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To Write Oneself Free

Written by: Lena Malmberg |

“We need people in life and in literature who create new models for longing and lust. People who expect everything from life and go for it,” Suzanne Brøgger writes in her review of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, 1973.

Many women writers in the 1970s attempted to find a form that could display these new models. They wanted to speak for themselves and deliver testimony of their own experiences in their own voice. In order to achieve this, they recreated an old genre, the confessional novel, which can trace its ancestry back as far as Augustine’s Confessiones (Eng. tr. Confessions) from approximately 400 AD, and whose modern form was shaped by Rousseau.

“I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.” Those are the famous introductory words of Rousseau’s Les Confessiones (Eng. tr. Confessions), written between 1765 and 1770.

Cronqvist, Lena: Förortsmadonna, 1969. Oil painting.

The confessional novel in many ways continued the documentarism of the 1960s. The reportage book that had then treated of the larger spheres of life, with travel books and sociological depictions of social classes and spaces, was now turned to depicting the intimate sphere of life: the home, feelings, and personal development. Just as it was important in the 1960s to document personal participation and research, so in the 1970s it was equally important that described experiences and adventures were absolutely authentic. Where the ideal of the 1960s was objective depiction, the 1970s becomes the decade of subjective representation. Fiction makes claims to authenticity. The epic narrative is broken by mythical allusions or the author’s comments, but the foundation is the classical narrative novel. The genre’s demands for testimony and truth are suitable for motifs that were previously more or less taboo: female sexuality, hatred of the mother, and attempts at liberation both from the traditional woman’s role as well as from conventional forms of relationships. The search for another way of living is described, and it is depicted how every new departure has its dead ends.

In the background are heard the questions asked by Agnes von Krusenstjerna in her works: What is a real woman like? May I be who I am? Is it possible to rebel against women’s conditions in life? Are all mothers evil? How should woman use her peculiar nature to change the world?

In 1976 the original model for the Swedish confessional novel was published: Kerstin Thorvall’s (born 1925) Det mest förbjudna (1976; The Most Forbidden), the first in a series of books – Oskuldens död (1977; The Death of Innocence), Den lyckliga kärleken (1977; Happy Love), and Ensam dam reser ensam (1979; Single Woman Travels Alone) – in which she tackles her upbringing and the role of being a good girl.

Det mest förbjudna (1976; The Most Forbidden) is a furious clash with her mother and with her sexually repressed upbringing, while the book also depicts the protagonist’s attempt to escape childhood through various sexual relationships:

“I can’t live without the forbidden. I can’t be ordinary and pleasant and normal. It will never be possible for me to live contentedly in detached housing happiness, knitting for the grandchildren. Naughty daughter. Unfaithful wife. Bad mother.”

The role of daughter, wife, and mother is always a prevailing motif for Thorvall. A first-person narrator speaks and confesses, and is occasionally commented upon by the author, who purposely shatters the illusion of the fiction. Kerstin Thorvall has depicted how she managed to overcome her complicated and paralysing relationship with her mother partly through writing about it, and partly through publishing what she had written. For an author trying to underscore the truth and veracity of what is being told, the diary is the natural form. Two writers using this genre, but in completely different ways, are Rönnog Seaberg (born 1932) and Agneta Klingspor (born 1946). Rönnog Seaberg’s Hemlig dagbok (1975; Secret Diary) is reminiscent of traditional diaries by women. She describes the close life and shows the humdrum of everyday life. Monetary worries, crying babies, and harsh menstrual pains are interwoven with taking a political stand and attempts to actively work to change the situation. Everything is equally important.

Rönnog Seaberg describes how the traditional nuclear family is broken through adoption. This becomes a means of bringing political struggle into the private sphere. The book is set in the United States and depicts the traumas undergone by a family on receiving a third adoptive child. The political dimension of the adoption is accentuated by the fact that none of the children are white – they are either African-American or of Native American origin.

With her diary, Rönnog Seaberg aims to show an alternative way of life in which the private and the political are united in a new kind of nuclear family. Agneta Klingspor, on the other hand, ends her novel Inte skära bara rispa (1977; Don’t Cut, Just Scrape) by stating that she has not yet found the means to live harmoniously with husband, career, and commitment to society. She discards love based on the opinion that society forces women to choose an either-or life. The existence she seeks, encompassing both love and an active involvement in the outside world, is still an impossibility. Her diary is almost completely devoid of the everyday monotony that permeates Hemlig dagbok. Agneta Klingspor depicts emotional highs and lows, but nothing in between. The novel carries the subtitle “A Woman’s Diary 1962-76” and Klingspor’s ambition is to document her own development with regards to family relations and love relationships from puberty to the age of thirty. In the preface to the second edition, she expounds the necessity of sharing our private lives with each other so that we may see what we have in common and what is conditioned by society.

Both Hemlig dagbok and Inte skära bara rispa make claims to authenticity. In her preface, Rönnog Seaberg describes how she has had to fight for time in which to write. She is said to have written most of the diary in bed, while translation from English took place at the dinner table at night when the children were in bed. Agneta Klingspor claims that Inte skära bara rispa consists of unedited excerpts from her real diary. The novel ends with a dream: the protagonist, alone and abandoned in the wilderness, meets another woman. They light a fire and sit on a log and speak with one another. Whereas Seaberg finds that the solution for women is a more open nuclear family, Klingspor speaks of sisterhood and living alone while waiting for real love to become possible: a love that does not diminish people, but helps them live a full life.

Agneta Klingspor’s example is Anaïs Nin, whose diaries were published in Swedish between 1975 and 1983. Nin layers carefully detailed descriptions of her life with dreams of an utopian existence in which woman, man, and child are united in creativity and love. Her sprinklings of dreams, and the idea of the night-self that carries the seed of the creative human within, are also found in Klingspor, who lets part of her action be accompanied by reproduced dream images.

Ruta, Marja: Untitled. Print.

Agneta Klingspor’s novel is characteristic of the way sexuality is used to emancipate. Sexuality is what many writers use as a replacement for old-fashioned metaphors of love. It stands for life, joy, and development as opposed to the waiting, longing, and pleasing of love. Several of the female characters break out and seek new sexual experiences. Through living out their sexuality, they attempt to liberate themselves from the role of being objects and instead take action as subjects. However, in most cases this approach turns out to be a chimera, and sexuality is finally shown to be yet another route of escape in the sense that consuming the other replaces fellowship and dialogue. Neither for Agneta Klingspor nor for Kerstin Thorvall do the new sexual experiences lead to anything other than renewed break-ups. This is painted even more darkly by Anne-Marie Berglund (born 1952), who in several short stories depicts women who seek affirmation through a destructive, often violent, sexuality. This is clearly shown in the collection En ödets gunstling (1980; Favoured by Fate), whose female characters either let events pass them by because they are busy plotting a perfect image of those same events in their minds, or chase an obsession – yet another chimera that devours existence. The modern female ego seems petrified and caught in a state of paralysis that ecstasy can certainly nudge, but never change.

Anne-Marie Berglund’s women could have been plucked from old narratives of the bewitched woman. She who willingly goes to the mountain king’s hold and knocks on his gate, driven by an unknown force. Either she disappears for ever into the mountain or else she is seen carrying out her usual chores, but slowly, as if asleep, while the life force seeps out of her.

In her novels Enel Melberg (born 1943) connects women’s attempts to rebel against existing family and relationship patterns with myths and forgotten women’s lore. Several of her novels – Modershjärtat (1977; The Mother’s Heart), Medeas systrar (1978; Medea’s Sisters), Nyckelpiga flyg (1980; Ladybird Fly), and Månbrunnen (1981; Moon Well) – discuss whether love relationships can remain alive. In the works of Enel Melberg, men and women have completely different solutions for preserving love. Men recommend infidelity as a way of confirming that partners in a relationship do not own each other but must allow each other to develop freely. Women take to conversation and writing. They write about their feelings and hopes for dialogue with the men. “Diary from a twosomeness with a utopian ideal”, the last part of Modershjärtat, depicts a serious attempt at building a functioning relationship, but it also exhibits the same contrast between man and woman. A pervading theme in the work of Enel Melberg is how men use sexuality to enhance their own freedom, while also using it to confine that of women.

Enel Melberg, too, claims to document her own story and to write her own life. She uses the experiences of her paternal and maternal grandmothers as backdrop to the descriptions of her own upbringing and development. Technically, she layers various episodes with myths and tales that break the overarching narrative. Modershjärtat contains inlaid dialogues between the ‘narrator’ and her ‘feminist sister’, who comment on what has been written. Not only do the myths serve to break the narrative, for Enel Melberg the basic idea is that women have forgotten old lore and must learn it anew. Artemis – the moon goddess, goddess of the hunt, the virgin goddess – is the figure who, alongside the witch, will hand women back their power.

Enel Melberg’s view of writing is connected to the mythical image she presents of woman. Writing is an ancient force that is given to women so that they may depict female reality. In a survey about what the young prose attempts in Bonniers Litterära Magasin in 1979, she describes how writing, for her, is about both seeking inside herself and in the world outside. Inwards towards the source and outside herself, towards those who are not yet “at the mouth of the cave”. Writing is an opportunity not only to point to old lore but also to undermine the male language that creates the norm. Thus writing for her becomes a persistent, subterranean, subversive work targeting the normative.

The Female Bildungsroman

The development motif is often written into the confessional novel, but the 1970s also see the publication of pure Bildungsromans. Where the writers of the confessional novel write their lives according to the naturalist motto of reality seen through a temperament, the Bildungsroman tells the story of someone else, and thus of everyone else according to the program of classical realism. The purpose in both cases is to help the modern woman find an object of identification. The Bildungsroman has a therapeutic function just like the confessional novel. The protagonist is a woman in crisis who works her way through it, reaches insight, and continues on to greater freedom and a richer life. Some of the novels focus on the socialising process, along the lines of Simone de Beauvoir’s theory that you are not born as a woman, you are turned into one. The crisis in these novels is about the fight to grow up to be an independently thinking individual.

Many of the novels have a similar pattern: through marriage, giving birth, and an existence as stay-at-home housewife the protagonists approach the final darkness consisting of infidelity and divorce or some other and similarly significant occurrence. Then the protagonist rises to a brighter life through her own work, financial independence, and dissociation from previous roles. The liberation from the nuclear family, either through divorce or through new relationships, is described almost as a voyage of initiation. Marriage is seen as a metaphor for imprisonment and oppression, but divorce does not always have to be formalised for it to have a cathartic effect. In many cases it is enough to gain insight into the mutual oppression that traditional marriage is built upon. In Ta dej en slav (1975; Get Yourself a Slave), Margareta Sarri (born 1944) depicts how the protagonist grows as a person when her husband decides to divorce her. By the end of the novel the two move back together again, but now on a new basis. They have both discovered how demanding the traditional gender roles are, and decide instead to live together as equals. Mutual oppression recurs in almost all these novels. An oppressed group in society will try to regain power in various ways, and the oppressor will suffer for his oppression. The woman fights with irony and orderliness as her weapons, the man with booze and fisticuffs.

In 1974, 26,800 Swedish couples divorced. In comparison, the number of divorces in 1955 was 10,300.

Barbro Myrberg’s (born 1933) novel Karin (1976; Karin) does not end in formalised divorce, either. Her protagonist breaks free from her home-maker life in which she is mostly not needed. The children are about to leave home and the husband is busy with his career. Through accidental participation in a women’s rights protest, Karin begins to question her life, and with help from her daughter she tries to change both her behaviour and her conditions.

In the work of Kerstin Thorvall, divorce is throughout depicted as the beginning of the female protagonist’s liberation. This is when she finally gets a day-care place and the possibility of working without feelings of guilt. Inger Alfvén (born 1940) also has divorce as a liberation in Arvedelen (1981; Inheritance), where the youngest woman in this family chronicle breaks loose from her oppressor of a husband and gets the opportunity to create on her own conditions, different from the generations before her. The development of one of Alfvén’s protagonists in Städpatrullen (1976; The Cleaning Patrol) is typical for the time. Starting out as a home-maker in a steadily cooling marriage, her situation is changed when the husband’s infidelity prompts her to start working outside the home. Through her professional life and the fellowship with other women she develops into an adult woman who can be responsible for others. By the end of the novel she and the husband have decided they will continue their marriage and counter the strictures of the nuclear family by taking in foster-children.

After breaking with the husband comes the reckoning with the mother, who is seen as the representative of everything that must be left behind. Often, there is an identification with the father who gets to represent fantasy and playfulness, while the mother is distanced. Eventually, the once-despised historic women’s lore is rediscovered, and rapprochement with the mother becomes possible from a new standpoint.

The mother images are painted in shades of black, and Kerstin Thorvall’s black-as-night portrait of a woman with a cleaning mania represents the darkest. Margareta Sarri’s mother portrait is also without mitigating circumstances, but otherwise the rule is that in spite of all, fellowship with the mother is shown. Anna-Lisa Bäckman (born 1941) lets Fia in the novels Fia i folkhemmet (1974; Fia in the Swedish Welfare State) and Fia med manifestet (1975; Fia with the Manifesto) at first despise and then gradually acknowledge her historical ties to the women of her family. In Inger Alfvén’s Dotter till en dotter (1977; Daughter of a Daughter), the theme is unfolded in a near exemplary manner. The very title places the novel’s protagonist in a historic context. By speaking to the daughter-to-be, she also comes to terms with her own role as daughter, just like her mother in the novel comes to terms with her own mother. When she finally dares to show her anger towards her mother, she can move on and reject the traditional woman’s role. By the end of the novel she is building an open and caring life with a man.

Often this return to the mother implies an idyllic view of the traditionally female virtues that the novels are opposing. While the female protagonists liberate themselves and become financially independent, they care about the small things in life and hold the traditional women’s values high, which often makes the depiction of them feel rather ambiguous.

Nilsson, Vera: Miriam Makeba synger i Stockholm, 1966.

The upbringing to submission that girls are put through is depicted alongside the rebellions against husband, marriage, and mother. The insight that good girls are un-free girls permeates the novels. The struggle against the normative pattern is strongest in those novels in which the protagonists are younger girls. Among these are Inger Alfvén’s Lena Bell (1971; Lena Bell), Barbro Backberger’s (born 1932) Inga träd växer in i himlen (1977; No Trees Grow to the Sky), and Ingrid Sjöstrand’s (born 1922) Törnrosatrilogi (1985-1990; Sleeping Beauty Trilogy).

Backberger makes the story of Cilla’s upbringing in 1930s Gothenburg into a classic childhood story of a young girl who rises out of her social environment. She is clumsy and frightened, unlike her younger sister, but good at writing and telling stories. Those skills become her way out of an existence dominated by her mother’s anger and the bullying of her comrades. The more she dares to show her ‘other’ side the braver she becomes. Early on, she realises that there is no point in waiting for Prince Charming. Even if he shows up, he is going to want to sit in front and hold the reins. Better to ride off alone. Which is what she does in the final scene when she sits on the train going away and feels that all borders lie open to her. The scene is familiar from the Bildungsromans of the twentieth century, whether the protagonist is male or female. Personal talent and strength become the ticket to a greater world, and the climb up the social ladder can begin.

Cilla’s mother is depicted as a dark twin. She sinks deeper into a depression that expresses itself in violent sallies against her children. She gives birth to four daughters and toils to make everything work out, while the husband buys expensive presents for money they do not have. The novel is narrated from Cilla’s point of view, which means that the mother’s situation is mostly shown through practical details: each new child means less space on the floor because of the beds needed, and when Cilla takes a fall it means holed stockings – which mother must mend.

Ingrid Sjöstrand’s Törnrosatrilogi ends more than a decade after the 1970s and can be seen as a summation of the Bildungsromans of that decade. Sjöstrand follows a group of young girls from primary school to old age. The dream of love and insights about stifling twosomeness, battle and reunion with the mother, and the hope that the next generation will manage to live in equality and break the power of their upbringing are all depicted differently for the different characters in the books. Bringing children up to obedience, and the consequences for each individual and for society, is the basic theme of the trilogy. Ingrid Sjöstrand is not particularly optimistic. For most of her girls things work out less well: for the quiet Allis, abused Ann, over-protected Cecilia, bright Ran, fat Märta, rich Lilian, tall Louise, and angry Varja (literally Everywoman) – who was really called Birgit.

In the last part of the trilogy, Ingrid Sjöstrand raises the weight of old knowledge and coexistence when she places Varja in Africa as an aid worker. Through contact with the people in a small African village, she realises how far people are from each other in Sweden. For the women of Törnrosatrilogin the hope for the next generation and their own friendships are things of permanence. Throughout their lives these women support each other, are occasionally consumed by men, but always return. In spite of everything the trilogy ends with cautious optimism: Varja has abandoned black and begun to paint in colour again. And she is no longer afraid!

1975 was proclaimed International Woman’s Year by the UN. Förstamajboken (The First of May Book) that year was called Kvinnobilder (1975; Images of Women) and was published by Grupp 8, Svenska Kvinnors Vänsterförbund, and Ordfront. It was sold at May First demonstrations all over Sweden, and among other things contained the story of “Jonas Mellgren’s Widow”, born in 1842, the same year as general education. Her grandchild asks why she, who raised a large flock of children, is only mentioned as the widow of Jonas Mellgren, yeoman farmer, both in parish registers and on tax rolls. She was never mentioned as Stina Marta Mattsdotter. A goal for woman writers in the 1970s had been to give a voice to women – both to their own self in the confessional novels and to the still silent women in the Bildungsromans. They wanted to show strong examples and create a modern contingency literature, the result of which would be reflected in society. At least the Stina Marta Mattsdotters of the present day would be known by their own names.

Translated by Marthe Seiden