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Being Heard

Written by: Inger-Lise Hjordt-Vetlesen |

Being heard in a public forum dominated by the culture of the bourgeoisie had never been easy for a countryman – and impossible for a countrywoman! But towards the end of the nineteenth century, endeavours by the revivalists and the folk high school movement on behalf of individualisation bore fruit. The ‘sons of the people’ formed a united front against the bourgeois culture and ‘decadence’, and with Jeppe Aakjær and Johannes V. Jensen as two of the most vociferous, a new popular realism entered Danish literature. And the daughters of the people – well, they too embarked on new paths. As domestic servants, as teachers, they sought to make a life for themselves in the towns, and a few tried their luck as authors.

Munch, Anna Elisabeth (1876-1960): <i>Ved de gamle pile</i>. 1912. Oil on canvas. Fuglsang Kunstmuseum

Munch, Anna Elisabeth (1876-1960): Ved de gamle pile. 1912. Oil on canvas. Fuglsang Kunstmuseum

These women writers cannot be seen as a group in the same way as the rural male writers can. They were isolated women dotted around Denmark, and for most of them writing was a sideline to the work that put food on the table. They would typically be schoolmistresses or schoolmasters’ wives, and only Helene Strange and Marie Bregendahl actually made their living from writing.

On the other hand, their rural origin meant that they had some material in common. They had grown up at a time when the Modern Breakthrough had yet to send tremors through the rural culture, and when ‘women’s work’ had yet to be intruded upon by machines and dairy operations. Everyday life and women’s work therefore assume a natural place in their books – a fact which gives their writing a direct cultural value. Despite the disparity in literary quality, they have all contributed to the story of women and of the people – a story that would otherwise be hard to find. Their writing also bears witness to the differences in world picture according to where you were in the agrarian hierarchy. In books by Karna Birk Grønbech (1872-1957) we are taken to the island of Bornholm and an almost aristocratic setting among large-scale farmers, whereas Hansigne Lorenzen, Helene Strange, and Marie Bregendahl depict the solid, medium-sized and independent family enterprise. The freeholder economy has, on the other hand, very little import in the literary universe of Maren Markussen and especially of Bolette Sørensen. Here, the manor and its estate is still the economic and cultural centre of an old-fashioned, closed village community in which neighbourliness – as social network and as gossip – plays the leading part.

Overdramatisation and the fantastical are typical features of Karna Birk Grønbech’s (1872-1957) slim literary production. Her novels are remarkable due to a number of detailed and graphic descriptions of women’s work on a big farm on the island of Bornholm, and, in the same vein, Betula Sparre (1926), in particular, contains shocking socio-realistic descriptions of the young provincial girl’s experience of harsh city life. Karna Birk Grønbech laid a smokescreen over large parts of her own life – for example, Betula Sparre is not, contrary to what she was fond of suggesting, pure autobiography. Karna Birk Grønbech was not descended from a family of large-scale farmers, but from a simple day-labourer home. Her texts show an almost schizophrenic split between psychological reality and fixation on language.

The Trap of Writing

Acquisition of a written language meant personal liberation for women from the lower classes – a way out of the trammels of class and the anonymous gender. Written language not only liberated, however – it could also trap you! Clichés could lock up the imagination just as well as the norms of rural culture could.

The country girls enthusiastically clutched at the literary codes put on offer by the folk high schools, and found that the Romantic echoes gave voice to the emotional eruptions triggered by the departure from tradition. But by striving to live up to the role models – to use the language in the same ‘noble’ way as the poetic realists and schoolmaster writers – most of them got caught in the clichés. It took so much courage and self-possession for a perfectly ordinary woman to put pen to paper in the first place, and then to publish what she had written, that there had not been the means or the extra reserves to listen to her own language and to develop her writing into a personal form of artistic expression.

On the one hand, this led to the women’s backgrounds in a rural village environment being ‘peeled’ from the psychological dimensions of the works. In most, that which depicts the life of ordinary people and their diction might be used as reality effects, but not as artistically motivated fiction effects; the psychological crises, the conflicts of love, could in fact just as well be Biedermeier as popular realism. On the other hand, the authors’ own problems as writing women in an era when femininity was undergoing radical reinterpretation were not reflected in that writing. Instead, the uninterpreted gender emerges in the texts as non-integrated elements, as strangely forced repetitions, as contradictions and fearful fascinations. With Marie Bregendahl’s writing as a unique exception, all the oeuvres are to a greater or lesser extent characterised by a language out of contact with lived life. The others might well write their way out of their fathers’ farms, but in conclusion they write their way back towards a bourgeois femininity long since overtaken by their own lives. The tension between the gender and the human being is not to be found on the idealising surfaces of the texts, but rather in the mythical patterns across which the realism is stretched.

In Bolette Sørensen’s (1855-1931) slim oeuvre, the titles of her novels, such as StoreLykken og LilleLykken (1906; Big-Happiness and Little-Happiness) and Østergaard og Vestergaard (1908; Østergaard and Vestergaard), thus signal a split universe symbolising an Oedipal conflict in the female protagonists. In the novel Vilhelmine (1910), the psychological tension features as an uncompromising battle between a mother-dominated rural culture and a father-dominated bourgeois, liberal culture. Bolette Sørensen’s women are fascinated by the mother’s storage trunks and ‘treasure chests’, but finally have to seek refuge in the arms of the father so as not to vanish in the motherly abyss.

The books are well-written; Bolette Sørensen can sculpt a story into shape and keep control of several plotlines, but the didactic aim does not desert her. She saw herself as a successor to the schoolmaster writers – and so did Maren Markussen (1851-1928).

Maren Markussen’s oeuvre comprises three novels, the first of which, Hylleborg, makes it more than clear that she wishes to promote the Grundtvigian revival. She is not, however, quite as skilled a sculptor of novels as Bolette Sørensen. Despite highly dramatic events, the characters are not particularly well-drawn, and the novels often sound as if they are being narrated by a cultural historian rather than an author.

An informative narrator in Maren Markussen’s 1901novel Hylleborg:

“It was a distinctive feature of the coming period that the children who at the time participated in the narrative teaching at Sorry-Lavst’s school, were some of the first to join the popular and Christian revival which swept across the district some years later.”

Dagmar Nielsen's mother, Falster, c. 1900. Photograph. Danske Kvinders Fotoarkiv, KVINFO, Copenhagen

Dagmar Nielsen’s mother, Falster, c. 1900. Photograph. Danske Kvinders Fotoarkiv, KVINFO, Copenhagen

Romanticism lives a significant afterlife in the writing of Hansigne Lorenzen (1870-1952), given that all her novels – Der kæmper et Folk (1905; A People Do Battle), Der stander en Strid (1907; There is a Struggle), Saa lægges den Sæd (1911; Thus the Seed is Sown), and Thøge (1913) – act as contributions to the campaign for Danishness in South Jutland. After 1864, the folk high school revival and Golden Age literature took on renewed significance south of the Danish-German border, and throughout the whole period of exile there were none in the kingdom more Danish and Grundtvigian than the pro-Danish Southern Jutlanders. Neither the Modern Breakthrough nor the women’s issue had relevance here. With German oppression of the Danish-speaking public forum, the home

Thus, the encounter with a superior foreign force can be displaced: for Faroese and Icelanders, the encounter with a Danish superior power opened eyes to the quality of home. Germany fulfilled the same function for Southern Jutlanders.

became the central battlefield for the war between Danish and German, and thus women played a crucial role. They were in an extremely strong position – gender was no impediment to their individualisation – but individualisation was made in the image of the strong mother and the chaste warrior maiden.

“For these mothers, were they not – each who was conscious of her calling – like a great, silent power, perhaps the greatest a little, beleaguered people had at its disposal when the days were at their darkest?”

Hansigne Lorenzen: Der stander en Strid.

Images of National Romanticism slipped smoothly into Hansigne Lorenzen’s novels, the voluptuous and high-flown tone of which grates today, but was undoubtedly an effective agency in national rearmament. At the same time, however, the books have an inner fervour that is still stirring. The texts are driven by a need to submit, to dissolve borders, which is illustrated in the forbidden and dangerous fascination with Germany as enemy.

Echoes of Romanticism in Hansigne Lorenzen’s novel Saa lægges den Sæd:

“To the swaying melody of the waves, white-clad maidens danced in circles and sequences on the open beach; soft and muted, but sweetly alluring like the plucking of golden strings on a mermaid’s harp, their song faded away into the light, clear summer night.”

The concept of enemy in completely different guise, but the object of the same emotional investment of loathing and obsession, is seen in the figure of the witch in Nicoline Kirkegaard’s (1859-1924) writings. The vain, showy, and ruthless woman who features in almost all her works is inspired by the myths that circulated in her childhood neighbourhood near Randers about the writer Steen Steensen Blicher’s wife, Ernestine Juliane, née Berg. The witch figure condenses a modern crisis in which the instinct towards personal and sexual ‘freehold’ loses its bearings and becomes destructive because the project loses touch with the societal and historical framework. In novels such as Fædres Jord (1904; Soil of the Fathers), Selvejerbondens Datter, (1905; The Freeholder’s Daughter), Heksedans (1909; Witches’ Dance), and Malvina Steensdatter Blicher (1915), the aimless urge is thus released in loose living, theft, and fatal arson. Heads sit loosely on Nicoline Kirkegaard’s women – and they roll easily.

In Nicoline Kirkegaard’s books, the modern woman’s experience is present in the mythical layers and dramatic storylines of the texts, but not in the language as new literary cognition. Nicoline Kirkegaard wrote about one novel per year in the period 1899-1923. She and her husband ran a realskole (lower secondary school) in Aarhus, but as they eventually had eleven children of their own, her writing activities were probably a necessity if all those mouths were to be fed. Nicoline Kirkegaard’s popularity was so long-lasting that in 1952 Hus og Hjem publishing house issued a new edition of her most well-loved novels.

Like a kind of shadow which nearly always accompanies the witch character, the reader can faintly see – as in Bolette Sørensen’s books – an alluring male figure exerting his pull by means of a dark and Dionysian nature. It is a figure prevalent in women’s literature of the day, testifying to the instability of gender identities. The freedom represented by the man proves to be a projection – a reflection of the inner chasm in femininity. And when reality catches up with the women, the men are exposed as being just as weak, indecisive, and not fully formed as they themselves. The old Biedermeier idyll, in which a man was a man and a woman was a woman, is transformed in Nicoline Kirkegaard’s books – especially in Kolde Hjerter (1907; Cold Hearts) and Malvina Steensdatter Blicher – into a landscape of death for homeless femininity.

Earning a Living from Mouth and Pen

Helene Strange (1874-1943) was both highly typical of writing women of her day – and highly atypical. Atypical in the consistency and integrity of her life’s work. Typical in the ‘holes’ that are nevertheless to be found there. She was one of the few to succeed in carving out a career with her “mouth” and “pen”, as she put it, and in the inter-war period she became a well-known and in-demand writer and lecturer. Helene Strange covered a lot of ground. She was a professional ‘tourist’ in life; in the years leading up to the First World War she was one of the very first au pair girls, working her way through Europe and the US, and later she rushed around with her lectures and slides. She nonetheless had unusually strong links to her home soil on the island of Falster, and she was tireless in her zeal to retrieve the old local folklore from oblivion; she purchased the property known as Møllebanken in north Falster, where she held festivals with lectures, folk dancing, and amateur dramatics. All in all, she took every opportunity to be in the public eye. She was an industrious newspaper journalist, and there was probably not a village hall in the entire country where she had not made an appearance. She was a dogged advocate of the smallholders’ movement, the peace movement, regionalism movement, and women’s movement, and she regularly sat on committees for the Social Liberal Party, LollandFalsters Venstreblad, the Local History Society, and others.

Helene Strange was constantly encouraging women to enter politics – here in the provincial newspaper LollandFalsters Venstreblad, 25 April 1918:

“[…] the women are more suited to providing help than are the men, and this admission must in turn lead to the acknowledgment that every parish council has need of 1 or 2 women to deal with that which falls under social welfare.”

Alongside all her outgoing activities, she wrote extensively on Falster rural life over the last few centuries. Priergaardsslægten III, (1922-23; The Family at Prier Manor) focuses, as she herself pointed out, on “the ladies”, whereas the major eight-volume series of novels on the Sværke family, published between 1929 and 1941, revolved around central male characters. Her accounts of cultural history – Den ældste Generation i LollandFalsters Stift IIV (1933-37; The Earliest Generation in the Diocese of Lolland-Falster I-IV) and I Mødrenes Spor. Nordfalsterske Kvinders Arbejde gennem halvandet Hundrede Aar (published posthumously in 1945; In the Footsteps of the Mothers. One-Hundred-and-Fifty Years of Women’s Work in North Falster) – also provide a detailed picture of the everyday lives of women and the farm labourers in a pre-industrial agrarian society.

Helene Strange shaped her life in accordance with that of the old rural families. Private and public merged into one; books, speeches, amateur dramatics, opinions – all of it produced by her and each individual link in the chain of work depended on the others. Helene Strange the woman was just as integrated and rounded as the characters who populate her books. When she stood on the platform in her old Falster regional outfit, she was hardly distinguishable from one of her own Prier women – “able and sound” – “authoritative and firm”.

But it was this comprehensive art of stage management that made her one of the women who – despite subject and staging – was furthest away from the rural culture. She was an ultra-modern woman – media-savvy and a ‘go-getter’ – and the totality of her life’s work is contingent, when all is said and done, on a lack of coherence: neither life nor work is based on organic development – but on random addition. From beginning to end it is the same Prier-woman and the same Sværke-man who, in various historical attires, step forward in the novels. And it is also easy to pare away the less important aspects separating “the characteristic authoritativeness that distinguished all the woman of the Prier Manor” from the Sværkes’ “authoritative, selfish conduct”. The times, not the people, change in her books. Proficiencies improve, as do tools; opportunities increase, but in actual fact these are just ‘additions’ to the ideal type – a self-possessed, desexualised, and omnipotent mother figure – that has been there all along.

In the same way, Helene Strange was a woman who constantly expanded her horizons and took new knowledge on board – but: nothing learnt, nothing forgotten! When she started writing, the penning of words gave her such a liberating experience of existing, a sense of being released from the shackles of gender and of class, that she never again looked back. In terms of metaphor, it can be said that she continually expanded her stockpile of symbols, but that her system of symbols had nonetheless been mapped out once and for all. She turned outwards rather than inwards, and for that reason her books are quite similar. From her first novel, Menneskelighed og Hellighed (1903; Humanity and Holiness), to her final book, Den sidste Sværke, (1941; The Last Sværke), it is the same petit bourgeois-democratic approach that is borne aloft, the same style (or “lack of style”, as her friend Bregendahl said), and of course also the same unconscious fantasies that are repeated.

As ‘public lady’ Helene Strange was a pioneer – she showed women the route from milking stool out into the world – but she did not reach what she called “the eternal realm of art”. Very few women could reconcile outgoing committed activity with artistic depth in these times of change. It was not Helene Strange, but Marie Bregendahl who provided a serious artistic interpretation of the complex experience of life as human being and woman in the tension between tradition and modernity.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch