An Essential Project

Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie in Denmark.


By Ph.D. Benedikte F. Rostbøll

“Time, listen to my song!” was the urgent entreaty written by Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran – one of the major and defining figures in Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie – in a poem penned in 1918. Reviewers of her day listened but reluctantly and with disbelief to this “overwrought woman” and her groundbreaking, modernist poems. The response to Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie, published seventy-five years later over the period 1993 to 1998, was one of far greater interest in and openness to women’s literary expression and also to the literary-historical treatment of their writings. And by the time the fifth volume hit the bookshops, in 1998, a broad spectrum of reviewers had discussed, problematised, and evaluated the project in the national press, in local newspapers, and in a number of cultural and literary journals. Taken as a whole, the reviews provide an interesting insight into the competing theories and methodologies prevalent in the 1990s.

Despite some undisguised instances of loud hostility and sharp retorts, Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie was generally well received. The reviewers point out that there are problems and paradoxes inherent in writing a women’s own history of literature, but by and large all the reviewers agree that Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie is an absolutely necessary pioneering project, an ambitious, innovative, and splendid publication both in terms of form and of content. The reviewers recognise the necessity of making the “women writers the main characters of a story in which they have hitherto been marginalised”, as we read in chief editor Elisabeth Møller Jensen’s preface to the first volume. Now the house of Nordic women’s literature has been erected and rendered visible, and following publication of this impressive work of scholarship it will no longer be possible to exclude women when literary history is being written or when literature is being taught.

The reviewers are also in agreement about three other valuable features of the work. Firstly, the one hundred contributors to Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie have succeeded in constructing a fresh take on literature. When told through women’s literary texts, we read a different story to the one told in authorised male history of literature. “Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie has given us a completely new approach to literature. Not a strict paternal one, but a passionate one,” writes Anna Skyggebjerg enthusiastically in the journal CekvinaNyt (3/1993). And Susanne Bjertrup seconds this in the newspaper Weekendavisen (16 April 1993): “The project has been to read women’s texts independently of the male tradition in the hope that new structures would emerge along the way. And this has succeeded.” The woman’s angle dispels the conventional literary historical periods and calls for a new canon: “It is refreshing and instructive to see traditional literary periods identified by means of completely different names and texts, and to some extent the defining moments also diverge from the usual ones,” concludes Flemming Lundgreen-Nielsen in the journal Danske Studier (6/1996). And in the daily newspaper Berlingske Tidende (5 December 1996) Jens Andersen states that the history of women’s literature shifts “the consensus and pact known as ‘the literary canon’”.

Secondly, Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie is invaluable as cultural-historical documentation of the lives and creative work of women writers from the Middle Ages up until the modern day. The project “is of great historical value in reflecting women’s thoughts, experiences, and circumstances,” writes Anne Mørch-Hansen in the journal Kultur og Klasse (2/1994), and in the newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad (11 June 1993) Lars Arndal characterises volume one as “a competent, comprehensive, and ambitious work of documentation”.

Thirdly, the pan-Nordic perspective is almost unanimously praised. The juxtaposition of material from the Nordic countries opens up for completely new and surprising connections and hitherto unseen parallel developments and correlations between writers. “One of the strong points of women’s literature is that it finds connections, shared Nordic trends: Victoria Benedictson’s Pengar (Money), Amalie Skram’s Constance Ring and Adda Ravnkilde’s Judith Fürste were all published in the mid-1880s. The desire to take off ‘the corset of the mind’ becomes apparent when the women writers are placed shoulder to shoulder and are viewed from the vantage point of a committed female consciousness,” maintains Eva Pohl when reviewing volume two in Berlingske Tidende (11 September 1993). Writing in the newspaper Information (27 November 1997), Jørn Erslev Andersen adds: “One of the major and exciting possibilities revealed by the history of women’s literature is the option of cutting across the boundaries of national literature from the Nordic countries.”

The reviewers are in agreement and rapt delight about the inviting and exquisite visual presentation and the overall design of the volumes. There is also broad agreement that the work is well-written and that it is presented with an infectious commitment that motivates reading for enjoyment and further thought. A lengthy list of reviewers, also those who are more negative, praise the value and quality of the project as work of reference – often above its quality as compilation and general survey. Of volume two, Jørn Erslev Andersen concludes in Information (9 November 1993) that it will “henceforth serve as a provocative, informative, and essential work of reference”, and in Politiken newspaper (27 November 1997) Marie Tetzlaff writes: “As far as I can see, this history of literature makes its mark less as a collation and synthesis than as a work of reference.”

To this extent the reviewers are in general agreement, but in other respects reaction to Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie is one of polarisation in the sense that the same phenomenon is often evaluated both positively and negatively. For example, writing in the journal Nordica (11/1994), Lise Præstgaard Andersen judges the exclusively female perspective to be totally justified and leading to new insights, whereas John Christian Jørgensen, one of the work’s most tenacious adversaries, maintains a fundamental resistance to the work’s programmatic exclusion of male writers. Keeping men and women apart in the world of literature is a spurious approach, he states, and under the heading “An Aquarium of Women” he considers it an “unproductive exploit” to “round up all the women writers and cram them into one and the same aquarium” (Ekstra Bladet newspaper, 6 December 1996).

Looking at the gender of reviewers over the five-year period during which the volumes were published, there are relatively equal numbers of men and women writing for the newspapers – with a small preponderance of men. When it comes to journals, however, women far outnumber the men – there being only two male reviewers (Flemming Lundgreen-Nielsen in Danske Studier 6/1995 and Finn Hauberg Mortensen in Kultur og Klasse 1/1995). The well-known male university professors and lecturers first enter the fray in connection with volumes three, four, and five. Following publication of volume one, a number of the reviewers are of a younger generation than the writers and editors working on Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie. The general tendency for these younger reviewers – Marianne Stidsen, Charlotte Engberg, Marianne Raakilde Jespersen, and Lars Bukdahl, among others – is to be more critical of the basic theoretical and methodological approach in Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie than are reviewers from the same generation as the scholars involved with the project.

Publication of volume one, I Guds navn 1000-1800 (1993; In God’s Name), was a newsworthy event and the book was welcomed by a chorus of enthusiastic reviewers. Of the five volumes, the first one received the best critical response. The scholars are praised for their ability to present new material and for their willingness to communicate with a broad readership, and the book is commended for its new way of looking at cultural history and for its readable, captivating, and vigorous style. The volume is also praised for its open structure and many untraditional and innovative analyses. The portrayal of the individual writers’ literary texts comes in for special praise – here the book really does live up to its title as history of literature. A good many reviewers point out – also in connection with the other volumes – that the strength of the project lies in not being prescribed by an overarching theory about women’s literature. Women’s literature is presented in an undogmatic fashion and on the terms of the texts themselves.

In the midst of all the enthusiasm, however, there was no absence of critical questions and objections. Criticism centred on two aspects: literary history as a discipline in relation to the issue of literary quality, and in addition the basic dilemmas of women’s studies. Many critics point out that large sections of volume one seem more like cultural and social history than literary history. Anne Mørch-Hansen explains: “Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie is not exclusively about the women writers’ texts. When it comes to the older texts and the oral narrative tradition (anonymous authors), it is not purely about literature, but just as much about cultural history” (Kultur og Klasse 2/1994). Some critics are pleased with this expansion of the literary-historical perspective. Thus Jørn Erslev Andersen is of the opinion that the work “brilliantly enlarges the sphere that has been labelled literary history” (Information, 16 April 1993). And Anne Fastrup considers a raison d’être for volume one as cultural history to be fully legitimate too: “If only for exposing aspects of Nordic cultural history that have hitherto been more or less left in the dark, this women’s literary history project is more than welcome” (Kritik journal 102/1993). A good many critics are in agreement with Tania Ørum, however, in thinking that Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie has “theoretical problems in drawing the boundaries between literary history and cultural history” and, most explosively, that it also has problems in determining “the relationship between literary quality on the one side and sociological or cultural interest on the other side” (Kvinder, køn og forskning journal 3/1993). In other words, these critics are calling for an open discussion about the reasons for including the individual women in Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie – due to their literary qualities, or more for reasons of cultural history and gender politics? These critics also want more focus on the literary texts, they want close readings of the writers’ works – and in the same breath they also call for the women writers to be seen in relation to their contemporary male writers.

A few of the critics point out that a history of women’s literature cannot avoid running into some of the basic dilemmas of women’s studies. Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie puts women’s studies firmly on the map, and in so doing it loses its option to be subversive, a quality that has otherwise been its hallmark and raison d’être: “It is no easy matter to create a profile as established body while keeping the role of subversive, to be a self-evident participator while simultaneously maintaining a critical distance,” writes Tania Ørum in Kvinder, køn og forskning (3/1993). And Flemming Lundgreen-Nielsen is similarly of the opinion that volume one strikes up “the female paradox”: “the impossibility of combining integration within the male world with preservation of female identity – which has always been the lot of women writers” (Danske Studier 6/1995 ). A number of critics mention that by assigning women their own literary history, the woman is paradoxically kept in the role of ‘the Other’, the singular and marginalised.

The second volume – Faderhuset (1993; House of the Father)– covering the nineteenth century gets a more mixed reception, as do the remaining three volumes in the series. There is still enthusiasm for the project, and a number of reviewers consider volume two to be a distinguished continuation of volume one by virtue of bringing to light forgotten or neglected women writers from Romanticism and the Modern Breakthrough, and thanks to its pertinent and entertaining style. The composite structure and broad cultural-historical perspective are pointed up as strengths. The pan-Nordic perspective is again noted as an asset, considered particularly fruitful in relation to nineteenth-century literature: “In the second volume, covering the nineteenth century, intellectual liberation features as a common Nordic tendency,” writes Eva Pohl in Berlingske Tidende (9 November 1993). One of the enthusiastic reviewers of volumes one and two, Poul Borum in Ekstra Bladet, is pleased to see that volume one is sustained by “knowledge and expertise and good writing”, and he gives it four appreciative stars out of five (Ekstra Bladet, 16 April 1993). In his review of volume two, Poul Borum raises this to five stars and states that Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie represents a huge step forward in the genre of literary history because, among other things, it focuses on the women writers’ self-perception, whereas the publishing house Gyldendal’s Marxist history of Danish literature, for example, mostly dealt in an unintentionally comic way with the writers’ lack of self-perception (Ekstra Bladet, 16 April 1993). Poul Borum points out that in Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie the women writers have been elegantly matched with “equal partners”, given that the women scholars exploring their literary output are of just as high a calibre in their fields as the women writers are in theirs.

Despite the appreciative words, a number of objections to the basic methodological and theoretical approaches to the project start cropping up. With an article in Kritik (106/1993), Marianne Stidsen accounts for probably the hardest and most polemic attack on Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie. Her article is interesting testimony to a shift in theoretical and methodological orientation, a shift that occurs during the lengthy fulfilment of the venture. Stidsen calls the entire nature of the project into question and accuses the work of having a one-sided view both in terms of theme and history of mentalities. Although promised, the project does not manage to specify any distinguishing attribute coming from the pens of women. Stidsen’s solution to this problem is a form-oriented, text-oriented and gender-neutral approach to literature. The sooner the better! In general, the critics perceive the methodology of Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie as an expanded thematic and biographical approach combined with ‘archaeological’ and documentarist women’s and gender studies. As publication of the volumes proceeds, Marianne Raakilde Jespersen in CekvinaNyt (1/1998) and Jørn Erslev Andersen in Information (9 November 1993), to name but two, become increasingly eager to see this methodology supplemented by post-feminist and form-oriented lines of approach.

The reviewers commend volume three – Vide verden 1900-1960 (1996; Wide World) – for being a captivating and winning narrative tracing the formation of a new and expansive female self in the early twentieth century. The project is still seen as an inspirational innovation in the genre of literary history. Now, however, the reviewers intensify their calls for evaluation of quality and text-based analyses. Charlotte Engberg draws the conclusion that “this literary history would gain from keeping the angle directed at the individual work of literature and, in continuation thereof, venture to pass some aesthetic judgements” (Kvinder, køn og forskning  3/1997). In Weekendavisen (6 December 1996) an otherwise favourably disposed Søren Schou complains about the tendency to a degree of levelling things out in terms of quality, and he illustrates what he means: “Thus we get no sense of the considerable difference in quality between, for example, a Thit Jensen and a Sonja Hauberg.”

Upon publication of volume four – På Jorden 1960-1990 (1997; On Earth) – the polarised reception becomes very pronounced. This volume looks at the 1970s, a controversial decade in terms of its literature and a decade that figures prominently for many of the contributors to Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie because that is when women’s studies struck root. Some reviewers find the treatment of the 1970s undogmatic and enlightening, while others think that it lacks distance and critical awareness. Jørn Erslev Andersen in Information (27 November 1997) writes that “the contentious ’70s are depicted soberly and yet heroically”, whereas Lars Bukdahl uses intensely polemic terminology to express the exact opposite: the book dwells pathetically for far too long on the 1970s’ literary “holocaust” and far too briefly on the 1990s when good women writers are in the majority (Weekeendavisen, 28 November 1997).

The concluding volume – Liv og værk – (1998; Life and Works) is seen by the bulk of reviewers as indispensable and well-executed documentation. Hans Hertel is an excellent representative for the reviewers as a whole when he writes of volume five: “(...) what you do not get, in terms of comprehensiveness and detail, should never detract from what you do get, in terms of new discoveries and breadth of view” (Politiken, 19 November 1998).

Upon publication of the final volume the critics agree that thanks to Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie the basis on which literary history is written has now changed for good. Hans Hertel calls reading the five volumes “an experience”, and he concludes: “after this, (hu)mankind will write the history of literature in another way” (Politiken, 19 November 1998). The reviewers are also unanimously happy that women writers are no longer in the shadow of male writers, and that the path has now been prepared for a new history of literature. Most of the critics make it clear that this should be a joint literary project for both sexes. Tania Ørum suggests a history that is not concerned about the gender of the writer, but instead with “gender in the text, the ways in which gender is signalled and scanned in texts throughout the annals of literature” (Kvinder, køn og forskning 3/1993), while Marianne Stidsen’s alternative is for a text-oriented “literary history of literature” rising above all stereotyped gender concepts and all discussion of gender (Kritik 106/1993). The baton has been passed to new literary historians. There are already many new writers’ voices to be heard.