Print Article

The Artist’s Calling and the Wife’s Duties

Written by: Eva Heggestad |

The conflict between the home and public life, between the traditional female role and a new, modern one that had not as yet been clearly formulated, is a recurring theme in the works of the Swedish female authors of the 1880s. Although the blow is in fact aimed at the institution of marriage, and although breaking out of the family is often regarded as the only way for a woman to obtain freedom and independence, the female authors remarkably often seek compromise solutions that may be described as moderate emancipation in the bosom of the family.

In this perspective, Victoria Benedictsson’s novel Fru Marianne (1887; Mrs Marianne) may be seen as a model text. When, at the end of the novel, Marianne’s hands, white and unaccustomed to work, become tanned, this indicates not only Marianne’s transformation from a passive object to an active subject. When she steps across the threshold of her home to lay out a garden with her own hands, we are witnessing a female act of creation and a female construction of identity, which in turn are portrayed as a fundamental condition for the woman’s loving companionship with her husband.

“And what do you want to be? A clerk? You’ve never been trained in commerce. A teacher? You’ve knowledge, but no qualifications. A seamstress? You don’t know how to cut cloth. And there would be scores of you fighting over every piece of bread.”

From Victoria Benedictsson, Pengar (1885; Eng. tr. Money).

The dream of the complete human being, of a balance between independence and companionship, runs through all the Swedish female literature of the 1880s. One of the greatest obstacles to the realisation of this dream is seen to be the insufficient education and training of the upper- and middle-class girl. Therefore many women, like Victoria Benedictsson’s Marianne, had to undergo a veritable re-education.

“– Then I’ll write for you and help you with the books.

– These little, rosy fingers with ink stains! No, they are meant for kisses.

– They are meant for work, just like yours.

My wife work? No! – That would definitely hurt my sense of honour. – I want to work for you; I want to carry you on my hands!”

From Lydia Kullgren, Kärlek (1885; Love).

Constantin Hansen: Martsministeriet og Folkeaanden, o. 1848, in: C.E. Jensen: Karikatur Album, Chr. Flors Forlag, Copenhagen, 1912

In 1886, Mathilda Roos (1852-1908) published the female novel of development Hårdt mot hårdt (Taking the Tough Line), which can be read as a description of the identity crisis that afflicts the woman who is forced to take responsibility for her own life. The young Cecilia is thrown with brutal force into the financial difficulties that follow upon her father’s death. Cecilia is, in the words of the man whom she eventually marries, a true diamond “that is polished on all sides except one”. As a part of this polishing process, Cecilia is subjected to one trial after the other. After poverty follows the shattered dream of love. Without means she can no longer count upon a suitable match. But the real trial turns out to be her new role as a single and self-supporting woman. The fact that “work suited for a woman’s abilities does not grow on trees” is one of Cecilia’s bitter lessons, and for want of an alternative she accepts a position as a telephone operator. It is with indignation that Mathilda Roos describes the conditions for this occupational group: “That they sit for seven or eight hours in a row with such a taxing job as telephone operation and only get fifty crowns a month for this is a scandalous exploitation of their defenceless situation!”

Mathilda Roos’s novel can also be read as a contribution to the period’s debate about sexuality. Cecilia resists her employer’s tempting offer of love outside the restricted conventions, but has to become a morphine addict before she is saved by a man who both supplies her with a job and offers her love and marriage.

A frequently occurring character in the works of the female authors of the 1880s is the bankrupt father who can no longer provide for his daughters. He turns out to also be a requirement for the possibility of their achieving economic independence – and love. In Mathilda Roos’s writings, he appears not only in Hårdt mot hårdt but also in Familjen Verle (The Verle Family), which was published in 1889. The difference is that Hårdt mot hårdt begins with the bankruptcy and death of the father, whereas Familjen Verle describes the rise and fall of the family right up to the moment when the father shoots himself as a consequence of failed speculation.

Employment as an important step on the woman’s road to independence, which in turn is the prerequisite for her loving companionship with the man, is also the focus of Små själar (Little Souls) by Anna Wahlenberg (1858-1933). The novel was published in 1886, and the author later wrote about it that:

“I was convinced that each and everyone who read the book would experience, as it were, a shock of awakening. The young girls were to understand the risk they were running. Fathers and mothers were to realise the responsibility they had and supply their daughters with a more suitable education, in order that they would be able to stand on their own feet when they felt that they needed this.”

In her collection of short stories Ax och halm (Ears and Straw), which was published in 1887, Amalia Fahlstedt (1853-1923) presents two stories that may be read not only as variations of the doll’s house theme but also as an attempt to put into words the content and meaning of the good marriage. In “Bottenvåningen och en trappa upp” (The Ground Floor and A Flight Higher Up) she describes how an upper-class girl, by falling in love with a skilful tinsmith, gives up her idle life in order to “work her way upward” together with the man. In “Herr och fru Berg” (Mr and Mrs Berg), the owner of a decoration studio leaves his wife, with whom he has little in common, to live instead with one of his employees, the poor and ugly Louise, who shares his interests both in the studio and in the workers’ cause. In both of these short stories, the working partnership is seen as the foundation for true love. As a protest against the division of the middle-class society into a reproductive and a productive sphere, they express the ideal of husband and wife working side by side in loving companionship.

In “Efter sex år” (After Six Years), which forms part of the collection of short stories Ebb och flod (1883; Ebb and Flow), Vilma Lindhé (1838-1922) has the wife exclaim: “It is really my work that has given me happiness […].” Thanks to an old fortune-teller’s encouraging words about her abilities, the idle wife has secretly qualified as an accountant, and in the happy ending she is hired by her spouse.

In the female authors’ texts, work can thus often be combined with love and marriage, no matter whether the woman chooses regular paid employment or whether she, as is more frequently the case, becomes her husband’s partner or colleague. If, on the other hand, the woman chooses an artistic profession, the difficulties immediately begin to mount. The conflict between love and art, between duty and calling, and between everyday life and life as an artist is a theme that recurs, with variations, in the works of the female authors of the 1880s, and one that is often presented on the backdrop of the stage and with an actress or a female singer as the main character.

In the novel Ur tvenne verldar (1885; From Two Worlds), Emilie Lundberg (1858-89), who was herself familiar with the acting profession, describes how the young singer Ellen gives up art and life in the big city in order to marry a skipper in the Stockholm skerries. The author depicts the empty and superficial life in the artistic circles of the capital with ironic distance, but she also describes, in the same way as Victoria Benedictsson in Fru Marianne, the protagonist’s difficulties adjusting to daily life in the country. When Ellen’s yearning to get back on the stage overwhelms her, she breaks out of her marriage – only to discover that the life as an artist has nothing to offer her anymore.

The impossible choice between love and art is also found in Elin Améen’s (1852-1913) short story “Konstnärinna och qvinna” (Artist and Woman) from the collection Träldom och andra berättelser och skisser (1885; Servitude and other Stories and Sketches). In this story, a promising actress abandons her career for the sake of love, only to realise afterwards that her whole being “has become something untrue, which is no longer my own I”. When she wants to return to the stage, her husband forces her to choose between love and art; but when she chooses the latter she does not become happy after all. Despite her triumphs and her glowing enthusiasm for her art, in her heart there is found “the woman’s never slumbering desire for love”.

The fact that the choice between marriage and art involves an insoluble dilemma for the woman is also the subject of Sigrid Elmblad’s (1860-1926) dramatic sketch “Brytning” (Breaking Up) from the collection Vind för våg (1885; Adrift). Here, the young singer Signe finds herself in a conflict between her singing teacher, Professor Brandt, and her fiancé – between the artist’s calling and her future duties as a wife. Not only does the teacher have a name that makes the reader think of Henrik Ibsen’s Brand (Eng. tr. Brand, A Dramatic Poem). But just as Ibsen’s play, “Brytning” may be read both as a defence of individualism and the individual’s obligation to follow her calling, and as a questioning of this very message. But whereas the men in Elmblad’s play – albeit for different reasons – advocate the priority of art over love, the choice is far from evident to the woman. As the curtain falls, Signe stands alone on the stage and asks dejectedly: “Female artist, my duty?”

“I would never have thought that applause could be so intoxicating. It was like a storm; it took my breath away; I had expected to be crushed into the dust, and instead I was lifted up into a bright, large room, with the sudden knowledge that I had wings to fly through it. To be met with so much encouragement, so much appreciation, so much interest, and to know that it had all been brought about by your own little singing… that was… that was tremendous!”

From Sigrid Elmblad, “Brytning” (Breaking Up), in Vind för våg (1885; Adrift).

“I am an artist, but you are a woman”, exclaims the celebrated singer to her married female friend in Vilma Lindhé’s short story “En lysande lott” (A Brilliant Destiny) from Ebb och flod (1883; Ebb and Flow). The meaning of true femininity is also discussed in her novel Vid gassken och dagsljus (1885; By Gaslight and Daylight), where the illuminated and false world of the theatre is contrasted with the kind of life that can bear the scrutiny of daylight.

To the female authors of the 1880s, the stage becomes a metaphor both for the contemporary woman’s stepping out of the door of her home and for the female author’s stepping onto the public literary scene. To take possession of the stage is described as something both threatening and tempting. Threatening, because in this way the woman defies the traditional woman’s role as well as the virtues that are connected with it, that is, living for others and being active ‘in the background’. Tempting, because it offers liberation from this role: as an artist the woman gains the status of an independent and creative subject. However – as the Danish literary scholar Pil Dahlerup has pointed out – when the woman abandons her status as an object, she commits a sin in the eyes of the patriarchy, and accordingly she also feels guilty. In Vilma Lindhé’s Vid gassken och dagsljus, the main character feels like a commodity when she is standing on the stage. In Sigrid Elmblad’s “Brytning”, the female singer’s fiancé watches her with the eyes of a jealous lover. The woman’s fear of taking possession of the stage has furthermore to do with the fact that as an artist she is also regarded as an object. “Female authors and artists are whores”, August Strindberg wrote in a letter to Ola Hansson. When the woman leaves her sheltered position in the home and steps out into the public sphere to sell her product, and thereby also herself, to an anonymous and paying audience, she is looked upon as being everybody’s woman, a prostitute.

“A female artist, my child”, replied Eberhard with great importance, “is never a lady, no matter how great and world-famous she may be.”

“Isn’t she… and what is she then?”

“A neuter, my dear, no more, no less.”

From Josefina Wettergrund, “Småstadsromantik” (Small-Town Romance), in Valda Berättelser vol. 4:1 (1888; Selected Stories).

Translated by Pernille Harsting