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Scenes from a Dramatic Era

Written by: Elisabeth Aasen |

Catharine Hermine Kølle: Udsigt fra Hveen i Tistedalen, first half of the nineteenth century. Oil painting. Bergen Museum, University of Bergen

Denmark-Norway had been a dual realm with a common literature for 400 years. Norwegian Holberg settled in Denmark and became the purveyor of Danish plays with many Norwegian characteristics. Danish Leonora Christina’s tragic fate was known in Norway, and when Norwegian Dorothe Engelbretsdatter published her hymns in 1678, Leonora Christina read them in her prison tower and wrote laudatory verse to Dorothe: “You burning Norwegian torch and teacher true!” In Frederik Christian Schønau’s Samling af Danske Lærde Fruentimmer (1753; Collection of Learned Danish Women), Norwegian women were included as a natural part of the shared culture of the dual monarchy.

Many people saw the dual realm as an inviolable unit, but at the end of the eighteenth century nationalist forces in Norway began to make themselves felt. Full of patriotic enthusiasm, Norwegian academics and students in Copenhagen set up Det norske Selskab (the Norwegian Society) in 1772. The Society has been taken for a purely gentlemen’s club, but there were also women members. Norwegian Magdalene Castberg (married name: Buchholm) was an active member, and Danish Christiane Koren was also familiar with the milieu.

The new century began with war, and communications between Denmark and Norway were severed. The British blockade put a stop to postal communication and the supply of grain; hardship was profound. The post-1814 world was a different place. The dual realm Denmark-Norway was dissolved, and Norway entered a union with Sweden. Women’s diaries from the period tell of daily life under the dramatic historical changes. Memoirs written by older women take a retrospective view of the historic upheavals.

Day of the Wig

According to the 1769 census, Christiania (today’s Oslo) had approximately 7500 inhabitants. This small town went about its life in a kind of innocent bubble while the French Revolution sent shock waves through the rest of Europe. In her memoirs, Gamle Dage, Erindringer og Tidsbilleder (1871; The Old Days, Reminiscences and Pictures of the Period), Conradine Dunker (née Hansteen, 1780-1866) dwells on this period. It was still the day of the wig, when the grand families held lavish parties at their country houses, the magnificent properties on the outskirts of town, and where some exiled Frenchman or other along with the local eccentrics enlivened the townscape.

Eilif Peterssen: Det norske Selskab. Udated. Oil painting. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Old Christiania is brought to life through the writer’s detached humour, dry matter-of-factness, and mischievousness. She provides material for numerous novels, with the fortunes of women often in the spotlight: the ‘illegitimate’ child from the Copenhagen aristocracy, sent to Norway with annuity and orders for a refined upbringing, but ending up as a pauper kid living with the widow of a small shopkeeper, who kept the money for a rainy day. And what was behind the story of the country girl who ran away from home disguised as her brother? The young lad “Ole” was taken into service by the widow of a small shopkeeper; this widow wanted to marry the lad so as to keep away young girls eager to be wed. And married they were, even after “Ole” had revealed the truth. We read about the distinguished lady who refuses to exchange her freedom for marriage, and about ill-fated Karen who ends up in gaol after having a child by a married man. Everyday tragedies are presented, but Conradine Dunker also writes about bourgeois amusements such as Det dramatiske Selskab (the Dramatic Society), where women could let themselves go – not least Conradine Dunker herself, playing Holberg’s characters.

Wartime and Dissolution of the Dual Monarchy

Christiane Koren (née Diderichsen, 1764-1815) was Danish, but married to a Norwegian, and in her eyes the ‘twin realm’ was an inviolable unit. From Dagbog for Kristiane Koren paa en Reyse fra Norge til Dannemark begyndt den 6. september 1802 (first published 1945; Kristiane Koren’s Diary on a Journey from Norway to Denmark, Begun 6 September 1802), we can see that Denmark is still calm and unaffected. Friends and evenings at the theatre are the most important aspects of her life. By 1808, however, war has become part of the daily round. In “Moer KorensDagbøger (1808-1815, first published 1915 in two volumes; Mother Koren’s Diaries), she writes about the many worries great and small involved in making ends meet, and every day “Moer Koren” inspects the piece of potato destined to provide food for many mouths.

“The infernal wickedness of the British has cut off bridges and everything that linked Norway with its sisterly Denmark. Only that tie, the holy tie that binds the hearts of nations, will not be affected by his fiendish power,” we read in Christiane Koren’s diary.

The housewife and the young woman view things differently; in her memoirs, Fru Emerentze Munchs Optegnelser (first published 1907; Mrs Emerentze Munch’s Records), Emerentze Munch (née Barclay, 1786-1868) gives a completely different picture of the period. The war years might well have been lean, but they were not traumatic. Her fiancé, the painter Jacob Munch, was in Paris and in Rome and was unable to return home, but her optimistic outlook on life made the waiting easier.

“I cannot say that I spent the period as a grieving fiancée, no, far from it, I enjoyed the social pleasures on offer at the time,” recalls Emerentze Munch.

Although it was also a hard time for children, many of them experienced the war from another perspective: war was something exciting and different. In Erindringer fra mit Liv (1899; Reminiscences From My Life), Gustava Kielland (née Blom, 1800-1889) looks back on the early years of the war as a kind of popular entertainment, when seen from the vantage point of life in Stavanger. Around 1812, however, the situation became critical, and at that time Gustava Kielland was living alone with her mother in Drammen, not far from Christiania. Their finances were in a terrible state, but they had potatoes, which proved their salvation. Carine Rehbinder (née Thrane, 1803-1875), who lived a life of affluence and did not endure any personal hardship from the effects of the famine and war years, could nonetheless not avoid being aware of the misery. In Barndoms og Ungdoms Erindringer (Reminiscences of Childhood and Youth) she wrote:

“I will never forget the crowds of emaciated, pale faces that flocked into the town from the countryside to ask for a little flour with which to mix their bark bread dough and to buy a little grain. A long table with benches stood daily in our yard, and on it was placed porridge and milk and bread all morning. Everybody who came in from the countryside could come through the gateway and eat.”

“Distress and famine grew in the town. Pale, careworn seamen’s wives, whose husbands were either prisoners in England or could not find a berth or work here on land, went from house to house asking for help. Scrawny, hungry children were everywhere to be seen on the streets,” writes Gustava Kielland in her reminiscences.

After 1814

The end of the war brought renewed hope and happiness. Gustava Kielland’s mother was paid a widow’s pension, and daily life now included luxuries such as coffee and a better-stocked larder. Emerentze Munch was able to hold wedding celebrations when her popular portrait painter returned home. The big question, however, concerned the future of Norway. Many people wanted the Danish prince, Christian Frederik, to be king of Norway, and Christiane Koren followed events in Eidsvoll as they unfolded day by day. Here “Eidsvollsmennene” (The Men of Eidsvoll) were assembled to forge a Norwegian constitution – a constitution which is today one of the oldest in Europe. Great was Christiane Koren’s enthusiasm on that day in May 1814 when Christian Frederik was elected King of Norway. Complications on the wider political stage, however, caused Christian Frederik to leave Norway in October 1814, and Sweden’s Carl XIII became king of Norway. The day of the ‘twin realm’ was over. Union with Sweden was a fact. Christiane Koren saw these events as being a terrible defeat. Her sense of disappointment proved debilitating, and she died in January 1815.

Others had eagerly anticipated the change to union with Sweden, not least thanks to the exotic Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, Napoleon’s marshal and Prince of Pontecorvo, who became Crown Prince of Sweden-Norway under the name Carl Johan. After his lengthy stay abroad, Emerentze Munch’s husband was enthusiastic about this Carl Johan, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Carine Rehbinder writes that her father, Counsellor of Justice Paul Thrane, was one of those who “realised that the union with Denmark could not endure”, and she goes on to say that Carl Johan had soon won the hearts of all.

“There he stood, this hero, with his keen eyes and with the yet so good-natured expression on his delightful face. He was 50 years old at the time, at the height of his powers, his hair was still black, he wore it loose, which flattered his rather large features, – ‘a sun from the south’, wrote my brother, after he had seen him in Denmark. And he was indeed good-looking. It was interesting to see how people changed their tune,” writes Emerentze Munch of Jean Baptiste Bernadotte.

The political situation, however, was tense. In 1821 Carl Johan assembled the troops at Etterstad, outside Christiania. The camp was called “Lystleiren” (recreational camp), but it was in fact a straightforward demonstration of power.

Vilhelmine Ullmann (née Dunker, 1816-1915) writes in her book Fra Tyveaarene og lidt mere (1903; From the Twenties and a Little More), that her mother, Conradine Dunker, who was otherwise reluctant to leave the house, set off for “Lystleiren”: “It is not unfeasible that mother’s good command of French here too should be found useful for some supplicant.”

Even though Carl Johan’s personality charmed people, Swedish influence on cultural life in general did not appear to be particularly substantial. Norwegian national sentiment had been awakened and was making cultural waves. Folktales gained in popularity, and Conradine Dunker could recite ballads and rhymes in “pure dialect with full, broad pronunciation […]. Otherwise, her speech was correct Danish,” writes her daughter, Vilhelmine Ullmann. It was unlikely to have been pure Danish: written language was Danish, but pronunciation was Norwegian. “We knew nothing of the Swedish language and Swedish literature, nor did we have any interest in it,” writes Vilhelmine Ullmann. The shared literary language meant that Danish literature felt close and related, but as the century progressed Swedish literature nonetheless found a Norwegian audience, too. Of reading in the 1850s, Elise Aubert (née Aars, 1837-1909) writes in Fra de gamle Prestegaarde (1902; From the Old Parsonages):

“For the dark and cold season it was important to arm oneself with books for entertainment and reading aloud […]. The books were naturally of varying merit, but there were also works of truly lasting value, for instance all of Schiller’s tragedies, J. L. Heiberg’s collected writings; Goldschmidt’s tales; several of Mrs Gyllembourg’s tales; Fredrika Bremer’s and Emilie Carlén’s short stories; novels by Walter Scott, Bulwer, and Dumas; and besides a great many diverse volumes by authors of the day.”

Women’s Daily Lives

Jacob Munch: Fladeby, 1809. Oil painting, Oslo Museum, photo: Rune Aakvik

In the 1820s and 1830s, the major political questions were less intrusive, albeit the inner conflicts of the union became evident. Counsellor of State Jonas Collett came into conflict with Carl Johan – one reason being the celebration of the Norwegian national day – and he was obliged to resign in 1836. Johanne Vogt (née Collett, 1833-1906), the Counsellor’s granddaughter, was too young to remember these events, but she grew up in close contact with her grandparents and felt that their home was hers; her book Statsraad Colletts Hus og hans Samtid. Erindringer 181489 (1903; Counsellor of State Collett’s Home and Day. Memoirs 1814-89) was partly based on entries in her maternal grandmother’s almanacs, in which politics and daily life featured side by side, and partly on her own memories.

For most people, life pursued its course under less dramatic circumstances. Emerentze Munch had children, which involved a revised lifestyle: tighter budget, domestic worries, and disturbed sleep. Her four daughters all married – to their mother’s relief, given that marriage was by and large women’s only possibility of being provided for. Kathinka Kraft (née Mørch, 1826-1895) had to move from Christiania to an official residence in the countryside with her district stipendiary magistrate husband, a move which gave her cause for many misgivings. In such a small community there was a shortage of suitable candidates for marriage, and the upshot was indeed that none of Kathinka Kraft’s three daughters married. In Et og andet fra min Tid. Erindringer (first published 1938; A Thing or Two from My Day. Reminiscences), she writes about her childhood and days of youth and about life in Christiania – a contrast to the quiet life in the countryside.

The Religious Life and the Quiet Daily Life

“My life was, I thought, so quiet, simple, monotonous, and lacking in interesting events […].”

Thus wrote Gustava Kielland, and with such an ‘uninteresting’ background she also had her misgivings about writing her memoirs, but she gave in to her family’s entreaties. She adds that she will tell her stories in her usual way of telling them to her grandchildren, and she signs herself “Moder, Bedstemamma, Edda” (Mother, Grandma, Edda).

The ageing Edda’s narrative tells the story of the 1800s on several levels – those of social history, national history regarding the relationship between Norway and Denmark, and not least in terms of women’s history: responsibility for children, husband, and servants, for the production of food and clothing, and for upbringing.

Gustava Kielland married a pastor assigned to a rural parish; she found the transition from lively urban life to perpetual drudgery very demanding. But she had a robust upbringing in her luggage and from early childhood had been used to diligence and hard work. Alongside all her jobs, she also found time to read.

“But I was very good at taking care to read, when that could fit in with my work. When I was carding wool, twisting or balling yarn, knitting, or when my youngest infant was lying in my arms, or when I was combing my long and thick hair or arranging it in two plaits, I always had a book before me and in that way read more than you would think,” explains Gustava Kielland in her memoirs.

Gustava Kielland’s memoirs can be read as a story of development, particularly in relation to religion. For most people religion was taken for granted, a comparatively unproblematic aspect of life, whereas Gustava Kielland, who was of a sunnier disposition than her husband, found it difficult to comply with pastor Kielland’s stringent Christianity.

The most well-known nineteenth-century pastor’s wife was Hanna Winsnes (née Strøm, 1789-1872). Her daily round similarly comprised a myriad of jobs – with writing fitted in between. The parsonage where she and her husband lived also functioned as a training centre for young women needing to learn domestic skills, as a boarding school for newly confirmed individuals, as the cultural centre of the village, and as the counselling centre for spiritual and medicinal matters alike; the more earthly problems were usually the province of the pastor’s wife.

The Private Sphere Becomes Public

One direct motivation for the women to write their memoirs was often the next generation’s wish for first-hand knowledge of the past. The oldest of the memoir-writers chronicle everyday life and the march of history, and often speak directly to their children or to other close relatives.

These reminiscences are intended for the private sphere; they have no literary ambitions. Other memoirists had the public domain in mind. The best-known of these was Camilla Collett, who in 1862 published I de lange Nætter (During the Long Nights). Building on episodes from her life, she fills her sleepless nights with reflections on years forever gone. She writes about her childhood and youth, but does not allow the public into her adult private life.

Women born around the year 1814 had been brought up within the parameters of the new bourgeois ideal of woman – the ‘proper’ being the overriding imperative – and to them, writing for the public domain was an act of protest. Right up until the 1870s and 1880s, most wrote under a pseudonym.

Camilla Collett’s contemporary, Vilhelmine Ullmann, a prolific writer and self-supporting woman, was nearly sixty years of age when she began writing for publication, and she was eighty-seven when she published Fra Tyveaarene og lidt mere (From the Twenties and a Little More) – accounts of life in Christiania seen from a cultural-historical perspective, of the theatre and the market, of teaching, and of the unassuming lives of children.

Christiania Market in the 1820s: “Stalls with confections and dolls, they always went together. Both were manufactured locally. The confections were from the only baker in town, Zuvan, and from Madame Mageisen and Madame Werner. These sisters must have been unusually clever people. They were, as far as I know, the only women among us who at that time worked up the domestic occupation to become a manufacturing business […]. To make a correct assessment of an enterprising initiative of this kind, it must be remembered that it was not alone the lack of opportunity for work that lay heavily on women in olden days, but also the prejudice that it was not proper to work and earn your daily bread for you and yours. This prejudice is far from eradicated yet, but a great many women have learnt to defy it and that has the same benefit,” writes Vilhelmine Ullmann in 1903.

One area on which Vilhelmine Ullmann comments is that of women’s work opportunities. The idea of working for money, with the exception of teaching, was unheard of for women from the bourgeoisie, but it appealed to some of the younger ones. In 1859 Elise Aubert wrote in her diary that she and her friend Johanne Vogt “have started sewing for the industry”. They did so in an attempt to get away from “the petty view that it should be dishonourable to work for payment, as if it were not far greater dishonour to allow oneself to be clothed and fed one’s whole life without contributing the least mite.”

Both Elise Aubert and Johanne Vogt became authors, and in writing fiction they were able to build upon the depictions of settings and people found in the memoir literature.

Although the memoirs were not written down until after 1850, they deal with the first half of the century. The time after 1850 is reflected in fiction. The writers of fiction come from the same settings as the memoirists and they use some of the same material, but fiction also allows for the disclosure of conflict.

That the distance between memoir and fiction is short can be seen from the stories about Bergen in times gone by written by Elisabeth Welhaven (1815-1901). She was a storyteller through and through, giving her private life a wide berth in favour of Bergenian characters. With a keen eye for observation, and clad in the local Bergen language, she brought to life everyday events of the old days in stories to entertain an interested audience in the social circles of Christiania.

1854 saw the publication of a novel that was to prove a watershed in Norwegian writing. Officially, the author was anonymous, but ‘everyone’ knew her identity. In Fra de gamle Prestegaarde, Elise Aubert writes about this event: “At Christmas 1854, a book appeared that most strongly agitated the public mind, because it was Norwegian and ushered in a new era in literature, a new era in Norwegian societal conditions […]. We read, we enjoyed, while admiration and protest, agreement and doubt followed this authoress’ debut […]. Mighty geniuses, names known to the whole world, have since that time enriched our literature, but surely no literary work has had such revolutionary power over minds as did Amtmandens Døttre in 1854.”

Camilla Collett’s Amtmandens Døttre (The District Governor’s Daughters) sounded the starting signal for women authors. It was Norway’s first major realist novel.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch