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Being Too Much and Too Little

Written by: Ebba Witt-Brattström |

“I am, essentially, ‘too much and too little’.”

Wendela Hebbe (1808-99), who was active in the 1840s at Aftonbladet, the biggest and most scandalous newspaper in Sweden, has gone down in history as the country’s first permanently employed female journalist. But she was much more than that: she was Sweden’s first female publicist. She was born in the age of Romanticism and lived all through the Modern Breakthrough. As a type, Wendela Hebbe is a fascinating mixture of Bettina von Arnim and George Sand, but unfortunately without their literary importance.

“I hate triviality in a man but even more so in a woman, for she is not born for that”, bishop Esaias Tegnér wrote in a letter of 1834 to Wendela Hebbe. She was then a young and pretty wife and mother at a big estate, ardently courted by the national poet, who was twenty-six years her senior. As long as Wendela Hebbe depended on his library for her literary education she allowed him to court her. But some years later, when in a twist of fate she was left penniless with three small children, and her admirer advised her to become a seamstress, she instead took the large step from being a muse to becoming a writer.

The epistolary exchange with Esaias Tegnér is, from his side, a basic course in the tactics of sexual blackmail. Thus, he sends her, for example, the poem “Varningen” (The Warning), written with the aim of breaking down the resistance of the ladies he was courting at any given time (with slight adjustments; for instance, in the case of dark-eyed Wendela, “your pair of blue eyes” became “the fire of your dark eye”). Seeing that nothing worked on the obstinate woman, he placed his final trump card, his immortal poetry, into the hands of the little woman with a passion for literature: “Oh, Wendela, how could I, the rejected one, have any desire to live or to write poems if you cannot love me? The destiny of my heart, and perhaps to a certain extent that of Swedish poetry, now lies in your hands; must it wither away there?”

Carl Johan Ljunggren: Interiør fra kunstnerens hjem på Liljeholmen. Watercolour. NMH 94/1894, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

She offered her services to the liberal and contentious Lars Johan Hierta, one of the objects of Tegnér’s hate, and, in 1841, was hired as a journalist at the Aftonbladet. Hebbe’s small salon in her office in the Gamla Stan quarter of Stockholm soon became a meeting-place for the men of the new spirit, Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, Hierta, Onkel Adam (‘Uncle Adam’, a pseudonym for C. A. Wetterbergh), Herman Sätherberg, and others. The circle involved something new, namely a politicised literary culture supported by free publicists. The Romantic school represented by P. D. A. Atterbom, Erik Gustav Geijer, Adolf Fredrik Lindblad, and others, who had met in Malla Silfverstolpe’s as well as in Alida and Thekla Knös’s salons in Uppsala, had its heyday particularly in the 1820s. During the next decade, the literary centre of Sweden moved from the university towns back to Stockholm. Over the course of the nineteenth century there came into being what we call an ‘educated public’, and with it also the basis for a literary market that demanded fewer odes, epic poems, and first-person lyrical poetry, and more short stories, serial stories, novels, and reportage. Another new factor was the liberal forces promoting the politicising of literature. The class society had to fall, and King Karl XIV Johan’s conservative politics had to be opposed with all means. Wendela Hebbe’s friends and acquaintances, Onkel Adam, August Blanche, Almqvist, and Fredrika Bremer, all wrote in the spirit of the age.

Almqvist sets the tone in 1839 with Det går an (It Can Be Done!; Eng. tr. Sara Videbeck), which along with a new morality of gender and marriage also advocates the unmarried woman’s legal right to majority and her sole right to dispose of her personal income. The 1840s abound with social novels that are more or less inspired by Eugène Sue, novels with titles such as Jernbäraren (1845; The Iron Carrier), by Blanche, and Penningar och arbete (1847; Money and Work), by Onkel Adam. In Wendela Hebbe’s journalism, the social tendency of the period is noticeable, but it can be more difficult to discover in her fiction, which employs an unusually high number of voices and experiments with various genres, from Romantic texts and everyday prose to depictions of the lives of common people.

Documentary Journalist

Wendela Hebbe invented social reportage in the Aftonbladet. About half a century earlier, her predecessor Anna Maria Lenngren had set the tone in the Stockholms Posten with the prose sketches “Ett Ord för den Fattiga” (1795; A Word in Favour of the Poor Person) and “Det blev ingen Julgröt men ändå en glad Julafton” (1800; There Was No Christmas Porridge, but Nonetheless It Was a Merry Christmas Eve). In the period from January 1846 through March 1850, Wendela Hebbe published a number of articles that aimed at publicly exposing the extreme poverty that women in particular could be living in. In these articles, which were of great current interest, Hebbe gives an account of her visits to the poor parts of town and describes, down to the details of the taste and smell of the poor man’s soup, how it was to live there.

In the period 1810-50, the Swedish population grew from 2.4 to 3.5 million, above all in the rural areas. During the 1830s and 1840s, Sweden was hit by the failure of crops and by famine. In 1850, seventy-five per cent of all women in Stockholm were unmarried. Many of these were not provided for and lived in near poverty or as prostitutes. Forty-five per cent of the registered children were born out of wedlock. The infant mortality rate was high.

The inequities were debated in the press and in literature. In 1847, the parishes were compelled, through the Poor Relief Law (‘Fattigvårdsförordningen’), to take better care of their poor.

According to Hebbe, the immediate remedy is charity, and her articles do not contain any demands for reforms. “Those who kind-heartedly wish to contribute to the rescue of poor families, but find the way to their remote abodes too long, are invited to present their donations at the office of the Aftonbladet in the street of Stadssmedjegatan, where these will be received and listed.”

In particular, in the article “Arbetskarlens hustru” (The Workman’s Wife), Hebbe introduces something completely new by subjectively and empathically describing a working-class woman. We have to wait until well into the twentieth century to see this manner of writing perfected in Maria Sandel and Moa Martinson.

“She was, as a certain important man said about a certain woman, ‘the only man in the family’. She was the one who carried the well-being of all the others on her strong shoulders. She was the one who early in the morning ensured that the bread and the drinks were there to still the hunger of the others when they woke up. Thereafter she went out and spared no effort in the fight for her ‘24 shillings and food’, the latter of which, however, she put aside to a great extent and brought home with her for the children, for, as she said, ‘you don’t need to stuff yourself in order to survive’.”

The Muse of Liberalism

In 1842, Almqvist replaced Tegnér as Hebbe’s most treasured correspondent, and it is not difficult to see the reason why. With her dark hair and enigmatic brown eyes, the intelligent and thoroughly musical Wendela was a sister of Almqvist’s most well-known female characters, an Amorina or a Tintomara. At the same time, and thanks to her resolute and unaffected manners, she was just as independent as the emancipated heroine Sara Videbeck in Det går an. Just like her, she takes her destiny in her own hands, when, in 1841, without further ado she boards the boat from Jönköping to Stockholm, determined to pay a visit to Hierta. And she succeeds in the tour de force of transforming herself from an abandoned wife without means to a self-supporting female journalist.

In addition to being an industrious critic, an author of serial novels, and a writer of articles, Wendela Hebbe, who used the signature ‘W.’ or ‘Liana’, was also a translator from French, German, and English. The Läsebibliothek af den nyaste utländska litteraturen (Reader’s Library of the Most Recent Foreign Literature), which Hierta launched in 1833, needed constant refilling. Wendela personifies this development towards a market for novels and a reading public that became increasingly female. In a letter to Geijer she complains about being most of the time constrained to remain on “the commonage of literature, that is, on the most sterile and yet most populated parts of it, where the translation factories have been built”.

Hierta’s Läsebibliothek af den nyaste utländska litteraturen (Reader’s Library of the Most Recent Foreign Literature) offered Swedish translations of Scott, Dickens, Fenimore Cooper, Marryat, George Sand, and others. The growing readership could be reached by the new parcel post routes, which made it possible to send out 25-öre booklets, of 96-144 pages each, to recipients all over Sweden practically free of charge. Each impression consisted of as many as four thousand copies, since the books were reasonably priced.

At the same time, Wendela Hebbe’s literary production is an interesting example of how difficult it was for the female life experience to find its literary form. She did not have an adequate genre for this. Her versatility was a strength when it came to providing for her three fatherless children – but a weakness when it came to taking a chance on her literary work and her literary talent.

A Female Romantic

If we try to look on Wendela Hebbe as a Romantic, then we also see an example of how badly women fit into the interpretation of literary periods in the history of literature. According to this, the so-called new Romantic school had already disappeared when Wendela Hebbe and her more influential contemporaries, such as Fredrika Bremer, Sophie von Knorring, and Emilie Flygare-Carlén, began to write their novels.

The classical education, which women were excluded from, with Latin, Greek, grammar, rhetoric, and logic as its main elements, was on its way to being replaced by modern languages and natural science. In the Great Educational Committee (‘Stora uppfostringskommittén’) of 1826-28, the ‘man of the old spirit’, Tegnér, set himself against any kind of change. However, modern times were rapidly approaching. One example of this is the revolutionary regulation of the elementary school, ‘Folkskolestadgan’ of 1842, which made no distinction between the elementary education for boys and for girls.

Jørgen Roed: Haven med den gamle døbefont, 1850. Oil painting. National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

After her breakthrough with the anthology Svenska skaldestycken för ungdom (1845; Swedish Poems for the Youth) came the novel Bruderna (1846; The Brides), which is perhaps the most interesting of Wendela Hebbe’s works. It is a Romantic text with Realist features, which is set in a vicarage and against the backdrop of a slightly idealised image of peasant culture and life at the vicarage in olden days. In one respect, namely by pleading the cause of women, Bruderna borders on the ‘tendency novel’ of the 1840s, but its style is borrowed from the Romantic writers. The dramatic ending expresses the fatal erotic difference between the sexes, which is described as a choice between verse – Romantic poetry, the belief in an ideal – on the one hand, and prose – the base and banal means of every-day communication – on the other.

The plot is seemingly simple: the altruistically inclined daughter of a priest, Nanna, loves Edvard, her fiancé, and dies of a broken heart, caused by his transformation from a naïve young man to an erotically experienced urban gentleman.

The only men who will do in the world of Wendela Hebbe’s novels are the nobleman and the country boy. In the ‘realistic’ novel, male fidelity does not exist. In this respect Hebbe resembles her contemporary, Sophie von Knorring.

In one of the many laudatory reviews, Nanna is described as “a typical woman”. To her, the man represents a super-ego and an ideal: “Didn’t I look up to you, the way a child looks up to its mother […], were you not my guide, my better I”, the dying Nanna laments in the closing scene, in the presence of Edvard. Through the description of the pure-hearted Nanna’s stubbornly holding on to her belief in unsullied love, the novel succeeds at one and the same time in keeping the Romantic utopia alive and in questioning it. Nanna develops an unrealistic and narcissistic self-centredness and measures everything and everyone against her own deep feelings. This involves a limitation, which Hebbe continuously hints at and which becomes explicit at the end of the novel.

Nanna, through her long-suffering married aunt, is let into the secret that love and marriage have very little to do with each other, due to the fact that the man’s feelings are different from the woman’s. This occurs in an exquisite meta-poetic dialogue, in which the aunt stresses the danger of Nanna’s “high-flown imagination”, which does not agree with “the flat prose of everyday life”. Aunt Maria tells Nanna about her own lot, in order that Nanna may come to her senses in time. But Nanna refuses.

The female writing that is found in Nanna’s letters, so Hebbe seems to say, shuns a text that takes its point of departure in the polarities of fantasy-reality, masculine-feminine, subject-object. Instead it is drawn towards the opposite of this, towards symbiosis: “you are no longer my angel […]. I don’t look up to you the way a child looks up to its mother”. Nanna is looking for similarity, for the tension-free parent-child relationship, the wordless eye-to-eye communication.

Nanna is trapped in her feeling of being betrayed and typically enough calls Edvard, whom Hebbe has portrayed as a likeable young man, by the name of ‘Edouard’; in her imagination, he is the hero of a French novel. She is not able to fuse together poetry and prose, and dies in his arms like another Lady of the Camellias.

Moral double standards, expressed in the oppositions ‘city-countryside’ and ‘man-woman’, were Wendela Hebbe’s favourite theme. The idea that the man’s infidelity was downright lethal finds explanation in the harsh fact that venereal diseases (primarily syphilis) were widespread. The view that sex was highly dangerous is further explained by puerperal fever, unwanted pregnancies, the high rate of infant mortality, etc.

The ethics of emotion is strongly advocated in Hebbe’s novels. In Lycksökarne (1851; The Fortune-Hunters), we meet “the Major” who turns an estate in disrepair into a model farm with homely features. This good patriarch, who keeps discipline among the workers with “mild glances”, turns out to be – a woman.

Thus, in the universe of Hebbe’s novels, the female emotion is able to dictate the world, but only if it forgoes sexuality.

J.M. Cameron: <em>Grace to Love</em>, 1865. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

J.M. Cameron: Grace to Love, 1865. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This insight clearly emerges in Hebbe’s later works. Hebbe’s first novel, Arabella (1841; Arabella), which is a melodrama, is still governed by the unrealistic hope of a perfect encounter between man and woman, on the woman’s terms. After nothing but complications Baron Edvard (!) is able to press the exquisitely beautiful Arabella against his strong breast. Arabella bursts out into a paean to love, a poem that clearly shows that the synonym for love, be it conscious or not, is the need of the child to find comfort in her mother’s bosom: there, she wants to rest; there, she wants to cry; there, she wants to sleep; and there, she wants to wake up!

One might wonder about the reason why the female Romantic text in certain cases chooses this regressive solution, the flight into the mother’s embrace, whereas the male Romantic text chooses the (father’s) gaze. According to Horace Engdahl in Romantikens text (1986; The Romantic Text), the Romantic text is a personal universe, the stage of the solitary ‘I’. There, emptiness, inner paralysis, and the extinction of the gaze are threatening. But the rebirth of poetic enthusiasm is always to be found there. It is a strong ‘I’ that is able to keep the horror scenario in check, even when the ‘I’ is threatened, by offering this scenario a place of polarisation within itself: “chaos is the neighbour of God” (“kaos är granne med Gud”). The trivial is permeated with the sublime.

Interestingly enough, this equating of sexuality and symbiosis is something of a recurring theme in Swedish female Romanticism. Even Thekla Knös’s first public appearance takes its point of departure in a symbiotic nearness to her mother. She dedicates her poems, written at an earlier point but not published until 1853, “To My Mother” (“Till min Mor”).

There is no strong ‘I’ to be found in the female Romantic text; it has difficulties in integrating polarities, and just like Nanna’s psyche, when she feels betrayed in Brudarne, it is invaded by the unconscious. This can perhaps explain the fact that it is the melodrama and the Gothic horror novel that become important genres for the female writers of this period. Fantastic events, deserted castles, and passion as a synonym for crime – this is how the female consciousness looks, in which sexuality is associated with evil, sudden death. Gothic horror features turn up here, there, and everywhere: in Hebbe’s Arabella, for example; in Euphrosyne’s (that is, Julia Christina Nyberg’s) tale of knights, Den sköna Cunigunda (The Fair Cunigunda); in Sophie von Knorring’s aristocratic circles in deserted castles; in Aurora Ljungstedt’s crime novels, where the female power of attraction is described as downright criminal; and in Emilie Flygare-Carlén’s Rosen på Tistelön (Eng. tr. The Rose of Tistelön, A Tale), where Gothic Romanticism comes to its full literary force.

There are female authors in this period who shy away from this issue as best they can, but it nevertheless turns up in their work, in the description of sexuality as a relationship between siblings or as a yearning for the motherly breast.

The well-read, intelligent, and deft stylist Wendela Hebbe never became a serious rival of Sophie von Knorring, Fredrika Bremer, and Emilie Flygare-Carlén. Her life story remained an unused source of material for a great novel.

After her epistolary romance with Tegnér – which could have become a Swedish counterpart of Bettina von Arnim’s famous epistolary novel Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (1835) – and her husband’s flight from his creditors, there followed not only years of hard work as a breadwinner. In addition to the intellectual friendship with Almqvist, her life also included a great, long-lasting passion. In 1852, when she was forty-four years old, Hebbe secretly gave birth to a son. The father was her lover and employer, Hierta, who was a married man with six daughters. In this way she was trapped in the net of moral double standards. The boy was to call her ‘aunt’.

Lars Johan Hierta, the founder of the newspaper Aftonbladet, was an early proponent of women’s rights in Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag. There, he indefatigably supported a motion for the equal right of inheritance for daughters and sons. When this motion was carried in 1845, he went on to submit a motion on “legal majority for unmarried women”. In 1863, an unmarried woman was automatically declared of age when she was twenty-five years old. In 1874, two years after Hierta’s death, the marriage act was changed to grant a married woman the right to dispose of her own property. At that point, women had since 1870 been entitled to obtain a high school diploma. The married woman was not granted legal majority in Sweden until 1920.

Wendela Hebbe’s heyday was brief and broadly coincides with the 1840s. This was the period when a short story from her pen was printed together with writings by Almqvist and Blanche in the calendar På divanbordet (On the Divan Table); and this was the period when one of her novels was translated into English and German. To be sure, in the following decades she also wrote plays and published her collections of fairy tales I skogen (1871; In the Forest) and Bland trollen (1877; Among Trolls). She continued her work of translating, and she was, mainly anonymously, a productive and significant composer. She died in 1899, aged ninety-one.

Translated by Pernille Harsting