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Toil and Poverty in Rural Norway

Written by: Arnbjørg Hageberg |

Ingeborg Refling Hagen’s (1895-1989) novel Valvarsel (1924; Tidings of War), set in fifteenth-century Hedmark (a county in south-east Norway), depicts the misery and hardship of the times: poor people sucked dry by the bailiff, fear of vagrant robbers, hatred, and madness. The deep forests are timeless, scary, and alarming places in autumn and winter, and humankind is at the mercy of nature. In summertime, however, nature and humans come to life: “There was a flickering bonfire. There were games and dancing. There was music and singing and laughter. There was whooping and cheering and gamesome capering. It was Midsummer Eve […]”, we read in her first published collection of short stories, Naar elv skifter leie (1920; When the Stream Changes Course).

Her stories from the 1920s demonstrate national-romantic features and also a new form of poverty-realism in which rural life is presented without any nostalgic romanticisation of an authentic culture. The novels of Gro Holm (1878-1949) and Magnhild Haalke (1885-1983) are also free of nostalgia. Gro Holm exposes the oppression of women in rural communities, and in Magnhild Haalke’s novels nature and life of the common people provide the setting for in-depth psychological portraits. These three writers take very different approaches; however, while casting a new and critical gaze upon the ‘old society’, their writing is deeply rooted in the culture they see under threat of disintegration.

Mystical Nature and Poverty in the Deep Forests

Ingeborg Refling Hagen confines herself to her home region, Hedmark. This large county has the biggest forests in Norway, and possibly also the biggest class differences.

In their depiction of poverty and misery, her stories and novellas written in the 1920s are often in a realm between myth and reality. Strong forces at large in nature have an effect on the people, and local gossip – which never forgets old wrongs and hatreds – holds sway over generation after generation. Born poor, stay poor – and even fine folk risk having to move from their land and estate.

Knudsen, Gerda (1899–1945): Kålakeren, 1940. Oil on canvas. Photo: Geert Nicolai Vestergaard-Hansen

In Loke saar havre (1922; Loki Sows Oats) poor people are auctioned off as servants, sold at the lowest price. ‘Illegitimate’ children are apprenticed by the parishes and sent out to the farms – a fate worse than death, according to Elsbet, who gives birth to her child in the poorhouse and then consigns both herself and her newborn infant to the bottomless lake. Her boyfriend, the pastor’s son, does not even know that he has become a father. And in terms of a lasting relationship, anyway, he is unattainable. The local poorhouse was once an estate that had been in Elsbet’s family a few generations back.

The theme recurs in her next novel, Ugild (1923; The Uncompensated). Here we are in the midst of a rural tragedy in a distant era. The family loses its farm, old grudges fester as a perpetual obsession with revenge, and drunkenness and stabbing prove fateful. The story is set in an unspecified past, but can largely be read as a contemporary novel. Ingeborg Refling Hagen’s novels from the 1930s also deal with financial loss, injustice, and class barriers, and it is not until the young central character is thrown into the local dungeon and is finally beheaded in the name of the law that we become fully aware that this is a historical novel. This timelessness is actually the alarming aspect of the tale. Gossip and revenge are deep-seated elements of the rural community, in which everyone knows everything about everyone. Certainty that wrong has been done is handed down through the generations like a genuine original sin.

In the 1930s Ingeborg Refling Hagen published a number of poetry collections in which injustice and sorrow similarly rang out in sonorous tones. She wrote both about impoverished Norway and about the Spanish tragedy. Emigrants were given their monument in the collection of poems Jeg vil hem att (1932; I Want to Go Home): “I want to go home, sister Anny! / Let me go home to the old country to die!” The hard worker in a Chicago hospital bed only remembers the bright side of things: “There is dew and light and scent of flowers in my land’s summer morning / and the flowers shine like snowdrifts on the mountain ash in spring time.”

With the trilogy Tre døgn Storskogen, (1937-39; Three Days in Storskogen), we are definitively in the hard inter-war years. The young teacher has left the safety of the small town and ended up in the deep forest of Hedmark. Here it is heavy and dark, with moorland and bottomless forest lakes, and here there are rickety old trees that might fall and crush a man at any moment.

Throughout her writings Ingeborg Refling Hagen is on the side of the weakest in society – the poorest, the hard-workers in the forest, the widows in their little houses, the girls who danced and sang all summer long and come winter were left with the ‘shame’ – a baby on the way. And the exploiters are strikingly similar, whether they are the bailiff of days gone by, the large-scale farmer, the forest owner, or the capitalist. Hunger, hardship, and fear are just as timeless elements as the brutality of nature, and the fleeting beauty of nature only supplies the body with energy for a brief moment. The writer’s language is full of colours and images; it is both poetic and down-to-earth, with a sustained use of dialect.

Ingeborg Refling Hagen is one of the strangest author profiles in the annals of Norwegian literature. Many of her fictional characters keep desolation at arm’s length by means of dreams and tales; work of the mind makes it possible to endure the daily toil. Folktale, the Norse canon, and other great literature proved to be her personal salvation. She was active in the Norwegian resistance movement during the Second World War, and it was in no small part her ‘spiritual friends’, great figures from literature, who kept her going. After the war she continued her extensive literary output with children’s books, literary studies, and autobiographical novels.

“When I started to write, my undertaking was that I should learn to draw the character so clearly that the individual is distinct. It is in this that the sagas have their strength. I had read them when I was young, and they laid down the challenge. But then the social aspect came along. I saw how people were treated. Everywhere, the frail succumbed in the battle. From a very young age I was interested in the old people, and in the children. Yes, and the women who killed their infants. I lived in a forest village. In forest villages the wrecks were hidden away […]

“Kinck, Tryggve Andersen, Amalie Skram – they were looking for the same thing: the vigour and distinctive character in our own people. […] We were, after all, part of a small and powerless country – at that time.”

Ingeborg Refling Hagen, interviewed by the daily Bergen newspaper Bergens Tidende in 1980, on the occasion of her eighty-fifth birthday.

During the post-war period, she is linked in particular with her “Suttung” movement and with Henrik Wergeland. His work for the rural communities and on behalf of the Jewish community and his sense for nature appealed to her and influenced her tireless work with children and literature and children and theatre. The “Suttung” movement became a cultural institution sought out by many young people – and many stayed on, her house in Tangen becoming their second home. To many people, Ingeborg Refling Hagen was known more as the mother of “Suttung” than as an author.

The “Suttung” movement was set up by Ingeborg Refling Hagen in 1948. At first it was made up entirely of women, who assembled in small groups in order to read and discuss the classics of literature. The movement took its name from the Norse god Suttung, who hid and safeguarded the magic skaldic mead. They soon started groups for children, employing the educational ideas of the “Suttung” movement – a pedagogical principle advocating culture as the arena in which the individual can find him/herself and evolve. Everybody has a right to the major works of art. The “Suttung” movement was therefore both a popular movement and an educational movement that made demands of the individual.

Elisabeth Aasen

Rural Women

Gro Holm was fifty-four years old when she published her first novel, Sut (1932; Lament) – the first instance in Norwegian literature of a farming milieu seen from the perspective of a female first-person. The central character is the ageing widow Brita Løstøl, writing about her life as a farmer’s wife on a small farm in western Norway at the end of the nineteenth century.

Gro Holm was born in Odda in the Hardanger district of western Norway. As the ‘eldest son’ in a family of four daughters, she worked on the farm with her father and soon noticed that the men had in fact more benefits than the women – such as fixed breaks and Sundays off. In 1931, a big Nordic novel-writing competition gave her the incentive to write about the rural farming community. Gro Holm did not win a prize of any sort for Sut, but the following year it was published in book form and was widely read. It was succeeded in rapid succession by Odelsjord (1933; Ancestral Soil) and Kår (1934; Circumstances), which is a direct sequel to Sut. These three novels were later published together, with the title Løstølsfolket (The People of Løstøl). Gro Holm wrote four more novels, one of which was Takk var det ikke mer (1937; Thank You, That Will Be All) about conditions for domestic staff during the inter-war years.

The books were much discussed when they were published, but there was little talk of her writing in the 1950s and 1960s. Gro Holm was one of the many writers to be rediscovered in the 1970s in the wake of the women’s movement.

Løstølsfolket is a chronicle of human worth being devalued and trampled underfoot. In Odelsjord we meet Anna, who is worn-out and ill after a life toiling for husband and children: “One morning, Nils came to me. ‘You’ll have to take care of the livestock today for her, Anna,’ he said. ‘She’s in a poor way, that wife of mine, not much use to me any more, she isn’t.’”

Gro Holm paints a merciless picture of impoverished conditions in a rural community, both in physical terms and for the life of the mind, but Løstølsfolket also gives a rich and vivid picture of the culture. She had a fondness for much in the old way of life, which in her vibrant descriptions opens up before us in all its everyday and festival endeavours. In the portrait of Brita Løstøl, women on the small farms are awarded their rightful place in the overall picture – and in history. In many ways, an honourable monument has here been erected to their memory.

In most of her books Gro Holm writes self-assuredly in an unconventional nynorsk (New Norwegian); for dialogue, both she and Magnhild Haalke use their own dialects. People from Hardanger and Trøndelag here take the floor.

Takk var det ikke mer is similarly written in the first-person. Everything is seen through the eyes of the household help, realistically and without the traditional love and care of ‘upstairs’. The book was an acrid contrast to the popular ‘downstairs’ romanticism in Sigrid Boo’s bestseller Vi som går kjøkkenveien (1930; We Who Enter through the Kitchen).

The Children’s Champion

In 1935 fifty-year-old Magnhild Haalke made her literary debut with Allis sønn (Alli’s Son), a book which instantly placed her among the leading Norwegian writers, went through several print runs, was translated into many languages and published in, among other countries, Sweden, the UK, France, and the US. Of Magnhild Haalke’s body of works – getting on for thirty books in all – Allis sønn was her greatest success. Her autobiography Mot nytt liv (1978; Towards New Life) was written when she was ninety-two years of age. Her other key works are: Åkfestet (1936; Subjugation), Dagblinket (1937; Short Is the Day) and Rød haust? (1941; Red Harvest?), which were published together in 1950 as Grys saga IIII (The Saga of Gry, vols. I-III).

Magnhild Haalke was born on Vikna, an island off the weather-beaten Namdal coast, not so very far from the childhood realm of Norwegian regional writer Olav Duun (1876-1939). She was the second oldest of ten siblings, trained as a teacher, and was thus employed for thirty years.

Her Trine Torgersen (1940) won a competition launched by the publishing house Aschehoug to find the best book about working women. She wrote from her own experiences of teaching in a rural area and living in wretched accommodation in the loft above the school, about the harassment of women teachers, and about the lack of a feeling of solidarity among male colleagues – and their wives.

Magnhild Haalke is particularly concerned with remote areas of Norway during the inter-war period; the harsh conditions, endeavour, and toil, strong and not-so-strong people are shown for better or for worse. The portraits of Alli’s søn, little Elling, and of Gry’s life as a young girl made a particular impression on many readers. Moving descriptions of childhood were not unknown in the Norwegian literature of the 1930s. Here, however, for the first time – and this was long before psychologists and experts put labels on the problems – Magnhild Haalke provides us with the fate of an uncommon child; she shows how the folly of an adult world can damage the one who is different. Elling seems scary because he lives in his own world, an odd, strange, and imaginative boy who plays with rhyme and sees beauty and magic where no one else sees anything at all.

Grys saga also shows Magnhild Haalke’s psychological insight and profound ability to get inside the child’s mind. She paints a persuasive portrait of young and plucky Gry, who is already being exploited by her mother at the age of six, chained to her younger siblings’ cradle for her entire childhood and adolescence. She gradually forgets to play with other children, and later, as an adult, she has to give up the one she loves.

Arnbjørg Hageberg

Translated by Gaye Kynoch