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Desire to Write

Written by: Brita Nordlander |

In a letter of 26 September 1887 to Gustaf af Geijerstam, Hilma Angered-Strandberg offers something of an aesthetic manifesto. She wants her fiction to spring forth, both “from a desire to write in the moment of inspiration, and from a desire to be useful, to grasp people’s ears and force them to listen to all the things that are wrong and shameful out here”. The lines are written with reference to her breakthrough work Västerut (1887; Out West), which is a collection of short stories set in the Swedish west-coast province of Bohuslän. It was to this place – or more precisely to Fjällbacka – that the upper-class Stockholm girl Hilma Strandberg had come in 1883 as a telegraphist, and it was here that she made her debut as an author with the collection of poems I dur och moll (1886; In Major and Minor) under the pseudonym ‘Lilian’. As an outsider, she was at first accepted by the inhabitants of Fjällbacka as a breath of fresh air, while she also gained insight into the often cruel laws and hierarchies of the small community. She was especially revolted by the so-called Schartauanism’s spiritual oppression and bullying and by the social injustice. This indignation found expression in her descriptions of the unusual and hard destinies of some of the fishermen and of the proud but lonely lives of some of the women.

Schartauanism is a type of Pietism, inspired by Henric Schartau (1757-1825), which had the greatest following in the western and southern parts of Sweden.

The short stories are written partly in dialect and with a palpable stylistic freshness. Hilma Strandberg was entirely familiar with her subject matter, and the description of the setting in Västerut compares favourably with, for example, August Strindberg’s Hemsöborna (Eng. tr. The Natives of Hemsö), which appeared in the same year and which is primarily based on the second-hand knowledge of the holiday visitor. Indeed, the reception of Västerut was overall positive.

A Swedish pioneer family in South Dakota ca 1900, photograph from: Ulf Beijbom: Drömmen om Amerika. Forum, Stockholm, 1971

Nevertheless, the publication of the collection of short stories had been preceded by high drama. Especially the anti-clerical short story “Nitälskan” (The Zeal), which had already been printed separately in the Gothenburg newspaper Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning in 1885 under the pseudonym ‘Elma’, roused the fury of the inhabitants of the Bohuslän skerries. From then on, the author was regarded as a malevolent scandal-monger, and she took refuge with the Hedlund family in Gothenburg, where she remained for a year. During that period, she became one of the founders of the women’s journal Framåt (Forward). Interestingly enough, Victoria Benedictsson at about the same time faced the resentment of the inhabitants of her hometown of Hörby, who had recognised themselves in her short story “Fairbrooks krögare” (The Innkeeper of Fairbrook).

“What I have written in my book is true, photographically faithful. But only few understand it; it sounds too extreme. But out here everything is extreme.”

From a letter of 1888 to Victoria Benedictsson.

In 1888, Hilma Strandberg left Fjällbacke once and for all in order to travel to America and marry the painter Hjalmar Angered, who was there already. The couple’s six-year stay in America became a bitter struggle for survival. They lost their two children, and suffering from a lung disease, worn out, and destitute, Hilma Angered-Strandberg returned to Sweden. Her husband followed at a later point.

In spite of these external difficulties, she found the strength to write two novels, Den nya världen (The New World) and På prärien (On the Prairie), which both appeared in 1898. Here she made use of her own hard-earned experience of immigrant life in America. To a great extent, Den nya världen is a fictionalising of the author’s first years of marriage, with the upper-class girl Louise Niefelt and the working-class boy and painter Tore Hultman as the protagonists. Louise soon realises that America does not live up to her dream of equality and democracy. Through her discovery that cynicism and money are the only ways to succeed, she is forced to question her belief in America as the ideal country of pioneers and liberty, a view that not least the journal Framåt had promulgated in some articles in 1886. In the novel, the couple are heading for a grim end: the husband’s death and the wife’s suicide.

The depiction in Den nya världen of America and of the harshness found there was unique in its time. Hilma Angered-Strandberg describes in detail the interior of a hotel ‘parlor’, the colourful crowds, the natural scenery, and the strikes and famine in Chicago. However, the portraits of the main characters are psychologically untenable.

“Not only did she come up with a new subject matter (which was quite unusual at the time), namely the hitherto virtually unknown Swedish America, but more than that, she came up, we thought, with new and intense tones of voice. She left the established realism of the 1880s behind her to allow her own personality to come closer to the reader. Yet, she was no subjectivist or romantic of the school of Selma Lagerlöf and others; she had her own, rather biting, ruthless voice. There was something one might call unconcerned about her, which pleased us”, writes Marika Stiernstedt about Hilma Angered-Strandberg in 1941 in Svensk Litteraturtidskrift (Swedish Journal of Literature).

In the collection of short stories Från det nya och gamla landet (From the New Land and the Old) she also partly takes her motifs from America. The stories are among the best she wrote, and in some of them, which take place in a Swedish setting, she lashes out against the hypocritical representatives of the old, oppressive society. A suggestive, expressionistic style underlines the social pathos that runs through the collection, as for example in the short story “Twänne hus” (Two Houses):

“Around the sky there is a black, rolling sandbank. The sun is trying to penetrate the silver-white clouds of the arch, but at each attempt the horizon, like a beast of prey on the alert, pushes out tattered, dust-grey floes of cloud, like vulture claws or wolf paws. They violently grab the cold, white firmament and sink their piercing tips of torrential rain down into the ground. Down there all the colours lie, beaten to death. Frozen blue, the once white house clings to the mountain […] on the wall, the long and narrow black mouth of the window purses up as if it wanted to hiss out laments.”

I Am Simply a Depicter

With their continuous struggle against illness and extreme poverty, the subsequent life of the Angered couple became a story of misery, which can be followed in Hilma Angered-Strandberg’s long-standing correspondence with Anna Levertin and, from 1912, with Marika Stiernstedt. The Hedlund family was a source of support. The same was true of Ellen Key, although their opinions differed now and then. With regard to Ellen Key’s advice to her of writing “psychologically and socially”, she says, for example: “Good Heavens! What do I care about things like that. I am simply a depicter, merely a depicter. When I reproduce what I see, I’m at my best. It is Ellen who has wrecked my style.” However, a bit further on she writes: “Shame on you, Hilma, how ungrateful you are. There is no one on earth who has done what Ellen has done for you.”

Hemma (At Home) “is a work with great flaws, full of indistinct and blind feelings, based on a hollow idea, but held up by a passion that is genuine, even when it is reckless, and by a conviction that is sincere, even when it is mistaken”.

Fredrik Böök in Essayer och kritiker (1912; Essays and Reviews).

One of the many proofs of this is Ellen Key’s appreciative preface to the German edition of Lydia Vik. En själs historia (Lydia Vik. The Story of a Soul), which was published in 1904 in both Swedish and German. The novel has a strongly autobiographical streak, with the description of Lydia Vik’s childhood and early youth being coloured by the author’s own experiences – the closeness to her father, the alienation from her mother’s rigid religiosity, and the breaking up of the home after the death of her parents.

As an adult, Lydia enters into a free and unconventional relationship with the author Måns Löfvén. When their firm intention to remain unmarried can no longer withstand the pressure from their surroundings, Måns forces their marriage. Lydia sees this as a betrayal, and it damages their relationship. Måns does not succeed with his writings, whereas Lydia secretly authors a book. Her work receives scathing criticism from her husband, and she wants to leave him but in the end nevertheless remains.

This conflict thematises, in an interesting way, the female author’s experience of herself. For Lydia, writing is indispensable to her existence: “For who can pull out the red thread that is twined from the bottom of one’s nature and that shines through one’s destiny? Ever since as a child she determinedly claimed her right to go after that which cried out most strongly in her, she had experienced defeat. Something stood in her way, one by one her hopes burnt out – but she always rose again from the ashes with greater vigour. That was the core of her existence.”

For her husband’s sake, she nevertheless disavows her book with the words: “You know, ultimately I am just a woman – that book was bound to fly away in the wind on many, many tiny, white wings.” This in itself unexpected resignation may be understood as bitter irony. It also confirms Lydia Vik’s affinity with the female writing tradition of the 1880s, in which the dream of ‘the love of one’s life’ is as strong as the dream of ‘the work of one’s life’, and where one dream appears to depend on the other:

“Already as a child on her father’s lap she dreamed of a great, great love who would take her as she was, with all that was hers, lift her up in his arms, and let her fall asleep there, oblivious of herself because there was someone else who embraced all that was hers and added it to his own and became bigger and stronger than she. She never encountered that love.”

Hilma Angered-Strandberg’s deeply serious commitment to all that she writes does not prevent there from being streaks of exceptionally vivid humour, even in Lydia Vik. In a review from 1904, the Swedish critic Oscar Levertin commends this novel as being “an extremely readable and talented book”.

Thanks to a grant, the Angered couple were able to make a journey to Italy the year after the publication of Lydia Vik, and in Under söderns sol (1905; Under the Southern Sun) the author offers intense, critical as well as positive, images of the country she had always been longing for. The Mediterranean setting is found again in På bygator och alpvägar (1915; On Village Streets and Alpine Roads) where, inspired, she moves about in the “untidy and feverishly hot, somewhat unreliable and very infatuating Italy, the country where light and shadows, smiles and distrust, splendour and chaos lie so close to each other that imperceptibly they merge into each other […]. This Italy with its constant surprises, its spaciousness […]. That was what the deep, deep happiness of the South implied.”

However, the single work of her own that Hilma Angered-Strandberg thought most of was the novel Hemma (At Home) from 1912. In this novel, in the typical manner of the 1880s, the haughty and hypocritical pastor and husband is contrasted with the idealistic and truth-telling author, who is inspired by an Ibsenesque/Romantic idealism and moralism. The reception was mixed, and in her disappointment the author tried to console herself with Strindberg’s words. About her debut work, Västerut, he is reported to have said: “She is ahead of them all.” Hilma Angered-Strandberg cites these words by Strindberg in a letter of 1912 to Marika Stiernstedt, and she continues: “Them all, at that time: Mrs Edgren, Agrell, Mrs Benedickson [sic] (Ernst Ahlgren), etc.” The negative criticism made her consider reworking the novel and toning down the ideological discussion to the benefit of the realistic narrative, which the author herself considered to be her strength. The project was never completed, however.

While Ellen Key was working on the preface to Barbarens son (The Son of the Barbarian), Hilma Angered-Strandberg was staying with her at ‘Strand’ (as Ellen Key’s home was called). The story goes that Ellen Key, who was then re-reading Hilma Angered-Strandberg’s work, came rushing downstairs and shouted: “Hilma, Hilma, you write like a god but you use commas like a dud.”

H. Schiller in Diktare och idealister (1928; Poets and Idealists).

Hjalmar Angered died in 1919, and Hilma continued the struggle on her own. Financial help from friends as well as the literature prize from ‘Samfundet De Nio’ (The De Nio Society) enabled her, for the first time, to enjoy a period of financial security. But in these same years she was gradually forgotten, and when her last book, Barbarens son (The Son of the Barbarian), was published in 1924, it was described as “a voice from the dead”. The novel focuses on the problems concerning the artist, represented by the Italian wood-carver Giovanni, and the text revolves around two fundamental questions: is art free or is it bound by the dogmas of the church? And does the artist work unselfishly or to make himself immortal? As in the case of Lydia Vik, it is probable that this is yet another representation of the author’s role, in which Hilma Angered-Strandberg seems to express her final judgement on her life as a writing woman.

She died in Merano in Italy in 1927 from a serious heart disease, but until the very end she was possessed by a desire to write. Through bitter experience, she realised that if an author wants to depict life in a credible way, she must in her fiction allow herself the lack of order that is characteristic of life itself.

Translated by Pernille Harsting