Agnes Henningsen’s world is like a geographical and ideological map. Denmark is mirrored in Europe, Danish province in Copenhagen city, ingrained middle-class in radical bohemian; and the widely different attitudes of the times converge – social, political, religious – assembled in a hot-spot: that of love and independence, which in Agnes Henningsen’s writings are the absolute premise of female desire.She takes issue with the sanctimonious institutionalisation of love – which causes hypocrisy, martyrdom, hysteria, and furtiveness, while continually threatening any natural development of the female sexual life.
With the Modern Breakthrough in the Nordic region in the 1880s, feverish female activity could be perceived everywhere. Women joined together in national women’s societies, working doggedly and energetically to put women’s issues on the agenda of the legislative authorities in order to ensure the implementation of laws. Writing in newspapers, journals, and literary works, it was young middle-class women – well-versed in languages, conversation, and good manners – who presented issues pertaining to women’s status as a social problem.Many women writers of the Modern Breakthrough experienced the new departure in the form of personal and artistic failure. They broke their backs or their pens on the modern paradox. But the emancipation project was not abandoned. For the women who continued to write for the rest of the century, and for those who made their debut around the turn of the century, the tension between ideals and disillusion, between movement and moment, was merely put in a different form.
“Once the woman has risen,” wrote the Norwegian author Amalie Skram enthusiastically in 1880 of Henrik Ibsen’s Et Dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House), “she can no longer be stopped.” And stop – that was not on the agenda of Amalie Müller, as she was called at the time.In 1884, she married the Danish writer Erik Skram and moved with him to Copenhagen. And this is when she began writing in earnest – but she was never really akin to the Danish women of the Modern Breakthrough: her passion set her apart. While other women writers put themselves on the outside, Amalie Skram related totally to her material – with ruthless exploitation and self-exploitation. The blasé attitude versus the passionate attitude. As creative artist and woman, she was in an outsider position. Too intense for her Danish colleagues and categorically blacklisted in Norway.Amalie Skram’s stories are just as passionate studies of the depths of the mind as those of her contemporary, Freud, and her body of works thus goes beyond the Modern Breakthrough – towards the madness and knowledge of the twentieth century.
It was the capitalisation of societal economy that created a sympathetic ear to Nathalie Zahle’s ideas on education; the schools she set up over the years were pioneering in their endeavours to qualify women to meet the needs entailed by this change. It required women to be able to support themselves, to have knowledge and education.In accordance with this, women of the Modern Breakthrough constructed their novels as a process of cultivation. That this seldom succeeded, that their Bildungsromans turned into ‘breakdown’ novels, is not because they were bad writers, far from it, but because the novels reflect the twofold nature of modernity: liberation to exercise personal authority is simultaneously a setting at liberty, a loss of control.Erna Juel-Hansen, characteristically, came closest to filling the genre – of all the female Modern Breakthrough writers, she had the greatest confidence in headway being made. Her Bildungsromans are buoyed by an optimistic belief in the possibility of liberation and a will to – despite everything – project a whole female identity.
The Modern Breakthrough in Sweden