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She Was a Woman in the Full Meaning of the Word

Written by: Ebba Witt-Brattström |

In 1861, in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, Fredrika Bremer relates how as a child she had heard people talking about “a young woman with twenty-four talents, and, on top of that, pretty, smart” – who moved like a fish in water in the finer Stockholm society. Since she was a little, serious girl herself, who adored Joan of Arc, she immediately lost track of the fashionable Sophie Zelow. When they finally met, in 1838, they were literary competitors, constantly being compared by the critics. The talented young noblewoman of the 1810s had then become Baroness von Knorring and had published six novels under the name ‘Författeren till Cousinerna’, that is, ‘The Author of The Cousins’. Together they were called “the classics of our learned female world”, in Aftonbladet in 1839. Sophie von Knorring (1797-1848) suffered from a lung disease and died nearly twenty years before Fredrika Bremer, who came off victorious in their literary competition. In the history of literature, ‘The Author of The Cousins’ is now a footnote. The reason may be that she is a paradox, and how do you put a label on someone like that?

Maria Röhl: Sophie von Knorring, Stockholm, 1927. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

An aristocrat of a nearly Gustavian stamp, yet also an unsparing critic of the arrogance of birth, she belongs to the most refined milieus, which she exposes without mercy. Her nobility did not at all prevent her from writing one of Sweden’s first and best descriptions of the lives of common people, Torparen och hans omgifning (1843; The Crofter and his Surroundings). Her critics refer to her outmoded view of women and believe that her main topic is the indissolubility of marriage. To a modern reader, the real purpose of Knorring’s novelistic art is to describe the issues connected with female eroticism and the idealising power of passion. In her own opinion, she was “revealing the deepest secrets of the hearts of everyday people”.

This is why she has been called “disarmingly naïve”; her heroines are regarded as being more or less identical with herself; and all the dilapidated castles and manors of her novels are offhandedly presumed to be based on Gräfsnäs, the castle of her childhood, in the province of Västergötland. In older literary histories, she is described with condescending, albeit puzzled, admiration. She is rebuked for focusing on the female psychology, and in the same breath she is praised for being “our only erotic female writer”.

In spite of this, the male critics are unwilling to let go of their status as experts in the field. One often senses a marked irritation over the female angle from which Knorring’s male characters are seen, when the author places them in drawn-out erotic situations without allowing them to get to business. Also the strength of the palpitation of the women’s hearts is seen as exaggerated. With regard to the young Ottilia in Illusionerna (1836; The Illusions), the literary historian Johan Mortenson, for example, cock-surely objects: “Moreover, the author views this whole situation in an all too tragic manner. The wounds inflicted on a seventeen-year-old heart by the first love of a handsome lieutenant are soon healed.”

In Från Aftonbladet till Röda rummet. Strömningar i svensk litteratur 1830-1879 (1905; From Aftonbladet to The Red Room. Currents in Swedish Literature, 1830-79), Johan Mortenson writes: “Baroness Knorring is much less naïve than Fredrika Bremer; she knows a bit about the young gentlemen’s escapades; she does not just take them at face value; she knows that there is another side to them, which they do not show in the salons, and only few female writers display this knowledge in their novels.”

Like most of the historians of literature who have treated the novels by Sophie von Knorring, he erroneously reads them as if they were primarily about men. His male self-esteem suffers greatly on account of this.

But von Knorring knew better. She insisted on the right of the seventeen-year-old to love with all her heart. A beauty who was married yet surrounded by admirers all her life, she was not unfamiliar with the nature of male desire. However, this knowledge is only allowed to form the backdrop of her literary production, which first of all speaks the language of women. Already in her first novel, Cousinerna (1834; The Cousins), men are ridiculous or romantically weak, whereas the heroine, Amalia, by finally taking upon herself the duties her noble name entails (the honour of the warrior!), hopes to infuse courage and spirit into the men, especially the young hero, Axel. That her sacrifice was to no avail appears from the sequel novel, Axel (1836; Axel).

In Cousinerna, Amalia has solemnly promised her dying father that she will marry an upstanding but wooden estate owner. She only realises her mistake on the day of her wedding, when her impecunious cousin Axel turns up after many years and rouses her wild desire. The analysis of the cousins’ strong feelings is fascinatingly subtle and very erotic. Valiantly, they struggle against their illicit passion, but Amalia becomes more and more unhappy and ultimately dies. Axel, a not entirely felicitous combination of Faust and Don Juan, is no hero, not even in Cousinerna, and the eponymous sequel describes the melancholy and debauched life he leads before dying of consumption.

Cousinerna, published by “The Author of The Cousins”, was the novel of the year in 1835. People read and formed their opinions about this deeply erotic plot. Who could the author be? A man or a woman? No sooner had Sophie von Knorring, despite her denial, been revealed than people started attacking its, allegedly, dubious moral. In Aftonbladet in 1835, it was contended that Cousinerna was an expression of “the element of cold libertinage and light-hearted contempt for morals, which the better spirit of the time has only slowly managed to dispose of”. Cousinerna became something as unusual in Sweden as a truly European novel.

Kurt Jungstedt: illustration for Fredrik Cederborgh’s novel Uno von Thrazenberg: Berättelse av friherre Dolk, Stockholm, 1924

The scandalous truth expressed in von Knorring’s books is that women usually make a distinction between eroticism and sexuality. The former can go on forever and be consummated in death, in the union with the heavenly ideal, the beautiful image of the man. On earth, the carnal union of lovers – be it sanctioned by the law or not – results in the agony of pregnancy and the torments of childbirth. Amalia, the heroine of Cousinerna, actually passes away after a miscarriage, and in Ståndsparalleller (1838; A Comparison of Social Classes) Countess Blenda dies, possibly in the aftermath of measles, but above all at the mere thought of having to sleep again with her torpid spouse to provide him with an heir after his son had died: “I, whose heart is full of HIM who is now my everything! – Ugh! […], and she placed both of her hands in front of her face.” Blenda is passionately in love with the private tutor, Herman, the cultured son of a farmer. This novel has been wrongly interpreted as a manifestation of arrogance of birth on the part of Sophie von Knorring, as an illustration of the fact that, in her view, a countess cannot stoop to loving a common man. However, the author is entirely on Blenda’s side when the latter despairingly exclaims: “– You don’t think, do you, that a woman’s heart knows of any social class differences?”

What stands in the way between the man and the woman in the universe of Sophie von Knorring’s novels is, apart from the men’s often shrewd double standards of morality, the devastating consequences for the woman of concrete sexuality.

The waltz in Illusionerna (1836; The Illusions) is a good example of Sophie von Knorring’s erotic prose. It may also be a contributing cause for Ottilia’s rapture that the renowned novelist Madame de Staël is moving her stout legs about in the same whirls of dance.

Germaine de Staël, who was married to the Swedish ambassador in Paris and therefore a Swedish subject, visited Stockholm in 1812, while fleeing from Napoleon. In a rickety fishing-boat, she had sailed over from Åbo, where she had arranged a meeting between Tsar Alexander and the French Marshall Bernadotte (who would, with the support of herself, among others, soon become Crown Prince Karl Johan, the regent of Sweden). Like Ottilia, the heroine of her novel, Sophie Zelow made her debut at the ball of the Swedish Order of the Amaranth, at which Madame de Stäel was also introduced to the Swedish high society.

“Look! There stood Otto in a waiting position to lead me into the waltz. I got up. I took his hand. I followed him. But had he, in his hurry, let go of me, I would undoubtedly have fallen, for I neither heard nor saw anything for some moments. I was in heaven, dear grandmother! And just you laugh as much as you wish, but in that moment I knew of no heavenly joy that could be compared to being led by Otto to the swirling waltz. We did not begin at once, however; we stood quiet and still; but his heart spoke through his hand, his glances, and his rapid breathing, and I thought I could see and hear how his heart itself was throbbing. Oh, how happy I was!!”

The message of the moral double standards, as well as the subtle nuances that distinguish ‘pure’ from ‘bad’ women, is what Knorring tirelessly analyses. A man does not respect a ‘fallen’ woman, even if he has said that he would give his life for her – just before she fell into his arms. Paradoxically enough, especially the mature woman’s power of attraction is based on the balancing act between being ‘infected’ by the world and ‘depraved’. There is no condemnation in the description of the sublime coquetry of the soulful and alluring countess in Axel: “My bed curtains are not inclined to be opened up this early – she added, with this lovely smile that surely is not that of pure, divine innocence, but that of a vivacious woman who is infected by the world but by no means depraved.”

The cultured young widow Otilia, the heroine of Sophie von Knorring’s novel Förhoppningar (1843; Expectations), is first presented as the incarnation of sacrificial motherhood in relation to her foster son, Hugo. But the judgement, “she was a woman in the full meaning of the word”, already contains the seed of the complication that is to bring her prematurely to the grave. The motherly love is soon transgressed, and she is confronted with her naked desire for the young man.

The heroines of Sophie von Knorring’s novels have to deal with men’s split sexuality, since it is the men who dictate their conditions of life. The author advises the female reader to limit herself to the initial stage of the flirtation. Not for moral reasons but because men are almost always incapable of handling the great amount of trust required for a woman to give herself – literally or metaphorically – to them. Their emotional life, which is described as less developed than that of women, is based on the rivalry with other men for the most beautiful prize. This male, mimetic desire is studied and rejected – with Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Eng. tr. Elective Affinities) as a model – in Vännerna (1835; The Friends). “Friends! – Edward said bitterly – Some friendship that gives way to feelings for a girl whom you have not yet seen, except in your imagination and through my eyes.”

The norms of society require that the woman knows that she cannot behave like a man. This does not mean that she has to give up feeling burning desire; on the contrary. But she should not give in to it, since it is anarchistic by nature and immediately will be exploited by men. In Vännerna, it is described with repulsion how the coquettish and uncultured Olivia gives in to her uninhibited sex life, copied from the men:

“It was not his great advice, it was not his beautiful soul, it was not his warm heart, his virtues, his piety, his male power, his clear intellect and fine education that Olivia missed and bemoaned; no, it was his kisses, his arms that had pressed her against his breast, and the bliss which at that moment had streamed through her. Many a one might call it love, but this emotion deserves a completely different name. – The proof: it may be transferred to someone else.”

Wilhelm Marstrand: Aftenselskab, in: Smaa Kunstbøger No. 11, 3rd edition. Ed. Karl Madsen. Copenhagen, 1944

When in her novels Sophie von Knorring examines how women’s passions become ‘criminal’ compared with men’s moral double standards, she is in the good company of the great authors of world literature. Germaine de Staël, who in Corinne had described the melancholy Ossian’s vacillating between the female genius and the homely ingénue, made a deep impression on Knorring, but the same is the case with Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Eng. tr. Julie, or the New Heloise), where the heroine struggles with her illicit, extra-marital love. Another source of inspiration was Johanna von Schopenhauer’s Gabriele (1819-20), in which the main character, in the same way as Amalia in Cousinerna, is sacrificed by her despotic father and married off to an egotist. In this European novelistic tradition, duty and inclination appear to be irreconcilable for women. Since Sophie von Knorring, unlike for example Fredrika Bremer, was not the least religious, she did not discover any redeeming synthesis between these and is not able to portray her women in any way other than essentially split. Therefore, there is still a great deal to be found in her writings, if one focuses on the psychological description of the characters and ignores the occasionally all too conventional action and the aristocratic settings.

Already as a teenager, Sophie von Knorring was well read in five languages – something that is unparalleled today. Her style is based on literary allusions as well as spirited and sharply chiselled dialogues, and often boasts a lightness that is second to that of no other Swedish author. In the cultural climate of Sweden in the 1830s and 1840s, she was a strange bird.

Sophie von Knorring had experienced pregnancy herself and describes it as a traumatic experience in the exquisite short story “Soldaten och hans hustru” (The Soldier and His Wife) in Skizzer I (1841; Sketches). That the female author was aware of the sexual consequences of extra-marital relationships was considered scandalous. In Cousinerna and Axel, the handsome hero had a previous history that ended with an illegitimate child. (To the author, on the other hand, the immorality consists in the fact that the poor child was not begotten in true love!) In Illusionerna, the young and innocent Ottilia hastens, without a moment’s hesitation, to the rescue of her maid when the latter has a child with Ottilia’s beloved, Otto.

When Sophie von Knorring is at her best, she is world-class. She has been read biographically and all too literally, but she is no Realist; she is a Romantic to the bone. As such, she regularly makes use of irony, a stylistic technique, which P. D. A. Atterbom already in 1823 in Svensk Literatur-Tidning (Swedish Journal of Literature) had described as a deadly sin for women.

In the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in 1845, Wendela Hebbe, the female voice among the period’s critics, calls attention to Sophie von Knorring’s uniqueness as a masterly portrayer, specifically of the period of the early nineteenth century and of the milieu of the nobility. Hebbe accurately describes Knorring’s literary qualities and her style, which is influenced by European Romanticism and which Hebbe believes forms an antidote to the period’s “everyday depictions of daily life”:

“Here she stands alone among her female competitors, and most likely because no one among them possesses the same direct knowledge of it that she does, let alone the same language to describe it, this language, which was the common one, in precisely that context – this tone ‘comme il faut’ – distinct, joking, sometimes spirited, not infrequently sharp, never lapsing into the sentimental or the idyllic.”

The aesthetics of Sophie von Knorring’s novels – employed in an original manner in Förhoppningar (1843; Expectations) – is sophisticated. Among other things, it finds expression in the Romantic use of frame stories to achieve an ironical distance to the female morality of victimisation that may make itself felt in the text. To this day, Knorring has consistently been misinterpreted in this respect. An example is the frame story found in her absolute masterpiece, Illusionerna. The moral of this work is a complete rejection of the ‘illusion’ that it is the woman’s duty to renounce her passion and sacrifice herself in order to ennoble the man. This demonically clever novel can thus also be read as a biting retort to Fredrika Bremer’s belief in the woman’s higher calling as the man’s better self. Sophie von Knorring knew better.

Eva Borgström points out that P. D. A. Atterbom, in a series of articles on the works of Euphrosyne (in Svensk Literatur-Tidning nos. 28-35, 1823), distinguishes between the literary possibilities of the two sexes, especially as regards irony. The negative example is Anna Maria Lenngren, whose “smartness” is unwomanly.

“This is one of the spots where the order of Nature has most firmly made a divide between the sexes; and it has done the right thing, for the woman is so constituted that she would not win anything in her attempt to overstep the limits of her nature, apart from boundless insolence instead of boundless irony.”

It is easy to see that, in such a cultural climate, Sophie von Knorring aroused scandal rather than admiration. In Sweden, it was quite simply forbidden for women to be Romantics.

Translated by Pernille Harsting