Print Article

Female Friendship Examined

Written by: Birgitta Svanberg |

Edith Øberg (1895-1968) was twenty years old when she published her first novel, Pr. korrespondance (1916; By Correspondence), which is based on a modern young woman’s letters to a friend. The style is intimate, humorously chatty, full of rapid associations and acute observations. Writing under the pseudonym of Lita, Øberg uses the same narrative technique in her popular novels about self-supporting women who seek sexual adventure and attractive men in the big city.

“And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends… They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that […]

(Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own, 1929)

Photo. Year unknown. Danske Kvinders Fotoarkiv, KVINFO, Copenhagen

The eight fictional works she wrote under her real name focus on personality development and self-realisation. Women’s relationships with each other increasingly come to the fore as men recede into the background. Øberg is most interested in women as creative subjects of their lives. Her later novels, which exhibit an unmistakable interest in psychoanalytical concepts, offer penetrating insights into issues surrounding female identity. Edith Øberg’s examination of the unconscious roots of sexual needs and conflicts is particularly fascinating, placing her in the thick of the cultural debate about modernism during the interwar period. Her in-depth studies of fragmented female psyches, breeding grounds for repressed conflicts due to puritanical upbringings, traumatic childhood memories, and guilty erotic ties challenge the view perpetrated by male vitalists of women as uncomplicated instinctive creatures. Her first four novels touch on taboo subjects.

Øberg’s Vesla: Historien om en barneforelskelse (1926; Vesla: Story of a Child’s Infatuation) is a subtle and empathetic account of a fatherless teenager’s incest-like feelings for a fifty-year-old man. The ‘difficult periods’ of preadolescence and puberty are among her favourite topics.

Man in the Dark

Mann i mörke (1939; Man in the Dark), Øberg’s most important novel, is structured as a psychological process aimed at understanding the events of the past and bringing repressed feelings to the surface. Harriet and Johannes meet by chance on a rainy night in Oslo. They turn out to be old friends and classmates who have not seen each other for twenty years. She takes him back to her elegant penthouse, where they begin to talk about days gone by. He experiences a growing sensation, sometimes to the point of inexplicable anxiety, that she has a hidden motive for pursuing the conversation.

The mystery is embodied by the novel’s leitmotif, a huge India rubber tree that Johannes stumbles over as he enters the flat. Harriet tells him that she had once tried to “sex murder” the plant, which had belonged to her mother, when she was still a schoolgirl. With quivering sensual pleasure, she describes the various methods she had employed. The parched plant wound up in the dustbin but was rescued and resuscitated by Björg, Harriet’s best friend. Twenty years later it stands there in her little penthouse. Johannes has been living with Björg, who runs a flower shop, for a number of years. He is an advertising professional, but currently unemployed and generally unstable. He is handsome and virile, always on the prowl for casual relationships. Harriet facetiously calls him Johannes the Seducer, based on the protagonist of Kierkegaard’s “Forførerens Dagbok” (The Seducer’s Diary) in Enten – Eller (1843; Eng. tr. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life). One reason for the creepy sensation that comes over Johannes during the conversation is that he has heard the story about the India rubber tree before. In Björg’s version, she herself is the perpetrator. One of the women must have stolen the tale from the other.

Driven by some obscure compulsion, Johannes must solve the mystery at all costs. The fate of the plant serves as a key to the love triangle that Harriet’s return to Oslo has brought back to life.

The novel is a suspenseful psychological thriller that revolves around unspoken and veiled problems associated with femininity and sexuality, particularly the question of frigidity. The women merge in that respect as well, generating a number of questions: Are they both frigid – or only one of them? Has Harriet also stolen that state from Björg in a desperate attempt to assume her life and personality?

Frigidity is called into question as a term without real substance. The whole narrative is structured around the vacuum and absence of vitality that the amorphous expression suggests. Freud’s “dark continent” of female sexuality, which was a hot topic of debate in the 1930s, murmurs like an eerie melody throughout Mann i mörke. Is there such a thing as constitutional frigidity? Or is it only a game, a weapon to fend off men’s claims of ownership? Or are men and their inadequacies as lovers the real “sex murderers”?

The questions are not posed directly, but emerge through a series of dialogues, confrontations, symbolic acts, and dream snippets. Ultimately, Johannes is the biggest loser in the sexual power game. Just like the psychoanalytical experts of the interwar period, he thinks he knows all there is to know about women’s libido. When it comes to the question of frigidity, “There’s not a woman in the world who can fool me. It’s in the air, in the prologue and epilogue, even if they play the main piece as well as can be expected. I pick up on it every time.”

He could not be more deceived. As it turns out, he has misunderstood women all his life, in other fundamental respects as well. Both he and Harriet are destroyed by the game that she draws him into. Their knowledge – or rather lack of it – costs them their lives.

At the heart of the enigmatic and multilayered story is a hint that the most profound sexual connection may be between Harriet and Björg. Harriet has a recurring dream, which her psychoanalyst diagnoses as an obsession, about a man whom she wants but cannot have. Is he Johannes? No, she decides, after having put him to the test that night in her penthouse. In the dream, she finds herself entering a dark room. She knows someone is in there – presumably a man – and she is afraid he might be “a murderer”. But the creature emerges silently from the shadows and gently places her cheek against Harriet’s. “Nothing else happens, but it’s complete happiness”, Harriet says, “profound, blissful devotion. That’s what it must feel like to die … to drown.” The dream can be interpreted as a fantasy of regression to the womb – or to Björg, a kind of mother figure.

The book provides no unambiguous answers. It is also modernist in the sense that it describes an unceasing quest for meaning and truth in a world constructed from the subjective viewpoints of its inhabitants. All that exists is a species of relativity and chaos that shrouds the mystery of female sexuality, still definable only in terms of absence.

“Given the enormous interest in psychoanalysis during the interwar years, it is rather remarkable that so few critics took any notice of the intelligence with which Øberg used its insights in her writing. One reason may be that her objective was to explore the female psyche, as opposed to Sigurd Hoel and other male authors of the 1930s who devoted almost all their attention to the development of boys and men.”

Janneken Øverland’s essay about Øberg in Norsk Kvinnelitteraturhistorie (History of Women’s Writing in Norway), Volume 2, 1989.

Female Friendship

Aksel Sandemose wrote of Innvielse (1940; Initiation) and Den hvite poppelen (1945; The White Poplar), Øberg’s last two novels: “She is indisputably the greatest Norwegian female author in the post-Undset generation.” She wrote both books during World War II. Quislings, women who slept with German soldiers, and other sensitive matters are addressed directly, and the novels exhibit a level of political and existential gravity that is missing from her previous work. Above all, Øberg tirelessly elaborates and expands upon her trademark theme of female friendship, the kind that is neither idyllic nor uncontroversial. Such friendships evolve ultimately into ambivalent love-hate relationships that blend narcissism, jealousy, and boundary-setting with the yearning for affinity, intimacy, and trust.

“How do women use the right to vote that they obtained after World War I? To elect new men who see war as ‘a necessary expression of life’. Women are the way men want them to be. But do men really know what they want? History shows that they are driven by their immediate needs. Lysistrata means ‘disbander of armies’. She organised a sex strike. Unfortunately, we’ve never repeated the project. Our most cherished goal – now as ever – is to please men. In war as in peace.”

Den hvite poppelen

The motif of two women who invade each other’s lives to the point of identity confusion reaches its climax. With great psychological perspicacity, Øberg weaves the tangled threads into a web of shifting fates that wind their way through unknown territory. Once again, she uses the retrospective technique that she had borrowed from both psychoanalysis and Greek drama. Allusions to ancient mythology and art are vital ingredients, particularly in Den hvite poppelen, which employs Sappho and Lysistrata as symbolic characters while intertwining ancient myths of death with the underlying themes.

Translated by Ken Schubert