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To Love, Enjoy, and Create

Written by: Christina Sundström |

At the turn of the twentieth century, Ellen Key (1849-1926) began to phase out the two great projects of her life: her work as a teacher at a progressive private school and her work as a lecturer at the Arbetareinstitutet (The Workers’ Institute) in Stockholm. When Ellen Key left teaching and lecturing, it was to focus on her writing. In 1900, she had published Barnets århundrede (Eng. tr. The Century of the Child) – a title that would turn out to have an almost prophetic impact – and this work had been such a great success, particularly in Germany, that she could cherish the hope of living from the proceeds of her writing. Ellen Key was thus by no means unknown when she began working seriously as a writer. For years, a storm had been raging around her, sometimes from conservative, sometimes from radical quarters.

Anders Forsström, Caricature of Ellen Key in Söndags-Nisse, August 1900. Universitetsbiblioteket, Lund University

At the Arbetareinstitutet, she had lectured on historical and cultural issues in an attempt to reach the general public and inspire them to consider the great historical perspectives. It was through her lectures on the world classics and the authors of the Nordic Modern Breakthrough that the ordinary man and the ordinary woman made the acquaintance of , for example, the Norwegian-born author Amalie Skram. Among the audience there was the young teacher and future writer Tora Dahl – who was later frozen out at her school for her initiative of going and listening to Ellen Key – but there were also male medical students, who expressed their annoyance by throwing eggs at the female lecturer.

Ellen Key’s experience from her teaching at Anna Whitlock’s school and her lecturing at Arbetareinstitutet (The Workers’ Institute) in Stockholm were of great importance to her. The reactions from pupils and audiences convinced her of the importance of rhetorical techniques for the process of communication. This was a lesson she was able to develop further in the second part of Lifslinjer II (Lifelines), where the pleasure dimension of pedagogy is stressed:

“[…] one does not get far with duty as one’s only incentive; […] it works in the same way as when you have lost your oars and sails and have to scull forward using only the helm. The desire is the sail that catches the wind; the lightest breeze gives more speed than the whole concept of duty!”

Ellen Key had made her debut as a writer already in 1874 with an article on Camilla Collett for the journal Tidskrift för hemmet (Home Journal). This was on the invitation of the editor Sophie Adlersparre, who kept an eye out for young female talent. Ellen Key would have preferred to write about the people’s high school, an issue that was very near to her heart at that time, but the editor advised against that. The topic was considered too controversial. And soon Ellen Key turned out to be too radical for the conservative Sophie Adlersparre. She managed to write an article about the poet Elisabeth Barrett Browning, but their break became definitive when Adlersparre wanted to make cuts in a text about the novelist George Eliot.

Thereafter, Ellen Key gravitated towards the young radicals of the 1880s and began to write in journals close to ‘Det unga Sverige’ (Young Sweden): Verdandi (Verdandi), Revy i litterära och sociala frågor (Review of Literary and Social Issues), Ur dagens krönika (From the Chronicles of the Day), and Framåt (Forward). She participated in the literary forum of ‘Svältringen’ (The Circle of Starvation), and her home in Stockholm became a meeting-place for those interested in culture. As a lecturer, Key was often very ambitious, and it was to a great extent due to her that a European perspective was added to the Swedish intellectual debate of the 1880s.

A Third Position

Yet, it was not until 1889 that Ellen Key’s name really became known to the general public. In connection with the freedom of the press act, she was enraged by the verdicts that went against, among others, Hjalmar Branting and Axel Danielsson, and by the closing down of the broad-minded journal Framåt – and in the beginning of 1889 she held a number of protest lectures in Gothenburg and Stockholm. In March, she was invited to give the introductory address at the student association Verdandi in Uppsala. There, she argued that a society’s restriction of the freedom of speech and of the press did not protect its cultural values (as the adversaries claimed); on the contrary, it obstructed cultural development. Her address was printed in March 1889 and at once led to a heated debate in the newspaper Aftonbladet.

In the years immediately following, Ellen Key was under constant attack. In 1893, for example, the historian Anders Fryxell’s daughter, Eva Fryxell, attacked her in the Svensk Tidskrift (Swedish Journal) with the article “Kvinnliga författaretyper för den naturalistiska riktningen inom litteraturen på 1880-talet” (Examples of Female Authors of the Naturalistic School in the Literature of the 1880s). The article is a review of two biographies written by Ellen Key in connection with the deaths of the mathematician Sonja Kovalevskij and the author Anne Charlotte Edgren Leffler. Eva Fryxell used the two biographies as a point of departure in her attack on the female authors who had adopted Naturalism and abandoned the Christian view of life. Furthermore, she insinuated that the women’s “apostasy” was in fact their adherence to the principle of “free love”. In her extensive reply, Key introduced a third position in the ‘morality controversy’ by dissociating herself both from the guardians of public morals and from the advocates of free love, that is, from two versions of one and the same “monomania”:

“The so-called bohemians became just as monomaniacal in their circling about this one thing, the right of the senses, as those on the other side in their circling about this one thing, the suppression of the senses.”

But the decisive ideological storm did not occur until 1896. At that point, Ellen Key had already held the lecture Missbrukad kvinnokraft (Misused Female Power) in Denmark, without it causing any particular stir. But when she gave the same lecture in Sweden and had it published together with Naturenliga arbetsområden för kvinnor (Natural Fields of Work for Women), a storm of protests broke out over Key’s attitude towards the women’s cause.

For in Missbrukad kvinnokraft Ellen Key had polemicised against what she regarded as excesses in feminism. And this was a charged issue. All that was unexplained and ambiguous in the women’s movement now rose to the surface and created a great stir. Even her friends, for example Alfhild Agrell, reacted, and from Finland Minna Canth contributed to the heated debate.

It was the question of the “specifically feminine nature” that brought out the divisions. In her lecture, Key pointed out that the man and the woman should obviously have equal rights, but at the same time she warned against the “misuse” that the fight for equality could unintentionally bring about:

“This misuse is characterised by the fact that women have invested their liberated powers above all in domains where they have competed with men and, in doing this, to a great extent they have neglected to develop and use their innermost feminine nature.”

Blix Ragnvald: Ellen Key. In: Tyrihans, XII, 1903

In this lecture, motherhood crystallised as the core of Ellen Key’s gender philosophy. Motherhood is not merely regarded as a biological but also as a spiritual capacity that makes women suited for working in professions that require compassion and empathy. Accordingly, women would be able to fully develop their nature as, for instance, doctors, teachers, critics, actors, or gardeners, whereas it would be a misuse of female power to compel women to work in professions that required a more individual, “ruthless”, creativity.

Although Ellen Key felt misunderstood and tried, for example, to develop her views in a less sharp manner in the pamphlet Kvinnopsykologi och kvinnlig logik (Female Psychology and Female Logic), nevertheless the controversy revealed an internal tension in the women’s movement, which – depending on the context – could only be considered as either radical or conservative, either for equality or for distinctive natures.

Ellen Key was a controversial figure, not only in connection with the women’s cause but in general. With regard to the relationship between tradition and modernity in the development of culture, Ellen Key put focus on complexity. It was in connection with her efforts to reconcile the contradictions between conservatism and radicalism into something more complex that Ellen Key became a controversial figure.

Already Ellen Key’s first collection of essays, Tankebilder I-II (1898; Images of Thought), is at least partially influenced by this striving for synthesis. In addition to some previously published texts, the collection also contains two new dialogues, written as pastiches of Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s (1793-1866) frame story in Törnrosens bok (The Book of the Briar Rose). The dialogues were a stylistic experiment whereby Ellen Key tried to bring out nuances that were difficult to formulate regarding such issues as nationalism, art, and individualism. Typical of her wish to see connections where others saw distinctions was also her appraisal of Almqvist as “Sweden’s most modern author”. Under this heading she had addressed an attentive audience of the Swedish cultural elite, thus contributing to a revival of Almqvist in the 1890s. The lecture had in fact first been given in Norway and is a clear indication of Ellen Key’s important role in the cultural reorientation that took place at the end of the century.

In her dedication to Tankebilder I-II (1898; Images of Thought), Ellen Key’s synthesis-based fervour is apparent in her description of life as motion:

“To the young – of all ages – those who possess idealism – although they are well aware of the changeability of ideals.”

Thus, Ellen Key’s writing became a medium: it did not point inward, towards itself, it did not produce works of fiction; rather, it served as a melting pot from which new alloys were constantly extracted. Her works display an immense receptivity – Goethe, Schiller, Almqvist, George Sand, Ibsen, Spencer, Mill, and Nietzsche have in various ways influenced her world of ideas – and at the same time her works stand apart in their originality, in her visionary, unifying approach. Tradition is not contrasted with modernity but is understood in the light of Ellen Key’s commitment to day-to-day politics. The women’s cause, the working-class movement, popular education, and the modern divide between natural science and religious attitudes are an ever-present context in all of her works.

The Writing Human Being

From the turn of the century, when Ellen Key had relinquished the greater security of life as a teacher and a lecturer, she threw herself into the writing of her big work, Lifslinjer I-III (1903-06; Lifelines). Here, one can really speak of a great venture. With this essayistic trilogy she wanted to reach a new generation with a complex of thoughts that included nothing less than love, religion, and society.

The work is an impressive construction in which seemingly irreconcilable elements appear as poles in a synthesis full of tension: women’s liberation and motherliness; Christianity and paganism; individualism and Socialism; beauty and politics are not concepts that exclude one another, but forces involved in a reciprocal interaction. Whereas her thinking in the 1880s was causal and analytical, it is the paradox that is the fundamental figure of thought in Lifslinjer. The work thus combines the engagement of the 1880s, where problems were “submitted to debate”, with the sensibility of the 1890s – ‘not the idea but the emotion’ is the essence of Ellen Key’s “life-faith”.

“The life-faith is, in one word, the synthesis that comprises evolutionism, solidarity, and individualism. The moral law of the life-faith is that the powers that are set in motion through family life, social life, and the individual’s emotional life are only used in such a way that they promote life and happiness both in general and with regard to the individual, no matter if his love, work, and faith later provide him with an existence radiating love or radiating sorrow.”

Ellen Key in Lifslinjer III (Lifelines).

This is why the focus is shifted from the established ‘forms’ to the creative aspect of life, and sexuality is seen as divine creation in the human, where man and woman mutually liberate each other’s creative dimensions. In this context, Key not only came into conflict with the radically oriented part of the women’s movement, those who above all focused on securing the woman’s right to individual self-fulfilment, but she also clashed with the conservative camp.

“Individualisation has already become so powerful a factor that the thinking person ever more often stops herself when the words ‘the man’ or ‘the woman’ have slipped out of her mouth. For both men and women already differ nearly as much among themselves as men and women differ from each other.”

Ellen Key on the relationship between individuality and gender in Lifslinjer I (Lifelines).

In her system of thought, suppressing sexuality was the same as suppressing all creative forces:

“[…] not only in sexual life, no, in every aspect of creativity is sensuality the nourishing and supporting soil, above all the erotic sensuality.”

Ellen Key also took a kind of third position regarding the field of education. In accordance with international currents and in line with the Swedish folk high school’s stress on the creative dimension of education, she criticised the pressure that schools put on pupils through the frenzy of cramming and examination. The fact that she could not join in the feminists’ exultation every time yet another woman passed the higher school or university examination underlines the provocative aspect of her pedagogic views. In place of the institutional and the instrumental, she also saw the creative as a main criterion here:

“Each and everyone understands the absurdity in using the concept of duty as an incentive in the context of aesthetic creation. Inspiration comes or it does not come. And if it has come, it has effects that tens of thousands of hours of dutiful work cannot achieve. It should not be difficult to understand that the closer the ethical action approaches the nature of sublime inspiration, the more perfect this [action] also becomes.”

Whereas the Christians asked themselves how man was created, Ellen Key was interested in the question of how humankind became creative. And whereas the women’s movement demanded formal equality, Ellen Key was interested in the liberation of the specifically female power of creation in the ‘erotic’ encounter, that is, not only the woman’s encounter with the man, but also the mother’s with her child, the teacher’s with her pupils, the gardener’s with her plants, the artist’s with her material…

Hanna Pauli: Vänner, 1900–07, oil painting (part missing), NM 1723, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

In the public sphere, Ellen Key made her mark as a dedicated but at the same time independent participant in political life. She approached the growing Social-Democratic movement, and in 1894 she became the first woman to speak at a May Day meeting in Sweden, but she never became a member of the Social Democratic party. For as a critical observer, she was able to continue mediating between “Individualism and Socialism” – to quote the title of one of her pamphlets from 1895. In this work she maintained that, paradoxically enough, the individual’s right to develop her specific personality would be secured in the Socialist community:

“The hunt for work, the worries about food, those most consuming, deadening, and draining of all afflictions, now characterise both the private and the public life. All around us, they curb countless opportunities to love, enjoy, and create.”

The Myth

Ellen Key spent the first years of the new century for the most part abroad. Only in 1909 did she return for good to Sweden, where, a couple of years later, she had a home built at Lake Vättern. ‘Strand’ (Shore), as the place came to be called, became a meeting place for both the Swedish and the European cultural elite, and during the First World War it became a haven for persecuted people, primarily from Belgium. In this way, the place that was built as a home also became an institution and a myth, the very myth that Ellen Key herself was to become identified with. All of this drained her energy, and it is not possible to talk about any real renewal of her writing after her return to Sweden. In 1906 came Folkbildningsarbetet (The Enterprise of Popular Education), which is a popularised version of the ideas presented in the third part of Lifslinjer. Apart from this, she continued to publish about urgent social issues, especially about the peace cause, which was discussed all over Europe both during and after the First World War. Moreover, she wrote a large biography of her father, Emil Key, who in his time was the founder of the Lantmannapartiet (The Farmers’ Party).

Ellen Key was a figure of her time, both in the sense that she had a keen eye for the period’s trends and also contributed to them and in the sense that her works – precisely because they are not written in an elevated literary style – must be read in the context of the time. Many have reported how Ellen Key enthralled her audience when she lectured. She spoke in a low voice, never raising it, and thereby created the same curiosity in the audience as when you hear someone whispering. Most of her works are more or less direct copies of her lectures, and the fervour that characterises them has also been interpreted in the light of her personality and with awareness of her position on the public scene. Without this implicit understanding, her writings may seem overly high-flown, which is one explanation of why, in the history of literature, the myth of Ellen Key has received more attention than her writings. Or, to put it more correctly: life and work cannot be separated! This is in itself in full agreement with Ellen Key’s own efforts at creating syntheses. Not the individual or society – but the interplay between the individual and society! Not the man or the woman, but the creative exchange between the sexes was what she wanted to emphasise. In life and work. Here, she was in agreement with a broader cultural movement around and after the turn of the century, a movement that to a great extent was carried forward by – but also reflected in – the female authors and the direction of their work. Ellen Key was a representative of an organic aesthetics, in which the sense is not to be found either here or there but emerges from ‘forms’ in constant transformation. Seen from this perspective, she became an organic bond between the Modern Breakthrough and the new century’s modernistic currents.

The organic aesthetics of Ellen Key can only find expression in the figure of the paradox, as for example in the first part of Lifslinjer:

“But [the self-discipline] finds this [more distant and greater] good in the context of love as well as in every other context, in an ever more soulful sensuality, or an ever more sensual soulfulness, not in the spirituality of asceticism, which is ever more bereft of sensuality.”

Translated by Pernille Harsting