When Sweden introduced universal suffrage in the 1920s, a number of established authors used the autobiographical genre to tell their story and forge their artistic identity. Largely due to well-established authors like Selma Lagerlöf, Mathilda Malling, Helena Nyblom, and Marika Stiernstedt, women’s autobiographies acquired greater literary status in the Sweden of the 1920s. The trend peaked in the 1940s and reflected both growing interest and greater feminine self-assuredness. At first glance, such works may appear to be simply margin notes – documentary evidence of their lives behind, alongside of, or prior to their art. Not unexpectedly, however, the autobiographies fully reflect the professions of their authors. They vary greatly, but what all these autobiographers had in common, however, was that they focused more on their writing than their personal lives. Of equal importance is that they furnish their readers with clear instructions for interpreting their works.
Märta Berendes’ story of her life and Christina Regina vom Birchenbaums song “Een Annor Ny wijsa” reflect the language models and interpretive patterns of the times. The texts are examples of the many independent and resilient seventeenth-century women, brought up in an era of numerous wars and obliged to take care of family and property.
When the Danish clergyman’s wife Eline Boisen died in 1871, she left forty-seven closely-written exercise books, more than one thousand pages of memoirs. She wrote because she could not not write and she wrote from huge bitterness and anger, wrote herself out of her isolation and loneliness. She wrote in order to find an identity in a strange world.There is no overarching structure to the memoirs apart from the purely chronological. The act of writing was of a clearly therapeutic nature. The memoirs as a whole undergo a clear shift from life instinct to death drive, and in a paradoxical way the death scenes seem to be the highlights, written with great beauty, sensuality, and drama. Most memoirists start writing about their lives in their old age, and looking back on the course of their life, they often see it at a distance. Eline Boisen, on the other hand, was midway through her life when she began writing; she focused on the most painful aspects and wrote almost up until the day she died.
The ideal of womanhood, as described in the eighteenth-century moral tales and bourgeois stage comedies, was not hushed and inarticulate. But it became so. For many women writers of the period, putting pen to paper seems to have been a welcome opportunity to break the silence that had descended on women’s lives in the first half of the nineteenth century – a rhetoric of silence.Novels and stories written by Nordic women in the mid-1800s often give a quiet, powerful female figure a central position in the gallery of characters. The good womanliness was hushed and self-sacrificing; but the women who began to speak and write also saw themselves as good women and envisaged that their voice and action could be the ideal, that the camp of the mute had something to say that could be of benefit to the nation and to human society.
Professor J. S. Sneedorff highlighted the Danish translation of German author Margaretha Klopstock’s Briefe von Verstorbenen an Lebendige (Letters from the Dead to the Living) as an example of the modern national language he wished to promote.One reason for the eighteenth-century’s growing interest in women writers, and particularly letter-writers whether new or old, well-known or less well-known, was that women wrote in the national language and could thus be used as illustrations of practical usage in the occasionally highly abstract debate about what the national language ought to be. Moreover, women were not rigorously schooled in the Latin tradition of scholarship – the confinement from which liberation was sought.
Our archives contain surviving sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish friendship albums. It is as a source of information about acquaintances and friends, the circles in which the owner of the book at any given dated entry moved, that the friendship albums are of greatest interest. The poetry quotations and the maxims also reflect the cultural history and ideals of the times.The friendship albums and family history books might also manifest a pattern clearly indicating some gender differences. The seventeenth-century friendship albums primarily reflect the men’s travels, their journeys out into a Europe of scholarship and warfare. The women focus on genealogy, parents, husband, siblings, and children. They reflect life and death in their own family, the network that ties them to the past and to the future, and in which they themselves, through their children, or their childlessness, constitute an important unifying junction.
“Gynaeceum” is Greek and means ‘women’s chamber’. In the Renaissance the word was used as a genre designation for a literary historical category: a catalogue of women who were notable by virtue of their writings or some other form of artistic or intellectual activity.The gynaecea typically had a systematic or alphabetic structure, making them suitable as reference works. By looking up a famous woman’s name, the reader is introduced to her family via a few laudatory adjectives and her own intellectual achievements. The information is often kept brief.The Nordic region has an excellent collection of home-grown gynaecea. The genre is particularly well represented in Denmark. This small collection of Swedish biographies, and the quite numerous Danish and Norwegian biographies included in the Danish gynaecea, makes for a picture of active artistic and intellectual circles of women in these Nordic countries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And we can only presume that the same could be said of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Finland. And that there were women in the Nordic region who considered themselves members of the European ‘club’ of cultured women.
Herrnhutism arrived in Sweden in the 1720s. The Stockholm Herrnhut community, which still exists today, has preserved autobiographies written in the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth century. Of these, thirty-six were written by Swedish women; the earliest dates from 1761, the latest from 1810-20. By and large, most of the female autobiographies were written between 1760 and 1790, after which the numbers fall off. The women come from all social strata; we have aristocrats and servant girls, bourgeoisie and beggars. Their autobiographies often exhibit the features that can be described as Augustinian: the women seek God in their inner being, primarily in emotion, in normal psychological processes (dreams, strong feelings). Furthermore, they have mystic features: the women abandon themselves to inner meditations on the cross and to erotically-charged meetings with Christ; they know that the depths of the soul contain the spark that makes these meetings and experiences possible.