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Can It Really Be Done?

Written by: Eva Borgström |

Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s novel Det går an. En tavla ur livet (1839; It Can Be Done! A Picture out of Life; Eng. tr. Sara Videbeck) is a sharp and sweeping rejection of the Romantic image of the woman. It gave rise to the most heated and profound gender-political dispute on the literary scene in nineteenth-century Sweden, until the ‘morality controversy’ a few decades later. After Det går an, the idyllic complementarity that had for so long prevailed in the depictions in literature of the relationship between the sexes would never really be the same again.

The novel is about the meeting and the love between glazier’s daughter Sara Videbeck and Albert, a sergeant. They meet and keep each other company on a journey between Stockholm and Lidköping. The story is told in a brisk and simple manner. It offers precise observations of the landscape that they travel through, lively interiors from inns and lodging houses, and all the time Sara and Albert are carrying on an intense and wide-ranging conversation with each other.

Ditlev Conrad Blünck: The artist at work, 1825. Drawing, in: Ditlev Martens Stambog

It is Sara who presents the utopia of love in Det går an. She has seen her mother destroyed by the abuse of her alcoholic and spendthrift father, and therefore Sara is determined to never subject herself to the supremacy of the husband, which the marriage laws accorded to the man: “For a person to receive a right that puts her in a position to injure another to death is always horrible and always will be. God’s beautiful love will certainly never make any progress on earth that way. I shall never want that power over another, and I don’t intend to give it to another to be exercised over me.”

According to the existing regulations of the guilds, which discriminated against the women, Sara was not able to succeed to her father’s glazier’s workshop. Instead, she means to provide for herself by producing and selling nice glass objects and a special kind of glazier’s putty, which she has invented herself. These trades were not regulated by the guilds, and were therefore open to women.

Sara plans for herself and Albert to each have their own household and to have separate finances in order that the many little everyday worries and sources of irritation do not wear down their love. They are going to help each other, be together, and love each other of their own free will, and not because this is what the institution of marriage demands.

Sara Videbeck comes across as remarkably lively and bears very little resemblance to the many portrayals of women from the Romantic period. She takes care of a number of practical tasks during the journey and talks away about issues great and small. She acts and thinks in an independent and self-confident manner but meets her Albert on the common ground of love.

Almqvist’s simple and elegantly presented utopia of love sparked a vehement reaction as soon as it reached the public. This may appear somewhat strange, considering the fact that similar ideas had been found for a long time already in the literary debate in other European countries. Moreover, during this period of time Sweden was going through great demographic and social changes. The number of unmarried, gainfully employed women was rapidly increasing in the big towns. In Stockholm, nearly one half of all children were born to unmarried women. Sara Videbeck was already to be found, as it were, in reality.

A Male Fantasy

At first, the debate about Det går an was confined to the newspapers, but soon it expanded to include a number of polemical writings that took aim at what was regarded as the tendentiousness of Almqvist’s book. These ‘sequels’ are linked to Det går an by their titles and character galleries, and sometimes also through their style. Most of them were fictional narratives of no great artistic value and presumed that the readers were already familiar with Almqvist’s novel and the ensuing debate.

Some of the writers defended Almqvist, but most of them criticised him strongly. Without exception, the female authors who participated in the debate regarded Det går an as a male fantasy. The fact that Almqvist attached such great importance to the separation of sexuality from the institution of marriage made it almost impossible for the women to embrace his book wholeheartedly, although they shared his feminist views on other issues.

Det går an soon became so tainted by all the negative criticism, which revelled in erotic ramblings – in this regard, August Blanche’s Sara Widebeck: En tafla ur lifvet (Sara Widebeck: A Picture out of Life) was the worst of all – that it was hardly possible to speak about the book in a nuanced way. ‘It-Can-Be-Done gentlemen’ soon became an established term for lecherous and unscrupulous womanisers. This is how the term is used by, for example, Sophie Sager.

The historiography concerning this dispute has only addressed its feminist aspects to a very small extent. Instead, the dispute has often been described in terms of the opposition between a political and religious conservatism on the one hand and a more liberal attitude on the other. This approach has made historians strangely blind to the views on Almqvist’s text that were advanced by the period’s female authors. Their ‘sequels’ are considerably more interesting than scholars have been willing to see. The very fact that these works were written is remarkable – public discussions of gender politics were otherwise exclusively carried on by men.

The most important contributions by female authors to the debate are Malla Silfverstolpe’s Månne det går an? Fortsättning af “Det går an.” (1840; But Can It Really Be Done? A Sequel to ‘It Can Be Done!’); Sophie von Knorring’s “Så går det” (That’s How It Can Be Done), published in Skizzer (1841; Sketches); Wilhelmina Stålberg’s Eva Widebeck, eller Det går aldrig an (1840; Eva Widebeck; or, It Can Never Be Done); and Carolina von Platen’s Evelina Reder. Också en tafla ur lifvet (1841; Evelina Reder. Another Picture out of Life).

“I would consider it a disgrace if I did not stand up for my own sex, since I feel that I have at least a tiny spark of capacity for that. And the author regrets that what she expresses can be no more than a spark of the resentment that she and all of her sex feel when she sees the woman presented not as a human being but as a stockbroker’s item.”

From Carolina von Platen, Evelina Reder. Också en tafla ur lifvet (1841; Evelina Reder. Another Picture out of Life).

Malla Silfverstolpe’s principal objection to the utopia of love in Det går an is that it is all too idealistic. According to Malla Silfverstolpe, Almqvist ignores the fact that the slander would primarily be directed at the women, and she doubts that human beings really are so good that, without doing each other harm, they can live in a love relationship that is not governed by the laws and regulations of Church and State. In Det går an, Almqvist had only lightly touched upon the problems that could arise when children entered the picture, whereas Malla Silfverstolpe emphasises exactly these problems.

“Sara! Sara! In your mouth it sounds pretty, but it is nevertheless idle talk”, writes Malla Silfverstolpe in Månne det går an? Fortsättning af “Det går an.” (1840; But Can It Really Be Done? A Sequel to ‘It Can Be Done!’).

Wilhelmina Stålberg’s story contains a critique of marriage that is just as fierce as the one found in Almqvist. But Almqvist’s extra-marital utopia of love is not seen as a better alternative in her novel. On the contrary. It is described as a lecherous man’s fantasy, which relieves the man from all responsibilities while at the same time creating new, serious problems for the woman.

“I can consider myself your equal now, but: from the moment I became your wife, I would have to regard you as my lord and master. Believe me, in marriage there is more hierarchy than anywhere else in the world; the man never forgets and generally makes it abundantly clear that the woman is created for his sake, that he has chosen her and she not him, and that, without him, she would be a vine without support, as your sex chooses to call unmarried women.”

From Wilhelmina Stålberg’s Eva Widebeck, eller Det går aldrig an (1840; Eva Widebeck; or, It Can Never Be Done).

Carolina von Platen’s critique of Det går an focuses on the fact that a woman who chooses to violate the ruling system of norms will be branded as ‘fallen’ and lose all the security and all the possibilities of freedom which, at best, marriage could have offered. However, the man who has an extra-marital affair does not violate the norms and is therefore able to retain both his reputation and his social status. She also describes how the misogynous sexual morality slips in and poisons the lovers’ relationship with each other.

The Women’s Ambivalent Attitude

Fredrika Bremer’s En dagbok (Eng. tr. A Diary) and Sophie von Knorring’s Torparen och hans omgifvning (The Crofter and his Surroundings), which were both published in 1843, were not part of the debate literature proper, but they dealt to a certain extent with the same issues as Det går an. Almqvist himself commented on these novels in the light of the issues he had addressed in Det går an and called attention to the very ambivalent attitude to the institution of marriage that can be found in these texts.

In Sophie von Knorring’s novel, the ambivalence is caused by the fact that the tragic love story that is described undermines the faith in the institution of marriage, while at the same time the pastor of the town, in his extensive reflections, discusses and defends marriage in its present form.

In Fredrika Bremer’s novel it is not a question of whether the fulfilment of love between man and woman can best be achieved within or outside of marriage. Here, the problem is rather whether the woman’s desire for meaningful work and an independent development of her personality can be fulfilled within marriage or not. In his article “De stora frågorna om paragrafmoral och själsmoral” (The Great Questions about the Morality of the Law and the Morality of the Soul), Almqvist wrote about Fredrika Bremer: “as regards the inner life, which her depictions actually reflect, her position is quite close to that of ‘the briar roses’”, that is, quite close to Almqvist’s own position. He may be right – if one ignores the detail of the marriage ceremony.

The rejection of the Romantic ideal of the woman and the fierce criticism of the institution of marriage, which are found in Det går an, are also to be found in several of the texts by the female authors. It is above all the supremacy of the husband that is criticised. But none of the women see the extra-marital relationship as a solution to the problems – in their view, the man would all to easily evade his responsibility, and the woman’s responsibility would increase.

The warm intimacy on the basis of free and equal terms that is described in Almqvist’s novel could undoubtedly seem tempting to the women, but the image of Sara’s and Albert’s utopian love story clashed all too violently with the misogynous society that they knew so well. In many respects, the attitude of the female authors in the dispute surrounding Det går an anticipated the position of the women in the next big literary gender-political discussion: the ‘morality controversy’ during the Modern Breakthrough.

Translated by Pernille Harsting