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A Hundred Memories from Ostrobothnia

Written by: Ebba Witt-Brattström |

“My favourite indoor places have always been at the kitchen range and at the writing desk…”

The road that would give writing women access to the public scene in Finland was long and tortuous in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

In 1831, Sofie Hjärne published Tawastehus Slott, en Romans från Birger Jarls af Bjelbo Tidehwarf (The Castle of Tawastehus, A Romance from the Age of Birger Jarl of Bjelbo), one of the first attempts by a woman in Finland to gain access to the literary public sphere.

The writing career of Sara Elisabeth Wacklin (1790-1846) is a good example of how difficult it was for one of the narrative talents of the semi-public salons to become an author. The story of her life is also remarkable, as if taken out of one of Fredrika Bremer’s novels.

Sara Wacklin. Oil painting by Edla Jansson-Blommér.

In Sara Wacklin’s brief tale “Spöket på graven” (The Ghost on the Grave) from the third part of Hundrade minnen från Österbotten (1844-45; A Hundred Memories from Ostrobothnia), we read about the poor and ugly Julma: “The penniless girl had not received any education other than what she, like a blind hen finding a grain of corn, had been able to pick up here and there, so that she, through assiduous work in a calling that involved great responsibility, could provide for her mother, for whom she was the sole support.”

Sara Wacklin’s mother was left a widow early, upon the death of her husband, the public prosecutor in Oulu/Uleåborg, and the poverty of the family forced Sara, when she was sixteen years old, to become an assistant teacher at the junior school in the town. Just like Julma, Sara was to remain “a zealous junior-school teacher” for thirty-seven years. In 1813 she moved to Turku/Åbo, where she was able to combine the study of French and music with her own teaching. A couple of years later, she became governess in the house of the county governor, Gustaf Hjärne. In his wife’s salon, Sara Wacklin soon became a valued composer of occasional poetry, narrator of tales, and director of small theatre plays.

In the span of eight years, Wacklin founded three girls’ schools, two of which burnt down.

In the summer of 1835, she could finally afford to realise her dream, namely to study in France, which at that time was a leading country with regard to school legislation. After a year of intensive studies of languages, mathematics, literature, history, and elementary science, Sara Wacklin obtained a higher public degree in pedagogy in Paris.

With the French diploma in her pocket, the now forty-six-year-old teacher founded Finland’s first modern girls’ school in Helsinki/Helsingfors. It may have been seen as a provocation that the curriculum of the school resembled that of the university. When the state, in 1844, opened the rival Swedish School for Girls (‘Svenska fruntimmersskolan’), it was not Sara Wacklin, but a former colleague, who was appointed as its principal.

By this time, Wacklin had saved up a small amount of capital, and in 1843 she moved to Stockholm, bought a small apartment in the Gamla Stan quarter, and sat down to write as if her life depended on it. The notes she left behind describe a work day from five o’clock in the morning till one at night, “then I put out the light, thanked God for my pleasant life!, and fell soundly asleep”.

Just before her death, the three volumes of her lifework, Hundrade minnen från Österbotten, were published. Since it contains examples of all the period’s prose styles, the work forms an interesting link in the history of both the Finnish and the Swedish novel. Romantic heroic tales of the kind that were later to make Zacharias Topelius famous are interspersed with caricatures typical of the Age of Enlightenment. Anecdotes of local history appear side by side with realistic everyday stories in the style of Fredrika Bremer or with distinctive miniature portrayals in the style of Lenngren. But there are also character portrayals influenced by Balzac and early nineteenth-century French literature.

Hundrade minnen från Österbotten spans a period of about a hundred years, and the first part offers a presentation of Ostrobothnia. The hero is the author’s paternal grandfather, the Uleåborg district postal officer, Mikael Wacklin. The second part focuses on the war of 1808 between Sweden and Russia, which ended with Finland becoming a part of Russia. The war is described from the perspectives of various people. The third part deals with the fire in Uleåborg in 1822 and also contains portrayals of the celebrities of the city, among others Frans Michael Franzén and Johan Ludvig Runeberg.

Even if Hundrade minnen från Österbotten may be regarded as belonging to the contemporary literary tradition of native realists, the heterogeneous style of the anthology can also be interpreted in terms of a searching and experimental effort, which is not found among the stylistically more homogeneous male models. This plurality may be a result of Wacklin’s attempt to also offer an unaffected depiction of the Ostrobothnian woman and her conditions of life.

A feminist irony often makes the men look like comical and provincial eccentrics, as for example Lieutenant von E., who used to sleep in a chair in order not to damage his toupee; or the good-natured Mayor Timbom, who nearly chatters Gustav IV Adolf to death, when the latter honours Uleåborg with a visit. But women can also be the target of Sara Wacklin’s by no means innocuous pen, as for example in her description of the weeping ladies at the ball who promised, at the departure of the Swedish officers, to never dance again, a promise that was completely forgotten the moment General Kamenski’s elegant staff officers made their appearance.

However, when Sara Wacklin speaks up for the women, her style becomes warm and personally as well as psychologically penetrating. What is perhaps the warmest portrait of a woman, “Moster Stina” (Aunt Stina), is found in the first part of Hundrade minnen från Österbotten. Stina, an old school mistress from Uleåborg, whose “big blue eyes had never caught sight of any man for whom she had wanted to give up her freedom”, is indignant in a feminist manner about the oppression of women: “Yes, so much more is demanded from us than from the horrid men, who do not have to accomplish much before they are praised or rewarded with fortunes, titles, or offices. But what encouragement does a woman get – even if she were as perfect as can be? – ‘None!’, she cried in true berserk rage and marched around the floor in the small room. Nonetheless, they insist that she has to be both tailor and baker, brewer, butcher, cook, pastry-cook, maker of coffee, dyer, weaver of socks, maker of candles, gardener, farm-bailiff, fire-watch, and shop-girl (in small towns)! Moreover, she has to be a mother and a wife, a children’s nurse and a teacher, a housekeeper and a kitchen maid, an orderly and her husband’s servant. She has to wipe away all worries from his brow; put up with and bear, all on her own, all the adversities of the house; laugh when she would rather cry. She has to be the first to rise in the morning and the last to go to bed at night, beg her husband for every penny needed for the big household, maybe shed many a tear before she dares make this request, and worry more about the cowshed than the dairy-woman herself. Add to this – and this is the worst of it all – that she has to quarrel with rude servants and naughty children, whose morals she, single-handed, has not had the time to tend to.”

Another example of Sara Wacklin’s feministically compassionate gaze is the tragic story of the child murderess “Moniuses Lisu” (Moniuses Lisu), a stinging attack on the patriarchy. Lisu, whose mother was an alcoholic, marries a goldsmith who drinks and “battered his poor wife because she never contradicted him on anything, and that he could not put up with”. When the husband begins to hit the children as well, she runs away and provides for them as a seamstress in Uleåborg. The husband demands, with the backing of the law, that she return, and faced with this threat she kills her three young sons. Before the court, she herself calls for the death penalty, and her last, grieved, words are: “Alas, the gentlemen do not know what a mother’s heart can be driven to do in order to rescue a child from the depth of misfortune!” According to Fredrika Runeberg, it was Sara Wacklin’s greatest wish to establish a shelter for destitute women like Lisu in the Brunnsparken in Helsinki.

Fredrika Bremer was Wacklin’s “ideal of everything noble on earth”. Her notes include several words of thanks to this famous compatriot – Fredrika Bremer was born in Finland – who, according to Sara Wacklin, taught “this old child to think about her lot. In the solitary woman in Miss B.’s writings I so often recognised myself; I soaked the book in my tears, but nevertheless I learned from it patience and trust in the Father of all the defenceless”. Bremer commended Hundrade minnen från Österbotten for “the excellent, both simple and humorous, manner of writing”, and Wacklin was overjoyed by this.

When Hundrade minnen från Österbotten was published in a new edition in 1919, the leading Swedish critic Fredrik Böök is clearly delighted at the acquaintance. He calls Sara Wacklin “a charming and entertaining witness to the provincial culture in a formerly Swedish province”, but in a patriarchal manner he cannot refrain from belittling the author’s talent. Polemicising against Helena Westermarck’s well-informed preface – which he dismissingly calls “feministically shrill” – Böok calls attention to Sara Wacklin’s epistolary friend and cousin, the author and dean G. H. Mellin: with no foundation, and despite the stylistic variations in the work, he claims that Mellin “had a very substantial share in the stylistic crafting of the book”.

The publication of Hundrade minnen från Österbotten became a lengthy affair. The Finnish publisher insisted on a subscription list to guarantee the sales, and all of Sara Wacklin’s acquaintances came forward, from her woman friends and old pupils to Zacharias Topelius, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Frans Michael Franzén, and Fredrika Bremer. When 580 names had been collected, the author obtained a contract on the condition that she bound herself to buy the unsold copies of the thousand-copy edition before the end of the year. This never proved necessary, for Hundrade minnen från Österbotten became a considerable success. In Sweden, the first volumes were published as a serial in the newspaper Aftonbladet, already in the year of its publication. In Finland, Topelius and Runeberg acted as benevolent, albeit condescending, champions of the work. But in Ostrobothnia critical voices were raised, and the work was renamed ‘A Hundred Lies from Ostrobothnia’ (“Hundrade lögner från Österbotten”). Sara Wacklin herself took the criticism calmly and responded: “If you want to make soup out of a stone, you surely have to add a bit of garnish as well.”

After having met Fredrika Bremer, Sara Wacklin wrote: “I have spoken with her, I have seen her! And when in her tearful eye I read the depths of her beautiful heart, then I really saw and understood for the first time – all that I have read by Fredr. Bremer […]. Mrs Carlén fills the paper [“pap.”] in a somewhat witty, naïve, and pleasant manner. Fr. Bremer fills the soul and heart with a feeling of religion and everything good and elevates it over mortal concerns, is ennobling. After having read Mrs C.’s masterpiece “Fid. Com.” [i.e., Fideikommisset; Eng. tr. The Temptation of Wealth; or, The Heir by Primogeniture], petty details and chit-chat stick in the memory; after having read “famille H.” [i.e., Familjen H***; Eng. tr. The Colonel’s Family] by Fr. Bremer I feel ennobled, better, more patient, more content, etc.”

Translated by Pernille Harsting