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A soul of fine and strong and fond and ardent feeling

Written by: Birgitta Holm |

As soon as we start studying Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht (1718-1763), we become aware that she still provokes hefty controversy today. Writing about her always seems to result in an argument. It may safely be said that she is the most challenging author in the annals of Swedish literature. The case of Mrs Nordenflycht is also interesting in that her literary output was processed by the first woman docent (associate professor) in the history of literature in Scandinavia, Hilma Borelius (1869-1932). Hilma Borelius’ conclusion intimates something of the atmosphere surrounding Mrs Nordenflycht: “The treatment to which literary scholarship – with the exception of Atterbom – has subjected Mrs Nordenflycht right up until recently should more correctly be called ill-treatment.” To be on the safe side, Hilma Borelius adds: “Not even Atterbom is free of distortion.”

C.A. Ehrensvärd: Poetens historia, 1795, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

What is it that provokes these reactions? Before we can address this question we should look at some examples of the salvos. A monograph from 1967 – today considered by many to be the most balanced – uses strong words of warning with regard to Hilma Borelius’ female perspective. Her book is, we read, “powerfully marked by its female author’s subjective evaluations.” Oscar Levertin (1862-1906), poet and critic, and in his day an influential cultural voice, accords Mrs Nordenflycht a prominent literary position. But a woman writer of a later period, Viveka Heyman, is nonetheless quite justified in writing in Kvinnornas Litteraturhistoria (1981; The Women’s History of Literature):

“Oscar Levertin and Henrik Schück, to mention two major names, are among those who have taken her categorically seriously, and who have been even more categorically surprised by their own open-mindedness in so doing. It is, in other words, not entirely unwarranted when feminists nowadays give that kind of male conceitedness a pasting.”

Sun Axelsson bases her views in Författarnas Litteraturhistoria I (1977; Authors’ History of Literature, vol. 1) on a polemic against Lennart Breitholtz and his section in Ny illustrerad svensk litteraturhistoria (1954; New Illustrated History of Swedish Literature). Maria Bergom-Larsson, at the end of her article on Mrs Nordenflycht in Kvinnornas Litteraturhistoria, draws up a list of men’s evaluations that can be seen as representative of the “conceitedness” identified by Viveka Heyman.

However, it is not exclusively a case of ‘men against, women for’, as is patently illustrated by Anna Maria Lenngren, Mrs Nordenflycht’s immediate successor in the annals of prominent Swedish women poets. In 1798, Anna Maria Lenngren wrote a poem, “Dröm” (Dream), on the subject of Mrs Nordenflycht. It is hard to read this poem as anything other than condescending. The poem was written after Gustaf Fredrik Gyllenborg – Mrs Lenngren’s fellow poet and at one time also a close friend of Mrs Nordenflycht – had read aloud a laudatory poem to Mrs Lenngren at the Swedish Academy. “Dröm” was intended as her poem of thanks.

The title alludes to a poem by Mrs Nordenflycht, “En dröm” (A Dream). Mrs Nordenflycht’s dream-poem is a large-scale theodicy. Like Dante in his Divine Comedy, the poetess travels to the realm of the dead. Here she meets the blessed and the damned. Having first been frightened, she remains among the chosen, dazzled by truth:

She felt her strength transfigured into weakness,
And dizzy now at her long-lasting sojourn,
She felt the blinding light of truth assail her,
Her eyes so sore could see it glow all over,
So that the earth she must again recover,
The storm and pulse of life once more to merge with.

Sin styrka kände hon i swaghet sig förandra,
Och liksom hisna wid at längre wistas der.
Hon blef förblindad af det klara sannings ljus,
Det hon så ömnogt såg på alla sidor blänka,
Och måste sig altså til jorden åter sänka,
Ja löpa in på nyt til lifwets storm och brus.

Before she returns, however, she is allowed to meet her beloved, her deceased husband Jacob Fabricius, who explains to her the meaning of the difficulties and imperfections of life on earth.

Like Mrs Nordenflycht’s poem, Mrs Lenngren’s verse is set in Elysium. By a laurel-shaded spring we meet Mrs Nordenflycht seated alongside Gustaf Philip Creutz – her poet colleague, and thus also Gyllenborg’s fellow poet. Mrs Nordenflycht complains to her friend Creutz. She complains that Gyllenborg has forsaken her. Gyllenborg, she says, has praised another woman poet, one who is undeserving. In her complaint, Mrs Nordenflycht points out aspects of herself that are lacking in Mrs Lenngren: the scope of her endeavours, the breadth of her reading, her undertakings on behalf of womankind. The major achievements to which Mrs Nordenflycht is here made to refer include the poems “Tåget öfver Bält” (March across the Belt) and “Fruentimrets försvar” (In Defence of Women), with which Mrs Lenngren, according to her own poem, cannot compete:

But what exploit of literary soul
Tell me, didn’t she deserve it?
She never read a word of Bayle,
Which Kellgren’s phantom can describe.

I wrote defence of all my sex,
Which all my memories still preserve,
And she perhaps the need has found.
For her own sex to defend her.

Along a long and endless way
My wit has journeyed far and wide,
And carried me across the Belt,
And she is almost never gone.

Med hvilken bragd af vitter Själ,
Säg mig förtjente Hon väl detta?
Hon aldrig last et ord i Bayle,
Som Kellgrens skugga vet berätta.

Jag skref mit hela Köns forsvar,
Som alla minnen än förvara,
Och hon – törhända nödigt har
At Könet hänne må försvara.

Mit Snille på et vidsträckt fält
Gjort färder, som man vet, ej korrta,
Och fort mig borrt längst öfver Bält,
Och hon – är nästan aldrig borrta.

Lyrical Tone

There is no mistaking the derisive element in Mrs Lenngren’s poem. But what is it about Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht that makes her such an easy target for condescension and ridicule? There is, nevertheless, one aspect of her work which no one disputes: the passages of true lyricism. One of these is the prelude to her major philosophical poem, “En dröm”:

Oh powerful one! Source of all beings,
Author of time and worlds!
Spring from which all things gush forth,
Highest of all I can imagine!

Du magt! du Varelsernas Källa,
Du tids och Verldars Uphofs-Man!
Du grund! ur hvilken tingen qvälla,
Du högst af hvad jag tänka kan!

Other applicable passages come from her major poem in defence of women; take, for example, the following lines, from which Kerstin Ekman might well have taken the title for her novel Springkällan (1976; The Spring) – of women’s creative power, we read:

They stop the passage from a spring
And wonder why it flows no longer.
They snare the eagle’s foot, tear its wings apart,
Then fault him later for not soaring towards the sun.

Man tapper ådran til uti en Springe-källa,
Och undrar se’n derpå at ådran ej vil quälla.
Man snärjer Ørnens fot, dess vingar sönderslår,
Förviter honom se’n at han ej Solen når.

The great lyrical tone is primarily found in her late love poetry, such as “Ensligheten” (Loneliness), “Öfver en Hyacint” (Over a Hyacinth), “Fragment av en Heroide” (Fragment of a Héroïde) or this stanza from “Til ***” (To ***):

What have I seen? What dreadful torment?
What new subjects for my suffering?
What oil on my misfortune’s flames?
What fateful choice for my heart?
The eyes that glowed with tenderness,
That all my life, my death, contained,
Are filled with tears of grief and longing
For whom! Alas, for one who is not me.

Hvad har jag sedt? hvad gruflig plåga?
Hvad nya ämnen för mit qval?
Hvad olja på min olycks låga?
Hvad öde för mit hjertas wal?
De ögon, som af ömhet brunnit,
Som ha mit lif, min död, i sig,
Ha nyss af sorg och saknad runnit,
För hvem? Ach för en an än mig.

These highlights are found in Mrs Nordenflycht’s lyric poetry, and today few would deny that in this respect, she is a most important writer. What would seem to cause offence is the sense of her own worth, the bragging, even, in Mrs Nordenflycht’s writings. But how should we interpret this self-image?

Pehr Hilleström, Drottningholm, c. 1779, private collection. From Gerda Cederblom: Pehr Hilleström som kulturskildrare 1-2, Uppsala 1927-29

In the history of Swedish literature, Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht is usually credited with introducing subjective poetry. Levertin writes, for example, of Den sörgande TurturDufwan (The Sorrowing Turtledove), Mrs Nordenflycht’s collection of verses published upon the death of her husband, that it contains “the first utterly subjective poems of our art of poetry”. Levertin links this achievement with another phenomenon: Mrs Nordenflycht was the first writer in Swedish literature to view her writing as a vocation, an assignment, a cultural calling in itself. This is in turn linked to Mrs Nordenflycht’s status as one of the first Swedish cultural personages to live by her pen – a professional writer from desire and necessity.

This all points towards something of a new departure: a new subjectivity, individualism, autonomy, and self-assertion. A new bourgeois self-satisfaction, a new poetic vanity. Or, as Levertin writes of Mrs Nordenflycht: “She is the first modern individual in Swedish literature.”

This new self-image implies, as Levertin also points out, several things. One important factor is an ‘I’ that begins to claim its private rights, the rights of personal emotional life, the right to be heard. In that respect, moreover, according to Levertin, Mrs Nordenflycht was one of the first in the world. Another important factor is that this ‘I’ considers its need for expression and its expressive ability to be an asset to the nation, or to humankind. This view emerges in a letter to patron of the arts Carl Gustaf Tessin, in which Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht writes of the significance of poetry. All “civilised people”, she writes, except the Swedes, can boast a Virgil, a Fontenelle, a Pope or a Gellert. It is thus of great importance, in her opinion, that she have the opportunity to work on her moral teachings in verse. And in a declaration to the Estates of the Realm, when applying for state subsidy to support her writing, she has no hesitation in asserting the importance of guaranteeing her a secure position from which she may be creative. Hardship does not lead to greatness: “the pitiful conditions” in which she is living have the effect that they “always weaken and stifle all mental faculties, just as they do for the strong sex”.

TankebyggarOrden (Order of the Thought Builders), established in 1753, is a sign pointing in the same direction. It is the oldest organised society for literary creativity in Sweden. Mrs Nordenflycht was elected to membership in the April of its first year of existence – as member No. 27. Writing about her admission, one of the founders noted that it was “a blessing that humbles us”.

The Enlightened Central Figure

Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht soon became the central figure in the inner circle of the TankebyggarOrden. She was, along with Gyllenborg and Creutz, the leading writer of the Order’s publication Våra försök (Our Attempts), which later became Witterhetsarbeten (Literary Works). In his memoires, Gyllenborg wrote of Mrs Nordenflycht during the first years of the Order: “This society, where the unceasing vivacity of the mind was based on extensive knowledge, brought her associates from all stations of life, from all lovers of literary work, from all people of discernment and true learning. In her house one was sure of finding the most enlightened and the best company, which was often tiresome for someone who wished to receive her undivided attention and found her exclusive company the most pleasant of all.”

The Female Lyre

Seen from the perspective of ‘regular’ literary history, Mrs Nordenflycht could perhaps be called the first self-aware Swedish poet. She could perhaps also be reproached for a far too egoistic desire for happiness, for ‘bragging’, and for ambition. Hilma Borelius sees all this as linked to her need for female solidarity. “Female consciousness and writer’s consciousness go hand in hand for Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht,” writes Hilma Borelius.

Hilma Borelius, in pointing out the significance of the titles chosen by Mrs Nordenflycht, is of the opinion that Den sörgande TurturDufwan (The Sorrowing Turtledove) – a “to us” somewhat comic title, writes Levertin – goes back to Sophia Elisabet Brenner, Mrs Nordenflycht’s predecessor as Swedish poetess. Mrs Nordenflycht’s title picks up on the intense meaning in two lines from Mrs Brenner’s funeral poem to her husband, in which the sorrowing wife addresses the following words to herself:

Though to thy lonesome death thou stubbornly would plague thee,
‘twould be a permissible sorrow for such a turtle-dove.

Ja fast du dig til döds enwettigt wille grufwa,
Det wor’ en låflig sorg, dock för en turturdufwa.

Mrs Nordenflycht’s subsequent poems were published in four volumes under the title Qwinligt Tankespel (A Woman’s Play of Thoughts); the first anonymously by “a Shepherdess in the North”, the next three in her own name. The collections were all dedicated to women.

Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht claimed the right to address political and philosophical issues – this, in itself, was a provocation to many. A woman’s voice can often be heard in the political poems. With reference to the peasants’ uprising and march into Stockholm, in July 1743, she wrote a poem in which Sweden, torn by civil war, is depicted as a despairing mother:

Alas, how torn a noble mother’s heart
My coat is splattered with my own children’s blood.

Men ack! nu rörs et ädelt moders hierta:
Min råck är stänkt med egna barnas blod.

When two generals were sentenced to death and beheaded for their role in the defeat suffered in the Russo-Swedish war of 1741-1743 – a contributory factor to the unrest – Mrs Nordenflycht wrote a poem to the widow of one of the generals, a woman unknown to her:

I see, my lady, your broken heart,
And your children’s, in bitter pain,
Indict the cruel error of fate.

Jag ser, min Fru, Ert slagna hierta,
Och Edra barns, i bitter smärta,
Anklaga ödets grymma fel.

Pehr Hilleström. The artist’s daughter. Countess Lewenhaupt, oil painting, 1775, private collection. From Gerda Cederblom: Pehr Hilleström som kulturskildrare 1-2, Uppsala 1927-29

Hilma Borelius also points out Mrs Nordenflycht’s need for dialogue with other women. Mrs Nordenflycht displays an obvious delight in women whose workplace is the desk; she has a hunger for exchanging ideas. She had just this kind of intellectual friendship with Norwegian Brigitta Lange. In a laudatory poem written upon the occasion of Brigitta Lange’s translation of a Spanish historical work, Mrs Nordenflycht invokes the entire line-up of learned and creative women throughout history:

Oh learned flock of women dear. The greatest glory of your sex
Who bring your gifts to highest art,
To science, crafts, and learning bright.

Du lärda Qwinno-flock! du Könets största prakt,
Som dina gåfwor har i högsta odling bragt,
Til Wetenskapers ljus, til Slögder, Konst och lära.

A few lines from her poem “Fruentimrets försvar” (In Defence of Women) demonstrate the extent to which Mrs Nordenflycht merged consciousness of creativity with female consciousness; she is writing about a female creative power that has been stifled for centuries:

When all that feeds our minds is constantly denied us
And it yet blazes up from its own strength and effort,
Is it not the proof of genius’ noble goal
And of a mental power that tolerates no limits?

När oss förmenas alt hvad våra vett kan föda
Och det dock glindrar upp af egen drift och möda,
Ar det ej största prof på snillets ädla mål
Och på en tanke-kraft som inga gräntsor tål?

The same self-awareness can be seen in the following lines on those women’s literary wares, which Rousseau had accused of lacking ardour and enthusiasm:

Can women’s writing lack such strength, fire and taste?
No, because they are not dulled by quarrels and by rules,
Their pen is strong and easy, natural and free.

Mån styrka, eld och smak i Quinno-skrifter fattas?
Nej, derför at de ej af gräl och reglor mattas,
Ar deras penna stark, naturlig, lätt och fri.

Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht combines a writer’s consciousness with female consciousness. Hilma Borelius has pointed out yet another element in this constellation; one that might be called a magnanimity of love, which has a moving presence in the wonderful prose piece “Fröjas räfst” (The Chastisement of Freyja).

In “Fröjas räfst”, written in Mrs Nordenflycht’s final year, she assumes the guise of the pastoral to tell the story of herself and Johan Fischerström, her last, great love.

“Amidst powdered chamberlains and polished beaux esprits he arrived – as can be seen from his portrait – like a man from another world, with his bristly black hair, his fervent eyes, his passionate and plebeian mouth.”

Levertin on Johan Fischerström, in Svenska gestalter (1903; Swedish Figures)

The female role is played by Hildur, the male by Adil. Hildur is a much-admired woman. Like Mrs Nordenflycht, she appears as something of an Aspasia of the North. The description of her conjures up Gyllenborg’s 1750s account of Mrs Nordenflycht:

“Hildur was used to seeing hundreds of admirers at her feet, to hearing herself praised by a thousand tongues, to being sought out by all, esteemed by all, revered by all […].”

Without the slightest hesitation, she has chosen to withdraw from the spotlight together with her Adil, who is far beneath her in reputation, property, and social status. They live together in a humble hut. Of Hildur, Adil says that she has: “condensed so many perfections in this hut and found all her desires satisfied in this one quality, to love me.”

This was also the case in real life, when Mrs Nordenflycht settled on the Lugnet estate near Sjö and had Fischerström brought in as her tenant. However, the prose piece reveals the ageing poet’s fear of losing her younger lover. Hildur goes to the temple; her anxiety propels her to look into the future. She is punished for this, losing her outer beauty. Even so, Adil does not stop loving her. But their life together is ruined by the mistrust that has possessed Hildur, by a doubt she can never relinquish. Adil reports: “Her tenderness for me is so great that she will not even show her fear, but she is nonetheless afraid. Alas! Hildur, how can you be so cruel and distrust a heart that values cherishing yours.”

Adil’s love remains. He is just as consumed with Hildur as he was when she was beautiful, just as captivated by her inner beauty as he once was by her “outer charms”. The only snag is distrust, Hildur’s doubt. Following Adil’s entreaties, Hildur is eventually released from her distrust by Freja. A celebration of love begins.

At this celebration, Freja wants the lovers to be rewarded. She calls for her son, the god of love. But love has nothing to offer, he has already done his bit:

“I cannot make them happier than they are, he said, for they possess one another.”

In order to comply with Freja’s wish for a reward, he has to seek help from another deity. He approaches Apollo.

M. Dahl: Françoise Leijoncrona, NM 2744, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

This is the point at which, in the very last lines of the prose piece, the strikingly female twist occurs. Apollo presents the god of love with the lyre of the goddesses of song, the poetic gift. Who should the god pass it on to? The actual culmination of this love story – between Hildur and Adil or, one could say, between the Nordic Sappho and an economist – occurs when the god of love presents the man, Adil, with the harp of immortality.

The poetic gift, which for Mrs Nordenflycht has taken on greater and greater lustre over the years, is love’s reward to the beloved man; the man she loves, and who is himself capable of love. Hilma Borelius sums it up thus: “She adorned the beloved with the best she knew when she let him play on Apollo’s harp.”

“Fröjas räfst” ends with Adil playing. He is ablaze with a “divine fire”, he plays with nothing less than the flames of love in his veins.

“His senses remained in a delightful rapture. He took the harp and sang about the doings of the gods, about the wonders of nature, about love, and about Hildur.”

And in reality? In reality it was Mrs Nordenflycht who played and loved. It is she who, with her harp, has given Johan Fischerström a gleam of immortality. It is in her veins that the fire has blazed, she who, in fervent and painful inspiration, has sung about nature, about love – and about the man.

Birgitta Holm

Late Love

Mrs Nordenflycht’s late-in-life love for Fischerström also came to an end. Not because her beloved died, as had happened earlier in her life, but because he found another woman. Mrs Nordenflycht never presents this love as a completely harmonious phenomenon. She tries to convince herself that it is the ‘true’ love:

The fire that consumes and burns me
Is not that of love and passion,
But brings anxiety to a heart
Of strong and fond and ardent feeling.

Den lågan, som mig tär och bränner
Til Kärleks elden icke hör,
Dock oro, i et hjerta gör,
Som starkt och ömt och häftigt känner.

But Mrs Nordenflycht has to acknowledge that she has been wrong:

Oh purest thoughts, wisdom’s tranquil voice!
Reason and genius! Try to keep
My enemy away from the dwelling
That he seeks to invade;
And reign in my free soul
That love has tried to enslave.

I rena Tankar! Vishets ro!
Förnuft och Snille! söken stänga
Min fiende ifrån det bo,
Ur vilket han Er welat tränga;
Och råden i min fria Själ,
Som kärlek sökt at göra träl.

Mrs Nordenflycht’s lyrical reflections on love are painful; nevertheless, she does not waver from her conviction that the ‘true’ love allows for no oppression by the man in a marriage. She had already expressed this sentiment in an early poem, “Friare Konsten” (The Suitor’s Art):

Friends this never could obey:
Their affection is the law
That duties of both sides interprets
For their mutual happiness.

Wänner kunna icke lyda:
Deras kärlek är den lag,
Som kan bägges plickt uttyda
Til hwars annars wälbehag.

The author is, however, aware that the ideal is often one thing, reality another:

I do not think that Ovid’s poems
did or ever could contain
A transformation half so charming
As when a lover becomes a man.

Ja! jag tror i Naso handling,
at der näplig finnas kan
En så underbar förwandling,
Som när älskaren blir man.

Mrs Nordenflycht’s views on love and marriage constitute a complete theory, a philosophy of love. She had most likely adopted this outlook from the French précieuses – in much the same way as Queen Christina had earlier been influenced by them. Les précieuses and Mrs Nordenflycht share a lot of ideas; the concepts of ‘pure love’ and ‘tender friendship’ are, for example, used in translations from the French, and “Fröjas räfst” borrows from a famous passage in the work of Madeleine de Scudéry, one of the French writers to present the thoughts of les précieuses.

Mrs Nordenflycht was thus of the opinion that in a marriage, the woman should enjoy the same rights as the man. Equality, however, should not be confined to wedlock, but should apply to the status of women in general. With the exception of widows, all women in Mrs Nordenflycht’s day were denied official personal responsibility. Although she did not directly demand a change in the law, Mrs Nordenflycht was of the opinion that this state of affairs should be ended.

C.A. Ehrensvärd, undated, location unknown

Throughout her writing career, Mrs Nordenflycht pleaded for an improvement in women’s status, from her early poem “Fruentimbers Plikt at upöfwa deras Wett” (1741; Women’s Duty to Train their Minds) and up to her proof of learning, “Fruentimrets försvar” (1761; In Defence of Women), which was levelled at Rousseau, who had written disparagingly of women in a 1759 treatise.

In the eighteenth century, as both before and since, ‘the weaker sex’ was an epithet for women. Mrs Nordenflycht expends much time and energy refuting the contention of women’s weakness, demonstrating that the woman is just as mentally capable as the man, and arguing that she, like him, should be permitted to use her abilities and mental powers.

Mrs Nordenflycht was a widow for a large proportion of her adult life, and thus had official personal responsibility, but she often expresses women’s feeling of being caged in, and she voices disapproval of assaults on the freedom they ought to enjoy as equals to men:

Oh Sex on whom both heaven and nature
Such noble gifts and tasks bestow
That on your virtue depends more good
Than tradition, your gaoler, would admit.

Du Kön, som på din lott af Himlen och naturen
Så ädla gåfwor, och så dyra plikter fått,
At på din dygd beror för werlden mera godt
An wanan almänt tror, som stängt dig uti buren.

The above lines come from a poem written in 1750, and occasioned by clergyman Olof Kolmodin’s publication of a Biblisk QwinnoSpegel (lit.: Biblical Mirror for Women), an educative text for women in which biblical women were presented as role models. A feeling of being caged in also features in both “Fruentimbers Plikt at upöfwa deras Wett” and “Friare Konsten”, written before the above-mentioned poem. It has to be said that the biblical women in Kolmodin’s tract express this feeling, too. Perhaps Mrs Nordenflycht’s most moving expression of captivity occurs in “Fruentimrets försvar”, where we read that first the bird’s wings are clipped and then it is told to: “Fly!”

One route by which women could achieve the wider perspective advocated by Mrs Nordenflycht was that of study. The ideas presented in “Fruentimbers Plikt at upöfwa deras Wett” are reiterated and developed in Mrs Nordenflycht’s later works. In her opinion, women have both the right and the duty to study:

Then let us always ask ourselves
What obligation wants from us;
Of nature’s wisdom must we learn
That standing still is not our fate.

Lät oss derfor tänka på
Hwad wår plikt af oss begärer
All Naturens ljus oss lärer
At wi ej sku stilla stå.

If the soul has not beheld the light of truth on earth, it will be unable to endure the more intense light of eternity. Mrs Nordenflycht steadfastly sees the education and development of all humankind in the same perspective; women’s education comes under the common, deistically coloured, religious perspective. She stresses that woman should be seen first as a human being, only next as a woman – this being an argument often brought up in discussions of equality, at different times. In the poem “Til Swenska Fruntimret, då Herr Probsten Kolmodins Qwinno-spegel, Andra Delen kom ut af Trycket” (To the Swedish Woman, When the Honourable Rural Dean Kolmodin’s Women’s Mirror, Second Part, Was Published) we read:

Your right to cultivate your mind can never be denied:
How could you ever shun the highest human calling?

Dig är dock ej forment, at ädla up dit wett:
Den rätta menskjoplikt, hur kan du den undvika?

Mrs Nordenflycht cites a number of reasons for women to engage in study: if they are weak, they ought to be strengthened; they ought to achieve reason and virtue and prepare themselves for eternity; they ought to have a profitable pastime; they ought to learn something about which they can then converse; they ought, by means of education, to promote the sense of partnership in a marriage and be better wives and mothers. The author also points out that she has managed both to study and to run her household.

Only once does Mrs Nordenflycht address the question of what the woman should read: everything that can elevate the “lustre”, the “virtue and glorification” of the soul:

[…] even Newton can
Be of benefit to her when prudence lends true wisdom
To all her reading.

[…] ja sielfwe Newton kan,
För henne nyttig bli; när hon en wishet sann,
Af all sin Läsning, med en warsam tanka länar.

By her own account, Mrs Nordenflycht was in epistolary contact with Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, whose Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686; Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds) triggered a wave of interest among educated women in the subject of astronomy.

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) was an early French representative of Enlightenment thinking. He popularised the scientific studies of his day, particularly with a view to informing women.

Two poems reflect this interest: “Winter-Ro” (Winter Peace) and an alternative versified ending for the translation, from the French, of the seventeenth-century Spanish writer Baltasar Gracián’s El Criticón (1651-1657; L’homme détrompé; Eng. tr. The Critic). Both poems manifest aesthetic pleasure and devotional awe. The fundamental ideas common to all Mrs Nordenflycht’s writings are found here: the Creator, the great light, reveals Himself in His works; they, however, only give a faint reflection of Him in the eye of human knowledge, which does not see clearly. But one day the soul will see the light in its full glory. Study of the firmament was more than simply following a trend for Mrs Nordenflycht; it gave her the opportunity for reflection and contemplation.

In “Fruentimrets försvar” Mrs Nordenflycht puts forward a claim on behalf of women that she had not previously expressed clearly, but had only intimated: that they should be allowed to have an occupation. The woman has never been treated as the man’s equal, and she has been denied her human right. Sometimes she has been elevated, sometimes disparaged. In only one respect has there been agreement:

With despotic airs have they the rights of our gender treated,
Raising it to heaven or casting it to the ground,
But always and everywhere excluding us
From light and from high endeavours.

Man har med Kjönets rätt så eneväldigt handlat,
At man det än till Gud och än till mask förvandlat,
Dock altid sammanstämt i ett så hårdt beslut,
At stänga det från ljus och höga sysslor ut.

With the help of their physical strength, men have appropriated power as legislators and made thralls of women. Due to indolence, women have remained in the dark:

So the energy of women is constrained by childrearing and habit,
To wrestle with each other on the narrow path of stupidity,
And like an adornment bear the heavy yoke of ignorance;
For learning and wisdom are a disgrace in women.
O, cruel tranny, is the world a better place because
Half the human race is bound in stupidity’s narrow chains,
When every occupation suffers from too few brains?

Så bindes Kjönets drift av fostrings-sätt och vana,
At kämpas med hvaran på dumhets trånga bana
Och som en prydnad dra okunnighetens ok,
Ty det är quinnans skymf at vara lärd och klok.
Ack! grymma tyranni, mån det vår Verld förbättrar,
At halfva släcktet stängs i dumhets trånga fiättrar,
När brist på hjernor röjs i sysslor och i värf?

Ruth Nilsson

Translated by Gaye Kynoch