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The Good Story

Written by: Anne Birgitte Rønning |

1970s women’s literature was very successful in the literary market. For a period, this literature was at the centre of attention of both the critics and the readers. It also revived the themes that had interested the popular novel and women readers from the emergence of the book market in the nineteenth century. Love between man and woman, emotions and relations, sensuality and sexuality were again in focus. However, the story needed a serious update. The issues, the circumstances, the phases, the dreams, and the heroines needed revising. 1970s literature of experience expands the emotional register, sexuality is given more room, and the liberation theme is emphasised.

In the 1980s, the historical novel, a centuries-old favourite among female readers, underwent the same process. The female heroes were brought up to date. The heroines were adapted to the contemporary world, and together with the new romance literature, the new feminist historical novel captured the interest of women readers. In the 1980s, new women writers throughout the Nordic region began to write about hidden, forgotten, overlooked, or entirely unknown women from past centuries, and the books were welcomed by huge audiences (and by reviewers) with such overwhelming interest that it began to look like just the genre for which they had all been searching for so many years.

Danish novels such as Helle Stangerup’s (born 1939) debut historical novel Christine (1985; Eng. tr. In the Courts of Power), Maria Helleberg’s (born 1956) Seersken (1986; The Prophetess), Anne Marie Ejrnæs’s (born 1946) Som svalen (1986; Like the Swallow), Mette Winge’s (born 1937) Skriverjomfruen (1988; The Maiden Scribe), Cæcilie Lassen’s (born 1971) Simone (1987), and Bodil Steensen-Leth’s (born 1945) Jomfru Fanny (1989; The Virgin Fanny) captured the attention of many people who had never previously shown an interest in history – or in women’s literature.

In the words of Maria Helleberg, the Danish Queen Caroline Mathilde’s fate is “the best story in the entire history of Denmark”.(Politiken,7 October 1994). Helleberg conducts a literary exploration of her life in Mathilde, magt og maske (1991; Mathilde, Power and Mask).
Caroline Mathilde (1751-75) was married at the age of fifteen to the seventeen-year-old Danish King Christian VII, who was on the verge of insanity. She rises above the nightmare and terror and falls in love with a real man: Struensee, the King’s physician and privy counsellor.

Cæcilie Lassen was just fifteen years old when she jumped on her bicycle and brought the handwritten manuscript that would become the novel Simone to the Borgen publishing house in 1987.
In 1994 she published the pirate novel Jacks sidste rejse (Jack’s Last Voyage). In this, her eighth book, she for the first time has a male protagonist.

The literary scholar Mette Winge (born 1937) published her first historical novel, Skriverjomfruen (The Spinster Scribe), in 1988. The genre offered her the opportunity to approach the women’s studies subjects that she had been interested in as a scholar in a whole new manner. The protagonist of Skriverjomfruen is the colourful seventeenth-century Danish writer Charlotta Dorothea Biehl, and the frontispiece states that this is a governess novel. In this manner, Mette Winge gently but polemically questions the conventions of genre, and fiction becomes an way of studying and examining aspects of cultural and literary history. This new way of using the historical novel was a great success with readers, and Mette Winge has continued to publish novels, including Novemberlys (1990: November Light), which elegantly explores a world of interiors, dialogue, and detail in a universe reminiscent of Danish writer Herman Bang: a city of stucco, dust, halls of mirrors, and subversive crime.

In the historical novels, the story about female resistance and struggle takes on a new form, and the novels make the liberation discussion legitimate and relevant far beyond the reach of the new women’s movement. These new historical narratives are full of rebellion and sexuality, and the main characters are strong women who make a break from convention time and time again.

Annelise Vestergaard

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd

Women’s Liberation in Chronicle Form

Flock, Agneta (born 1941): Livets port, 1979. Stockholms Läns Landsting

As early as by the end of the 1960s, the Finnish writer Kaari Utrio used the popular historical novel to break with the moral codes of contemporary light literature. The heroine could freely go from bed to bed without offending the moral sensibilities of readers, if only this happened in a distant historical setting – everything was permitted in a city struck by the plague, in a besieged royal palace, in a castle where the lord demanded his rights.

Kaari Utrio unites a chronicle-like historical narrative with insightful psychological depiction in the manner of Sigrid Undset, whose historical novels are her model. The plot, however, accurately follows the pattern of light literature.

The feminist tone of Kaari Utrio’s novels became clearer during the 1970s. Not only did the heroines rebel against sexual repression, they also questioned the women’s roles of the day. The heroine was with increasing frequency a woman who did not want to get married, and did not necessarily want to become a mother either. She wanted to realise herself, and was willing to marry only when she had found a partner who would give her sufficient freedom.

In Kaari Utrio’s most feminist historical novel, Katarinan taru (1981; Katarina’s Chronicle), which is about an artist’s marriage in the fourteenth century, the historical setting is no more than a stage on which to act out the plot. The focus is on a woman’s modern inner conflicts.

The Finland-Swedish writer Barbara Winckelmann (born1920) made her debut in 1961. In her historical novel series about Helsinki, she combines careful documentation with a talent for storytelling that has made her a popular writer. In Din vredes dag (1977; The Day of Your Wrath), Bortom gryningen (1979; Beyond Dawn), and Kejsarstaden (1982; The Imperial City), she paints a captivating picture of the eighteenth century and Helsinki in the days of empire. She is both exact and exacting in her depiction of the vulnerability of women. Noble women, bourgeois women, servant girls, and prostitutes all have their lives documented in a realistic fashion.

Kirsti Manninen

Translated by Marthe Seiden

Historical Correctives

Concurrently with experiments and new departures in poetry, in Norway throughout the 1960s and 1970s there was a strong interest in the historical, both among writers and readers. The historical novel enables both anchoring and the search for roots, and cultural criticism aimed at both the past and the present.

The genre has strong, male-dominant conventions, but also an authoritative pioneer in the person of Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). Among the most famous and productive of her protégés are Vera Henriksen (born 1927), Ragnhild Magerøy (1920-2010), and Sissel Lange-Nielsen (born 1931). Both Vera Henriksen and Ragnhild Magerøy find their material in Norwegian history – publishing family chronicles from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries respectively, and especially writing about people and events during the Viking Age. Sissel Lange-Nielsen, on the other hand, has focused solely on non-Nordic history, as have Elisabeth Dored (1908-1972) and Eva Ramm (born 1925). One version of the historical novel is the historical family chronicle based on material from the author’s own family history. This genre was a favourite of Asta Holth’s (1904-1999), who captured the points of view of women on the geographic periphery and the lower classes in one sweep of fiction.

In Vera Henriksen’s Sigrid trilogy Sølvhammeren (1961; The Silver Hammer), Jærtegn (1962; Omens), and Helgenkongen (1963; The Saint King), the main character does not understand the man’s world; she finds the Vikings’ use of physical violence distasteful, and she discovers a kind of “women’s room”, which she can control, during childbirth and in her sexuality:

“He could be good and loving towards her or he could take her by force. But he would never be able to shake her will, never be able to force it. And if he ever again should come to own her entirely, it would be because she gave herself to him of her own free will.”

In the reprint of Vera Henriksen’s historical novels in 1983, she explains the gender role issue in an afterword. The plot is set in “‘masculine’ century, a time when qualities we still view as masculine today were universal in a form that could be said to border on caricature”, and she finds it interesting today “to observe the evidence left behind by this extreme masculinity”.

The historical novels depict people and environments that are temporally distant from both author and readers, and the novels appeal to readers’ fascination with the exotic and their interest in history. The far-off events also allow the writers to explore universal human conflicts and use them to mirror and comment on their own contemporary society.

Both Ragnhild Magerøy’s and Vera Henriksen’s novels from the Norwegian Middle Ages contribute to a historical tradition that is well-known to the Norwegian audience through the Norse sagas. However, the novels are more general, expanding the horizons of the sagas with descriptions of society and psychological studies of, in particular, the fates of women. The novels depict the individual woman’s attempts to preserve her integrity in the society in which she lives. As women, they do not understand part of the male society’s use of power and violence, while at the same time they are bearers of the ideology that justifies the violence. The women are also subject to authoritarian structures, concepts of honour, and contempt for weakness.

In Sissel Lange-Nielsen’s trilogy Under fiskenes tegn (1978-82; Under the Sign of Pisces), the title itself suggests a theme of division. Inspired by the 1960s dream of realising the life-giving values in the “Age of Aquarius” – unity and solidarity – she searches the century of the crusades for a mirror image of, as well as an explanation for, the contradictions of our time. With the novels set in the Italian Renaissance, Våren (1985; Spring), Laokoon 1987; Laocoön), Guds død (1989; The Death of God), and Kjærlighedshoffet (1991; The Court of Love), Sissel Lange-Nielsen carries on her project, following and describing the formation of the European cultural identity.

Elisabeth Dored draws the material for her works from early European history, and the novel Jeg elsket Tiberius (1959, Eng. tr. I Loved Tiberius) is set in the Rome of Emperor Augustus. The story is told by his daughter Julia, who is thus given the opportunity to fill in and correct posterity’s image of her as a monster.

Political intrigues are a regular element in the plots of historical novels. Often, the intrigues are closely connected to eroticism in the form of piquant subplots, as preferred by male writers, or a thematisation of women’s sexuality, as featured by many female writers. Sexuality is presented here as a driving force and source of conflict in the individual and between people, and is often depicted more directly in historical novels than in contemporary literature. Through eroticism and sexuality, pregnancies and births, women’s history is outlined as a relatively unvarying story about women devoted to reproduction, and studies of historical epochs or personal studies of women as mothers, daughters, and the lovers of powerful men.

The choice of female writers of the period to use women as the protagonists of historical novels is a way to correct the traditional way of representing history. The novels’ portrayals of women’s limited opportunities and their marginalised position in society in the past is a critique of these conditions. Often, this issue is part of the theme of the novels – as an implicit aspect of the religious and ideological conflicts the characters are confronted with. In some novels, the women’s perspective becomes a crucial point in the narrative strategy – it is what legitimises the fictionalised story.

Anne Birgitte Rønning

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd

Love as a Force of Reconciliation

“Love is a means of defending oneself against the complete sovereignty of death”, is the opinion of Sabina, the narrator of Vibeke Olsson’s (born 1958) novel Sabina och Alexander (1986; Sabina and Alexander). Love is the theme throughout Vibeke Olsson’s oeuvre: love between man and woman, but Christian love above all.

Gunnlaugsdóttir, G. Kristín (born 1963): Bláir englar, 1993. Oil on canvas. Listasafn, Reykjavík

Vibeke Olsson often sets her novels in the Roman era. In Kvarnen och korset (1984; The Mill and the Cross) and Hedningarnas förgård (1982; Antechamber of the Heathen), Callistrate the slave, Sabina’s mother, is the main character, while the daughter’s story is told in Sabina (1985; Sabina) and Sabina och Alexander. Sabina is born a slave but is freed by the officer Alexander, who marries her. Both die during the course of the novel, but their son, Drusus, returns in En plats att vila på (1989; A Resting Place).

In Vibeke Olsson’s novels the historical setting mostly serves to offset existential problems. The Roman era is violent: there is permanent war and the Christians are persecuted. Slaves are at particular risk, but even free people live in constant anxiety. By placing her characters in so brutal a time, Vibeke Olsson can create strong contrasts that emphasise her message that love is a power of reconciliation.

Several of the main characters are marked by physical handicaps: they are ’different’. Sabina has no right hand, and as a newborn barely avoids being dumped on the midden. She becomes a slave in an affluent patrician home, where she teaches herself to read. But when the family falls on hard times, Sabina is sold to the family of an officer in Germania. Her physical defect brings both grief and bitterness: “All my life I have fought against bitterness; bitterness over my handicap. But the older I’ve become the less I’ve had to struggle. The more I’ve seen of the lives of the others, the proper ones, the well-made ones, the less scorn I’ve felt. I don’t differ as much from them as it might seem; everyone has some handicap, but most of them can’t be seen. My silent griefs are no larger than those of others.”

Through this insight, Sabina becomes able to love both herself and others. Freiatto in Kastellet (1992; The Citadel) does not get that far. He has a large red birthmark on his cheek, and has never felt loved. He and his mother were the only members of the family who survived the plague, and Freiatto was compelled to listen to people commiserate with his mother: ”that your beautiful children had to die”. Freiatto seeks fellowship, and finds it in the soldier’s life. But he passes up on love, deserting the poor Regula to marry a rich potter’s daughter who does not love him. When she rejects him, his childhood trauma resurges: Freiatto strangles his wife and is executed. Regula explains his fate, and the reader senses the author’s voice in the background: “But the problem was […] that he could not love himself. The Christianites were right about that. Even if everything else they said was nonsense, this was true: love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Eva Ramm made her debut in 1958 with the important contemporary novel Med støv på hjernen (With Dust on the Brain), and she is known for her satirical “ladies’ novels” and for her books for young adults. In the 80s she also wrote two historical novels, Kjære Sokrates (1981; Dear Socrates) and Elskeren Jeshua (1985; Joshua the Lover), in which she has women tell the stories of the men they have loved. Their versions are strongly critical of tradition, and they paint a “softer” portrait of their famous husbands.

Margaretha Fahlgren

Translated by Marthe Seiden

Strong Women in Danish History

The 1500s was the century of strong women in Europe. The Danish writer Helle Stangerup draws a portrait of a power-hungry and scheming woman in Christine (1985) as an example – in the words of Helle Stangerup herself – of “the power and influence that women had before they became victims of the moralistic vision and changed societal conditions of Victorianism, which resulted in the decline of the wealthy into idleness, wigs, and powder”.

Helle Stangerup does not call forth a woman worthy of imitation, a beautiful example to follow, but she does show that knowledge and involvement, strength and perseverance, rather than powder and wigs, are what it takes for women to stand up for themselves.

Strength and perseverance are also characteristics of the main character in Helle Stangerup’s Spardame (1989; Queen of Spades), about Leonora Christina (1621-98), daughter of King Christian IV and his morganatic wife Kirsten Munk. Leonora Christina was the King’s favourite daughter, spoilt, intelligent, and ambitious and, as it turned out, a loyal wife to the Steward of the Realm, Corfitz Ulfeldt, whom she loved and for whom she willingly committed treason. As a result, she was imprisoned in the Blue Tower for nearly twenty-two years, thanks to Queen Sofie Amalie, married to Frederik III, the son and successor of King Christian IV.

Countess Danner, born Louise Rasmussen (1815-1874) and King Frederik VII’s morganatic wife, is depicted in Maria Helleberg’s Louise længe leve (1994; Long Live Louise) as a trailblazing woman, a forerunner for the budding women’s liberation. Her mother was a dresser at the Danish Royal Theatre, and Louise was a ballet child who ironically danced in Elverhøj (Elve’s Hill), which was written for and performed at Frederik VII’s first wedding in 1828 to Vilhelmine, daughter of King Frederik VI. After another wedding, with Marianne of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whom he divorced, he entered into a morganatic marriage in 1850 with Louise Rasmussen, who then became Countess of Danner.

“I enjoy history the way others enjoy chocolate!” declared Thit Jensen (1876-1957), who was perhaps best known for her historical novel Stygge Krumpen (1936), which sold more than 60,000 copies in Denmark.

On the Stage of History

Bodil Steensen-Leth’s novel Jomfru Fanny came out on the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Dybbøl in Southern Jutland, on 18 April 1989. It was relevant in that the Virgin Fanny, the clairvoyant from Aabenraa also known as the Queen of Aabenraa (1804-1881), had predicted the Schleswigian war, the fall of Dybbøl, and the German dominance, but also its demise and the lost territory’s reunification with the motherland Denmark.

The Virgin Fanny was a daughter of the Danish Prince Christian Frederik, who later became King Christian VIII, and the Mecklenburg Princess Charlotte Frederikke, who were both very young and not yet married when they got carried away in erotic pleasures. The love child was given to a woman who settled in Persillegade in Aabenraa, and there Fanny grew up. She was considered an odd child, and as an adult she developed clairvoyant abilities, predicting events that actually occurred. There is an air of myth, mysticism, and the supernatural about her.

Bodil Steensen-Leth does not remove the veil of mystery from Fanny, who personally feels she is “different” until love makes her look like any other girl in love. But she is let down, and her differentness takes over again. Bodil Steensen-Leth allows Fanny’s sexuality to be sublimated into spiritual power, and Fanny finds lonesome comfort in Søren Kierkegaard. She learns from him that a martyr knows nothing of enjoyment, but is dedicated to suffering. A parallel to her sufferings are the sufferings of Denmark in the 1800s.

Eva Hemmer Hansen (1913-1983) also wrote historical novels, which dealt with the cycle of legends surrounding Troy. In 1954 she published Skandale i Troja (Eng. tr. Scandal in Troy), and in 1957 Efter Trojas fald (After the Fall of Troy).

Annelise Vestergaard

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd

Mystery and History

Sexuality and spirituality also go hand in hand in the Norwegian-Swedish author Margit Sandemo’s (born 1924) forty-seven novels about the Ice People. Margit Sandemo began the series in 1982 and was soon one of the most widely read authors in the Nordic countries.

Hansen-Krone, Johanne Marie (born 1952): Bilde, 1993.

The historical environment in Margit Sandemo’s novels functions first and foremost as a colourful framework for the love relationships depicted. Accordingly, the seventeenth century heroine thinks like a modern woman. Margit Sandemo’s female characters are often young, and they discover themselves as women through their love relationships. Silja in Trollbunden (1982; Spellbound) is startled by the desire she experiences while dreaming. The depiction of sexuality functions partly as a sort of counselling for the young reader. The first love meeting is therefore not depicted as unequivocally delightsome, but is described in more realistic tones.

In Margit Sandemo’s novels the heroine is fascinated by the wild and the dark, at the same time seeking a man who can provide her with security and solicitude. The man often proves able to unite these contradictory qualities. However, when the hero turns up in the guise of the devil or turns out to be a ghost, the heroine must choose a more humdrum husband. But the memory of meeting the mysterious and dangerous man lives on in her. The novels contain an erotic tension related to the Ice People’s mysterious ancestors. The books make it clear that passion must be adjusted to society and its demands on the individual. But at the same time, the wildness of the Ice People is an ever-present shadow, a counter image.

Elsi Rydsjö (born 1920) is a popular writer of historical novels. She continues the tradition of the historical romance novel, written by women. The historical settings are carefully drawn, and she depicts the fates of many characters. But in the main, her books are romantic love stories with many intrigues. Elsi Rydsjö made her debut as a writer of girls’ books in 1941. In the past decade she has written several historical novels, often published in several editions.

Taking the Bible for a Model

A new spirituality was part of the feminisation of the historical novel in the 1980s, and it is telling that Marianne Fredriksson – the most successful writer working in the genre – launched her career by writing about biblical history. In Evas bok (1980; The Book of Eve), Eve is able to integrate emotions and intellect when she is confronted with the Paradise she has left. For Eve, the process leads to a fundamental outlook that views the divine as part of the world and of human beings. The contrast, in this case, is to Adam’s strict, judgmental god, existing beyond the realm of human affairs. Marianne Fredriksson aims her criticism at orthodox Lutheran Christianity, which in her view is blind to the human being.

Her interest in presenting biblical history in a new light also comes out in Kains bok (1981; Book of Cain), Noreas saga (1983; Norea’s Saga), and Syndafloden (1990; The Flood). In these novels, and in her novels set in the present day, Marianne Fredriksson repeats her criticism of the limited philosophy of man that she perceives not only in traditional religion but also in modern society. In novel after novel, she transcends the limits of reason and gives free rein to emotions. Protagonists with an incredibly powerful sensibility, or the ability to look into other worlds and see what is hidden from others, are a pervasive feature of Marianne Fredriksson’s works. The individual breaks through to the subconscious and comes to terms with his or her fantasies.

In Gåtan (1989; The Riddle), a mysterious death is the basis for the inner journey undertaken by Lillemor Lundgren. Gåtan is a murder mystery, but above all it is a novel about Lillemor’s repressed childhood experiences. A similarly lost childhood also influences Hans Horner’s life in Blindgång (1992; Unexploded Ordnance). In both cases, it is through meeting another person and through therapeutic conversations that the protagonists are able to regain their childhood and thereby understand their life. Lillemor Lundgren formulates the process in a manner typical of the works: “She understood that delving deep down, to the bottom of one’s self, was not to search but to see.”

Denying One’s Demons

Marianne Fredriksson’s novels depict human beings who possess a special sensibility. Klara Horner and her daughter Sofia in Blindgång, Lillemor Lundgren in Gåtan, and Karin in Simon och ekarna (1985; Eng. tr. Simon and the Oaks) are all described as mediums of a sort. The depiction of Klara Horner demonstrates how it is possible gradually to establish connections between different planes of experience. Klara, who is afraid of her own ability, eventually comes to see it as an advantage. In this book, Marianne Fredriksson details a psychoanalytical process in which the Jungian psychiatrist Judith Dorf helps Klara to work through her experiences.

It is mostly Fredriksson’s female characters who keep in touch with their inner selves. Often they have a privileged relationship with nature. In Evas bok, the first woman, Eve, is renowned for her knowledge of the healing properties of plants. The strong women radiate motherliness, a natural solicitude for others that is a prerequisite for their inner strength. This strength is often expressed in the women’s laughter: the wise Agnes in Blindgång has a resounding laughter reminiscent of “the waves hitting the beach”. And Elisabeth Enoksson, the parson who helps Lillemor gain insight in Gåtan, during a car journey laughs so much that “she almost cracks the small Japanese car’s windscreen”. These women dare to have an affirmative outlook on life, and accept even that which cannot be understood through reason. In Marianne Fredriksson’s oeuvre this is not an exclusively female outlook , but her exemplary characters are mainly women.

Margaretha Fahlgren

Translated by Marthe Seiden

Escaping the Cramped Village

Since the 1960s, historical family chronicles have held a central place in Norwegian literature, and women authors have found it a useful genre within which to thematise the problems of modern women. The novels often deal with a struggle for self-respect and independence in the meeting with a narrow-minded and cramped village community. In 1976, Anne Karin Elstad (born 1938) made her debut with Folket på Innhaug (The People of Innhaug), a novel that brings social conflict into the sphere of history. Folket på Innhaug and the three subsequent novels, Magret (1977), Nytt rotfeste (1979; New Roots), and Veiene møtes (1980; Paths Meet), all became veritable bestsellers.

Folket på Innhaug is the story of two women living in a mountain village in central Norway in the mid-1800s. They are mother and daughter, and they each defy the village in their own way and with their heads held high. The novels are built up around conflicts between the outsider and the village community, and eroticism gives the women the courage to break with accepted social norms. Oline gives herself to a foreigner, who dies in the war before their daughter is born, and in so doing she loses her social standing. However, she insists on her dignity and attempts to protect her daughter, Magret, from the village gossip. Magret suffers a fate similar to her mother; she loves one person, but gives herself to another and then marries the brother of the father of her child.

These family chronicles describe in detail the character of the region, the village community, tools, and working life. Against this background, the individual female characters are seen in a “historical” light; however, they also have both anachronistic and utopian traits. Like the protagonists created by many other writers of historical fiction, Anne Karin Elstad’s female characters are, to a great extent, capable of taking care of themselves. In addition to working on the farm, they have knowledge of economics and understand that new times require change. However, even for women of the past, the daily labour, caring for the family, and longing for the impossible loving relationship can become too much. When Magret drives herself to a nervous breakdown, she resembles in many ways the modern female characters in contemporary literature.

These same themes – the mother/daughter conflict, the outsider in the village community, and female eroticism – are addressed in Anne Karin Elstad’s contemporary novels. The novels of liberation Senere, Lena (1982; Later, Lena) and Sitt eget liv (1983; Her Own Life) were just as popular as the historical novels and provide a temporally authentic and typical insight into the stages of development of women’s liberation. Though written in the 1980s, they do not transcend any thematic or textual boundaries, but through their lively narratives they reach a large audience with an important message that had been associated with “radicals” and “extremists” just a few years earlier. In – for dagene er onde, (1985; – because the days are cruel), cruelty and disparagement are given free rein, and the individual’s chances against the villagers’ spiteful outrage towards anything that falls outside the norm are limited. And a woman’s breakdown and madness is the result of the people’s pathological prejudice and envy.

Maria, Maria (1988) is about physical disease – a cerebral haemorrhage. The author herself suffered from a stroke, and she uses her experiences to portray the disease from the inside. The afflicted person is incapable of speech, but understands everything going on around her.

Torill Thorstad Hauger’s (born 1943) two historical novels Karl Eugen Olsen fra Vika (1976; Karl Eugen Olsen from Vika) and Krestiane Kristiania (1984) are based on interviews and presented as first-person memoirs. Torill Thorstad Hauger’s books do not have the same romantic and dramatic plots as those of Anne Karin Elstad. She portrays daily life in the poor areas of Kristiania (what is now Oslo) around the turn of the last century, and it is the “little things” in daily life that are important – financial difficulties, hunger, poor diet, accidents, and births. And the author’s voice produces a kind of collective everyday experience.

In Utbryterdronninga (1982; Escape Artists) Karin Sveen (born 1948) explores the myth of Moses in her story about the vivacious Marja, of unknown descent. The girl does not know where she comes from, but she knows where she belongs – and she does what she wants.

In 1986 Torill Thorstad Hauger published I Dorotheas hus (In Dorothea’s House), a book about the Norwegian hymn writer Dorothe Engelbretsdatter. Her work is literally an attempt to come into contact with the old “poetess” by staging a writing situation in Dorothea’s old house, which is now a museum. Karin Sveen makes a woman writer the main character in her book Hannas hus (1991; Hanna’s House), only she takes a more critical approach. The novel was viewed as an attack on the revered author Ingeborg Refling Hagen and her Suttung movement – named after the Norse giant who possessed the mead of poetry. It was a relatively closed circle whose objective was to tap into the individual’s abilities, continue the poetic heritage, and enlighten the people. The novel documents this environment, which Karin Sveen was part of over a three-year period from the age of sixteen.

One of Marja’s relations in Utbryterdronninga also reappears in Maria Waters verden (1993; The World of Maria Waters) – and she, too, possesses a wealth of fantasy in word and deed. Several of Karin Sveen’s works which take place in childhood settings out in the rural communities demonstrate the obvious pleasure she experiences in the process of telling a story.

However, the novel Kvinnen som forsvant (1987; The Woman Who Disappeared) is set in the big city. The book is more traditionally psychological, but also significantly different when it comes to linguistic style: the tone characterised by the use of dialects has given way to a more neutral, urban Norwegian that matches the main character’s anonymisation when she moves to the modern city. The foreignness of the big city not only changes her language, but has an effect on her entire being. The existential loneliness and passivity in Kvinnen som forsvant stands in stark contrast to the lively energy that characterises Karin Sveen’s early work. The novel clearly emphasises the costs associated with leaving the village.

Tove Bakke, Rakel Christina Granaas, and Anne Birgitte Rønning

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd