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On the Verge of the Forbidden

Written by: Birgitta Ney |

Under the pseudonym ‘Stella Kleve’, a representative of the modern woman became the centre of attention in the heated Nordic literary debate of the 1880s. Hiding behind the pseudonym was Mathilda Kruse (1864-1942), a young woman from the south-Swedish province of Scania, who was later to be known as the author Mathilda Malling. She was the youngest of the Swedish female authors of the 1880s; she was well-educated and widely-travelled; and she wanted to follow the newest trends in her writing – her pseudonym became synonymous with loose morals.

Jenny Nyström: Ateljéinteriör, 1887, gouache, Stockholms Stadsmuseum

A modern literary idiom also needed modern women, she maintained, and it was her portraits of women that provoked the public. This was something she was absolutely conscious of; she did not want to write about the ‘ingénue’, whom she regarded as an anachronism. On the contrary, she wanted to write about the modern woman who knows herself and her sexual desire, and who is even capable of controlling, coldly and calculatingly, the game between the sexes.

Scenes from a Woman’s Life

The novel Berta Funcke (1885; Berta Funcke) may serve as an example of Stella Kleve’s portrayal of the modern woman. It is ground-breaking, also as regards its form, since it is composed of scenes from a woman’s life. The first scene shows Berta as a young girl, sitting and kicking with her naked feet at a heap of sand, and the last one takes place nearly twenty years later, when Berta has just become engaged to be married. Together, the scenes form a kind of close-up on crucial moments or episodes in her life, in which the meaning is concentrated in dialogues and implied changes of atmosphere, even though nothing much seems to be happening. For the real action takes place alongside what is being said, more or less in the same way that Berta is forced to maintain a kind of double entry book-keeping in her emotional life: on the one hand, there is that which can be expressed within the narrow limits of conventionality; on the other hand, there is that which must be held down and back, that which cannot be said.

The key to understanding this young woman is found in the final scene, where Berta has surprised everyone around her by becoming engaged to an older man. Late at night, the mother enters her daughter’s room and asks if Berta really loves the man she is now engaged to. Berta assures her mother that she truly loves him, while the text indicates that the engagement is to be interpreted as the final confirmation of the fact that Berta is at last in full control of herself and thus also of the men around her. Behind a mask that shows a young woman conforming to the pattern of the period, she is able to hide her real ‘I’ and handle the tensions between her inner self and the surrounding world. Coolly observing herself, she recognises that she is a young woman, “but not a child that needs to be instructed”. And when her choice has fallen upon this old-fashioned, formal “Excellency”, this is exactly because it would never occur to him to study her “character”. He is delighted and allured – just as her other beaux – and content with admiring the surface, since he is not capable of understanding what is hidden underneath it. Thus, the engagement may be characterised as a success. Berta’s dissimulation and staging of herself are now complete: she is no longer threatened by the pent-up sexuality, which in the previous scenes had been on the point of surfacing. The artificiality is absolute!

It was in other words not the story in itself that gave offence. That a young girl ends up becoming engaged to an older man in a suitable match clearly was not particularly offensive. It was the atmosphere of pent-up sexuality conveyed in the novel that was shocking. A haze of forbidden desires surfaces and affects the course of events, only to subsequently disappear without any comments and without any direct discussion of its sexual significance.

That Berta accepts precisely this man is not merely a question of calculation. The combination of a sadomasochistic disposition in Berta and her ‘suitable’ match is more than intimated through the description of the episode that, without transition, leads directly to the successful proposal. The couple, Berta and “the Excellency”, were out riding:

“With a hand of iron he tightened the reigns so that the animal’s head was bent firmly towards its chest, and from the raised hand the horsewhip came whizzing down. –

“When the horse finally walked subdued and calmly, Berta Funcke was deadly pale. The lieutenant who rode beside her, thought that it was out of fear.

“Two days later the Excellency proposed and was accepted.”

The double game of female coquetry in Stella Kleve’s Berta Funcke (1885; Berta Funcke): “[…] she who all her life had restrained herself in order not to bother others, in order to avoid talking about herself. No!, no scenes, no confidentiality, for then she would have her whole life raked up again […].

“And when she got up, she whispered sadly: ‘Must I then always – all through my life – make do with play-acting? –.’”

Since the novel is an amplification and adaptation of a short story – in fact Stella Kleve’s debut story – it may shed light on the ‘underlying’ text in Berta Funcke to also examine the ‘rehearsal’ story, “Flirtations” (Flirtations), which in the Danish translation by Herman Bang was presented as fragments of a life story. We here find Berta’s encounters with men, her apparently meaningless flirting, and her playing with the fire of sexuality, in the condensed form of the short story, which gives a both dramatic and tragic dimension to the protagonist of the novel.

In the opening of the short story, there is a scene that is missing in the novel. It is a children’s ball; the girls are eleven or twelve years old, and their dancing partners are roughly twenty. Immediately behind the hall where the dance is taking place, in a room lit by a lamp with a red shade, we find Berta with a young man, Erik. She is described as a young girl in a white dress with a dance skirt, stubby legs, and her hair in a curly cloud around her head. But the girlish impression is contradicted by her posture: she is reclining in a big chair with her arms hanging down limply, her mouth half open, and her eyes nearly closed. At her feet, a “big strong lad”, with his back towards her, is busy repairing her fan:

“They didn’t speak any longer. She had put up her legs and turned around. She was sitting and watching the bent head, with something strangely telling in her eyes. She placed one arm on the back of the chair, moved further to the side, a bit further […] towards him and continued watching; her head was now just above his neck, and all of a sudden Berta bent down and bit Erik in the neck.”

Berta is thus overwhelmed by a desire she does not understand and that she cannot explain when Erik demands an answer and the compensation of a kiss. In the novel this scene is omitted, which is quite logical since Berta is described there as more in control of herself. However, a situation similar to this one is found both in the short story and in the novel. Berta is at that point a young woman and has gone skating with another attentive admirer when she has the impulse to touch the scar near his mouth, under the pretext that he has something at the corner of his mouth. But here she is a bit older and does not admit what she has done; instead, she acts as if nothing has happened: “I’m sorry – did I hurt you? – There, there! Now it’s gone.”

Suppressed aggression in Stella Kleve’s Berta Funcke (1885; Berta Funcke):

“She spoke a bit nervously and quickly pulled off the loose fur glove.

“With her white little finger bent, raised above the other fingers, she drew near to his face, – and suddenly she lowered her long, pointed nail into the little, white scar.”

That these actions are connected with her fear of rejection is also evident in the short story. For in the brief version, Berta’s ‘flirtations’ are a consequence of the humiliation she experienced when she once showed a man her love. On that background, her almost compulsory repetition of one non-committal act of flirtation after another appears to be both a protection against the pain that genuine feeling can result in and a perversion of her ability to let herself go emotionally at all. Her ability to love has turned into sadism: Berta deliberately lures the men into exposing themselves, and the moment they declare their love, she rejects them.

In the final scene of the novel, this artificiality is so complete that not even her mother is able to see through her: “‘Oh, Mummy’, she answered cheerfully, kissing her mother, ‘you seem to think that I am very complicated. You shouldn’t think that.’”

The novel ends with Berta in front of the mirror, convinced that she will manage to continue her play-acting. The short story, on the other hand, ends with an appeal to the only person who has been able to see through her – a doctor she by chance has met abroad. Here, too, the short story is clearer, since she asks him not to judge her too severely, seeing that he knows the motive behind her disavowal of her feelings: the narrow boundaries of a woman’s life.

Read in this way and together, the two texts form a critical, if not entirely constructive, reply both to the period’s moral double standards and to its taboo on female sexuality. The suggested and the implied in Stella Kleve’s impressionistic style did not prevent her message from coming through – quite the contrary. Although she did indeed keep within the bounds of appropriate behaviour in her portrayals of these overly refined and jaded young women, the readers nevertheless caught on to the erotic atmosphere, and they condemned it. As the Swedish critic Karl Warburg wrote in a review: “Nothing in the usual sense of ‘indecent’ is ‘happening’ throughout the book, and yet this is among the most disgusting accounts that one could ever read.”

Karl Warburg reviews the novel Alice Brandt (Alice Brandt) in 1888 in the Gothenburg newspaper Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning:

“It is totally impossible to quote any of the expressions or descriptions whereby Stella Kleve believes that she has produced a male feat, that she has contributed to the ‘documents humains’, but this reviewer has scarcely read anything more, at one and the same time, ‘sophisticated’ and ‘intensely carnal’ – to use her own expressions – in those Swedish books that lay claim to being literary.”

A Touch of Decadence

H. Tegnér, theatre sketch, Illustreret Tidende, 1882, The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Stella Kleve’s women were indeed playing on the very verge of the forbidden. This is why it is tempting to read her portraits as female counterparts to the decadent male heroes in the contemporary literature in, for example, England, France, and, of course, the other Nordic countries, where a notable example is Herman Bang’s Haabløse Slægter (1880; Generations without Hope) – a novel that was even confiscated and whose Danish author was fined. Or, why not: as a female challenge to the mostly male-dominated modern literature.

This is at least the way in which her most famous – or, rather, most notorious – short story was read: “Pyrrhussegrar” (Pyrrhic Victories), which was published on 15 October 1886 in the radical journal Framåt (Forward) – the journal of the women’s association in Gothenburg, to which many Nordic authors contributed with controversial articles.

The short story consists of a series of episodes from Märta Ulfklo’s life, which she recalls when it is too late, that is, when she has arrived at a Swiss sanatorium in order to “breathe in the air of the Alps, drink grape juice, and bathe in the sunlight – has come to Montreux to die”. Like Berta Funcke, she has never given in to her awakening sexual feelings, but her struggle with herself has been at the cost of her vital force: she has become physically ill. At the sanatorium she recalls her hard-earned victories over her sexual drive, and she calls into question the conditions under which she has lived. She dies with the realisation that it is the artificial life situation of women that has taken her life; Märta Ulfklo has never gone against the conventions – but she has acknowledged her desire!

Fighting to the death; the protest of the female character in Stella Kleve’s “Pyrrhussegrar” (1886; Pyrrhic Victories):

“It was this wretched guardedness, which she now hated and regarded as her misfortune, – this ambiguous substitute for virtue that society forces the woman to patch over all her feelings and all her interests, right up to the moment when she becomes an insipid, needy creep who […] always retreats.”

In this way, Stella Kleve went against the conventions – women’s sexual desire was a literary taboo – and not only did the short story give rise to censure from conservative quarters, it also added fuel to the ‘morality controversy’. The short story caused such an outcry that the smouldering antagonisms burst into the open, and this precipitated the closing-down of Framåt. The outcry was supposedly due not least to Stella Kleve’s literary idiom: a nervous, impressionistic style, in which it is Märta’s perspective that produces indiscreet images of the male body. With this idiom, Stella Kleve shaped a different gaze on the individual, one that caused particular offence because it was a female gaze, which in this way objectified and explored a male person.

The female gaze’s objectification of the male body in Stella Kleve’s “Pyrrhussegrar” (1886; Pyrrhic Victories):

“He is standing high up on the rope-ladder – his arm, naked and muscular, is stretched upwards, and his hand is clenched around the rope. Above the wide, loose-fitting shirt his uncovered neck bends forward, and his profile with the straight nose and the half-open lips stands out freely and sharply against the sky. The sailor’s cap has slipped far down his neck, his thick, curly, sand-coloured hair has a metallic shine in the bright light over the sea.”

However, the critical dimension of her literary idiom did not lead to a mutual understanding between Stella Kleve and other women who were critical of the massive repression of women’s sexual life. This may be due to the fact that Stella Kleve had herself contributed to aggravating her differences with the somewhat older female authors – Alfhild Agrell and Anne Charlotte Edgren Leffler, to mention two of them – by publishing, in the autumn of 1886, an article in Framåt entitled “Om efterklangs- och indignationslitteraturen i Sverige” (On the Swedish Literature of Imitation and Indignation). Clearly taking aim at, among others, Alfhild Agrell, Stella Kleve argues that the women should stop writing ‘literature of indignation’. Not because their indignation was unwarranted – “society’s laws are all too lenient with men and all too severe with women” – but because the authors are running the risk of “causing distress, or indeed resentment”. For, as she writes – in French, for good measure – all genres are fine, except those that bore the reader. It was with articles like this one that she fostered the atmosphere of aestheticism and decadence associated with her pseudonym.

From Stella Kleve to Mathilda Malling

Mathilda Kruse’s time as ‘Stella Kleve’ actually lasted only a couple of years. In addition to the novel Berta Funcke, in the period from 1884 to 1889 she wrote a great number of short stories and articles, which were published in newspapers and journals, and in the novel Alice Brandt (1888; Alice Brandt) she presented yet another startling portrait of a woman. Only one critic – Ola Hansson – had written truly appreciatively about her first novel. Otherwise, the general opinion among the critics was that her descriptions were so permeated by indecency that one was left positively disgusted. For a while, Stella Kleve and Ola Hansson, along with a few others, tried to ‘Europeanise’ Swedish literature, but the authors were divided – and in the waning nineteenth century Stella Kleve fell silent.

Tyra Kleen, illustration in Ord och Bild, 1898, Universitetsbiblioteket, Lund University

Mathilda Kruse married a wholesale dealer and settled down in Copenhagen, and only in 1894 did she make her comeback as an author with a new novel, but this time without her old pseudonym. The novel, En roman om förste konsuln. Från den 18 Brumaire till freden i Amiens (A Novel about the First Consul. From 18 Brumaire until the Peace of Amiens), first appeared, anonymously, in Copenhagen. This was the beginning of the second period of her writing career, where she – now under the name of Mathilda Malling – published about thirty ‘manor house novels’ and historical novels. She lived in Copenhagen until her death in 1942, but she continued to write her books in Swedish. From 1895 her books were published in Stockholm; they often appeared in several printings, and they were translated into several other languages, in addition to Danish.

At first, there may seem to be a vast difference between Stella Kleve and Mathilda Malling. In her autobiographical works she ascribes her earlier production to a youthful lack of judgement. And there is something to that – Mathilda Malling certainly did not belong to any literary avant-garde. But if one examines her work, one notices that features from her first novels recur in the later ones – for example in the two novels about Nina: this female protagonist could be a sister of Berta Funcke or Märta Ulfklo. The author’s interest in psychology and her lively, at times sensual, language is a shared characteristic, as is the fact that the novels from the second period show her predilection for descriptions of the young woman and her awakening love life. But they are staged in a different manner – the historical framework allows for another, socially acceptable, kind of curiosity, and a great deal of the eroticism is likewise absorbed in the historical milieu.

Accordingly, the transformation of the immoral Stella Kleve to the popular Mathilda Malling – “the grand old dame of the Swedish sentimental novel” – is not completely inexplicable. When the author stopped using her experimental idiom – the real ‘dynamite’ in Stella Kleve’s writing – and employed more traditional literary expressions, the contents became acceptable, even to ‘good’ middle-class families; but it no longer interested the critics.

From the perspective of literary history, the development of her writing career is not completely unique either. Many female authors began in the avant-garde, only to later turn their attention away from the present and towards a historical subject. This also applies, for example, to the Danish-Norwegian author Laura Kieler. Perhaps the phenomenon can be explained as a completely understandable retreat – the climate was tough, and the women who insisted on the highest standards in their art ran the risk of ending up dangerously close to madness. But perhaps it can also be explained by a desire to write about something else: a desire to give free rein to the imagination that had been held back, both with regard to ideas and aesthetics, during the polemical years of the 1880s.

The transformation can thus, in Stella Kleve’s case, be seen in a wider perspective where the ideas and aesthetics of Naturalism, Impressionism, and Decadence gradually changed into other forms of expression in the writings of the female authors. In that sense, Mathilda Malling represents a general tendency, which around the turn of the century found a prominent and carefully considered expression in the philosophical work of Ellen Key.

Translated by Pernille Harsting