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Purity of Language and New-Found Sensibility

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

“You light up the language. You set it to melody. And reconcile the Dane with his native tongue,” wrote the young Holberg actor Anna Catharina von Passow in a dedication of her play Den uventede Forlibelse (1757; Unexpected Love) to the Norwegian author and mayor Niels Krog Bredal. Passow’s brief, almost programmatic, dedication touched on several of the ideas exercising male and female writers and authors alike in the eighteenth century. By writing of Bredal as someone who “lights[s] up the language”, Passow was referring to Bredal’s involvement in the project aimed at promoting the national language – an involvement which culminated when he was Director of Den kongelige danske Skueplads (the Royal Danish Theatre), where he endeavoured to promote dramas written in Danish. Bredal’s great efforts were not crowned with any particular success. The theatre went bankrupt, but in 1772 Bredal nonetheless managed to stage a successful production of Zarine, a tragedy written by Nordal Brun, a Norwegian divinity graduate. Norwegian students and graduates living in Copenhagen became an increasingly important cultural factor during the eighteenth century. Danish had been the official written language in Norway since the Reformation, and Norwegian academics in Denmark had become strong players in the many new associations, societies and groupings that promoted literature written in the national language.

After the premiere of Zarine in 1772, a group of Norwegian poets and friends got together and decided to set up a Norwegian Society to demonstrate cultural and national opposition to the German factions in Copenhagen.

The idea of promoting the national language was a continuation of the Baroque undertaking with regard to language studies and the collection and registration of language and old Nordic manuscripts; and in the mid-1700s a number of attempts to clean up and improve the national language crossed paths. In the 1740s Frederik Rostgaard’s extensive lexicographical work had entered a new phase of collaboration with the historian Jakob Langebek. Based on a classicist model of language, Langebek wanted to use his dictionary to tidy up the language and purge it of ineffectual foreign words and inefficient old words. The young philosopher Friedrich Christian Eilschov embarked energetically on translating Latin philosophical and scholarly technical terms into Danish in his 1747 two-volume report on teaching branches of scholarship in the national language. J. S. Sneedorff, a professor at Sorø Academy, gave the by now widespread discussion of language a new perspective when he published a journal, Den patriotiske Tilskuer (1761-63; The Patriotic Spectator), with the aim and practice of promoting an active Danish language from which old so-called ignoble words had been removed and in which foreign words were the source of new Danish word constructions. In his journal, Sneedorff also proposed a common Danish-Swedish literary language.

Professor Jakob Baden gathered some of the threads in the debate about purity of language in Denmark. He criticised both the attempt to revive obsolete Danish words and the attempt to create new artificial ‘Danish translations’. His lectures on the Danish language, published in 1785, became a kind of code for the preferred usage of language. Jakob Baden taught his German-speaking wife, Sophia Lovisa Charlotte, Danish and she put her new language to use as a writer of moral prose.

Daniel Chodowiecki. Illustration from Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. 1774

For the many eighteenth-century language purifiers and language practicians, it was a matter of no small difficulty to unravel what the national language was, what it had been and what it ought to become. In his preface to the Danish translation of the German writer Margaretha Klopstock’s Briefe von Verstorbenen an Lebendige (1757; Danish title Breve fra Døde til Levende; Letters from the Dead to the Living), Sneedorff had pointed up the living languages vis-à-vis the dead languages, principally the Latin language of the old academic culture. He highlighted the author’s living written language and thus made a female user of the language an example of the modern national language he wished to promote.

“They speak and write these languages far better than Latin is spoken in most university seminars,” wrote Sneedorff in his preface to Margaretha Klopstock’s letters on women’s command of the living languages, and added: “Our Nordic females are particular deserving of praise for the high esteem of virtue and devotion to religion that plays so great a part in the choice of the works they read.”

One reason for the eighteenth-century’s growing interest in women writers, and particularly letter-writers whether new or old, well-known or less well-known, was that women wrote in the national language and could thus be used as illustrations of practical usage in the occasionally highly abstract debate about what the national language ought to be. Moreover, women were not rigorously schooled in the Latin tradition of scholarship – the confinement from which liberation was sought. The Danish writer Charlotta Dorothea Biehl was not a devotee of Sneedorff’s model for the national language, and in her play Haarkløveren (1765; The Quibbler) she makes fun of the attempt by many language purifiers to create new Danish word constructions. The language used by the ridiculous suitor Eraste bristles with ‘Danish translations’ of Latin and German terms, and the simple Magdalone has to ask herself: “I wonder if there is much left to get through; so far I haven’t understood two words, even though they are meant to be Danish.”

The language revision debate on neologisms versus old words made Sneedorff recall a verse by the old satirist Vilhelm Helt, in which a pedant is delighted by: “an old, worn-away word, an old, wizened glose – which he fortunately found in a pair of Icelandic hose.”

Similar endeavours to promote the national language were implemented in Sweden. The seventeenth-century Swedish language patriots had worked meticulously on language studies and language purification, and one of them, the academic linguist and author Georg Stiernhielm, pointed out that in preparing his dictionary Gambla Sweaoch Götha måles fatebur (1643; A Storeroom of the Ancient Swedish and Gothic Language), he had intended to liberate the honest, old and unblemished “goter-matrone” (Gothic matron, that is, the language) from foreign frills and instead adorn her with strong words and expressions from the old Nordic languages of the past. The eighteenth-century’s new French-classicist inspiration brought into fashion another less Gothic and more refined taste in language. The Swedish used by the poet Olof von Dalin and his weekly periodical Then Swänska Argus (The Swedish Argus) set the standard, and Abraham Sahlstedt’s classicist-inclined treatises on language and his Swedish dictionary of 1757 were a significant attempt to catalogue the vocabulary of written language and cleanse it of foreign words. Members of the Tankebyggar-Orden (Order of the Thought Builders), including Mrs Nordenflycht, had launched a heavy-handed revision of the language in their earlier collaboration Våra försök (1753-56; Our Essays I-III), and in 1759 they presented the first volume of this revision as Witterhetsarbeten (Works of Polite Literature). Here classicism’s metrical patterns and correct and elegant turns of phrase were discharged to the letter; but Mrs Nordenflycht’s most significant literary achievement in this last period of her life lies just as much in her unpublished poems as in her contribution to Witterhetsarbeten.

The classicist language revision and interest in the national language culminated under the French-oriented King Gustaf III. In 1786 Gustaf III, himself a poet, established Svenska Akademien (the Swedish Academy), which was assigned to promote the national literature, strengthen and develop the language and initiate work on a Swedish dictionary. “Akademiens yppersta och angelägnaste göromål är att arbeta uppå svenska språkets renhet, styrka och höghet” (The Academy’s main and most pressing objective is to work towards the purity, vigour and majesty of the Swedish language), reads the charter paragraph, which is a direct translation from the 1635 statutes of the original Académie Française. Gustaf III personally put a lot of work into leading the national language and historical and national themes to victory on the theatre stage. While the Norwegian Bredal was speedily obliged to abandon original drama written in Danish, the classicist dramatic art and opera had a longer and far more glorious lifespan in Sweden.

Åbo Akademi in Finland became an important centre for the mores of Enlightenment. The Latinist Henrik Gabriel Porthan studied Finnish language and literature there; he later taught a number of key Swedish Enlightenment figures, including Kellgren. In 1770 the learned Aurora Society was founded in Åbo, its purpose being to enhance the Swedish language and extend people’s knowledge of Finnish language and literature. In 1771 the Aurora Society launched the newspaper Tidningar, utgifne af et Sällskap (News, Published by a Society), containing articles on Finland’s geography and culture, book reviews and fiction. In a similar style, Trondheim in Norway became a centre for studies in geography, history, and economy. The scholarly community in Trondheim worked purposefully towards the establishment of a Norwegian university, and in 1760 set up Det Trondhiemske Selskab (the Trondheim Society), later to become Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab (the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters).

Johan Henrik Kellgren collaborated with the King on various theatrical projects, and in 1782 he was assigned to write an opera libretto in verse and in Swedish, based on the king’s prose draft in French for a drama on Gustaf Wasa. Kellgren’s collaborator on the periodical Stockholms Posten, Anna Maria Lenngren, had already made efforts on behalf of the national language in her translations for the theatre. She preferred, however, to keep out of the spotlight and had thus found her own national language genres in writing newspaper satires, prose pieces and idylls. Her early fear that she would have insufficient understanding of the subtle conventions of writing and a correct use of language was, she thought, a problem peculiar to women. But even though she – reputedly – insisted that her poetry should be called and seen as “attempts”, she had considerable influence in creating a language practice and style. Her portraits and depictions of human lives have parallels to nineteenth-century prose genres.

Both Lenngren and Nordenflycht worked hard with the established genre classifications and in terms of language use they kept in mind the clear-cut, elegant and tasteful ideal of classicism; in comparison, the Swedish women diarists had a freer hand. The readership for this mother-tongue literature was found in the wider family circle and in future generations. Only a few of the Swedish diaries written by women in the 1700s have survived, but those that have contain interesting records of everyday family life. The most voluminous of the Swedish diaries, that of Duchess Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta, was, however, written in French.

Jean-Michel Moreau. Illustration from La nouvelle Héloïse, c. 1774

Both as diarists and as writers in the public domain, women authors were a diminutive minority in the cultures of the Nordic countries. They were nonetheless important participators in the Enlightenment movements of the eighteenth century. National language, taste, upbringing and sensitivity were key concepts in the period’s literary attempts to examine, describe and construe the growing bourgeoisie’s and the top-tier civil officials’ self-perception and perception of the world. While the middle classes in Denmark developed as a financial and cultural factor within an absolute monarchy during the long period of peace after the Great Northern War, between 1700 and 1721, the development of the Swedish middle classes in the second half of the eighteenth century took place in connection with a series of intransigent confrontations between nobility and Crown. The autocratic society had space and scope, albeit restrictive, for cultural and ideological middle-class expansion. The rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment in the first half of the eighteenth century – reason, utility, critique and experience – developed during the second half of the century into principles of upbringing and reason in the middle-class family household, in art, in language, and in society. The eighteenth-century philosophy of Enlightenment was rendered specific in relation to the whole of human life. One emerging ingredient of this development was a moral and idealising national-language literature dealing with family life and emotional life, and this material allowed women access to the literary institutions. Enlightenment thinking asserted, with varying degrees of radicalism and consistency, the reason and intellect of womankind; and the Enlightenment concept of human reason was joined by the notion of human sensibility. The cultured and tender sensibility was an important element of the French culture of préciosité, but the idea of sensitivity also stemmed from English literature, which had a direct influence in the Nordic region, particularly in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the early part of the century, French literature had been the most influential source of inspiration in the Nordic countries; by the middle of the century, however, strong influence was blowing in from English and German literature. The direction of influence exerted by French and by English literature in the Nordic countries branched off in a highly complex fashion. French and English literature were in animated and intimate contact with one another. Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot had close affiliations with English philosophy, sciences and literature. Although Swedish literature was predominantly French-oriented, it was nonetheless susceptible to influence from the British Isles. English works familiar in Paris also made their way to Sweden.

Taking inspiration from French classicist tragedy, Sweden put its own national, historical and heroic topics on stage. Denmark became acquainted with what is known as the Gothic Renaissance via, among others, the German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, who came to Copenhagen in 1751, invited by Frederik V. Initially, Klopstock had little influence on the Danish women writers, even though it was a woman – Anna Catharina von Passow – who first brought the Old Nordic gods and legends to the Danish stage, in her Den uventede Forlibelse (1757; Unexpected Love)

Mrs Nordenflycht’s polemical writings counteracted Rousseau’s views on learned women and on salon culture, while Anna Maria Lenngren’s idylls took inspiration from Rousseau’s Émile ou De l’Éducation (1762; Eng. tr. Émile, or On Education). In the early 1790s, Lenngren’s colleague at Stockholms Posten, the poet Kellgren, instigated a veritable cultural campaign in the journal to promote Danish and Norwegian poets – especially Jens Baggesen, Johan Herman Wessel and Johannes Ewald – who now, along with the English satirical novelist Henry Fielding, were proving inspirational for Lenngren’s writing.

In Denmark, it was the English novel of sensibility that held special appeal for women writers. When describing and discussing sensibility, they were far more likely to do so within the framework of the English sentimentality of a Samuel Richardson than the French sensibility of a Rousseau.

“How would my poor lady, had she lived, have grieved to see it! but may be he would have been better then! Though it seems he told Mrs. Jervis, he had an eye upon me in his mother’s life-time; and he intended to let me know as much, by the bye, he told her! Here is shamelessness for you! Sure the world must be near at an end! for all the gentlemen about are as bad as he almost, as far as I can hear!—And see the fruits of such bad examples! There is ’Squire Martin in the grove, has had three lyings-in, it seems, in his house, in three months past,” writes Pamela in Richardson’s epistolary novel of the same name.

Nor did the experimental novelist Laurence Sterne appeal to the women writers. And from the German cult of sensibility they carefully screened out the wild and ecstatic emotionality of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; Eng. tr. The Sorrows of Young Werther).

“O my friend! why is it that the torrent of genius so seldom bursts forth, so seldom rolls in full-flowing stream, overwhelming your astounded soul?“Because, on either side of this stream, cold and respectable persons have taken up their abodes, and, forsooth, their summer-houses and tulip-beds would suffer from the torrent; wherefore they dig trenches, and raise embankments betimes, in order to avert the impending danger.”

Goethe, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers.

At the end of the century, the cosmopolitan German-speaking Friederike Brun was the first to break with the dominant influence exerted on female prose by the French writer of moral tales Jean-François Marmontel and the English author Samuel Richardson. In Sweden, on the other hand, Mrs Nordenflycht and Anna Maria Lenngren had followed the French development from courtly préciosité to Rousseauesque sensibility.

Peder Als. Copperplate engraving from c. 1790, Td 525,71, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

The various strands of the Swedish Enlightenment found their spiritual fora in private societies and salons, some of which admitted women. Lenngren was a member of the literary and musical society known as Utile Dulci – meaning: for usefulness and pleasure – founded in 1766. By the 1780s the society had many hundreds of members, coming from all social classes; it circulated its own publications and held literary competitions. Literary competitions were also held by Lovisa Ulrikas Vitterhetsakademi (Academy of Belle Lettres, under the patronage of Queen Lovisa Ulrika), founded in 1753, the same year as Mrs Nordenflycht’s TankebyggarOrden (Order of the Thought Builders). Mrs Nordenflycht tried her hand in several of the Vitterhetsakademiet competitions, but won no prizes. The select male forum of the Svenska Akademien (Swedish Academy) discussed the possibility of rewarding Lenngren with a public honour, but they were unable to reach an agreement.

Women writers in Denmark did not achieve any kind of key status or significance in relation to the new influential literary societies such as the powerful Selskabet til de skiønne nyttige videnskabes Forfremmelse (Society for the Promotion of the Beautiful and Useful Sciences), popularly known as Det Smagende Selskab (The Society of Taste), founded in 1759, or the classicist-oriented Norske Selskab (Norwegian Society), started in 1772, and Det danske Litteraturselskab (Society for Danish Literature), founded in 1775; and women were not admitted to the major new educational institution Sorø Academy, which reopened in 1747. Women writers did, however, contribute to the work of the societies: above all, Charlotta Dorothea Biehl – who featured in the first publication from Norske Selskab in 1775 – and Norwegian Magdalene Buchholm, who was granted membership. Her poetry had demonstrated that she could live up to the objectives of the Society: to keep the Greek example in mind. Women writers were of interest to the Nordic Enlightenment as users of the mother tongue, but the national languages were also governed by conventions and rules that the women had to follow. There was one genre, however, in which the women were given preference: the epistolary genre, which became enormously popular in journals and stories, and as a feature of dramatic art on stage.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch