Lagerlöf, came from a line of pastors, and her mother, Louise Wallroth, was the daughter of a rich ironmaster. The third child, a girl, died early. “At some point or other, my family had to [...] produce some kind of true talent. I’m going to assume that it was me, since it’s necessary to believe in yourself. Just imagine that I’ve felt that way about myself ever since I was eight years old. That has been fundamental to my life – not love or family, as for other women."

(Letter no. 7, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

The fifth of six children, Lagerlöf was born on the Mårbacka estate in Värmland in 1858. Her father, Lieutenant Gustaf Lagerlöf, came from a line of pastors, and her mother, Louise Wallroth, was the daughter of a rich ironmaster. The third child, a girl, died early. “At some point or other, my family had to [...] produce some kind of true talent. I’m going to assume that it was me, since it’s necessary to believe in yourself. Just imagine that I’ve felt that way about myself ever since I was eight years old. That has been fundamental to my life – not love or family, as for other women."

(Letter no. 7, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

Nature and Romance

Lagerlöf’s works take a romantic view of nature. Readers are led through dense forests to faraway lakes and deserted beaches where waves roll endlessly in and birds shriek despondently. Her style is that of a tragic fairy tale – birds become avengers (for Märta Dohna in Gösta Berlings saga), the cairn is satisfied, and anyone who violates the Christmas truce between human beings and the animal kingdom are punished with death, as in Osynliga länkar (1894; Eng. tr. Invisible Links). Nature also plays another role in her books; it sustains human life. Rye, wheat, and barley come from the soil, ore from the earth and the sea floor, timber from the forest, and that is where we burn our charcoal. Lagerlöf stored away everything she witnessed while growing up on a farm. Her books never overlook the smallest detail of a rural household. In that sense she was a realist through and through, second not even to August Strindberg in her powers of observation.

The interplay of people and nature was just as important to her; staunchly, but without preaching, she demonstrates how important the environment is to the survival of humankind. That is among the main themes of Gösta Berlings saga. The cavaliers squander and tear down everything that the major’s wife had created – a male (twelve fold male) principle opposes that of female conservation. The elements strike back at those who disregard them. The rapids break through the dams and contribute to the threat of devastation; the drought has disastrous consequences; the fire rages. In alliance with the dying major’s wife, the young countess saves the day and emerges as the new principle of strength whose laws the cavaliers must obey.

Gösta Berlings saga takes place in Värmland around 1820. After having been dismissed from his priesthood, the young, handsome, but alcoholic pastor Gösta Berling joins a group of twelve eccentric “cavaliers”, who live with the “major’s wife at Ekeby.” She is a strong, energetic woman who high-handedly manages her seven properties. After she has been driven from her home, the cavaliers are appointed to govern in her place for a year. They destroy everything she has built up, and bring the whole district down with them. Gösta succeeds in having no fewer than three passionate love affairs during the year, and rehabilitation is called for at every level.

Gösta Berlings saga takes place in Värmland around 1820. After having been dismissed from his priesthood, the young, handsome, but alcoholic pastor Gösta Berling joins a group of twelve eccentric “cavaliers”, who live with the “major’s wife at Ekeby.” She is a strong, energetic woman who high-handedly manages her seven properties. After she has been driven from her home, the cavaliers are appointed to govern in her place for a year. They destroy everything she has built up, and bring the whole district down with them. Gösta succeeds in having no fewer than three passionate love affairs during the year, and rehabilitation is called for at every level.

The Loss of a Home

One of the pain points in Lagerlöf’s writing is the loss of a beloved home. Every book up to and including the novel Liljecronas hem (1911; Eng. tr. Liljecrona’s Home) contains a variation on that theme. Gösta Berlings saga incorporates the conflict into the episode of the auction at Björne. In his fury, the powerful ironmaster Melchior Sinclair arranges to auction off the lovely estate. Everything that reminds him of his daughter Marianne must go. She has sullied the family’s reputation by falling in love with Gösta Berling, the dismissed pastor. At this point, Lagerlöf lays the blame for the loss of the home on Sinclair, homing in on the father-daughter conflict that is another pain point in her fiction. Not until several years later did she place the theme of loss within the context of bankruptcies and mill closures throughout the region.

“If we meet again, you must prevail upon me to tell you the real story of my life, for you don’t know the half of it. It is one long variation on the word ‘will’. It is really as though nothing in me is congenital, but that I have created my own talent by wishing for it. Well, my ambition and rhyming ability are probably congenital, but hardly anything else [...]. It is a story of humiliation, and lots and lots of sunshine will be needed to remove the weight that it has placed on me."

(Letter no. 13, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

“If we meet again, you must prevail upon me to tell you the real story of my life, for you don’t know the half of it. It is one long variation on the word ‘will’. It is really as though nothing in me is congenital, but that I have created my own talent by wishing for it. Well, my ambition and rhyming ability are probably congenital, but hardly anything else [...]. It is a story of humiliation, and lots and lots of sunshine will be needed to remove the weight that it has placed on me."

(Letter no. 13, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

Sjöberg, Axel (1866-1950): Landarbejderkvinde med børn, V. Klagstorp, Skåne. 1902. Photo. Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Sjöberg, Axel (1866-1950): Landarbejderkvinde med børn, V. Klagstorp, Skåne. 1902. Photo. Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Her third book, Antikrists mirakler (1897; Eng. tr. The Miracles of Antichrist), takes place far from the countryside of southwest Sweden, in Sicily, where Lagerlöf had lived for an extended period of time. Once more, the protagonist is forced to leave home. Micaela, a young upper class woman in Catania, finds herself destitute and goes to live in Diamante, which bears a certain resemblance to the real-world Taormina. Her father is to blame; he has become insolvent due to fraud. Lagerlöf’s themes of the loss of a beloved home, the father-daughter conflict, and a betrayal that must be expiated are intertwined again. Micaela internalises her father’s perfidy and thinks that she is at fault. Although Antikrists mirakler is actually a political book that wrestles with socialist ideas in the context of Sicilian poverty and inhumane oppression of children, Micaela’s departure and her father’s unforgiving attitude towards her are the themes that it explores most profoundly and persistently.

“A writer must somehow manage to extract her inner being, which is always an eminent author with endless experience, and let it speak. The words that are dictated in this way are not those that you would have thought of yourself, and it’s a lot more rewarding than relating your own experience.

(Letter no. 6, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

“A writer must somehow manage to extract her inner being, which is always an eminent author with endless experience, and let it speak. The words that are dictated in this way are not those that you would have thought of yourself, and it’s a lot more rewarding than relating your own experience.

(Letter no. 6, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

Lagerlöf’s next two books are Drottningar i Kungahälla (1899; Eng. tr. The Queens of Kungahälla), a collection of historical fiction, and En herrgårdssägen (1899; Eng. tr. From a Swedish Homestead), a short novel. The main plot of the latter revolves again around a property that is about to be lost. Gunnar Hede, a young student and violinist, realises that the family’s old country house is on the verge of insolvency. He interrupts his studies to earn money, and gets involved in business dealings that eventually drive him mad. The novel is a study in mental illness. Lagerlöf suggestively depicts the paranoia and fear of being touched that he experiences. The external framework of the narrative, however, is the dilapidated house, the nature that surrounds it, the annihilation that threatens it, and the isolated women who wait there in trepidation. No longer is the entire blame placed on one man. Now, there is a hint of the economic catastrophe that laid waste to entire farms and mills in the mid- to late nineteenth century.

The book also returns to one of Lagerlöf’s pain points. The mother-daughter conflict is not portrayed as sensationally as in the episode between Märta Dohna and the young countess in Gösta Berlings Saga, but that much more gruesomely. Ingrid descends into the underworld (buried in a coffin) and is miraculously resurrected (by Hede, the mad violinist), only to be brutally torn from her mother-daughter symbiosis (she overhears her foster mother slandering her).

The leave-taking that Lagerlöf describes in Jerusalem, Part 1 (1901; Eng. tr. Jerusalem), her next novel, offers the most magnificent blood-letting of all. An entire district in the Nås parish of Dalecarlia province is shaken; families, spouses, and lovers are separated, and friends shun each other. The book was based on real events. Lagerlöf conducted thoroughgoing research in Nås and Jerusalem, both in archives and on site. With its dexterous composition and well-structured narrative technique, the novel brought her lasting renown and was instrumental in making her the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1909) and to be elected to the Swedish Academy (1914).

While Part 1 of Jerusalem establishes such a distance from its subject that Lagerlöf’s pain points are barely palpable, her powerful connection to the soil literally jumps out from every page. The Ingmarsson clan, whose fate takes up most of the story, seems to be ancient, as though it had sprung out of the earth itself as an extension of plants and trees. The Ingmar Farm represents the patriarchal home in every sense of the word; the Ingmars of every generation have played the role of the parish’s father. Ponderous in temperament and manner, unattractive and sulky in appearance, they are still regarded as the most dependable and persuasive of all the parishoners.

Suddenly, an unprecedented event occurs. A woman – no less than the daughter of Ingmar – abandons the entire enterprise. Neither the family, the dead Ingmarssons, nor the living Ingmar can get her to change her mind. She is determined to sell the farm. Her authority is an even more powerful father figure – God himself. A religious revival has swept over the parish and robbed the earth of its temptation for her. She is off to Jerusalem, and nothing can stop her.

In the final scene of Part 1, the pilgrims are on their way to the railway station. They are accompanied by distressed kinsfolk, many of them weighed down by the pain of separation. Suddenly a cart on which a woman is hidden passes their carriages:

“No one could see her face, for her head was covered with a black shawl[...] Sometimes it would drive past all the other carts and lead the procession; then again it would take the side of the road and let the other teams go by [...] To some of the Hellgumists she became a person they loved, to others one they feared, but to most of them she was some one whom they had deserted.”

The identity of the woman is never disclosed. Jerusalem is the work in which Lagerlöf most effectively depicts the theme of loss and farewell, and this episode reveals the dark truth behind that pain.

Is the woman the narrator herself, a vision conjured up from the subconscious, a wounded voice that wordlessly articulates the agony of separation? Or is she a symbol of feminine vitality? She dominates the stage by virtue of her disguise and mysterious conduct, as well as the supremely and deeply ironic way that she calls the whole venture into question.

Lagerlöf has many literary masks; unspoken and mysterious intimations hover over her works. Is that why she is able to prod and challenge her readers so much? “I speak, I speak, at last I speak. I tell them my secret, and yet I do not tell them.”

From the story “En fallen kung” (A Fallen King) in Osynliga länkar, 1894.

“Do you know what I do then? I pick up the Edda and read the Song of the Sun over and over, and I don’t read it like other people, but let my imagination take wing and search for illustrations, examples of bliss from my own life.”

(Letter no. 38, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

The Return

The notion of returning to one’s origins recurs with ever increasing power in Lagerlöf’s works. Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige 1-2 (1906-1907; Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey through Sweden; Eng. tr. Nils: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and the Further Adventures of Nils Holgersson) was written on behalf of the elementary schools as a geographic and cultural history of Sweden and its various regions. The book is bursting with in-depth knowledge, the style is both educational and gripping, and the subject matter is free of moralising and sermonising. Nils, fourteen years old and maladjusted, turns into a manikin and flies on the back of a gander from one end of Sweden to the other along with wild geese. But at one point he goes astray and winds up at “a small estate.” Suddenly the narrator comes out from behind her mask:

"[...] a woman who thought of writing a book about Sweden, which would be suitable for children to read in the schools[...] It was not such an easy matter for her to go home as one might think, for the estate had been sold to people she did not know[...] She had never imagined that it would be so wonderful to come home! As she sat in the cart and drove toward the old homestead she fancied that she was growing younger and  younger every minute[...] Her father and mother and brothers and sisters would be standing on the porch to welcome her[...] The nearer she approached the place the happier she felt[...] Life had been beautiful in this place.”

 “Do you know what I do then? I pick up the Edda and read the Song of the Sun over and over, and I don’t read it like other people, but let my imagination take wing and search for illustrations, examples of bliss from my own life.”

(Letter no. 38, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

“Do you know what I do then? I pick up the Edda and read the Song of the Sun over and over, and I don’t read it like other people, but let my imagination take wing and search for illustrations, examples of bliss from my own life."

(Letter no. 38, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

Heilmann, Gerhard: Vignette from the book cover of Niels Holgersens vidunderlige rejse gennem Sverige by Selma Lagerlöf. 1907

Heilmann, Gerhard: Vignette from the book cover of Niels Holgersens vidunderlige rejse gennem Sverige by Selma Lagerlöf. 1907

Lagerlöf repurchased the main building at Mårbacka in 1907. The Nobel Prize brought her possession of the entire property, and she decided to manage, with the help of an inspector, the large farm while continuing to write.The return Lagerlöf describes is a three-step process. First comes the scene about Mårbacka, the idealised home, in Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige. Step two is found in En saga om en saga (1908; A Story about a Story). Lagerlöf goes back to the mystical world she created in Gösta Berlings saga and tells of its origins. The third step ties together myth and reality; it is a return at every level – to family, home, and soil; to the world of Gösta Berlings saga; to the time and place of symbiotic warmth, of separation and its pain. Lagerlöf wrote to a friend that Liljecronas hem spoke with “a soft and humble voice”. Posterity appears to have taken her words at face value, because none of her books have been so ignored, even despised. In the winter of 1911, however, a whopping 33,000 copies had been sold, while critics Fredrik Böök and John Landquist showered praise on her.

Lagerlöf repurchased the main building at Mårbacka in 1907. The Nobel Prize brought her possession of the entire property, and she decided to manage, with the help of an inspector, the large farm while continuing to write.

Upon analysis of the novel, Lagerlöf’s self-deprecating words turn out to be coy. The book borrows from the genre and style of folk and fairy tales. The problems of human co-existence make their appearance in disguised form, patterned after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Set in Värmland, the plot features a pastor (the weak king), his wife (the wicked stepmother), his daughter (Snow White), and her helpers and friends (the seven dwarfs). Thus, Lagerlöf ultimately descends to the source of her original anguish. Liljecronas hem is a fierce coming to terms with a mother figure. The novel’s stepmother is archaic in her repulsiveness and villainy. But the veiled reckoning with the father figure is staged no less purposefully. He is beloved, but a betrayer as well.

The Turning Point

Liljecronas hem comprises a network of meanings that point back to the first twenty years of Lagerlöf’s career, above all to Gösta Berlings saga, as well as to the score of productive years she had before her, particularly Kejsarn av Portugallien (1914; Eng. tr. The Emperor of Portugallia), Mårbacka (1922; Eng. tr. Mårbacka), Ett barns memoarer (1930; A Child’s Memoirs), and Dagbok (1932; Diary, Eng. tr. The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf). Liljecronas hem may be modest, but it is integral to Lagerlöf’s oeuvre, a body nestled between its wings. An ordinary rural household serves for the first time as a prototype of the good life, and – as in Gösta Berlings saga – the vital role that women played in that milieu is clearly delineated. Kejsarn av Portugallien illustrates another phenomenon of agrarian society by chronicling the conflict between Jan of Ruffluck Croft, a poor crofter, and Eric of Falla, a well-to-do farmer. Eric’s exploitative ways lead to the tragedy of Jan’s daughter, who is forced to take a position in the city and is driven into prostitution.

In 1910, the magazine Tiden (Time) published a highly controversial article by Social Democrat and literary historian Erik Hedén entitled “The Silent Writers”. The article attacked writers who had started off in the 1890s, primarily Verner von Heidenstam, but including Lagerlöf, for not having publicly supported the general strike of 1909. Considering the position of the socialists with respect to land ownership, which was also debated in the magazine, the reason for Lagerlöf’s silence is fairly obvious. They wanted to eliminate small and medium-sized farms and combine the acreage so that the earth could be tilled more efficiently with modern equipment. That such policies would lead to depopulation of the countryside, the dissolution of traditional culture, and infrastructure problems was not very difficult to figure out. In any case, that is how Lagerlöf looked at it when she wrote “Slåtterkarlarna på Ekolsund” (1912; The Haymakers of Ekolsund), a satirical short story in verse.

In 1910, the magazine Tiden (Time) published a highly controversial article by Social Democrat and literary historian Erik Hedén entitled “The Silent Writers”. The article attacked writers who had started off in the 1890s, primarily Verner von Heidenstam, but including Lagerlöf, for not having publicly supported the general strike of 1909. Considering the position of the socialists with respect to land ownership, which was also debated in the magazine, the reason for Lagerlöf’s silence is fairly obvious. They wanted to eliminate small and medium-sized farms and combine the acreage so that the earth could be tilled more efficiently with modern equipment. That such policies would lead to depopulation of the countryside, the dissolution of traditional culture, and infrastructure problems was not very difficult to figure out. In any case, that is how Lagerlöf looked at it when she wrote “Slåtterkarlarna på Ekolsund” (1912; The Haymakers of Ekolsund), a satirical short story in verse.

Antikrists mirakler sides with socialism, but more as a battle against poverty and injustice than for Marxist theories of class warfare and the abolition of private property. Her return to her childhood home was just as complex and ideologically equivocal as the book itself. The scholarship leaves little doubt that Lagerlöf’s works contain elements of nostalgia, father fixation, and a romantic view of her origins. Important to keep in mind, however, is that she wanted to pursue an ideology that treated the issues of the earth, peace, and women’s rights as intimately connected. By dint of her energy, finances, and initiative, she became the strong yeoman farmer that she had written about in Jerusalem. After 1921, she also had the right to vote, a cause that she had vociferously supported, particularly in a speech entitled “Hem och stat” (1911; Eng. tr. “Home and State”) that she gave to the Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Stockholm.

“The large masterpiece, the good State, will be created by men when they seriously take women as their helpers.”

(From Selma Lägerlöf’s speech in support of women’s suffrage, entitled “Hem och stat” – Home and State, 1911).

“The large masterpiece, the good State, will be created by men when they seriously take women as their helpers.”

(From Selma Lägerlöf’s speech in support of women’s suffrage, entitled “Hem och stat” – Home and State, 1911).

There was a synchronicity between her outward commitment, her inward journey back to family and childhood, and the way that she circled around the pain of separation. Bannlyst (1918; Excommunicated; Eng. tr. The Outcast), her great novel of peace, best exemplifies that phenomenon.

Her letters expressed the hope that the power of disgust would wake people up and open their eyes to the curse of war – which is the very reason that cannibalism is part of the story. The male protagonist is ostracised because he is rumoured to have eaten human flesh during a famine. If that one act is revolting, the book seems to say, how monstrous must war itself be!

When Lagerlöf conceived Bannlyst, she explored the loathing that a young child feels when it is expelled from the symbiotic relationship with its mother. She experienced strong inner pressure. As usual, the book took shape thanks to enormous effort on her part. The act of returning, the journey to the farthest boundaries of the soul, to the edge of repugnance, may be the most distinctive feature of her writing.

When Lagerlöf conceived Bannlyst, she explored the loathing that a young child feels when it is expelled from the symbiotic relationship with its mother. She experienced strong inner pressure. As usual, the book took shape thanks to enormous effort on her part. The act of returning, the journey to the farthest boundaries of the soul, to the edge of repugnance, may be the most distinctive feature of her writing.

The Ultimate Affliction

Lagerlöf wrote of the disability that shaped much of her life. She suffered from a severe limp. Dagbok, which she wrote at the age of seventy-four, offers a razor-sharp portrait of a lame, uncommunicative, and gloomy fourteen-year-old girl who spends some time in Stockholm.

The image of a student she once met crystallises in the erotic vacuum she inhabits. The encounter, which symbolises a woman’s sexual awakening, recurs time and again in Lagerlöf’s works. The erotic episodes are stylised rituals; the young lovers often have students’ features; the women are without exception beautiful, gentle, and graceful – in glaring contrast to the melancholy girl in Dagbok.

Frailty stands alongside melancholy as a kind of “ultimate affliction” among Lagerlof’s female characters. The young countess in Gösta Berlings saga leaves home to have her child all alone; Micaela in Antikrists mirakler is ambivalent about sex; Ingrid in En herrgårdssägen looks forward to death as a respite; Gertrud in Jerusalem gets caught up in revivalism and loses contact with reality after Ingmar betrays her. Similarly, the pastor’s daughter in Liljecronas hem becomes physically immobilised, and a woman suffers public humiliation in “Tösen från Stormyrtorpet” (1913; Eng. tr. “The Girl from Marsh Croft”) when the father of her child denies paternity in court.

In fact, humiliation seems to go hand in hand with sexuality in the lives of Lagerlöf’s young female characters. But victimhood emerges as a possible recourse. Choosing to be a victim exalts them, at least in their own eyes, an utterly complex process. Victimhood functions sometimes as a step on the path that leads out of the gloominess, sometimes as camouflaged revenge.

Herr Arnes penningar (1904; Sir Arne’s Money, Eng. tr. The Treasure) takes up this theme. A tragic story whose style is influenced by Icelandic sagas tells of a pastor (Herr Arne) who is killed along with his entire household by three Scottish mercenaries, after which the only survivor, fourteen-year-old Elsa-Lill, takes matters in her own hands. The gentle manner of Lagerlöf’s goddess of vengeance makes the contrast to the brutal climax that much more glaring. In her sorrow, she gathers every last ounce of her strength; she must betray the man she loves when he turns out to be one of the murderers, but after having her revenge, she chooses to sacrifice herself – to die.

Marianne Sinclair in Gösta Berlings saga experiences a life crisis after losing her beauty and her love, everything that is important to her. But it shows her the way to clear-eyed maturity and a sense of social responsibility that contrasts sharply with her previous mode of being. Her love for Gösta Berling – dangerous sexuality – has been warded off, and she can enter into an adult relationship with accountability to others. The book also contains Lagerlöf’s most ingenious portrayal of the way that sexuality can shatter a woman’s life. The vicissitudes of fortune experienced by the major’s wife at Ekeby, once the beautiful Margareta Celsing, produce passion, exaltation, a fall from grace, social humiliation, public hypocrisy, the “ultimate affliction”, a final effort, and death, the last defeat – not to mention vengeance, the desire to crush those who have humiliated her.

Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan. c. 1908. Photo. Private colletion

Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan. c. 1908. Photo. Private collection

The significance of their encounter cannot be overestimated. They wrote more than 3,200 letters to each other until 1921. Lagerlöf fell deeply in love with Elkan and seemed to undergo an emotional metamorphosis during the early years of their friendship.

Sophie Elkan’s literary hallmark is bizarre, tragic, and psychologically mysterious men from the annals of history: John Hall, an eccentric Gothenburg merchant who ended up as a pauper – John Hall (1899); the deposed King Gustaf IV Adolf – Konungen: En sannsaga (1904; The King: A True Story) and Konungen: I landsflykt (1906; The King in Exile, Eng. tr. An Exiled King. Gustaf Adolf IV of Sweden); and Anckarström the regicide – Anckarström (1910). The anthology Sveriges Nationallitteratur XX (1912; Sweden’s National Literature XX) devoted fifty pages to Elkan’s writing and presented her in great detail. The 1916 edition, though not subsequent ones, of Schück and Warburg’s Ny illustrerad svensk litteraturhistoria (New Illustrated History of Swedish Literature) afforded her a section of her own and stressed her role in revitalising the genre of historical fiction. After that, she vanished from literary history.

Lagerlöf had a memorable year in 1894. That was when she met Sophie Elkan, a woman who had suffered the “ultimate affliction” – she had lost her husband and young daughter ten years before and had been in mourning ever since. It was almost as though Lagerlöf had invented her. At that point, Elkan was a synthesis of the beautiful, gifted, and anxiety-ridden women whom she had sculpted several years earlier in Gösta Berlings saga.

Sophie Elkan’s literary hallmark is bizarre, tragic, and psychologically mysterious men from the annals of history: John Hall, an eccentric Gothenburg merchant who ended up as a pauper – John Hall (1899); the deposed King Gustaf IV Adolf – Konungen: En sannsaga (1904; The King: A True Story) and Konungen: I landsflykt (1906; The King in Exile, Eng. tr. An Exiled King. Gustaf Adolf IV of Sweden); and Anckarström the regicide – Anckarström (1910). The anthology Sveriges Nationallitteratur XX (1912; Sweden’s National Literature XX) devoted fifty pages to Elkan’s writing and presented her in great detail. The 1916 edition, though not subsequent ones, of Schück and Warburg’s Ny illustrerad svensk litteraturhistoria (New Illustrated History of Swedish Literature) afforded her a section of her own and stressed her role in revitalising the genre of historical fiction. After that, she vanished from literary history.

Her literary style was equally transformed. Osynliga länkar, the short story collection that she constantly rewrote in the first few months after meeting Elkan, is more sensual than Gösta Berlings saga. The stories leave the devices and somewhat careless style of her first book behind in favour of linguistic realms that love has placed within her reach.

“But then it’s as though I had been commissioned to write or speak Chinese. What does it mean to write like a woman? Can that be expressed in writing? It must not be sentimental like in Bremer’s day; it must not be – well, I don’t know how it must be. But you must go away with something unprecedented. Or is it something so close that I can’t see it because... I’m totally helpless. I don’t think I’ve ever understood what masculinity and femininity is. I don’t doubt for a minute that femininity should find expression in art as in life, but how?”

(Letter to Elkan, 1894)

“But then it’s as though I had been commissioned to write or speak Chinese. What does it mean to write like a woman? Can that be expressed in writing? It must not be sentimental like in Bremer’s day; it must not be – well, I don’t know how it must be. But you must go away with something unprecedented. Or is it something so close that I can’t see it because... I’m totally helpless. I don’t think I’ve ever understood what masculinity and femininity is. I don’t doubt for a minute that femininity should find expression in art as in life, but how?”

(Letter to Elkan, 1894)

Fury Incarnate

According to an ancient Sumerian myth, the goddess Inanna returned to earth after three days in the underworld. She has flung open the doors between the unconscious and the conscious, no longer denying the dark sisters: hate and fury. She turns the one she hates into a piece of rotten flesh. Lagerlöf does not always transform the ultimate affliction into victory or defeat. Sometimes it is diverted into hate, fury, and finally revenge. In the Löwensköld trilogy, particularly Charlotte Löwensköld (1925) and Anna Svärd (1928), a despised woman is allowed to act on a larger stage and play the spider in a far more intricate net than Märta Dohna in Gösta Berlings saga, the foster mother in En herrgårdssägen, or the step-mother in Liljecronas hem. She is Thea Sundler – a despicable schemer.

“I sit here and wonder whether I miss you. Not yet, I don’t think. I have you with me everywhere, see you and hear you and live with you. Once I can’t do that anymore, I will long for you. In any case, I can’t thank you enough for these past days. You’ll never understand me unless you make up your mind to study reptiles. I need warm and radiant people the way they need sun; they are hypnotists, they are capable of hibernating for months at a time. Now I simply want to say that the only desire of the cold-blooded is for emotion; they can imagine for a moment that they are alive and stand just as high as other animals.”

(Letter no. 12, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

Thea Sundler appears in two volumes of the Löwensköld trilogy, Charlotte Löwensköld and Anna Svärd. But Löwensköldska ringen, the first volume, relates the events on which her role as the goddess of vengeance is based. She represents everything that Lagerlöf regards with utter contempt: hypocrisy, duplicity, and scheming. The frustrated sexuality with which Thea is obsessed distorts her perspective and turns her into a wicked witch who, like the stepmothers of fairy tales, propels the plot forward, forcing Charlotte and Anna, the heroines, to mature under harrowing circumstances that nonetheless temper and strengthen them.

An archaic type of hatred manifests itself in Lagerlöf’s evil female characters. The step-mother in Liljecronas hem is scraggy and grimy when she first makes her appearance. She is like a secretion from the very earth, a disgusting creature, and eventually a monster. Created fifteen years later, Thea is more complex and ill-fated, but a symbol of the same fury incarnate. Sexual frustration seems to be one catalyst of these women’s behaviour. They want to outmanoeuvre the beautiful and virtuous rivals for the object of their desire, and no means are too insidious.

Lagerlöf wrote to Elkan in 1895 (letter no. 91):
“Don’t ever believe that I am cold as ice. Far from it. Passionate to the point [...] indeed, a wild beast lives deep within me. But writing acquaints you with yourself; and now I fully understand why I made the old woman throw the letters in the fire and why Countess Dohan crosses the ice in the dark of night. I constantly wonder why I make my characters do such impossible things, but the simple truth is that I am that way myself."

“[...] after the wedding, the bridal train went to the home of the living groom. They were just as dizzy as when they left [...]. In dizziness and laughter and intoxication. And with all the senses awake. And as happy as young colts. And already unharnessed from the dead and proud to be alive – and furious that the dead wanted to take their joy away from them. But the bride and groom consumed each other, their desire was carnal."

(From Sankta Annas kloster)

“I sit here and wonder whether I miss you. Not yet, I don’t think. I have you with me everywhere, see you and hear you and live with you. Once I can’t do that anymore, I will long for you. In any case, I can’t thank you enough for these past days. You’ll never understand me unless you make up your mind to study reptiles. I need warm and radiant people the way they need sun; they are hypnotists, they are capable of hibernating for months at a time. Now I simply want to say that the only desire of the cold-blooded is for emotion; they can imagine for a moment that they are alive and stand just as high as other animals.”

(Letter no. 12, 1894, to Sophie Elkan)

The wild beast that pops up now and again in Lagerlöf’s letters to Elkan also has destructive tendencies. Her most brutal example of the power that desire holds over its human prey is in an early play entitled Sankta Annas Kloster (St. Anna’s Convent), which was performed in Copenhagen on 30 August 1895 but then disappeared from her repertoire. A bloody wedding takes place in Risteröd. Two bridal trains battle outside the church, killing the bride in one of them and the groom in the other. Morbidly enough, the surviving bride and groom are married. Despite, or perhaps because of, the slaying of their respective spouses, the newly-weds are strongly attracted to each other – something that Lagerlöf does not sweep under the carpet: “In dizziness and laughter and intoxication. And with all the senses awake [...]. But the bride and groom consumed each other, their desire was carnal."

Thea Sundler appears in two volumes of the Löwensköld trilogy, Charlotte Löwensköld and Anna Svärd. But Löwensköldska ringen, the first volume, relates the events on which her role as the goddess of vengeance is based. She represents everything that Lagerlöf regards with utter contempt: hypocrisy, duplicity, and scheming. The frustrated sexuality with which Thea is obsessed distorts her perspective and turns her into a wicked witch who, like the stepmothers of fairy tales, propels the plot forward, forcing Charlotte and Anna, the heroines, to mature under harrowing circumstances that nonetheless temper and strengthen them.

“[...] after the wedding, the bridal train went to the home of the living groom. They were just as dizzy as when they left [...]. In dizziness and laughter and intoxication. And with all the senses awake. And as happy as young colts. And already unharnessed from the dead and proud to be alive – and furious that the dead wanted to take their joy away from them. But the bride and groom consumed each other, their desire was carnal."

(From Sankta Annas kloster)

The play was never published. Lagerlöf may have realised that the time was not yet ripe for such explicit sexuality. Instead, restrained passion pervades her writing. “I tell them my secret, and yet I do not tell them.”

Lagerlöf has many literary masks; unspoken and mysterious intimations hover over her works. Is that why she is able to prod and challenge her readers so much? “I speak, I speak, at last I speak. I tell them my secret, and yet I do not tell them.”

From the story “En fallen kung” (A Fallen King) in Osynliga länkar, 1894.

The revenge theme is central to Herr Arnes penningar, and in Antikrists mirakler, too, Lagerlöf joins forces with an ancient tradition of revenge. In one episode, a woman broods for twenty years before exacting vengeance. Frequently, revenge and hate trickle out like a kind of residue, cloaked in ostensible ingenuousness. But they are no less frightening in naive guise. The text purports one thuth, but the deeply ironic content indicates the opposite. This is how vengeance often operates in Mårbacka, an apparently idyllic story of childhood, and even more so in Ett barns memoarer. But Dagbok för Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (1932; Eng. tr. The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf), her last great work, offers the most powerful experience of such a complex. Selma, a lonely, unhappy fourteen-year-old girl, is abandoned by Daniel, her older brother, after he takes her with him to Uppsala to celebrate the spring. She also walks with him in Stockholm. She has difficulty keeping up because of her limp, and a strange boy has just called her a cripple: “Daniel was kind and in a good mood; he was intrigued by the pretty Stockholm women in their spring attire. Most of all he was enchanted by their dainty little feet and stylish shoes, and the best thing he could say about a young woman was that she walked well [...]. I’m quite sure that’s what he really meant and that he didn’t talk so much about shoes and walking in order to tease me."

The style is sedate, the narrator benign and understanding, conciliatory to the point of absurdity – and painful and deeply ironic. Lagerlöf’s old rage is still smouldering.

Translated by Ken Schubert