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Wallowing in Eggs, Sugar, and Butter

Written by: Anne-Marie Mai |

With its caring, instructive intent, one of the poems Hanna Winsnes (1789-1872) included in the publication of her only collection of poetry, Smaa-Digte (1848; Little Poems), is characteristic of the works written by this Norwegian pastor’s wife.

Skytsengel og dreng ved afgrund, 1920. From ”Olietryk – en folkelig billedform”, published 1990 by Odder Museum and Danmarks Grafiske Museum/Dansk Pressemuseum

A narrative sequence introduces the reader to Fritz, a boy whose mother teaches him about the guardian angel attending each and every one of us. More than anything, however, the child wants a playmate, and he is therefore searching for a more tangible kind of angel: “I should like to know how big he is […] perhaps he is small like me?” Like a little Narcissus he looks hopefully for the angel in his own reflection in the lake: “[…] his shirt is striped like mine […] o! how well-suited we are.” Stretching out for the angel’s hands, Fritz falls headlong in the water. This dramatic incident triggers an intense family discussion about what the boy had actually seen in the little lake, and the nature of the dangerous forces that had tried to ensnare him. His mother leads Fritz over to a mirror and explains that he undoubtedly just saw his own reflection, and that he should be happy that it was not clouded by the “countenance of vice”. He is no angel. The real angel will only be able to appear once the boy’s life is over:

Then you will surely your angel see,
but not before this life is over;
may he then his own image
in the transfigured features know!

His mother’s faith and love are all-dominating in the child’s life, and throughout her writing Hanna Winsnes repeatedly returns to the fact that love – between mother and child and between man and woman – along with belief in God and humility have the highest priority in life. Selfish need must always be of secondary importance.

Integrity and Text

Hanna Winsnes’s written world is generally harmonious and well-arranged, because she never expresses doubt as to the foundation for what is right and what is wrong. Every individual has his or her own rationale and should act in accordance with it. Thus, for example, despite his goodness, Alexander, the hero of her novel Det første Skridt (1844; The First Step), renounces a large part of his “paternal inheritance” when it turns out that he is a ‘swapped’ child – the secret son of schoolmistress Elise Rein. Poor in terms of money he might be, but with the knowledge of his true origins he can nonetheless enrich himself by means of the loyalty and more profound emotions he garners from his life’s guiding star, patiently waiting Stella. Everyone should get that to which they are entitled according to inheritance and merit. Love, nonetheless, surpasses everything – as Hanna Winsnes maintained throughout her life. Upbringing and environment reinforce and develop the characteristics with which we are born; no one can escape their origins. The first step towards corruption – as taken by the hero’s ‘brother’ and counterpart when he dishonestly takes money from the father’s bureau – could perhaps have been avoided. The writer, however, never allows the lazy and cowardly to escape their fate. The wicked person will succumb to his or her bad characteristics and die; the good son finds his real mother, or the daughter finds her biological father; the loyal and selfless lovers are united in the end. The good upbringing finds fertile soil in the well-equipped character; the ‘loser’, on the other hand, usually evades the opportunity for an upright and honest life – or is exposed to the bad influences to which his or her nature appeal.

The first-person narrator constantly and with great clarity arranges the moral fixtures for the reader. Therefore, as when reading a fairytale, we are never in doubt about who is friend and who is foe, about the characters’ good and bad sides, and so on. On the one hand we have belief in God and a degree of rationality, on the other hand the key significance of inheritance and biology. “Who is able to determine the extent to which an individual’s character has its cause in bodily make-up, innate mental aptitude, or in upbringing?” asks the compelling narrative voice in the early novel Grevens Datter (1841; The Count’s Daughter).

Despite this apparent simplicity, Hanna Winsnes’s texts present more facets and greater depth than a modern-day reader might register at first glance. Interpretation and perception of the surrounding world and fellow human beings are particularly important themes, which now and then inject surprises into the otherwise so reasonable, advisory, and predictable narrative.

Secret of the Pastor’s Wife

In the course of a long life, Hanna Winsnes wrote – both for entertainment and edification – poetry and religious texts in verse, novels, short stories, and tales for children. She had no real artistic ambition, but liked to tell her ‘stories’ within the family circle and was always interested in the communication of ideas. For a long period, both Hanna and her husband Paul Winsnes were deeply involved with Grundtvigian thinking on Christianity.

Hanna Winsnes was well-read and well-versed in the literature of the past and of her modern day. Goethe and Walter Scott are often mentioned as authors who had influenced her writing. A number of parallels to her work can be drawn from eighteenth-century moral prose with its critique of excessive emotion; but her writings also embrace sensitivity and subtle satire. In particular, the fine rendering of situation in “Præstedatteren i Elverum. En Idyl i fire Sange. Skrevet 1830” (The Pastor’s Daughter in Elverum. An Idyll in Four Songs. Written 1830), included in Smaa-Digte, bears similarity to the eighteenth-century Swedish poet Anna Maria Lenngren’s idylls.

Hanna Winsnes’s collection of poetry Smaa-Digte (1848; Little Poems) was presented and evaluated at length in Norway’s most reputable literary journal, Norsk Tidsskrift for Videnskab og Litteratur (Norwegian Journal of Science and Literature). – the first book by a woman writer to receive such treatment.

From Dansk Album for Litteratur og Kunst, 1845. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Hanna Winsnes was also interested in contemporary Danish writers. When she was very young, she spent some time as a guest at Bakkehuset in Copenhagen. A short story written later, “Tyrolersangerne” (1842; The Tyrolean Singers), took its material from this period – and she even used a number of authentic names. Hanna, still known by her maiden name Strøm when she was in Copenhagen, was also extremely interested in the theatre. Her short stories and novels are clearly influenced by character types and plot patterns from the stage – mention of all the ‘swapped’ children will suffice as an illustration.

Hugo Schwartz, Hanna Winsnes’s pseudonym, was originally created because she – a pastor’s wife – needed extra money for the running of her large household. For a long time the identity of the writer behind this pseudonym – a male name was the requirement of the times – was one of the best kept secrets in Norwegian literature. She chose to assume the name of the hero in her earliest short story, which had the telling title “De to Anonymer” (1841; The Anonymous Two). The story takes place in Copenhagen. Schwartz is a student; he represents an exciting and alluring milieu that Hanna Winsnes had heard about from male relations in the Strøm family.

She had no problem owning up to her manifestly edifying literature, but it was improper for a pastor’s wife to publish popular novels and short stories. Only her immediate family were aware of her ‘other life’, and they were under strict orders to keep it secret. For the sake of her anonymity, Hanna Winsnes chose to turn down an offer made in the 1850s to follow up her success of 1841-46 and publish more stories in the monthly magazine Nat og Dag (Night and Day). The unassuming storyteller had, meanwhile, elected to step forward as the mother of all Norwegian housewives …

You Take…

Above all, Hanna Winsnes is famous, loved – and criticised – as Norway’s cookbook writer. From its very first edition in 1845, her Lærebog i de forskjellige Grene af Huusholdningen (A Guide to the Various Aspects of Housekeeping) – which together with a later publication was tailored to the needs of the less well-to-do – proved to be popular reading. Earnings from the housekeeping book were spent on many a stay at a health resort, where she gathered strength to face the harsh Norwegian winter.

Critics of her book pointed out the (apparent) abundance with which Hanna Winsnes could set the table when it came to range and quantity of foodstuffs: “They live well, in the homes of the masters and mistresses. Wallowing in eggs, sugar, and butter; barns and cellars full; you take… take… take… without a worry about whence you will take it. For all is well with the world,” wrote the prominent writer of the naturalistic school, Arne Garborg, with irony but not without geniality, in the periodical Samtiden (1890; Our Times), and he was certainly not alone in his criticism. Furthermore, he compared, rather interestingly, the home economics book with a novel: “A picture of the old parsonages and official residences, covering core aspects of the life there lived, and authentic in tone.” The ‘cookbook’ also exhibits aspects of Hanna Winsnes’s ‘realism’ and thoroughness, which, along with the more Romantic and imaginative devices in the works of fiction, underlie her recipe for a successful life: show consideration, and always make use of the resources available to you.

The strong, intelligent, and well-liked pastor’s wife was also an unassuming woman, not greedily ‘taking’. In the preface to her ‘cookbook’ she stresses that it was not a know-all attitude that led her to publish recipes for everything from cleaning, how to make soap, and animal husbandry to the use of brandy in the choicer desserts:

“In surrendering the present little book to the female readers, I must tender the assurance that I by no means harbour the vain belief of possessing a greater insight into housekeeping than so many other capable housewives. No! On the contrary, it is the ignorance in which I spent my early youth as a nurse to a beloved mother that was the first occasion for this purpose; for it taught me the discomforts of such a state and inspired me with an ardent craving for the gathering of knowledge.”

She retains humility as a self-taught practitioner, but she is quite determined when it comes to the young housewife’s need for guidance and tuition in home economics.

The Controlling Hand

The narrators in Hanna Winsnes’s fiction are occasionally clad in a similar form of modesty; for example, the narrator in Grevens Datter (1841; The Count’s Daughter) cautions an ageing schoolmaster, who is propelled into literary activity by his unrequited love for the Count’s daughter, against infatuation with his own ‘progeny’:

“At length I had the favourable idea of taking the story of my beloved as the basis for a novel […] reality passes more into the ideal, and just as a faithful husband’s unabated love loses its passion upon the admixture of the new kind of love for the children, so too the writer’s passion is transmitted by love for his own children – the products of his mind, and the whole will possibly at length disappear into – selfishness.”

In Grevens Datter (1841; The Count’s Daughter), twin sisters clandestinely read novels the pages of which their father, a grocer, uses to glue together into paper bags. In their father’s opinion, reading leads to “corruption of the children themselves” and he begins to tear the pages out of the books and shuffle them. But this provides the girls with a new diversion:

“Soon they conceived the idea that the one who was at home on Sunday should, by her own additions, compose a story from the many fragments, or they enjoined one another to conclude a half-finished letter, and so forth.”

Self-centredness is a risk factor in the arts, but it should give way to an honest desire to press on with work: “And, so saying, I will take my leave of the reader of this my first work,” Hanna Winsnes’s’ lonely schoolmaster says by way of conclusion, “with the promise a hostess often makes to her guests, but which she often finds herself compelled to break: ‘It will be better next time.’”

There is no great distance here from male narrator to female eye! Like Thomasine Gyllembourg, Hanna Winsnes often lets a male narrator act as spokesman, and one common theme in particular is that of the narrator’s power and powerlessness in relation to the narrative being presented. The schoolmaster has to abandon his attempt to describe the intimacy between girlfriends; instead, he resorts to the reproduction of a letter. But when he later makes a similar attempt to coax a letter out of old spinster Nørager, “which would much improve my novel”, she objects: she knows enough about earlier novels and their sarcastic comment on old maids, and she does not want to be the object of satire. It is not until the narrator has assured her that she will be one of the central characters in the novel that she resigns herself to the situation. A good deal of humour in Hanna Winsnes’s pen! But original it is not. German Romantic literature boasts many an example of similar rhetorical techniques.

“‘Goodness me! You make me well and truly scared,’ said the pastor’s wife. ‘But do you know what? I really do ask the privilege in return for my hospitality towards you that you never describe me in a novel.’ ‘Yes!’ she continued, even more ardently, ‘if I see the least jot that might allude to me or anyone in my family,’ here she cast a quick glance at her brother, ‘then you will never get a scrap of wool from me again.’”

So says the pastor’s wife to the impoverished writer of poetic idylls in Det første Skridt (1844; The First Step).

Use of the old-fashioned and controlling narrator is nonetheless likely to have been a contributory factor when, after a relatively short period of success, the once so popular works of Hugo Schwartz were deemed passé.

Erik Werenskiold, in: P. Chr. Asbjørnsen, Jørgen Moe and Moltke Moe: Werenskiold. Samtlige Tegninger og Studier til Norske Eventyr, Nordisk Forlag, Kristiania and Kjøbenhavn, 1910

The modesty of tone has an ambiguous feel due to the author’s steadfast construal of the narrative voice. According to Modern Breakthrough taste, despite detailed pictures of settings and precise descriptions of people’s circumstances, the texts did not have enough of the purpose and critique prevalent in the growing programme of realism as it was gradually coming to expression through a more neutral and unobtrusive form of narrator. The same type of criticism was also applied to her children’s book Aftenerne paa Egelund (1852; Evenings at Egelund; Eng. tr. Norwegian Stories: or, Evenings at Oakwood). In this book Hanna Winsnes gathers a handful of little girls for shared fun and benefit at the home of Mrs Lind, who lives alone at Egelund with her daughter Mariane:

“She [Mrs Lind] is very fond of children, and so wants them to be good and able; therefore she wants to rectify all their shortcomings, but she is also amused by their horseplay and wants to give them a good time.”

As part of their upbringing, Mrs Lind spends the evenings with the little girls, telling fairytales and challenging them with complicated riddles. Hanna Winsnes was herself skilled in composing riddles; she made the most intricate rebuses – particularly during periods when physical pain caused her trouble sleeping – with which she amused those around her.

The fairytales in the story are often chosen with relevance to a specific incident in which one of the children has played a key role. Thus, in the midst of all its imaginative power, the story is also an exemplum tailored to the needs of the individual. The children are described as being of widely varying character, and therefore at times they require individual handling and response from the adult. Posterity has found this controlling hand too forceful, regarding Hanna Winsnes’s teaching methods as outdated. Even though Aftenerne på Egelund has to be counted among the pioneering works of Norwegian children’s literature – as must Hugo Schwartz’s tales in relation to the incipient genre of the novel – it was last reprinted in a new edition in 1923.

“Now that Aase could see how perilous was the road they had walked by night and what steep inaccessible rocks lay before them, she said somewhat despondently: ‘Surely you do not mean that we should ascend these steep ridges? I do not think there are paths for people to walk.’ ‘Certainly,’ replied Mrs Stoltsire, ‘my rule is always: higher up’.”

Aftenerne paa Egelund (1852; Evenings at Egelund).

It is worth noting, however, that many of the fairytales told are intriguing in more ways that one. They employ a richness of image and a symbolism that to some extent goes beyond the parameters of the traditional Norwegian folktale – most are clearly imported. A number of the tales deal with girls who go out on their own into vast and unruly nature. They are enticed up into the mountains, but as they approach the summit they become quite dizzy. On several occasions, we experience a contrast between the peaks of nature and the muddy ditches of its marshes into which you can sink and drown under the gaze of the malevolent dwarf. The point for the girls is often to find the right way home, in the sense of looking onwards to a new state of maturity: when little Bertha discovers that she dares follow the angel higher and higher up towards the zeniths, she suddenly realises that she has returned to her parents’ garden. Many of the tales include magic figures usually associated with evil. However, there is almost always some form of angel nearby, if the child manages to see beyond her own lazy self-centredness. The dizzying summit is the domicile of cognition and faith and at the same time a diligent girl’s/women’s universe.

“Bertha gazed into the heights, and look! – the beautiful house again appeared before her eyes, and it glowed with increased radiance! But the distance seemed to her just as great as when she had stood on the low land and seen deep chasms with steep, rocky points between. The moonlight shone upon the rocks, and dark shadows made the precipice even more terrible. Bertha said despondently: ‘Thither is impossible to reach.’ But the white girl replied: ‘When, a year ago, I stood with you on the marsh, the path we now have trod was just as inaccessible as the one you see before you.’”

Aftenerne paa Egelund (1852; Evenings at Egelund).

Nuance and Melodrama

Hanna Winsnes’s two major novels, Grevens Datter and Det første Skridt,provided splendid entertainment for her contemporary readership – dramatic stories about children swapped at birth, foundlings, and inheritance, depictions of landscapes and townlife, old parsonages and affluent manors, thieving gipsies, and beautiful heroes and heroines – but they also provide a good insight into women’s sphere of work and commitments. Money matters suffer unless an efficient woman is on top of things! A lot of reading also goes on, and Hanna Winsnes gives many examples of the literary tastes of her day:

“They whiled away the time as best they could with music and embroidery, and they took turns reading aloud for one another. The Count was himself a lover of recreational reading, and there was never a lack of the latest books at Hermansdorf.” (Grevens Datter). Even though the texts are close to the genre of the popular novel and make use of its familiar, melodramatic effects, Hanna Winsnes provides a good deal of interesting differentiation in her presentation of intriguing female characters and situations. The tales always contain a riddle to be unravelled, new truths to be revealed. The pretty, little dressmaker who saves a boy from being run over is, of course, the Count’s real daughter: she is energetic and resourceful, but nonetheless unassuming. The thieving fop who ends up as a murderer is not, of course, the hero’s real brother. These two are, however, simple figures.

Catharine Hermine Kølle: Urne på sokkel. Undated. Bergen Museum, University of Bergen

Beautiful Helga in Det første Skridt, who must die because of her love of and loyalty to her rival, is a more complex figure. She is ascribed a number of good qualities, and she departs in many respects from the black-and-white character sketch. Her death seems unjust, albeit necessary for the strategy of the tale. Helga comes across as a modern and complex female character, even though it is her constancy that leads to adversity.

“[…] a writer must experience everything at first hand, only then can he depict life and truth; he must visit the mountain huts in the peaks and feel the storm gust around his head in these high regions; he must rest on the shady bank of the river, while watching the field hands at work; he must live with the farmer in his house and busy himself at his hearth.”

Det første Skridt (1844; The First Step).

The portrait of the false daughter in Grevens Datter is also psychologically nuanced. In addition, she is accompanied by a vigorous gallery of women comprising the good-natured and garrulous mother of a pastor, a pastor’s wife, casually coquettish townswomen, and tyrannical young girls. The most substantial female character in Hanna Winsnes’s oeuvre, Miss Nørager, is still suffering in her old age from the mistake of her youth: she underrated a suitor. This mistake, however, has also given her an expedient drive and dignity, which proves to be a contributory factor in finally solving the mystery of the Count’s daughter.

Art and Deception?

The truth will always out, but Hanna Winsnes’s fictional characters are fixed in a world full of deception. Sometimes new deceptions lead to clearing up earlier ones:

“But Mrs Orsängius was right, truth will usually come to light sooner or later, and after 23 years the little jealousy in the business affair led to a discovery, which Pastor Orsängius had almost forgotten was possible.”

Such is the case in the short story “Præsten i Särne” (1843; The Pastor in Särne). As in many of the other stories, we are here reading about a foundling – this time a young pastor who is unaware of his status, but who discovers his true origins and meets his mother at the last moment, as she lies on her deathbed.

This story, which was actually banned in Denmark due to its critical comments about the Danish constitution, states more clearly than anything else Hanna Winsnes wrote her opinion of the political situation in Scandinavia. Descriptions of scenery in the Trysil area, bordering Sweden, render her view of the in Winsnes’s eyes natural post-1814 union between Sweden and Norway; the lost son, having grown up in Sweden, finds his way home to Norway. The story also depicts the intense Norwegian dislike of all things Swedish at the time.

Frank comments on the writing and politics of her day are also to be found in Grevens Datter. Most of the plot is played out near Nyborg on the Danish island of Funen, and revolves around the family of a Count with German ancestry, but the pursuit of the hero’s identity involves a trip to Norway. The story includes conversations and comments on the contemporaneous clash between the poets Henrik Wergeland and Johan Sebastian Welhaven and their respective factions – a long and bitter dispute that ran from the 1830s into the 1840s. With his ideas of general education, his preference for Norwegian over Danish, his experiments with language, and his exuberant poetry full of metaphor, Wergeland was subjected to harsh criticism from the Danophile and more classicist Welhaven. It is rare to see, at that period, such clear examples of writing used in the service of politics and language politics. Hanna Winsnes was in no doubt that her vote went to the poet Wergeland.

Doubt, however, was thus so much the greater with regard to her personal literary endeavours. Self-centredness and self-representation were one aspect of the matter, another was the relationship between art and nature. For a woman with the views on merit held by “Mother Hanna”, it was important to be able to see art in the natural environment. In “Mit Theater” (My Theatre) from Smaa-Digte, she writes about theatre imitating nature, but she turns the situation upside down and looks at nature and common people as an art world depicted via the course of a day.

No artist ever
– most famous, and best paid –
the scenery has painted
as we here find it adorned;
herein even the grandest cities
cedes the prize to my theatre.
Here the sky is not of paper […]

The poem demonstrates how nature is a dynamic setting and, in itself, unsurpassed art. As a writer, Hanna Winsnes took a natural world and a daily life as the points of reference in her work. Her short stories, as well as her novels, contain detailed descriptions of nature, which testify both to empathy and to delight; her characters, taken from nearly all social strata, are portrayed with consideration and kindness. To Hanna Winsnes, the ideal that art should imitate nature must have seemed peculiar, verging on the fraudulent. She saw the act of making nature look like art, making the material recognisable for the reader as art, primarily as a matter of finding order and giving guidance in the chaos of everyday life, where everyone had to find their station. To tell stories – driven by love as in the case of the old schoolmaster, or with upbringing as the ulterior motive as in the case of Mrs Lind – was therefore to make for coherence, to find the logic and laws of life.

But a capable woman is also obliged to step forward with her own story. Hanna Winsnes chose to lay down the quill of fiction and send Hugo Schwartz to his grave more than twenty years before she went to her own grave. Since that time, however, many people have followed her ‘recipes’ …

Translated by Gaye Kynoch