Never the same again

Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria in Sweden.


By Anna Williams, professor of comparative literature at Uppsala University

A lance for passion in reading – thus can the purpose of Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria be summed up according to Ebba Witt-Brattström in the newspaper Expressen (21 April 1993) just before publication of the first volume. By the time the project reached its conclusion in 2000, it had achieved fantastic success among the ranks of Swedish reviewers. A splendid publication both in form and in content was the general consensus. The positive response was also underpinned by a lack of any dramatic scholarly controversy. That is not to say there was no critical scrutiny. A good number of objections and questions were raised, but they had the constructive outcome that key issues of genre, canon, and evaluation were once again put in focus.

Two overarching trends can be distinguished in the host of articles. Firstly, the reviewers are on the whole in agreement as to certain general merits. The Nordic approach is praised, as is the ambition to take into account the importance of the material, legal, and social circumstances in which women’s writing took place. The innovative approach as regards genres and epochs brings with it new understanding and new patterns of explanation: “Instead of attempting to unravel the yarn of the old straitjacket and re-knit it to a lady’s size, they resolutely threw out all discussion of epochs and more or less ‘important’ writers,” Annelie Bränström Öhman sums up in Västerbottens-Kuriren (3 April 1997).

Secondly, the same phenomenon is often treated to both appreciative and negative response. One reviewer – Gabriella Håkansson in Sydsvenska Dagbladet (12 February 1997) – sees the greatest weakness, for example, as that of gender being the governing norm, while another – Carina Waern in Dagens Nyheter (23 December 1997) – is happy that the writers are not primarily treated as women but as “text workers”. Many reviewers see the broad outline drawn up in the first volume, while others consider the overall literary historiography to be obscured by the diversity of individual contributions.

Most attention was devoted to the first two volumes – I Guds namn 1000-1800 (In God’s Name) and Fadershuset 1800-1900 (House of the Father) – which were generously reviewed in national and local newspapers as well as in cultural and literary journals. Having initially been in a small majority, the number of male reviewers dropped radically upon publication of volumes two, three, and four: only the occasional review was now written by a man. Furthermore, comments from established literary scholars became fewer volume by volume.


The first volume received by far the most positive response, and was praised for its essayist, engaging style, its elegant lay-out and the effective interplay between word and illustration – two examples of this, from the national broadsheets, are Immi Lundin’s review in Sydsvenska Dagbladet (6 June 1993) and Merete Mazzarella’s in Dagens Nyheter (6 May 1993). The book is well written and fascinating, according to Thomas Götselius in Östgöta Correspondenten (8 June 1993). He is pleased to see the “combination of inquisitiveness, scholarly care, and openness to new and unexpected connections” and states that scholarship has now moved away from the impossible idea of a single compendium covering a self-evident canon. Tomas Forser in Göteborgs-Posten (18 July 1993) is on the whole favourable – the project combines “ideological ambitions, historical depiction, and aesthetic evaluation” – but he thinks it misleads by undervaluing aesthetic analysis in relation to the gender perspective. It is considered a positive trait that the work is not dictated by a common theoretical basis, but is attentive to each text and its historical context. In the journal Vår lösen (7/1993) Ying Toijer-Nilsson points out that the project supplies Sweden with valuable learning vis-à-vis Nordic literature, which is no longer provided by higher education courses.

A few reviewers assume a slightly ironic or teasing tone, partly in response to the critique of the male tradition of scholarship. Björn Nilsson writes in Expressen (14 May 1993): “The value of this introductory volume is not found in the individual texts, but in the connections that not even a male blockhead can avoid spotting eventually.” In Svenska Dagbladet (17 May 1993) Lars Lönnroth strikes out at what he describes as a touch of feminist fanaticism: “That women should have their own literary history at any price has lately become a commonplace doctrine, energetically proclaimed in the media by many a feminist preacher with fire in her throat and murder in her eyes.” Lönnroth asks himself if a compendium dealing exclusively with women writers is necessary, and admits to having had low expectations of the project. He answers the question with a positive assessment of the first volume, and in particular of the sections that embed the texts in their socio-historical context.

Lars Lönnroth’s review gave rise to a brief debate in the newspaper (26 May), with Elisabeth Møller Jensen, chief editor of Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria, challenging the condescending tone she hears: “Well what about that – women academics are capable of carrying out research! Extraordinary! Or, let us enjoy Lönnroth’s formulation one more time: ‘Scholarship has fortunately triumphed over the programmatic sisterhood.’” In his response, Lönnroth objects to the attitude that in his opinion colours Møller Jensen’s stance, that “evidently the entire staff of male professors [must] turn out in sackcloth and ashes, own up to their fundamental male-chauvinist wretchedness and rejoice over every single female colleague”.

The discussion also stemmed from the dispute triggered by publication of Den svenska litteraturen (1987–1990; Swedish Literature), edited by Lars Lönnroth and Sven Delblanc. Ebba Witt-Brattström claimed that women writers had been allotted barely a tenth of the space in this seven-volume compendium. The allegation was contested by the editors, but quickly took hold in the public mind. It was repeated without comment in a number of reviews of Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria.

Criticism of the first volume dealt with the lack of previous scholarship on which to base the account, the risk of a short lifespan and a lack of historical awareness. In Dagens Nyheter (6 May 1993) Magnus von Platen asks why contemporary female scholars have not yet published books about the major writers (Brenner, Nordenflycht, Queen Kristina). Anders Mortensen, in Sydsvenska Dagbladet (6 June 1993), predicts a long life for the project, with the exception of the gender perspectives, which would swiftly become irrelevant, and in the journal Signum (7/1993) Astrid Söderbergh Widding points out that the medieval writers are viewed anachronistically from a Romantic perception of the creative artist.

When Fadershuset, about the nineteenth century, was published opinions were more heterogeneous. They were still very positive – there was already talk of “playing with the hallmark of indispensability”, writes Thomas Götselius in Östgöta Correspondenten (18 November 1993) – but the problems facing a project with so many angles of approach and pushing-the-boundaries perspectives now seem to be clearer. Tomas Forser in Göteborgs-Posten (21 December 1993) finds an unfortunate disproportion in the large numbers of commentaries on less renowned writing careers, “a Who’s Who of women’s literature”. On the other hand, some are not disturbed by the mixture of quality and quantity (for example, Lennart Bromander in Arbetet, 15 January 1994, and Madeleine Gustafsson in Dagens Nyheter, 18 November 1993), but choose to point out the women’s multifaceted struggle for a literary identity. Boel Söderberg in Nerikes Allehanda (18 November 1993) misses coverage of women’s contribution to educational texts and children’s literature. In Nordisk tidskrift (3/1994) Eva Pohl regrets the absence of male contributors – who could have attracted male readers. Stina Hansson, in Bonniers Litterära Magasin (5/1993), discusses the problem of writing a literary history with women as the principal characters, since their historically fixed predicament fades into the background. This was clear in the first volume, whereas the second volume works better given that it covers a shorter timespan and allows space for more points of view.

A testimony to the new orientation of contemporary research is given by Toril Moi’s objection to the heterosexual norm – it is difficult to imagine such a critique just a decade earlier: “If Faderhuset is right, nineteenth-century Nordic culture was solidly heterosexual,” she concludes in Expressen (17 December 1993).

The reviewers now increasingly identify a lack of broad outlines, a criticism that becomes even clearer on publication of the fourth volume, covering the second half of the twentieth century. The broader view vanishes in biographies and summaries of work, and it also seems that the problems undoubtedly inherent in the coordination and delivery of such an extensive and multilateral project are becoming apparent. Many commentators, however, point out the new picture of the 1800s that emerges – both in respect of how the scholars and the writers perceive the reality and the literature.

Response to volume three, Vida världen (Wide World), covering the first half of the twentieth century, clearly indicates the polarisation that characterises the overall reaction, the incidence of contradictory opinions about one and the same matter. Marie Jacobsson in Östgöta Correspondenten (3 January 1997) praises the theoretical awareness, while others think that the thematic choice of putting desire centre stage gives the impression of “theoretical correctness”, and risks making the project academically bound to its time and the depiction of the oeuvres reductionist – this being the opinion of, for example, Maria Bergom Larsson in Aftonbladet (7 March) and Eva Ström in Sydsvenska Dagbladet (11 May 1997).

The women should have been put in a clearer context: this is, after all, the period when “woman’s political self” was shaped, writes Nina Björk in Dagens Nyheter (23 January 1997). She identifies the main thread running through the volume as “self, desire, and politics”. What other reviewers highlight as a strength, is for Nina Björk a weakness, namely that literature is to an excessive degree washed clean of life. In her view, the issue of evaluation does not receive enough attention: how can literature be assessed from a feminist perspective? Her question leads directly into the discussion of canon and is therefore highly relevant. And indeed, one significant consequence of Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria was that the intimate coupling of canon and evaluation was brought to the fore and precipitated a valuable scholarly dialogue.

Where Nina Björk sees a main thread, Annelie Bränström Öhman in Västerbottens-Kuriren (3 April 1997) sees a conscious culture of headlining that points up a non-existent synthesis. Where Bränström Öhman, on the other hand, sees a Parnassus for the canonised writers, Sigrid Combüchen in Expressen (22 December 1996) and Eva Ström in Sydsvenska Dagbladet (11 May 1997) see a generous manoeuvre to make room for those previously marginalised.

Most critical is Eva Ström. She challenges the idea of a unifying line of development for women writers, which she thinks colours the entire project, and she calls for illustration of “the myths and mentalities that lead to the continued marginalisation of women’s artistic creations”. Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria’s focus on one gender, where dialogue with men is eliminated, is in her opinion “a falsification of reality”.

The call for broad outlines increases in intensity with publication of the fourth volume, På Jorden (On Earth) covering the period 1960–1990: fewer and deeper portraits of writers would have given the project greater homogeneity. Concentration on textual analysis in the first half of the fourth volume reduces the multifarious literary works to a uniform narrative about gender, crises, and body, cut off from society and literary history, even though the perspective is gradually expanded – this is Gabriella Håkansson’s characterisation in Sydsvenska Dagbladet (12 February 1997). There is now more criticism of the paucity of space afforded specific genres that were highly topical in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially literature for children and young people, writing for the theatre, journalism, and essays.

Lars Lönnroth sums up the significance of the project in Expressen (24 November 1997). Not only has it rendered visible the writers, their traditions and qualified contributions to literary history, it has also shaped a mode of scholarly collaboration that has influenced the hierarchies of the academic world. The flipside to this is the levelling out that, in Lönnroth’s opinion, leads to language, writers, and authors being placed without differentiation on an equal footing, which causes confusion and distorted proportions.


Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie attracted considerable attention in Sweden, albeit the quantity of interest fell away after publication of the first two volumes. One measure of its academic impact is Maria Karlsson’s summary of response to the project in Denmark and Sweden, which was already prepared and published in 1998 in Tidskrift för litteraturvetenskap (issues 3/4).

An important result of the studies made in Sweden is the focus put on vital issues of scholarship. One general question refers to the balance between aesthetic and historical evaluation. How to weight the balance between, on the one hand, writers whose work unquestionably belongs in the literary canon and, on the other hand, the inclusion of information about less distinguished careers and literary works that might well be important or representative from other perspectives? Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria provoked questions of a theoretical and methodological nature, which will also be relevant to literary historiographers of the future. The often contradictory nature of response to the project is consistent with the expanding pluralism that has characterised the discipline in recent decades, and even with the dominance of interpretation over the literary-historical causal explanation.

The reviews have no difficulty in agreeing about the innovative and exciting aspect of Nordic collaboration. Henceforth, “literary history will never be the same”, asserts Åsa Arping in Barometern (8 January 1998). Difficulties in creating unity and congruity are, of course, noted, and occasionally it is up to the reader to find the connection between the Nordic writers and their works. But, overall, this daring approach impresses – in terms of scholarship, aesthetics, and the practicalities of the project. There is also agreement that the future ideal compendium will involve women and men. In spite of everything, Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria has played its part in constructing the parameters for such a venture, on new terms.