Sex, Ethics, and Emancipation

Much of the literature written by women after World War I bespoke a reaction to a new trend in sexual morality. The new age, the new woman, and the new sexuality echoed throughout its pages. With her “sex appeal” and “professional” relationship to traditional femininity, the new woman hovered around or simply crossed the line between the “good” and “bad” girl as defined by the old system of morality.Marika Stiernstedt’s prolific output reflects the temper of literature in Sweden in the first half of the twentieth century. She was a pacesetter in the 1920s. Her first twentieth-century novels examined infidelity and double standards in the spirit of Ellen Key. Relationships between women and men grew more complex in her later works.Her final work, Kring ett äktenskap (1953; About a Marriage), gives a no-holds-barred account of her infamous marriage to author Lubbe Nordström. The punctilious recital of the decline of an alcoholic and sexually ambivalent genius is unsparing in its directness. What good is freedom to the new woman if the new man turns out to be a cross between a hypocritical patriarch and a helpless child despite assurances of an egalitarian companionate marriage?

Children of Neglected Children

The Norwegian author Herbjørg Wassmo made her debut as a poet in the 1970s, and has since written both drama and documentary literature. The five great novels that came out in the 1980s and 1990s have, in all their complexity and apparent differences, one overall theme: the neglected child. However, Herbjørg Wassmo’s intention was apparently not to criticise inadequate or unloving parents nor to castigate an alienating society in a modern sense. The actual conflict takes place at a deeper level.In addition to telling the story of the young and unfinished person in a complicated socialisation process, “the neglected children” represent primarily the “childhood injuries” we all carry around with us – regardless of age, time, and situation.

He Smells of Earth

In Norway of the 1910s and 1920s there was a now hidden and forgotten undergrowth of erotic poetry written by women such as Halldis Moren Vesaas, Aslaug Vaa, and Inger Hagerup. Exploration of erotic psychology and gender identity is an ongoing theme. This could indicate a feeling of alienation – but this feeling is productive in terms of the poetry, being a stance from which new female lyrical expression takes shape.The thematic tension in the poems often lies in the draw of ecstasy in a total love symbiosis and the simultaneous desire for personal independent identity. The springboard, the ideology brought by women to encounters with love, is the expectation of complete happiness, of sexual, emotional, and intellectual self-realisation. The feeling of alienation and dissonance emerges when the male opposite party does not fulfil the expectations, the tone becomes resigned or accusatory, and at times masochistic. 

The Paradoxes of Desire

L. Onerva belonged to the new generation of academically trained women, and penned more than thirty works. Her first book, Sekasointuja (1904; Jangled Harmonies), was a poetry collection, and she is most remembered for a poem that “associates joie de vivre with suffering”.As a prosaist, however, she has been called “too intelligent, too analytical” Nevertheless, she wrote the first modern Finnish novel.

Eros the Slayer

“My entire being has almost been shattered by the overwhelming power of love.” The power of love in this 11 November 1918 diary entry by Finnish author Aino Kallas was the very wellspring of her artistry.Maila Talvio’s writing found itself at the epicentre of the Nordic debate about sexual morality and was inspired by Ellen Key and others. Beneath the concept of enlightenment and liberation, however, lurks a coherent narrative of sexual fear, pessimism, and longing for death.

Finding the Way Back to the Body

While the new women’s movement in the course of the 1970s brought the reader out and made her a writer, confessor, or debater in a large-scale discourse on life as a woman and gender roles, the women and men of the 1980s literary community formulated the relationship between reader and writer in other terms. The scene changed quickly and dramatically: experience and conversation were no longer at the centre; exploration and aesthetics had supplanted them.A new professionalisation of literature took place, and the young, well-educated readers were not looking for answers or validation in literature but rather experiences, temptation, beauty, and insight. And they flocked around the young poets at the well-illuminated cafés that soon replaced the old pubs and watering holes.