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Philosophy of Life and Critique of Patriarchy

Written by: Anne Birgitte Rønning |

In 1898, the novel I blinde was published; the story of young Ragna Stenersen, who not only falls in love with a bohemian author but also with his art. To her it is “wonderful – to share life with a man who lives from his own creative power”. But Ragna is disappointed in their marriage. “Jo Nein” was the author’s name on the book cover – an eloquent (a play on Yes/No) pseudonym for Nini Roll Anker (1873-1942). The daughter of a family of civil servants from Western Norway, she married twice, both times into wealthy families, and from this privileged position she wrote with great commitment about power and contradiction in bourgeois society. Her social commitment spanned a half-century and produced both a wealth of fiction and also many articles in the press. Being a prominent figure in the arts, Nini Roll Anker’s was a crucial voice in the Norwegian debate on art and society. For many years she was deputy chair of Den norske forfatterforening (Norwegian Authors’ Association), she supported the women’s cause and the mushrooming labour movement, but her key position was that of critical intellectual.

The theme of being an artist, as addressed in I Blinde (1898; Blindly), is conspicuously rare in the rest of her writing. But in a slim book about her friend Sigrid Undset – Min venn Sigrid Undset (1946; My Friend Sigrid Undset) – Nini Roll Anker returns to the area of conflict that was critical to them both as women writers. “For a woman writer, who is wife and housewife, it is always totally amazing to note what most of her male colleagues require of their surroundings as regards peace in which to work and respect for their ‘calling’.

“A woman who has a household, husband, and child can never demand the same consideration for her writing if conflict is to be avoided. She can sacrifice her obligations to home and child to the advantage of her art […] But within the four walls of the home, the laws of nature cannot be broken with impunity […].”

This conflict becomes a motive force in the work of both Sigrid Undset and Nini Roll Anker: in the former, described directly in her novels about artists that launched her writing career; in the latter, worked through in relation to women’s dreams and reality.

Both the pseudonym and the theme of her debut novel – blind love – were to be central to her writing. “Love,” says the principal character in Nini Roll Anker’s final novel, Kvinnen og den svarte fuglen (1945; The Woman and the Black Bird), “is a wonder-worker, making us see what does not exist.” It makes women surrender themselves beyond their personal boundaries and forget that it is also possible to say no! Her entire writing career looks at women’s duty to realise personal values and take responsibility for them – also in their actions.

Dream as Duty

Tryggelin, Erik (1878-1962): Vasaparken. 1901. Photograph. Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Nini Roll Anker’s literary universe sees nature and play, dream and passion as quality rating for a meaningful life. These vital “imaginary” values, as she called them, often get into conflict with the characters’, particularly the women’s, devotion to duty and loyalty to family. In aesthetic terms, Marthina Stampe in Huset i Søgaten (1923; The House in Søgaten) is the chief representative of Nini Roll Anker’s sensitive and sensual women.

The 1920s was the time of large-scale fiction cycles; Nini Roll Anker wrote a trilogy about the Stampe family from the ‘official’ class, starting in the 1840s and taking them up to the First World War: Huset i Søgaten (1923; The House in Søgaten), I amtmandsgaarden (1925; In the District Governor’s House), and Under skraataket (1927; Under the Sloping Roof). The first two volumes were particularly popular with the readers. The trilogy is perhaps the most aesthetically successful work in her entire body of writing. Its elegance and richness of nuance in the portrayal of women could well recall Virginia Woolf. Unlike many other historical novels and family novels, Nini Roll Anker tells the Stampes’s story in fragments, with big jumps in time between events described in the three volumes. One linking factor is the name Marthina, which is passed down the family line to highly dissimilar women. It is through these women that the family values are upheld and breached. They are all characterised by a degree of delicateness and a both solemn and playful take on life, insisting on the necessity of beauty and of dream.

A number of other portraits, however, stand for variations of this ‘Romantic’ female type: Benedicte and her mother Mia Stendal (Benedicte Stendal, 1909), Anine Haukeberg (Per Haukeberg, 1910), Veronica Maiman (Det svake kjøn, 1915 and 1924; The Weaker Sex), and Bett Helle (Kvinnen og den svarte fuglen). Creativity translates into the women’s special talent for creating an ambience in their setting with plants, interior furnishing, music, literature, and not least, with intimate conversation. Although subject to depressions and disillusionment, they do not abandon the dream as inner resource. To all appearances naive and over-dreamy, they nonetheless possess the strength and autonomy that can lead to new departures. When Mia Stendal and Veronica Maiman recognise the degrading aspect of their respective marriages, they break out. The split between duty and desire has been a permanent condition of their lives. Their self-knowledge comes too late to be acted upon. They die pouring out their longings in feverish delirium, confronting their husbands face-to-face with an intensity they have suppressed for their entire married lives. They die – but with new self-esteem.

The battle for self-realisation and quality of life is closely bound to the sensitive woman’s image of herself. In Nini Roll Anker’s literary system of norms, the individual has an obligation to realise her innermost self in such a way that the consequences will not prove destructive for the following generations. In this respect, marriage and generation disparity are both obstacles. Marriage, in particular, is a battlefield. Bett, central character in Kvinnen og den svarte fuglen, and pacifist Cornelia, in the play Kirken (1921; The Church), recognise that women must go through a gender battle in order to preserve the dream and the identity at the heart of the entire humanist culture. By means of these works, Nini Roll Anker projects a critique of civilisation in which – as in the work of Elin Wägner – it is the women’s anti-militarist task to stop big business and to prevent escalation of aggressive and chauvinist tendencies. Bett and Cornelia lose the struggle with their husbands and lose their sons. They nonetheless act as the opponents of structural male power and as the principal prosecutors – faithful to their own innermost convictions.

With the novels Per Haukeberg (1910) and Fru Castrups datter (1919; Mrs Castrup’s Daughter), Nini Roll Anker turns the focus on a diametrically opposite type of woman. Both Anine Haukeberg and Matti Kjeller lie, cheat, and weave their way through the man’s world, but they do so with a charm, intelligence, and sensuality that is described with full awareness and elegant irony.

Anine Haukeberg follows her hot-blooded nature so as not to founder on the battlefield of life. But, shackled by heredity and milieu, she is only able to employ her imagination and love of the body on admirers and white lies. Nini Roll Anker takes her to a fancy-dress ball where she symbolically sheds the slough twice – first changing into wood nymph outfit, later into doll’s costume, and in so doing shows us how disguise can be assumed both as defence and as desire. Anine’s conscious role-playing involves both distance to and criticism of the traditional women’s role, and emphasises her own search for an identity.

Matti Kjeller’s longing and depression resemble a modern Hedda Gabler situation. She is a philosophising, disillusioned woman. Marriage, love, and self-realisation all founder. Matti does not believe in reconciliation – neither inwardly in the family nor outwardly between social classes – she takes the consequences and throws herself into the cataract.

The existential anxiety experienced by Nini Roll Anker’s central characters does not lead them into indifference, cynicism, or religious belief. With growing strength, the texts hold hope of the future and faith in “life, life itself”. Nature, children, and sexuality are seen as “the greatest joy on earth”.

Celebration of life and Pacifism

Kvinnen og den svarte fuglen was written during the Second World War, but it was during the First World War that Nini Roll Anker had become convinced of women’s responsibility to campaign against armed conflict. In 1922 her pacifist play Kirken enjoyed overwhelming success at Nationaltheateret in Oslo. Just over three years after ‘the war to end all wars’, the pacifist message affected the audience just as much as it had inspired and concerned the playwright herself.

Nini Roll Anker continued her literary work on behalf of peace with another stage play: Ærens mark (1934; Field of Glory).

In an unspecified land, war is brewing against the neighbouring country; clergyman’s wife Cornelia is certain that her husband and the other men of the Church will prevent the conflict and denounce the war because the alleged enemy nation is also Christian. Her expectations are dashed.

At the outbreak of war, the clergyman and his wife go their separate ways: he marches off to the front to buoy up the soldiers’ fighting spirit and give the blessing to those who are sent off to fight and die, while she roams the rural regions offering comfort and food to soldiers and prisoners of war, all the while preaching the message of peace. She is accompanied by her niece, Magdalena, who is engaged to one of her three sons. The perspective on war is that of woman as the life-giving mother who cannot accept that life is taken away from her, that of the loving and expectant young woman who believes that love can save the world.

Confronted with the men of the Church, this message of woman’s love fails. Once the war is over, Cornelia is called to account and chastised by her husband because she has “gone astray”. The war has been tough on her, too: one son killed, one shot in the ecstasy of victory because he refuses to disown his mother’s Christian message of love, while the third elects to follow his father’s ideology. Magdalena has lost her mind; she was raped by the enemy, and when her fiancé died she went along with the army – a soldiers’ whore.

Kirken is an ambitious play with a long role list and big leaps in time between its three acts – at the outbreak of war, during the war, and once victory has been secured. Cornelia is the unifying character throughout the play; she is always in the presence of young people, her sons and their friends, listening to her words. Her defeat is thus tragic, and the critique of a Church that does not take its own message of love seriously is devastating and ironic.

Nini Roll Anker’s books appeal to women’s responsibility for upbringing and their social responsibility. She sees women’s complicity in war, but regards the hostilities as men’s work. Her final novel, Kvinnen og den svarte fuglen, comes close to being an idealisation of women and belief in their “calling” to “move boundary posts”. The anti-war campaign, here symbolised by the black bird, is also a struggle between men’s and women’s respective outlooks on life.

Marriage and generational differences are omnipresent themes in Nini Roll Anker’s texts. Marriage, in particular, is a battlefield. Thoughtful Benedicte Stendal, an officer’s daughter, is cowed by her parents’ discordant marriage and has suffered from her mother’s aloof demeanour. The novel Benedicte Stendal (1909) ends with her about to embark on her hard-won happy marriage. Parts of the text are written as a diary, in a subdued and confessional, but also ironic tone. A similarly earnest, gentle narrative voice is heard in Nini Roll Anker’s final book, Kvinnen og den svarte fuglen (1945; The Woman and the Black Bird).

Male Pseudonym, Male Perception

Nini Roll Anker started out writing under a pseudonym in order to conceal her real identity. When she resumes using a pseudonym in the middle of her writing career, she does so as an element in playing with perspectives and styles. The same year that she completed one of her principal works, the historical trilogy about the Stampe family, she reshaped her writing style to such effect that the critics thought her novel for young people, Liv, livet og jeg (1927; Liv, Life and I), written under the male pseudonym “Kåre P.”, was actually written by a witty male author. The sequel, Vi skriver en roman (1930; We’re Writing a Novel), retains the first-person narrative form and the young Kåre’s perspective. In a sauntering, youthful jargon, Nini Roll Anker addresses a social problem: divorce, its consequences, and damage done to children and young people. She had previously tackled this theme in Prisopgaven (1928; The Prize Essay) and later took it up again in egen grunn (1936; On Your Own Terms). The third “Kåre P.” book, To ungdomsår (1930; Two Adolescent Years), keeps the male perspective, but moves from the light-hearted into the gravely realistic tone that had characterised her early works. It follows young Daniel’s search for friendship and personal growth. He becomes unemployed, gets into contact with revolutionary groups, and takes a job in the Svalbard archipelago. Daniel forms a strong attachment to a fellow worker, a frail young man. Scared by his feelings, he is relieved when the young man turns out to be a woman in disguise! To ungdomsår primarily depicts being drawn towards a member of one’s own sex and a feeling of being split in two. The pacey narrative reflects the crises of the inter-war period. The searchlight pointed at Norwegian society is looking from the outside: the barren, inhospitable Norway with its unemployment is thrown into relief by the Arctic mining community.

To ungdomsår tells the story of how Daniel is attracted to a young man who, it turns out, is actually a woman. Thus the novel touches on, but also dodges, the issue of homosexuality. In the novel Enken (1932; The Widow), the theme is addressed directly, but the young homosexual man is portrayed via the clichés and prejudices of the day.

Women’s Friendship as Utopia

Neither the established Church nor the male world of religious sects escaped her pen. In two principal works – Det svake kjøn (1915 and 1924; The Weaker Sex) and Den som henger i en tråd (1935; Hanging by a Thread) – she exposes clergy and preachers as power-seeking, loveless, and sexual oppressors. She pays particular attention to the way in which patriarchal techniques of governance couple religion and sexuality. In these two major collective social novels, she embeds the Norwegian social debate of the 1880s and the 1930s in a complex literary universe. Nini Roll Anker follows a sprawling network of social settings, generations, and conflicts. The storyline is driven onwards by alternation between vivid dialogue and epic scenes in which the characters do not act out, but report, the events. The seamstresses’ idiomatic language is reproduced with precision in Den som henger i en tråd.

Det svake kjøn is reminiscent of Camilla Collett’s Amtmandens Døttre (1854-55; The District Governor’s Daughters). It can be read as a woman’s novel of formation or ideas, centred on two young women – Veronica and Fanny Delmar. In the person of Fanny, a modern, resolute, cheerful, and socially involved woman steps into Nini Roll Anker’s literary world – a contrast to delicate Veronica who, as a type, had often been under the magnifying glass. Fanny wanted to go forth and conquer the world as “poetess, empress, prophetess, commander, woman”. When Veronica dies, Fanny has to give up her work plans and her hopes for love, but she stands nonetheless on the threshold of a matured outlook on life.

Det svake kjøn is a book about a deep friendship between women. Upbringing and expectations of love put the case against friendship being a vital element of women’s lives. Among other factors, the weakness of the sex is caused by the female friends not realising the essential importance of their bond. Despite great differences in temperament and outlook, the two enjoy a relationship that is open and sensitive, a free space of closeness, shared secrecy, coherence in life, and intuitive sympathy.

In meeting Fanny, Veronica is made aware of feminism and critique of religion. Thanks to Fanny, Veronica’s love of nature is awakened. Fanny is the only person who talks with her about libido and gender in a positive, warm manner. The more Veronica withdraws from Fanny, the worse things get for her. Her friend looks on with concern at Veronica’s blind submission to her husband, and compares Veronica’s marriage to the young woman and the polar bear in the folktale Kvitebjørn kong Valemon (King Valemon, the White Bear). When Fanny goes away, Veronica almost feels she has lost her identity: it is “as if she had forever walked hand in hand with Fanny”.

The critics of the day praised Det svake kjøn for its skilful psychological exposition, but found the work too long, too debate-like and polemic. The first 1915 edition is unfortunately almost unknown today. In 1924 a shortened version of the novel was published, which made for greater concentration on Veronica Maiman, but weakened the novel’s rich diversity of voices.

The idea of friendship is a natural consequence of Nini Roll Anker’s particular philosophy of life and her critique of patriarchy. Den som henger i en tråd ends with two female friends breaking out in order to start a working partnership: “They walk hand in hand some way along the road.” Twenty years have passed since Det svake kjøn,and the idea of female solidarity has been bolstered by Nini Roll Anker’s support of working-class women. She had addressed the subject in her early collection of stories, LilAnna og andre (1906; Lil-Anna and Others), and the arc now comes to rest in a perspective of friendship that has far greater symbolic power, in which discussion and controversial issues concerning violence, abortion, unionism, and solidarity are worked into an aesthetically coherent whole.

The pairs of friends in Det svake kjøn and Den som henger i en tråd are young women around the age of twenty-five. The destructive man standing between them is called Vargen (wolf) in the former, Vold (violence) in the latter; virile lovers by night, in the daytime misogynists. These men push their way in between the friends, but towards the end the women seek out their lost friend and find her again in a new relationship of trust. Friendships between women are not substitutes for relationships with men. They represent a humane continent, which the women lose and then eagerly seek out.

Veronica’s childhood background in Det svake kjøn is narrowly pietistic; through her marriage, she comes to mix in High Church circles. The novel exposes, layer by layer, oppression of sexuality in the two settings, and shows how Veronica’s capacity for love is also her opportunity for indignation and rebellion. She wants her husband, clergyman Vargen, to understand that “love does not know abomination”. But Vargen is not interested in a meeting of kindred spirits. All he wants of her is to fulfil his household and sexual needs, and he makes her pregnant three times although he knows that her health is not robust enough to cope with childbirth. Fanny grows up through hardship; Veronica remains a woman-child.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch