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The Ramparts Fall

Written by: Birgit Mortensen |

From time immemorial, the ramparts around Copenhagen had been the visible token of changelessness and solidity. In the course of the 1860s, however, the ramparts were largely demolished, and a deluge of all sorts of new impulses washed in across the city. Farm labourers, servant girls, traders, and artists poured in from all over the Nordic region; new neighbourhoods shot up outside the old city fortifications and the number of inhabitants doubled, reaching 360,000 in 1890.

The city got down to work. The machines clattered, the money rolled, culture and intellectual life flowed. The modern era had arrived!

Caricature of Georg Brandes, in: Puk, 5/1894. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

When Georg Brandes held his epoch-making lectures at the University of Copenhagen in 1871 – Hovedstrømninger I det 19de Aarhundredes Litteratur (Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature) – the starting signal sounded for a process of change that was to pull the foundation from under any hitherto existing order. Farmers, labourers – indeed, even women – no longer knew their place. They began forming political parties and unions. Det forenede Venstre (The United Left) was established in 1872, the first Danish branch of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1871, while women broke out from the camp of the mutes and set up Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society), also in 1871.

The latter was a ‘cultured’ interest group, one that would work “to further woman in an intellectual, moral, and financial respect, and thereby, in addition, to make her a more self-determining and effectual member of family and state, specifically by giving her access to independent employment.”

This cautiously phrased statement of intent, which did not specify the point whence “more self-determining and effectual” should be measured, reveals an internal lack of clarification in the women’s movement. Is the yardstick being applied of a female or a male variety? And what about the last part of the statement? Does it, like the first part, apply to all women, or is it only aimed at spinsters – is the home not a more ‘natural’ vocation in life for a woman?

In her lecture “Nutidens sædelige Lighedskrav” (The Present-day Demand for Equality of Moral Conduct), which was published in Kvinden og Samfundet (April 1887; Woman and Society), Elisabeth Grundtvig asked of the female nature: “What, then, is the real nature of womankind? Is it the one we had when human beings first became conscious of themselves as humans? Is it the one which women of the wild tribes still have? Or is it the one the Danish women had a thousand years ago? Yes, I put forward the question to be answered.”

The unanswered questions were left unanswered for the time being. There was more than enough to do in other areas: creating education opportunities – in 1872 Dansk Kvindesamfund set up a commercial college for women, in 1876 Tegneskolen for Kvinder (a women’s college of design and the graphic arts), and later a Sunday school for women “from the working classes” – and securing women a foothold in the new commercial sectors. Under the surface, however, the question was simmering: is gender difference natural or cultural?

In 1885 the as of yet unresolved issues resulted – peacefully – in the founding of Kvindelig Fremskridtsforening (Women’s Progress Association), which was to be a more uncompromising forum for discussion, as a supplement to Dansk Kvindesamfund. But in the controversy over moral conduct, which came to a head in 1887, the conflict looked more like open warfare.

The mood during the 1880s was tense – and productive! It caused women to write like never before. In the period between 1870 and 1890 more than seventy women writers were published for the first time in Denmark – which was almost three times as many as in the two preceding decades. Many – most – could not be classified as modern, either in terms of theme or style, but the diversity shows that women were taking part.

Benedicte Arnesen-Kall was a writer who had personally felt the effects of the climate shift that occurred from the 1850s to the 1880s. In Livserindringer (1889; Memoirs), she described the changing attitude to the woman who wrote:

“Nowadays, when no young girl is ashamed to write or be published; nowadays, when we have our splendid Women’s Book Association, the Danish Women’s Society, and so many other associations and institutions that give the young woman free rein to develop and apply her abilities and talents in the various fields; nowadays it is by no means easy to imagine what it would have meant back then, more than 40 years ago, to throw oneself into the jaws of narrow-minded judgements from the petite bourgeoisie and the coteries with their ruthless criticism.”

The many provided the groundwork for the few who planted the new era into language and ideas. This required more than courage – because these women wrote on doubt! Doubt about gender. The many male pseudonyms are telling, just as Amalie Skram’s deep sigh bears witness to a woman with a distorted body image: “Nature has committed a great blunder by not making me into a man.”

Those who dared were by and large all from middle-class homes, and had been instilled with a solid education and cultivation. They learned languages and had a self-assured familiarity with Danish culture, with the classics, with the repertoire of the Royal Danish Theatre, with social convention. But as authors they had a hard time – were pressed from all sides: partly by the men, who had been there first and for very good reasons found it easier to express themselves and have their works published and distributed; partly because they could not live from writing, particularly if they wrote in a ‘modern’ idiom. Women would therefore typically use writing as one aspect of a wider cultural enterprise. Fiction was one way in which to use their voice – journalism, lectures, association work were other methods. Some – Erna Juel-Hansen, Helga Johansen, and Christine Mønster, for example – worked as teachers alongside their writing activities.

Another reason for the hard-pressed circumstances of Danish women’s literature was the singular dominance of Georg Brandes. He simply took up too much space – the Danish avant-garde was a monoculture in which there was no room for the women’s doubt.

The ‘culture war’ in Denmark must be seen, moreover, in the light of the significance of the folk high school movement. While the bourgeoisie was fighting over moral conduct, the folk high schools were flourishing in rural communities. The Biedermeier culture was thereby experiencing a renaissance: the folk high school would teach the country girl to be a sensitive, intense soul able to reproduce the bourgeois intimate sphere in her new brick-built farmhouse. Things did not go quite by the book, of course. The onward march of history could not be reversed, and a farm would never become a bourgeois residence. But the ennoblement of emotional life wrought by the folk high school contributed to a change in mentality which, on the one hand, created a springboard for new departures – to, indeed, the modern city culture – and, on the other hand, idealised womanliness. Personal and familial ties had already been established between the women’s movement and the folk high school movement, and the moral conduct commotion helped strengthen them. For the women writers, this alliance meant further liberation and isolation, which then, conversely, pushed them over towards the bohemian and the Brandes-wing.

In practice, the women’s movement and the modern women’s literature were at loggerheads. The female writers put themselves in a threshold position: neither completely out nor completely in the public discussion on cultural, political, and related topics – nor, then, could they be firmly slotted into the ‘naturalism’ category.

Naturalism was an outlook on life and a way of perceiving the world – not a firmly worked out poetics. Inspiration came from scholarly positivism, from French realism, from Darwin’s evolutionism, and from Georg Brandes’ advocacy of free thought and his literary manifesto: “What shows a literature to be living in our day is the fact of its subjecting problems to debate.”

And therefore they did not write many problem plays. Unlike the Swedish women’s plays, in which the theatre was used as an effective female forum for discussion, Danish women’s plays were more often than not de-dramatised mood pieces: little one-acters like Nathalie Larsen’s I Mørkningen (1884; At Dusk), or Illa Christensen’s I Foyeren (1887; In the Foyer) – a sensitive art of dialogue that did not give rise to any great public discussion.

That said, however, it must be added that the few successful works with real resonance in the public forum came from the pens of women who crossed the threshold and played out the cultural, political, and related ideas – on stage.

“At the end of March this year, the calendars of the Nordic theatres were unique in Europe due to the large number of female playwrights featured. In Kristiania, Mrs Laura Kieler’s opinion piece Mænd af Ære (Men of Honour) was in rehearsal. In Copenhagen, the Royal Theatre was playing En Advarsel (A Warning), comedy in one act by Mrs Emma Gad, and En Historietime (A History Lesson), comedy in one act by an anonymous female, – while Dagmar Theatre alternated between Et Sølvbryllup (A Silver Wedding), comedy in three acts by Mrs Gad, and Inden Døre (Within Doors), play in four acts by Mrs Magdalene Thoresen. In Stockholm, the Royal Dramatic Theatre was performing Familjelycka (Family Happiness), comedy in three acts by Mrs Anne Charlotte Leffler, duchess of Cajanello, and the same theatre has this same author’s En räddande engel (An Angel of Deliverance) and I telefon (On the Telephone), comedy in one act by Mrs Victoria Benedictsson, permanently in the repertoire. In Helsingfors, the Swedish theatre was playing the latter named piece by Mrs Leffler, and the Finnish theatre was performing two full-length plays, Murtovarkaus (The Burglary) and Papin perhe (The Parson’s Family), by Mrs Minna Canth.”

This was the situation in 1891 – according to Harald Hansen in the Norwegian journal Samtiden (Our Times) – in the wake of the grand realistic golden age on the Nordic stage. The ‘women’s issue’ was in the spotlight, and women were playing lead roles – not only on stage, but also as playwrights.

Woman – Good Material

In 1890 two productions made their mark on the Copenhagen stage – Mænd af Ære (Men of Honour) and Et Sølvbryllup (A Silver Wedding). Both were written by women, and both were written to the reverberations of the recently fought battle over moral conduct.

Laura Kieler’s Mænd af Ære, which was performed at the Casino Theatre, triggered a succès de scandale in which the various parties of the morality controversy yet again bumped heads: “The house was, despite a temperature of 20 degrees [Celsius], as good as sold out, and between every act there was the most piercing whistling, which was regularly drowned out by the most tremendous storm of applause,” reported the women’s journal Hvad vi vil (What We Want). It was the play’s representation of free love that caused tempers to fray. On the surface, it is the old story: a woman who gives herself to her beloved without first having secured herself the rights of a wedded wife, and a man who quickly loses interest and subsequently attempts to get rid of her. The inner drama, however, revolves around ideas brought up in the controversy about moral conduct. Her motive for entering into the free-love relationship is one of idealism: “Love is more binding and sacred than marriage. It is in itself indissoluble.” His motive is a loathing of “hypocrisy” and “prejudice”, but once he has grown “tired of her” he ends up falling back on exactly the same hypocrisies and prejudices: “I am convinced that she would even lay claim to my fidelity as her right! Had she at least been my wife! / Just think if she had been my wife! / She was not even my wife! / Had she been my wife, at that!” For her the consummation of love is a sacred pact; for him the ‘permissiveness’ is simply an added refinement to his habitual enjoyment and use of women. While she succumbs, he gains success. Being a fashionable writer he cannot settle for letting her go, but exploits her unhappy plight as good material.

In Mænd af Ære, little honour is thus accorded the ‘liberal’ mind. The free-love relationship is revealed to be an illusion cynically exploited by men. The sarcasm is strident, and the modern men are portrayed as sheer parody. The glaring contrasts are in the spotlight – no mixed palette, no forbearing humour.

Bertha Wegmann: Emma Gad. Drawing. Det Nationalhistoriske Museum, Frederiksborg Slot

Emma Gad’s Et Sølvbryllup, on the other hand, is a comedy. The ingredients are the same as those in Mænd af Ære – infidelity and double standards – but it is all brought down to an everyday level, so no one dies from it. On the contrary, extreme reactions are headed off through laughter. In both generations represented on stage the men have had their little digressions, but not to the extent that it really matters. The mother, who insists on ‘purity’, is nonetheless too indolent to throw down the gauntlet when it comes to the crunch. The ‘amazon’ of the play, an uncompromising woman who advocates feminist ideas, is the only fleshed-out character type, but so much the more ridiculous in her prudishness and narrow-minded conviction of her own ‘purity’ and excellence. And the young woman of the piece – well, she is indifferent to all the slogans, as long as she gets to marry the man she wants, even though his past is a little ‘blemished’.

Emma Gad’s comedy often punctured the self-important rhetoric. Here, in Et Sølvbryllup (1890; A Silver Wedding):

“Miss Møller: Look at the corrupted manners!
Pastor Mathiesen: And look at the subversive doctrines of science!
Miss Knudsgaard: And look at the new indelicate literature, which has the sole purpose of rousing the wicked inclinations.
Dr Fransen: Are you certain of that? Are you familiar with it?
Miss Knudsgaard: No, whatever are you thinking.
Miss Møller: But this much we know, that it aims to loosen the morals.
Dr Fransen (grumpy): Can we please have no more talk of morality?
Mrs Selby: Yes, Doctor, we know that you, sir, with your materialistic views, pooh-pooh that which is unblemished and pure.
Selby: But even so, he has given the town a public baths.”

Laura Kieler’s and Emma Gad’s respective plays, and the controversy over their subject matter, give an impression of the conflicting forces stirring in women’s public literary profile at the end of the 1880s: on the one hand, Laura Kieler’s bombast and Romantic claim to wholeness; on the other hand, Emma Gad’s subtlety, in which characters speak with two tongues, motives are tangled, and ideals ultimately yield to realities. And the reality was that women did not have the material basis on which to implement any great extent of either ‘gauntlet morality’ or a liberal-minded approach. “Woman’s true freedom lies, for the time being, behind the screen of marriage,” is the moral she expressed in a later play, Rørt Vande (1895; Troubled Waters).

The battle over ‘woman’ resonated in the debate provoked by Mænd af Ære. In Hvad vi vil, Louise Nørlund dismissed the heroine of the play, who succumbs at “the first blow from the outside world’s view of her virtue” and called for a different image of woman – “the bold woman who wants to do something and who dares take risks for what she wants”. This immediately occasioned a counter-response: “It is outrageous and nonsensical for a woman to make such remarks while so lacking in understanding of the deepest feelings of a real female mind.” Louise Nørlund’s reply to this manifests the same realism as that underpinning Emma Gad’s ridicule of the ‘gauntlet hysteria’:

“For, however boundless a suffering disappointment in love might be, life really should not have ‘lost all its attraction’ on that account. If this is one’s outlook on life, ‘then one has nothing more to say’ in the work to achieve women’s independence and liberation from the man’s guardianship; because then one needs a guardian. It ought not to be ‘a woman’s most precious possession’ to know that one is safe in one’s love relationship to the man. Life has other purposes than to love and be loved! Life has a task, and if the woman wants to take part in that task she should harden herself against disappointments and not whiningly ‘break in two’, even though the storm of life reaches her ‘deepest’ feelings. If she cannot do this, then they are right those who ascribe woman but ‘aesthetic’ value in life.”

These ‘other purposes’ are illustrated in Emma Gad’s comedies by means of a priceless gallery of subordinate characters – working women such as the spinster seamstress in Et Sølvbryllup who, like the others, is a comic figure, but also a figure with a certain dignity because she has grounds for her self-respect: her professional expertise!

Professionalism versus womanliness – this was the tension that split Dansk Kvindesamfund in 1888. The detonator was Elisabeth Grundtvig’s lecture the previous year, “Nutidens sædelige Lighedskrav” (The Present-day Demand for Equality of Moral Conduct), in which she demanded the same chaste moral standards of men as of women. This resulted in an extraordinary general meeting at which a motion signed by twenty-one women proposed that Dansk Kvindesamfund should drop the discussion of moral conduct and instead turn its efforts to practical assignments. The motion was rejected by an overwhelming majority of members. As the members of Dansk Kvindesamfund could not at this time agree to adding the demand for women’s suffrage to their statement of intent – but settled for a statement about improvement instead of equal rights within “family, society and the state” – well, then a large number of women resigned their membership. Some joined Kvindelig Fremskridtsforening, an association that started publishing its own journal in 1888: Hvad vi vil. From the journal’s subtitle as the “organ for the cause of women, of peace, of the worker”, it is evident that the aim of the association went much further than that of Dansk Kvindesamfund, but it is also apparent that the shared basis was very tenuous indeed. Johanne Meyer, who was the leader of the association for most of its lifetime, was of a conspicuously Social Democratic persuasion, whereas a number of the women with roots in Dansk Kvindesamfund have to be described as ‘cultural radicals’ with no party-political affiliation. In 1889, the internal tensions led to the setting up of yet another women’s organisation: Kvindevalgretsforeningen (Women’s Suffrage Association).

Massi Bruhn was affiliated to Kvindelig Fremskridtsforening (Women’s Progress Association) and struck a pragmatic line in the association’s journal, Hvad vi vil (What We Want). In May 1889 she wrote:

“If the woman seeks to attain equality with the man in family and state, she must learn, disregarding petty party politics, to work together with the people who are liberal-minded and humane enough to be willing to assist her in achieving the aims that can safeguard her status and give her full human right in the society where she lives and works.”

Proposal for the decoration of Copenhagen theatre facades. From: Blæksprutten, 1899. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

In part, the same women figured among the host of members and leaders in the various associations. Dual membership attests to a conflict of interests, which would inevitably arise in a movement the common denominator of which was primarily gender. An open conflict broke out in 1893 when the writer Erna Juel-Hansen launched an attack on Kvindelig Fremskridtsforening. She was one of the group who had resigned membership of Dansk Kvindesamfund in 1887 and set up Kvindevalgretsforeningen in 1889. She now broached the clash of cultures that was well under way in the women’s movement:

“For when it is said of women that they are politically immature, parliamentarily undeveloped, and that the majority live in manifest political ignorance, we must according to logic declare ourselves guilty […] in this country at the moment there is neither a woman editor nor journalist skilled enough to make a magazine readable. This has been demonstrated to the full by What We Want. It is always both imprudent and embarrassing to bang the table and say ‘We want’ when one has no power whatsoever to achieve one’s objective.

“The journal has not accomplished anything other than giving the women a nickname, an invective: the ‘what-we-want-women’! […] Write, but write well. Campaign, but not with words alone, no! By becoming skilful, show what we are worth, what we can do.”

Erna Juel-Hansen was speaking “in the interests of the women’s cause”, but the protests triggered by her lecture did so, too. This made for dissension, but it also showed that the women’s cause was in the process of becoming socially ‘mature’ – no longer a question of moral virtuousness, but a question of professional virtuousness.

Mænd af Ære and Et Sølvbryllup demonstrate different literary dissections of this highly complex and opaque public corpus of womankind. The works adopt, respectively, a Romantic and a realistic perspective, and their authors represent two entirely different takes on a woman’s life during the Modern Breakthrough.

Laura Kieler (1849-1932) was one of the women who entered into dialogue with Ibsen. With her novel Brands Døtre (1869; Brand’s Daughters) she was an early subscriber to critical idealism. She was Norwegian by birth, married to a Dane, and had personal experience of the modern schism between Romanticism and Realism. Being the author of novels addressing issues of the day and depictions of Sami life, she was, like the heroine of Mænd af Ære, rendered good material through the eyes of a male artist – she was the real-life model for Ibsen’s Nora in Et Dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House). But whereas Nora went out and stoked up the entire public discussion, real-life Laura Kieler went under from the tragedy of her marriage. She and her ideal demand were obliged to spend a period hidden away in a mental hospital.

This explains the passionate, almost manic tone of Mænd af Ære. Laura Kieler was so entrenched in the Romantic idea of woman and so close to her material that she found it hard to keep her distance – hard to differentiate between “aesthetic value” and reality. As it was impossible for reality to be lived ideally, in her later works Laura Kieler withdrew entirely from contemporary issues. From the turn of the century onwards, she chiefly wrote regional literature and historical novels.

Emma Gad (1852-1921) was not only a contrast to Laura Kieler, she was also a unique exception among the writers of the Modern Breakthrough. She was the only female dramatist who really made a name for herself. In the period between 1886 and 1916 she wrote more than twenty plays, many of which were staged with success. Of a good family and married well, Emma Gad was also a successful, modern women in her private life. Her home was a meeting place for all the cultural notables of Copenhagen; around a well-provided table she brought the most disparate of opinions into sociable concord, and similarly she brought the most burning of issues to the stage, where she let laughter reconcile divisions. By means of slick plots and well-turned, witty dialogue, which exposed while deflecting the disconcerting aspects of the subject, Emma Gad threw a critical – and comical – light on the everyday life of the bourgeoisie. By constantly playing the various stances off against one another – the amusing phrases versus the pallid motives – every form of histrionic pomposity, every form of holier-than-thouness is made to look ridiculous.

Emma Gad’s invitations came in the form of charming little notes that played on intimate acquaintance with the individual.

To Georg Brandes, known to be fond of the ladies: “I believe it will be delightful – vibrant young maidens to sparkling waltz tunes – and many beautiful ladies looking on.”

To hard-living Peter Nansen: “Wied is coming here to lunch tomorrow, Saturday, at 12 o’clock. Could you perhaps come, too, and enjoy the piece of herring and the restorative glass of schnapps undoubtedly necessitated by the carnival pleasures of the night?”

To shy Amalie Skram: “Please do come, it would be so nice! If, however, there should be too many people that evening – about 50 – then I can tell you that he is coming over to us on Thursday the 27th at 8 o’clock in the evening to practise with Mrs Orpheline Olsen and a young violinist Knud Pontoppidan – otherwise no one else – Alexandra is going to a reading.”

Emma Gad’s plays represent both a continuation and a break with the naturalistic drawing-room drama. The material and the outer framework are retained, but whereas the naturalistic drama moved towards the more and more vividly atmospheric, Emma Gad moved towards farce; partly because she is a realist and, as a woman writer, uses humour to keep the insurmountable aspect of modernity at a distance, partly because she is media savvy:

“From fear of seeming vulgar and aiming at the intense stage effect, popularly known as the thrill, Nordic writers are becoming increasingly uneasy about employing the powerfully vivid situations that undeniably make it easier for actors to create performances that are not forgotten.”

Unlike Laura Kieler, she is perfectly aware that she is creating fiction, and that the form is determined by the materials – the stage space, the actors, the presence of an audience – available to the art of theatre. She makes, exactly as Erna Juel-Hansen wanted, professionalism a virtue.

To be angered by it or to laugh at it – these were the two extremities in the many different ways of ‘coping’ with the climate during the feud about moral conduct. Earnestness and self-importance were necessary ways of creating understanding in the battle to be fought by the women’s associations in an attempt to achieve influence, just as the ideals being pursued were of necessity bound to involve a degree of standardisation. Something – all that was vague and unresolved – had to be dropped if any effective impact was to be made. This then led to the vigorous clashes between liberalism and gauntlet, between the moderate women advocates of female suffrage and the uncompromising campaigners.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch