Print Article

Modernity’s Female Text

Written by: Inger-Lise Hjordt-Vetlesen |

The ‘modern’ broke through, resulting in the death of God. God’s departure from this life was revealed in humankind now wanting to run it themselves – and wanting to be themselves. They wanted to investigate, explain, control nature, society, and the mind. Free faith, free research, and free love became the new articles of faith in the social and cultural movements of the Modern Breakthrough.

Jean Leon Géròme: <em>Pygmalion og Galatea</em>, 1881. Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo: Wikimedia Commons

Jean Leon Géròme: Pygmalion og Galatea, 1881. Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo: Wikimedia Commons

It was a break! A break with usual practice, customary power structures, and the Romantic inheritance of the whole Biedermeier edifice. All the new, however, was borne forth on the shoulders of the Romantic. The exaggerated idealism that characterised Romanticism now simply disguised itself as enthusiastic cultivation of the free forces of nature – in society and in the individual. The Romantic emphasis on the individual – the unique individual – was put back on the agenda. Now also advanced by the hitherto silent: the working people and the women. From one perspective the Modern Breakthrough can thus be seen as the era of individualism and liberalism.

From another perspective, however, modernity is seen as the exact opposite: as rendering existence divided and random. Even though the Nordic region was, in this respect, lagging far behind the rest of Europe, the ‘modern’ of the North can also only be understood in the light of the city and its growth. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Copenhagen and Stockholm in particular were transformed into collecting points and hothouses – not just for goods, money, and ideas from the world beyond the Nordic countriesm, but also for all sorts of human flotsam: those who were unemployed, were prostitutes, were social outcasts. And the city mentality spread; traditional contexts of life crumbled, the lengthy time frame dissolved into the short, intermittent spells spent together – not by virtue of a personal relationship, but because of happening to be on the same street, the same train carriage, in the same state of being abandoned to chance. The city took on an all-pervading dynamic, the ego lost its contours and became the object of a veritable bombardment of the senses, which undermined identity and the feeling of being personally present in the world.

This tension between individualisation and loss of self was the ambience in which young nineteenth-century women were to make their attempt at gaining a foothold and a voice!

The Breakthrough – a Women’s Movement?

The changeover to a modern society opened the door to new opportunities for middle-class women. The railways and steamships showed the way to – if nothing else – a larger scheme of things, and not a few women from the upper middle classes time and again broke the men’s monopoly and embarked on a ‘grand tour’. The growing book market also encouraged imaginations to break out…

For many women, however, the change was determined by ruthless necessity: emigration from the Nordic region had led to a considerable surplus of women, and the thinned-out marriage market was further eroded by the stagnation of salaries in the public officials’ sector. Previously, the unmarried woman had more often than not found a seat as ‘auntie’ at the family’s table, now she was forced out onto the market. Her homemade wares were being rendered superfluous by manufactured goods, and only the most affluent families could afford to keep a family member as full-blown lady’s companion. It was out of the question for a middle-class woman to take on the heavy household work usually undertaken by servants. In most cases, a single woman without private means was therefore obliged to survive in the limbo realm of the governess in a grander home – neither servant nor mistress of the house, but an inarticulate ‘something’.

From Emmy Drachmann’s Erindringer. Barndom og Ungdom til 1883 (1925; Memoirs. Childhood and Youth to 1883), which gives us a glimpse into the life of a governess:

“What was at that time offered to a young woman with a good education would now sound incredible. Besides teaching languages and music, the work of a housemaid was required, and the pay was far inferior to that of a servant girl. At one place, for example, the lady of the house made it a condition that I should once a week iron all night. At another place, where such musical skill was expected that I had to be able to accompany the grown-up son on the piano when he played his violin, I had to clean the windows, and at a third place – the master of the house showed me such a remarkable degree of ‘kind-heartedness’ that I would instantly have none of it.”

Hanna Pauli (born Hirsch): <em>Frukostdags</em>, 1887, oil painting, NM 1705, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Hanna Pauli (born Hirsch): Frukostdags, 1887, oil painting, NM 1705, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

The traditional middle-class girls’ ‘education’ was aimed entirely at the domestic department. A well-bred girl was ‘qualified’ to be the angel of the intimate sphere. She could sew and embroider, sing and accompany on the piano, dance and carry herself well, and she could converse in several languages. All was done, however, in a restrained and introverted manner – never in showy presentation of herself.

The concept ‘woman’ gradually implied a complexity of meaning stemming from the time before and after the civil revolutions. The Age of Enlightenment had spoken of woman as an ordinary, rational human being; the period of revolution and the High Romantic Era saw woman as the symbol of freedom and boundlessness. In bourgeois practice, on the other hand, where the Romantic ideas were squeezed down into the closed Biedermeier family, ‘woman’ changed into the complementary opposite number to ‘man’: the woman’s nature was manifested as an unconscious state of being, whereas the man, through education and cultivation, became conscious individual. By the middle of the nineteenth century, women’s and men’s lives were extremely polarised. Men’s were outward-going and dynamic – women’s inward-looking and vegetative. The differences in the sexes were constantly fostered – through upbringing, religion, clothing – not from spite, but simply because the societal conditions necessary to fulfil Enlightenment and Romantic promises of equality did not yet exist.

However, by the mid-nineteenth century cracks were already showing in the idyllic veneer. The Clara Raphael controversy in Denmark and the Det går an (It Can Be Done) debate in Sweden exposed the internal flaws of the gender role construction, but also showed that the broad majority of women were quite content within their ‘womanliness’.

When necessity made itself felt, however, the emancipation project was given substance and wing span. The issue of women, which in the 1850s had let itself be chipped away – in woodcut, in family intimacy, in national romanticism – was writ large and inescapably on every agenda when the ‘modern’ broke through.

In practical terms, it was a question of how the growing hosts of unmarried middle-class women were going to put bread on their tables. Employment opportunities were thin on the ground; the men had their feet firmly and comfortably under the table of the civil desks, and their upbringing had given these women qualities, but no qualifications.The faceless dynamic of the modern society gradually came to their aid in this respect. The commodification of pretty well every component of the economy created new job opportunities in teaching, nursing, administration, and sales – areas in which bourgeois women could turn their female credentials into wages without openly threatening men and their ‘natural’ privileges. Not that this meant that women were spared a struggle for the opportunity to do so.

Unlike the lone and isolated women who raised their voices in the middle of the century, there was now a host of women speaking out. During the 1880s, feverish female activity could be perceived everywhere. In all the Nordic countries women joined together in national women’s societies, working doggedly and energetically to put women’s issues on the agenda of the legislative authorities in order to ensure the implementation of laws that would promote equality in the family and the workplace. The matter of political equality was allowed to rest for the time being.

Writing in newspapers, journals, and literary works, it was young middle-class women – well-versed in languages, conversation, and good manners – who presented issues pertaining to women’s status as a social problem. Very few of them saw their activities as ‘revolutionary’ – on the contrary, they would probably rather have bitten off their tongues than renounce angel dust and women’s special characteristics. Nonetheless, that is what they did – in practice! Going out into the community and, in the company of other women, shooting their mouths off and setting up organisations was a striking departure from the conventional woman’s role – an indirect manifestation that Romantic womanliness no longer held good, and that women needed a ‘place’ where they could articulate a new self-perception. The bread-on-table issue was one thing – but another was that of women’s ‘being’. The former was the underlying issue, but it was the latter that caused passions to boil. Woman’s body was, in more than one sense, the battlefield for the contending forces.

“Just then she unfurled two large, white wings, which, as she bent down, she spread over me and the children, and her head was surrounded by a halo, the radiance of which caused me to close my dull eyes, but the white wings emitted a chill like the one exuded by the air and sea on that warm summer evening when I saw her again for the first time in six years.”

It was this image of woman as angel, this enclosure and stylisation of the space – here in Thomasine Gyllembourg’s short story “Drøm og Virkelighed” (1833; Dream and Reality) – from which ‘the modern’ broke away.

The Body

Danish reform dress on display in the Magasin du Nord department store, in: <em>Illustreret Tidende</em> 1887. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Danish reform dress on display in the Magasin du Nord department store, in: Illustreret Tidende 1887. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Above all, the silhouette became a point of dispute and the corset was put on trial. Fashionable ladies tightened it an extra notch and strapped on the bustle, so that the backside could really titillate – on the meagre marriage market old-fashioned comeliness was no longer enough. The feminist women, on the other hand, rejected the corset and got into what was called the ‘reform dress’, which simply covered the body and followed its contours. They wanted to look like ‘whole people’ and not like the available sex. The ‘natural’ female body was a veritable hit in the Nordic women’s movements; dress reform was talked about, written about, and societies were set up in its name. And its advocates were discussed, cheered, ridiculed.

The Danish folk high school movement stressed the symbolic significance of the reform dress. In Højskolebladet (1888; journal of the Danish folk high school movement), Paul la Cour wrote:

“this dress is actually the most seemly; besides securely covering the whole body under all circumstances, it presents this body in its natural human form, so that what in the woman’s appearance catches the man’s eye is not a single more or less veiled or distorted part of the body – but the whole person with, above all, the human countenance and eye – the mirror of the soul.”

Truthfulness, healthiness, naturalness – these were the prevailing arguments in favour of the new way of attiring the female body. The body image was not, of course, simply plucked from a cultural vacuum. On the contrary, the so-called naturalness established a quite specific representation of the body – the classic bourgeois ideal – as the genuine article. The deformed, work-stained body, the perspiring, bleeding, or juicy body was not part of the picture. It was the controlled body, in which the separate parts came together in a harmonious whole, that would bestow “the human countenance and eye – the mirror of the soul”.

“Was Dansk Kvindesamfund’s (Danish Women’s Society) demand for reform of women’s attire one of the ‘new truths’? Let the day and age in which we live provide the answer. Now that the notorious armour of stays has retreated before a corset, which allows lungs and liver and other internal organs to function according to their natural purpose, is it not in reality a compromise between the spokesmen for the reform dress and the female vanity? Now that the summer sun is allowed to tan young women’s cheeks, necks, and arms, indeed when snobbery as regards nature is taken to such lengths that young ladies rub their skin with walnut juice in order to triumph in the race to achieve the most natural appearance, is it not thus an admission to the women who in the ’eighties demanded that ‘fashion should return to nature’?”

Thus wrote Elisabeth Grundtvig’s successor, the author Gyrithe Lemche, many years later in Dansk Kvindesamfunds Historie gennem 40 Aar (1912; Forty Years of the Danish Women’s Society).

The dress thus functioned as a signal in an ideological battle, with the body being both symbolised and – functionalised.

On the one hand, it was a case of corporeal liberation – to get out of the corset was like getting out of a prison. To be able to walk, move freely, indeed even run and do exercises, expanded horizons in a way that we today have difficulty comprehending – it was a vital leap towards social equality.

With and without corset, c. 1880. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

With and without corset, c. 1880. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

On the other hand, all that talk about ‘health’ and ‘nature’ meant that there was a tendency to reduce the female body to mere biological function. However healthily advocates of the reform dress disavowed the unhealthily titillating aspect of the corseted fashion, they were actually striking the same chord as a reform movement of a completely different kind: a campaign for a sexualisation of the female body and of gender relations.

It had been long on the way – more and more of the Romantic depths and enigmas had been demystified by the scientific perspective – and with “the English doctor’s book”, as George Drysdale’s The Elements of Social Science (1854) was referred to, the veil over sexual life was pulled away. The book was translated into Swedish in 1878 and into Danish in 1879. Not many people endorsed its message outright, but that the book was so widely distributed bears witness to the fact that the Romantic sexual philosophy was giving way to a different view of human nature.

While love had previously been idealised as the temporal expression of the impulse towards the divine, in Drysdale’s book it was transformed into sheer impulse – pent-up energy that claimed its natural outlet. And whereas sex had previously been a dark secret, it now surfaced as male and female sexual organs, which just like other bodily organs should adhere to the laws of “healthy exercise”. Neither men nor women should defy this “law of nature”. As a logical consequence of his doctrine, in which sexuality is seen as an isolated function, Drysdale recommended “preventive intercourse” as the true foundation of social morality. In this he was drawing on the theories of the English economist and social theorist Thomas Malthus, who proposed control of the birth rate as a means by which to avoid social hardship. The methods and aims in Drysdale’s new version of Malthusianism were, however, undeniably different from those of the old. The condom had replaced abstinence, and for Drysdale it was not a question of survival of the group, but of quality of life for the individual.

Drysdale’s book is a heightened expression of the scientific way of thinking that was becoming the prevalent mindset – a paradigm that was taken on by the women’s movements to the extent it applied to requisites for the equality campaign. But indeed also a paradigm that caused bewilderment and resistance because through it doctors, scientists, and hygienists ascribed women a sexual identity in which they could not recognise themselves. In the name of sexual liberation, the frontline activists professed knowledge of the female body. They identified norms and functions, rendered it an affliction.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: <em>Démasquée</em>, 1888. Oil painting. Ateneum, Helsinki

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Démasquée, 1888. Oil painting. Ateneum, Helsinki

That the female body was brought into focus, and that women’s ‘nature’ and sexuality were put on the agenda, was a result of women’s significance in the Romantic philosophy of gender. The female body represented the man’s ‘nature’, and the image of woman was therefore split in two: a coarse, unbridled version – whore – and an idealised, disciplined version – Madonna. One of the more straightforward reasons for the Madonna now acquiring the whore’s sexuality was syphilis. Prostitution was on the increase, and although the authorities in the Nordic countries introduced a system of regulations and compulsory medical check-ups – of the prostitutes, that is, not of their customers – sexually transmitted diseases were rampant. Under these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the young men of the bourgeoisie began reassessing the qualities of the bourgeois woman. And the previous idealisation of the Madonna was thus passed on to the new idealisation of free sexuality.

That explanation of course only touches on a corner of the truth. When looked at within a wider perspective, the general tendency for individualisation has to be taken on board. In 1869 Georg Brandes translated John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women into Danish, and it was also translated into Swedish that year. In this work, woman was approached from a fundamentally liberal attitude, as individual and not as gender. Mill’s book put arguments and words to an emancipation project that had already been made necessary by social changes. Of woman’s nature – argued John Stuart Mill – it was impossible to know anything until that nature had been given the opportunity to develop in freedom and under the same conditions as applied to men.

In 1869 Georg Brandes translated John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, in which the concept of ‘nature’ was liberalised and put into an historical timeline:

“Neither does it avail anything to say that the nature of the two sexes adapts them to their present functions and position, and renders these appropriate to them. Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that anyone knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another.”

The women’s movements distanced themselves from Drysdale’s gospel of the body, whereas they accepted Mill’s argumentation. He did not speak about the body, but about the mind, and the openness of his mindset allowed space for the quest on which they had embarked. All the while, the woman’s body remained a source of provocation and strife: internally, in the women’s movements; externally, in the public cultural forum where, in 1887, a pitched gender-battle broke out.

The Controversy over Moral Conduct – a Men’s Movement?

Women’s essentially modest conduct and claims seemingly touched on fundamental strata of conflict in the women themselves – and in men. Men who championed the emancipation of women could therefore be intensely affected if women did not humour them. Georg Brandes, for example, became so worked up at times that he simply claimed a monopoly on the feminist cause: “I will not see the women’s cause, which I myself expounded here in Scandinavia and for a number of years singlehandedly fought for under persecution from all sides, made nonsensical by ignorant women,” he wrote in an 1887 letter to Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

It is true that from 1871 Georg Brandes, being the leading advocate and ideologist of the Modern Breakthrough, had set up a literary platform from which Nordic writers could address the issue of women. Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson in Norway, August Strindberg in Sweden, and J. P. Jacobsen in Denmark took up the challenge and during the 1870s created a contemporary realism in which woman was a medium for the disclosure of the general oppression of body and mind.

Prostitute in her window in Holmensgade, c. 1900. Unknown photographer. Museum of Copenhagen

Prostitute in her window in Holmensgade, c. 1900. Unknown photographer. Museum of Copenhagen

It is equally obvious, however, that the attention given by male authors and cultural commentators went hand in hand with a crisis in male identity when ‘the modern’ broke through. The breadwinner – paterfamilias – was under threat. His authority, his masculinity, was being challenged by market forces, by the changed management structures in government and society – and by the emerging army of women. The new female profile – the woman who went out and made herself visible and audible – touched directly on a mental vulnerability in the men. Male writers were therefore ‘turned on’ by the woman. She comprised the right material, the forum in which they could play out their fantasies. For Ibsen she appeared as the future agency of will and (male) courage – for Strindberg she was the scourge of man, an omnivorous mother-vampire.

August Strindberg’s play Fadren (1887; The Father) is filled with the cry of the modern man:

“Omphale! Omphale! You cunning woman, champion of peace and contriver of man’s disarmament. Wake, Hercules, before they take your club away from you! You would wile our armour from us too, and make believe that it is nothing but glittering finery. No, it was iron, let me tell you, before it ever glittered. In olden days the smith made the armour, now it is the needle woman. Omphale! Omphale! Rude strength has fallen before treacherous weakness. – Out on you infernal woman, and damnation on your sex!”

Despite the endeavours of Brandes and other sagacious minds to articulate and rationalise the development, despite the scientific strategy of control vis-à-vis the female sex, the arguments were found wanting. They were inadequate as regards the men’s anxiety about the women’s potential nature as ‘whore’, and as regards the women’s resistance to being defined and used in the men’s attempt at liberation from their own image of the father. And therefore war broke out!

On the verbal level, the battle was over ‘morality’. In a wider perspective, however, the sædelighedsfejde or morality debate, as it became known, had a much longer agenda: dealing with the right to define health, truth – and gender!

The spark that ignited the fire was a short story, “Pyrrhussegrar” (Pyrrhic Victories), by Stella Kleve, published at the end of 1886 in the Swedish women’s journal Framåt (Forward). It immediately gave rise to great commotion: advertising boycott, reader boycott, outraged letters and articles, and internal showdowns both in the Swedish and the Danish women’s movement. Why?

Because the story – following Drysdale’s formula – described restrained female desire as the direct cause of a young woman’s consumptive illness; because the story was written in a physiologically detailed style in which the human body did not appear as a full-length figure, but as erotically arousing, independent fragments: a “muscle-bound” arm, a “leotarded” leg; above all, because it was written by a woman!

Physiological sexual symbolism in Stella Kleve’s short story “Pyrrhussegrar” (1886; Pyrrhic Victories):

“She sat staring at him in the half-light. His chin was tilted upwards at an angle, the neck became so long against the turned down shirt collar, his larynx jerked up and down at intervals […] she could bear to watch it no longer — she wanted to hold it in place with her hands, with her face, as long as she would no longer have to look upon it.”

The women’s movements could not let this pass unchallenged. In Denmark, Elisabeth Grundtvig took up a combative pen: not against “Pyrrhussegrar” alone – the story merely provided the opportunity – but against the better part of the modern literature and the male naturalists who, in her opinion, were in thrall to their “ungovernable instinctual life”. In a lecture organised by Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society) in the spring of 1887, Elisabeth Grundtvig made herself spokeswoman for “the present demand for moral equality”, the title by which her lecture was published later in the year in the Society’s organ, Kvinden og Samfundet. (Women and Society).Elisabeth Grundtvig pushed the issue to the extreme: “women can become like men” or – as an alternative to this – “men can become like women”. The latter intimated that men should – like women had always done – remain sexually chaste until marriage. The former was suggesting that women should have the same right as men to practise a “free love” – with or without the sanction of marriage. She spoke warmly in favour of men endeavouring to attain the level of the “cultural women”. They should work their way up to a “higher nature” and keep themselves pure like the women.

The lecture provoked a veritable literary storm. Georg Brandes, who had hitherto avoided direct confrontation with the women campaigning for equality, grabbed his pen and wrote three successive articles in the newspaper Politiken, roasting Elisabeth Grundtvig and the other “angels” who had voiced their opinions in Kvinden og Samfundet. With that, the battle was on. Pens sizzled all over the Nordic countries, the mire of double standards was stirred up for general scrutiny, families were divided, friendships crumbled.

<em>Folkets Nisse</em>, 1892. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

Folkets Nisse, 1892. The Royal Library, Copenhagen

The drastic consequences of Elisabeth Grundtvig’s lecture were due to her provocation of the fundamental tensions that would, sooner or later, have broken up the fragile alliance on which the Modern Breakthrough was based. As early as 1883, a problem play written by another of the champions of the Modern Breakthrough, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, En Hanske (A Gauntlet), had caused it to creak at the joints. The maxim about chastity for men as well as for women was here submitted by the heroine, who ends up throwing down the gauntlet to her ‘impure’ fiancé. Large sections of the Breakthrough youth – including the women’s movements – endorsed this ‘gauntlet morality’. The other front, which with Brandes as standard bearer comprised a majority of the naturalistic writers and the radical intelligentsia, was of the opinion that sexual freedom should apply to everyone. The only ‘impurity’ was the relationship not entered into voluntarily – from inclination – and they considered any regulation and restraint placed on sexual conduct to be an outrageous violation of the freedom of the individual.

In Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s play En Hanske (1883; A Gauntlet), when the young heroine discovers that her fiancé has a ‘past’, she reacts:

“Everything that made marriage seem beautiful to me is gone. My faith, my feeling of security. Oh, gone!

“… No! – No, it cannot begin like that; it is wicked of you to tell me so. Through such disappointment – and such humiliation? No! Then rather stay unmarried, – even if in a foreign country […] And anything is better than to fill it with that which is impure. The person who does not immediately spurn that becomes an accomplice.”

That the issue of morality fragmented the Breakthrough alliance highlights the essential significance of the women’s cause to the general emancipation project. The liberation of women symbolised liberation per se, the struggle against authority of every sort, the struggle for the right to desire – the individual’s own desire. It was this individualism that revealed the non-simultaneous desires of men and women, and divided the waters, even though both sides pleaded the same bourgeois philosophy.

Looked at in the light of a general demand to be heard as an equal, rational human being, the stance of Elisabeth Grundtvig and the women’s movements can be understood as something other than moralistic prudery. Modern science, with its intense focus on the human being as biology – as animal function – threatened, under new constellations, to reduce woman to sex. Young women who otherwise supported the modern ideas were confused, uncertain. Scientific explanations were posited confronting them with the contention that they possessed a sexual appetite which, for the very good reason of their upbringing, they had no personal reference for whatsoever.

The ‘gauntlet hysteria’ and the self-righteous tone in its entirety must therefore be seen as an understandable defence for the cultivation and formation, the whole human profile, which the women had not yet fully acquired. Out on the street, however, an army of prostitutes were lined up large as life, and they not only represented a social threat, but also an existential one. They put woman on display as anonymous sex – available to all and sundry!

That the culture ‘feud’ was fought in the name of morality was thus no coincidence. The shift in gender identities was an integrated part of the modern complex, and literature was the forum for multifarious revised versions of what a woman was – and could be.

“Once woman has stirred, she will not be stopped. Like Nora, she will let the duties born of her doll’s life, fall dead to the ground, because working on her own, neglected self, absorbs and invalidates all else […],” wrote Amalie Müller, later Skram, in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, no. 15, 1880.

In Conversational Form

During the morality debate it became clear that it was no longer a question of whether or not women wrote – because they did! The 1880s also signified a female breakthrough in all the Nordic countries – both as regards the number of first-time fiction writers and the number of women participating in the public debate. The question, on the other hand, is whether it might not be a twofold approach rather than a break; a duality in which the female writers carried on the tradition while injecting it with new life.

Vilhelm Hammershøi:<em> Sovekammer med ung pige, der ser ud ad vinduet</em>, 1895. Charcoal drawing. Den Hirschsprungske Samling, Copenhagen

Vilhelm Hammershøi: Sovekammer med ung pige, der ser ud ad vinduet, 1895. Charcoal drawing. Den Hirschsprungske Samling, Copenhagen

It was thus the novel that proved to be the preferred genre among women publishing for the first time. The novel as such was not a new genre. It had been created long since – by women! The everyday realism of Thomasine Gyllembourg, the intimate, moving gaze of Fredrika Bremer, the psychological realism of Camilla Collett’s story of development, and the historical depiction from Fredrika Runeberg’s pen. Even though these authors were different one from the other, they were all working on a common tension between two contrasting projects – emancipation on terms of everyday equality or emancipation on the terms of upwardly aspiring womanliness. The debut novels of these authors, published back in the middle of the century, had shown that the Romantic ideal of womanhood – despite an extremely flimsy connection with down-to-earth actuality – was such an established psychological reality that it constituted the backbone of female self-perception. And this is where the link between the women’s literature of the 1850s and that of the 1880s can be traced. The modern writers, too, displayed a predominant Romantic striving towards an essential truth.

The striving was now being conducted in other forms than had been the case in the middle of the century. The decisively ne w aspect of the modern women’s literature was the significance of dialogue – both as form and as approach. It was thus characteristic of many of the later writers that they embarked on their literary career in the role of reviewers and critics, and as such entered into dialogue with the works of the male writers. This was mostly in the form of ‘opinion criticism’, where they discussed with the fictional characters or with the author as if what was written was real. They used the material as the point of departure for an exchange of views and by this means entered the literary work as peer interlocutors. Typically, this was the manner in which Norwegian Amalie Skram’s literary activities got off the ground. She became a writer because she just had to, had to enter into a dialogue with a Jacobsen’s Marie Grubbe, an Ibsen’s Nora.

Ibsen’s works in particular were of extreme importance to the Nordic women. His Brand was not only capable of setting feelings alight in the years immediately after its publication in 1866, but right up until the 1880s the play was able to make women writers flare up. The Brandian light, ‘Being whole and wanting one thing’, blazed its way into the female mind: as platform and as guide for those women who aspired to emerge from social concealment and become citizens. And the strong, heroic woman from his contemporary dramas – such as Lona Hessel from Samfundets støtter (1877; Pillars of Society) and Mrs Alving from Gengangere (1881; Ghosts) – can be spotted in works by writers such as Adda Ravnkilde from Denmark, Alvilde Prydz from Norway, and Victoria Benedictsson from Sweden.

Ibsen’s dramas were also significant for the next generation of women, as was expressed by the Danish writer Marie Bregendahl in her memoir sketch: Smaa Kommentarer til Aakjærs Erindringer (1936; Brief Comments to Aakjær’s Memoirs). She writes that in 1897 she contacted the actor Jerndorff in order to “read” for him:

“The decision was reached that I should learn the role and rehearse it. – That is, Lona Hessel appealed to me, and by no means the overly romantic Lady from the Sea […].”

Editor’s note. Aakjær: Jeppe Aakjær (1866-1930). Danish poet and prose writer, whom Bregendahl had married – and divorced.

The aspect that resonated in the modern women was the dramas’ emphasis on human choice – freedom with responsibility, as expressed in Fruen fra havet (1888; The Lady from the Sea). A romantic striving towards ideality, but in the modern form of critical idealism. The women writers brought to the dialogue a clarification of the qualification on which the choice was made. A prerequisite of being able to choose was knowledge. And that was something a young, immature girl who got married at the age of seventeen did not have!

It was at exactly this point that the women drove in a wedge, both into the double standards of conservatism and in the radical wing’s exaggerated belief in ‘freedom’. The ignorant person was not free and was consequently not able to opt in or out of anything whatsoever.

Being free involves being able to engage in conversation with an equal partner. This is what the young women strove for, and it left its mark on their first works. In contrast to their later output, in which a flickering impressionist style took over, their early works were to a large extent in the style of speeches or well-balanced expressions of opinion.

The broad range of female dramatists is yet more evidence of the strong belief in argument and dialogue. In the Romantic drama, the dialogue should, put very simply, point away from the specific and situational and in suggestive complicity disclose the original, the divine. The main characters were supposed to illustrate in monumental entirety one side of the human condition – be it wickedness, goodness, meanness, high-mindedness. The subordinate characters had a chiefly visual, decorative, or picturesque function, just as the stage setting constituted a shifting, colourful accompaniment to the acting-out of ‘grand’ emotions.

Reviewing the Royal Danish Theatre’s new production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the daily paper Fædrelandet (16 January 1860; The Fatherland), Clemens Petersen discusses the difficulty of performing Shakespeare’s dramas. Shakespeare makes for problems because he does not – as the Romantics required – concentrate on making a specific idea vivid in all its facets to the audience:

“[…] and herein he reveals himself to posterity as a writer who needs to be perfected.”

Clemens Petersen sees this ‘perfection’ take shape in Mrs Heiberg’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth as a loving and suffering wife:

“One has a constant feeling that it is really something good and noble that drives her to commit her atrocity, and she suffers an agony that as penance is proportional to the crime.”

In Mrs Heiberg’s Romantic interpretation, Lady Macbeth is a very different woman to the complex character who so fascinated Victoria Benedictsson in the 1880s that she dreamt of writing the novel about her.

The naturalistic drama narrowed down, quite literally, the point of view. With its fourth wall missing – the one between audience and stage – the stage was meant to represent a drawing room and, exactly as it was in ‘real’ life, communication was limited to the room and the people present in it, without seeming to address either something divine or the audience. It was an art of pure illusion which, apart from the time that might pass between acts – of which there were usually three – aimed to observe the unities of time, place, and action. The dramatic external actions were replaced by internal, psychological conflicts revealed through the ambiguities, implications, and evasive shifts in the dialogue. The setting was simplified to drawing-room props; on the other hand, stage directions took on an important ‘role’ in the play. It was significant whether a character was sitting heavily or casually on the seat of a chair, just as it was significant whether a lady was fanning herself or not, or in what manner a visitor removed his hat. A large proportion of the symbolism was thus put into the unspoken dealings with and handling of unconscious everydayness.

This is also to say that the naturalistic drawing-room drama took place in the tension between the social role and the inner mind. In the Ibsenian contemporary drama, the plot is driven forward when the characters through their mutual presence are confronted with past sins, aspects of themselves that they have left behind, undeveloped and stunted. In this forum there are on the whole no subordinate characters. Everyone is everyone’s fate. The stage setting – the drawing room – is thus both a very commonplace, actual space and the enclosure of the modern individual in a personal, unresolved mental plot.

This was the genre in which the women put their pens to work. They had the drawing-room forum and the everyday conversation at their fingertips, and they linked into Ibsen’s utopian dimension: belief that conversation has the power to resolve, that problems can be put into speech, that the truth can be spoken. In particular, Minna Canth in Finland, and Anne Charlotte Edgren Leffler and Alfhild Agrell in Sweden used the stage to ‘debate the issues’. And ‘debate’ was exactly what they got – their polemical plays gave rise to one public and heated furore after the other.

These women believed that it was possible to generate good sense by making a case, by the agency of the spoken word; that things could be changed once the truth was out.

Others believed, too, and yet did not believe. They did not take primarily to the stage, but to the novel constructed as if it were on stage. Here, there was scope both for a broader depiction of the milieu and for the detailed exposition of a female sequence of development with all the routes and detours that must necessarily be followed; here, there was room for the unclarified. And it was within this genre that the qualitative innovation emerged, that modernity’s female text took shape.

This happened in the mid 1880s, when three debut novels from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark respectively exhibited commonality – a shared modern trend – while also, in their differences, reflecting the range and contradictions in the female ‘breakthrough’.

The remote gaze

Victoria Benedictsson published a Swedish novel with a very short and revealing title – Pengar (Money). Both the title and the blurb showed how far she had come from 1850s novels by women: A single street ran through the village, if it can be glorified with such an appellation, for it was no more than a small road without a trace of paving and shockingly maintained.

The reader tumbles right into the situation – onto the actual stage as it were – and is captured by a gaze that is cold and judgemental as well as intimate and familiar. The young woman who appears on the road invites both neutral and curious observation: She looked both cheerful and sprightly. Her stride lacked a cleaning woman’s mincing obsequiousness but more resembled the swagger of a prepubescent boy.

The self-correcting gaze, “if it can be glorified with such an appellation, for …”, “lacked a cleaning woman’s mincing obsequiousness but more resembled…” establishes a kind of openness in which new observations always lead to new facets, new conclusions. The construction of Selma’s character demonstrates that the approach is not a superficial stylistic device but a fundamental vehicle of exploration. She is no finished product, but grows and develops in interaction with her own observations and experiences. She first appears as an unformed child, with “swagger”, “cheerful” in her untroubled being, but nonetheless “sprightly” – possessing an inward vision of the future. She is both industrious and inquisitive, and she is captured exactly that way. In the naive belief that the world is what it appears to be, she agrees to marry a wealthy squire, at which point the trap snaps shut.

It’s an old story, but what’s new is that Selma doesn’t stagnate but grows and develops in captivity. Above all, she matures as a woman and her sexual longings assume both form and human embodiment. Central to the modern woman whom she represents is that thirst for knowledge and sexual awakening are two sides of the same coin. Her most private, most secret room (the library) contains the symbolic country and the man, the desire for whom she gradually admits.

Selma’s library in Victoria Benedictsson’s Pengar (1885; Eng. tr. Money) is the dream of an inquisitive woman for a room of her own:

“In the middle of the room was a large table, overflowing with books and file folders, and around it were three or four high back chairs, rather sloppily arranged. The walls were covered with bookcases and shelves; the only ornaments were a couple of bronze figurines and a few hasty sketches of horses and dogs, heads only.”

Because Pengar is a realistic novel and subject to the constraints of life as it is, she cannot translate her desire into action. Her marriage has both broadened her panorama and barred the way to its fulfilment, and she must “reconcile herself” with the pursuit of knowledge.   But she escapes, and the message of the novel is enshrined in her justification for breaking her marriage vows: “I have told you that the promise I made as a child no longer binds me as a woman, whether it was made at the altar or anywhere else. Do you not see that this is the knot at which all the threads are joined?”

This is the core, the fulcrum of Selma’s reasoning – and the novel’s. A woman must be in a position to choose before she can act as a human being, liberated and able to assume responsibility.

One side of the modern novel is the coincidence between the text’s forward-looking insights and Selma’s own development. Another side is its dual gaze. The sympathetic gaze tracks Selma’s relationship to objects, while the cynical gaze objectifies individual segments of the body, feelings and movements in analytical close-ups. The text radiates a frightening coldness, seconded by the many “speeches” that never become conversations but remain “noise”. The more Selma talks to her husband and tries to become visible through her reasoning, the stronger his sexual desire grows and the less he is able to hear her. He caresses her, she falls mute, he talks her to death, she tries again, speaks even more ardently, he caresses her, and on and on – a cacophony that can be silenced only by divorce.

Selma is the object of a dual gaze: – the inner:

“She struggled for a moment with her tears. A feeling of loneliness seized her, but she overcame it.” – and the outer, in which glimpses of the man also appear:

“In the exuberance of youthful power, she leaned backwards and stretched out her arms so that her slim figure took the form of a cross against the bright curtains. The single movement revealed her unenforced beauty – not laced in a bodice but sustained by nature’s own elasticity – an elegant suppleness that could be bent like a spring and immediately assume its original shape.”

The Monologic Thought-Mill

The same year as Selma broke out, another modern, but totally different, type stepped forward in the literary world: the Norwegian writer Amalie Skram’s Constance Ring in the novel of the same name. The theme of the novel is in practice the same as that of Pengar – a marriage of convenience between a very young woman and a middle-aged, well-worn man. Likewise, the strong weighting of the dialogue is common to the two works. But Constance is not only captive to an external circumstance like Selma. She is caught in a narcissistic violation, in an emotional callousness that disables her will and means that she does not follow a developmental sequence, but goes round in circles. Even though the novel paints with a broader brush than the one Victoria Benedictsson uses – the material has more variety and the perspective is spread out to far more characters and settings – there is no exchange between Constance and her surrounding world. What look like will, enterprise, and development are exposed as going nowhere. Successive rechargings of intensity are succeeded by declines in a progression that finally ends in absolute zero: Constance’s suicide.

Sofie and Erik Werenskiold: <em>Du og jeg</em>, 1885. Oil painting. Private collection

 Sofie and Erik Werenskiold: Du og jeg, 1885. Oil painting. Private collection

Constance Ring, unlike Pengar, is not written from a dual vantage point. The narrator is almost always in collusion with Constance’s outlook, so even though the book is teeming with dialogues, Constance’s monologic thought-mill is the overarching narrative line.

There can be no doubt that Ibsen’s Gengangere was one source of inspiration for the novel. Like Mrs Alving, who wants to break out of a hollow marriage with a pathologically pleasure-loving husband, Constance wants to divorce when she catches her husband committing an act of infidelity with the maid. And, like Mrs Alving, she is talked back into her place by bourgeois norms. In Constance Ring the motif is even repeated three times – every time Constance attempts to establish a love affair – and it is the direct occasion of her suicide.

The difference is that whereas Ibsen allows Mrs Alving to be compelled by passionate volition, in Amalie Skram’s novel passion is to be found elsewhere. And that is in the text’s passionate urge to describe in detail, expose, so that every phenomenon is reduced to its raw materiality – as fermenting, decaying matter. It is the same ardent cynicism that lurked in Benedictsson’s dual vantage point, but in Skram it has taken the form of a naturalistic aesthetic – a decomposition of the whole by means of a scrupulous scan of the hideous multiplicity of detail:

“Very slowly she opened her eyes. A large brownish mass was in motion; it had a shiny white circle in the center and something wide and black stretching down to the floor. There was a sniffling sound.”

This is her husband, Ring, looming into Constance’s line of vision as she comes round from a fainting fit. And in a sense the whole book is written as seen through this surreally keen gaze, which is characteristic of the transition between conscious and unconscious. A gaze made even keener in the final sequences of the novel, in which it is the decomposition of Constance’s body that is imprinted on the eye of the text:

“She was lying on the bed. Her mouth hung open and her eyes were glazed. A bluish froth covered her lips and oozed down over her chin. One swollen hand dangled from the bed, and the empty bottle had rolled some distance across the floor.”

Despite this big difference, these two debut novels thus have more in common than the modern literature’s general endeavour to ‘debate the issues’. They shared the propensity to write exposure – the impression of being at the mercy of an anonymous gaze – into their material.

The Atomised Speech

Victoria Benedictsson and Amalie Skram were mature women when they wrote their debut novels. Both had experience of a traditional marriage, and both had a certain reputation within their respective literary circles – Amalie Skram in the bohemian milieu of Bergen and Victoria Benedictsson in the avant-garde group “Det unge Sverige” (Young Sweden).

At the same time in Denmark, a very young woman was busy writing – either at her parents’ home in Sæby or in Snoldelev where in 1882 Adda Ravnkilde, as she was called, worked as a private tutor. Like Selma in Pengar, she was consumed by the thought of getting out – out to learn something, out to get on in life. This thought was made no easier to deal with when she fell in love with an older landowner in the neighbourhood. She did not, therefore, have much experience of life in general; on the other hand, she had an abundance of inner life with which to contend.

The city had a magnetic pull and, like the two other writers, Adda Ravnkilde went to Copenhagen, but in more than one sense she got there before they did. Just three months later, in October 1883, she had committed suicide. And in 1884, long before the ink was dry in Victoria Benedictsson’s and Amalie Skram’s debut novels, Georg Brandes had intervened to ensure the posthumous publication of her novel Judith Fürste. In some respects this novel demonstrates a striking resemblance to those of the two other women, novels with which Adda Ravnkilde could, naturally, not have been familiar. The opposite could, however, be the case – the Nordic writers of the Modern Breakthrough comprised an interconnected milieu, and there is every indication that Amalie Skram had an editorial hand in the editing of Adda Ravnkilde’s posthumous manuscripts for publication.

This unintentional similarity shows that modernity was not going to be stopped at the city gates. Reverberations from the city had reached a small town like Sæby – at least the cultural mainstay class of which Adda Ravnkilde’s mayoral home was a part.

Agnes Slott-Møller: <em>Udsigt</em>, 1906. Oil painting. Photo: Kunsthistorisk Billedarkiv, Danmarks Kunstbibliotek

Agnes Slott-Møller: Udsigt, 1906. Oil painting. Photo: Kunsthistorisk Billedarkiv, Danmarks Kunstbibliotek

Judith Fürste, like Pengar, has a female central character who wants more – she wants an education so that she can support herself – but who, due to lack of funds, must bow to marriage. However, the difference between a Selma and a Judith is that from the very outset Judith knows she is selling herself. And she also knows something else, even though she will have none of it. She knows that ‘the money is right’, because the man she marries is the man she desires. This is where the novel departs from the other two and adds a further aspect to modernity’s female text. In Judith Fürste,the thematic conflict between power and powerlessness, man and woman, has moved in as a conflict in the female psyche. It is not the husband as external circumstance that is the obstacle to the woman’s self-realisation, but the man as erotic ‘other’ who threatens the female identity. Desire for the other is such a violation of Judith’s sense of being whole – self-sufficient – that in order to defend her integrity she reacts in direct opposition to her desire: attack – withdrawal – attack – withdrawal, and so on and so forth. And, in further manifestation of the fact that ‘the money is right’, the husband is depicted in exactly the same way. Their marriage is, therefore, a case of trench warfare – the blasé attitude’s painfully pleasurable immobilisation of desire.

From Adda Ravnkilde’s Judith Fürste (1884) – studies in a modern marriage:

“By choosing his weapon, he forced her to make use of the same; for his weapon was derision. A double-edged weapon, which just as often wounds the one using it as the adversary, a wearily painful weapon to employ, because the one using it never dares to rest, must always attack in order to prevent the opposing party from doing so, a weapon that dries up one’s fine feelings and kills ones gentle thoughts so that they should not be a welcome target for the opponent, a weapon that makes one nervous, breathless, tense and yet longing for that little rest one never dares grant oneself.”

Judith Fürste, to an even more pronounced degree than Pengar and Constance Ring, was written based on impeded dialogue. And Judith’s ambition presses even more ardently onwards as an initially unconscious and later conscious urge to engage in conversation with the other.

“Now she would indeed speak,” begins a central sequence in the novel when Judith, after years of coldness and distance, is about to declare herself to her husband – put love into words. But at that very moment words fail her! Her inner life has, so to speak, rendered itself independent and now strikes her from the outside like a sense barrage of which she is not in command. Her body and speech are controlled by some external force.

This novel, too, is written from the duality of modernity, but with a strong leaning to the one side: the one where speech is rendered arbitrary, atomised – and where every speech, contrary to being a corroboration of the individual’s identity, tends towards being an exposure, a loss of identity. In this, the novel corroborates modernity as a common mental climate where dialogue has become a function of the random present moment.

In some respects – the somewhat uncritical dealings with ‘big’, not to mention ‘empty’, words –Adda Ravnkilde’s novel is an echo and a continuation of the Romantic texts. In other respects, of the three first-time published authors, she is the one who breaks most radically with the tradition. The language itself in Judith Fürste has in places become subject-matter. Visual impression, type, the ‘air’ around snatches of speech, the choppy and broken rhythm, is the meaning. A meaning that cannot be ‘translated’, but one that is in concurrence with the changeable, ambiguous space in which modernity exists.

The mainstay in the Romantic female text was the argumentation structure – language had not been rendered independent, but carried forward the argument, the essence. In the modern female text, language moves towards an impressionistic pinning down of the situation in its myriad of layers, connotations, impressions. A tendency that becomes an overarching element in Adda Ravnkilde’s prose. It does not deal with, but is exposure to modernity’s seductive game.

Out of the Running

The remote gaze – the monologic thought-mill – the atomised speech – are features that in various ways involve a break with the Romantic notion of coherence; features that reflect a gaze that is in danger of getting lost in the situation, the random moment, the juncture at which a world of meanings cross and the individual is unable to get them under control or give them direction. Where the earlier bildungsroman was edifying in the sense that the meanings were thoroughly expounded, disproved or borne out, this ‘exploded’ form positions itself as spectator.

An ‘exploded’ texture of meaning in Stella Kleve’s “Pyrrhussegrar” (1886; Pyrrhic Victories) – an ‘exploded’ speech:

“- Already? – This soon – Well, good trip, then!
He leaned forward, pale, with tender, beckoning eyes
– Is that all you have to say to me?
She met his gaze, hard, steady – now she understood the chess move. Garde la reine! –she was not to be taken by surprise.
– Well, and thank you, naturally, for this pleasant time!
For a moment, they measured each other with their eyes – two players who at the last move finally see through one another.
– But neither moved a muscle.”

The original Romantic project, which indeed still loomed large – in women’s self-perception and in the discussions flowing across the pages – had thus, in more than one sense, been dramatised. The ideal of being whole and wanting one thing had become a dramatic possibility in the modern woman’s life. Ideally, the new departure could be achieved.

As demonstrated by the first novels, the reasoned conversation – the bourgeois argumentation – was the route to equality and liberation. But, as the novels also in varying degrees show, the argument was being put out – of the running! As in the real theatre, where the audience was restricted to looking – at the stage and at each other – in the text there is an element that, watching, puts itself out of the running.

This trend corresponds to developments in the naturalistic drama. At the end of the 1880s, August Strindberg in particular experimented with a total art of illusion that should not be “disturbed by intervals”. The three-acter was changed into a one-acter, in which the play filled the entire expanse of time, and the audience was left no time for reflection.

It was thus not reflection – the imaginary discourse between text and reader – but suggestion at which the one-acter was aiming. In one take, the audience was put out of and sucked into the stage of fiction. While the naturalistic art of illusion had taken disclosure of illusion as its critical project, the one-acter’s illusory composition had another effect: the subversion of boundaries between fiction and reality, subject and object.

Movements in the art form correspond to the dichotomy in the modern complex. On the one hand, belief in the public dialogue spread. Indeed, it can be said that it was only now, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, that dialogue with the various suffrage movements and popular formation of parties had its societal breakthrough. On the other hand, the dimensions of reality had become incomprehensible: governed by forces – psychological or social – which evaded the individual’s rational control. Womanhood, understood as an existence in which the centre was not in the individual but in all the indefinable and changeable external factors, had become a common climate of consciousness. As the surfaces of a Möbius strip are both front and back, presence and absence were similarly two sides of the same coin on modernity’s stage – an ambiguity that echoes in the drama and in the women’s prose.

Many women writers of the Modern Breakthrough thus experienced the new departure in the form of personal and artistic failure. They broke their backs or their pens on the modern paradox. But the emancipation project was not abandoned – nor did the women writers turn a deaf ear to unpleasantness, even though it hurt. For the women who continued to write for the rest of the century, and for those who made their debut around the turn of the century, the tension between ideals and disillusion, between movement and moment, was merely put in a different form. A new aesthetics which tried to capture – not space, not time, but the organic rhythm during which space is transformed into time. With Ellen Key as one of its most striking ideologues, this endeavour refers back to Romantic woman, not in a nostalgic attempt to reverse the process of civilisation, but in an attempt to give the ‘modern’ a facet of beauty. An aesthetics of superfluity that paved the way for new genres, new subject-matter, and a re-discovery of the life of the symbol in society; everything that had been inactive during the years of combat, and that had perhaps not been so superfluous after all.

Ellen Key’s sermon on new love in Lifslinjer (1908; Lifelines) compares the individualism of early modernity with romantic eroticism: “More profoundly than ever we feel that poverty gave life what we are entitled to demand of it, that love simply means descent into the embrace of another person. More and more of us know that love means surrender to the other, in whom our true self finds its fortress without sacrificing its freedom; the closeness of a heart that stills our anxiety, the ear that resonates with all that is unsaid and ineffable within us.”

Translated by Gaye Kynoch