In 1937 Tove Ditlevsen first had a poem published. The poem can be read as an allegory of her writing career, which was to produce one of the most significant bodies of work written by a woman in the Danish post-war period. Underneath the extremely simple surface, the poem anticipates recurring themes such as female identity, memory, and creativity. Loss of childhood, and especially of the symbiotic relationship to the mother, is the foundation of Tove Ditlevsen’s melancholy poetics.Her writing is one long memory process, first in the form of fiction, but gradually also in essays with an autobiographical reference point and in essayistic fragments of memory, until she published her autobiographical works proper. Once the autobiographical material had been exhausted and all the key characters in her childhood universe – her mother, her father, and her brother – were dead and her husband had left her, Tove Ditlevsen ended her life as she had presaged.
Sweden was the first among the Nordic countries to allow women access to a university education. Female students ostensibly lived under the same conditions as their male counterparts: they shared ideas, instructors, visions of the future. In reality their situations could not have been more at odds. Men were the beneficiaries of longstanding traditions and the innate right to public support. Like extraterrestrial creatures, women found themselves in an alien world. Women asked themselves whether they should try to blend in and focus on what they had in common with men or accentuate their own special qualities. In the 1880s and early 1890s, any term or concept suggesting that they somehow deviated from the norm was scrupulously avoided. Just before the turn of the century, they switched strategy, placing ‘femininity’ in the spotlight and adding the notion of ‘difference’ to their repertoire. The tide turned in 1896, the year Ellen Key published Missbrukad kvinnokraft (Misused Female Power). Demands for emancipation and equal opportunity were supplanted by the concept that women should enrich society and culture with their unique qualities. Love and emotional liberation took centre stage. Women acquired a fresh sense of dignity, as well as new responsibilities, by virtue of their gender. And the women academics of the time did not remain unaffected.
Ingeborg Stuckenberg saw Johannes Jørgensen’s, Helge Rode’s, and Viggo Stuckenberg’s renouncement of the Modern Breakthrough as a betrayal of everything they had believed in and fought for. She had inspired, critiqued, composed music for her friends’ poems, and written texts for her husband’s literary output. And yet she had no opportunity for countering their deceit. No, she would not be muse, not priestess, not Valkyrie for others – she would be her own soldier.She saw no prospect of being this in turn-of-the-century Denmark. In the spring of 1903, she left everything behind, went to Bremen, and boarded an emigrant ship bound for New Zealand. The following year, on 12 August 1904, she committed suicide, thirty-eight years old.
Icelandic writer Ásta Sigurðardóttir had a fondness for self-presentation that took her contemporaries’ breath away. All her short stories reflect a tension between, on the one hand, the longing for normality, security, and bourgeois acceptance and, on the other hand, rebellion, a need for freedom, and a deep-seated rejection of bourgeois values.She loved to perform, but no-one else should write her roles for her. Journeying is a recurrent motif in Ásta Sigurðardóttir’s texts, and her characters are alone, in both a physical and an existential sense. Her late texts lack the intensity that characterised her first short stories. The pride, the self-assertion, the queenly arrogance are gone. The gaze is dull, self-hatred is dominant. There is no longer anything worth describing.
Adda Ravnkilde’s slender body of work stands out in the topography of women’s literature as a landmark of ‘something good and important’ – and also of fictionalisation and randomisation. Her life and work manifest a concentration of the optimistic urge towards breaking through, reaching that which is real – the real speech, the true personality.Adda Ravnkilde was equipped with antennas that were able to pick up these zeitgeist signals, and this was probably for the most part because she was an outsider; unprepared as she was for modern city life, modernity hit her as a sexual bewilderment. Opposites merged in her body and writing: the provinces versus the city, purposefulness versus chance, realism versus Romanticism.She took her own life at the age of twenty-one, but before that she had managed to experience thwarted desire, departure from the paternal home, and an artistic breakthrough. The latter, however, she did not live to see; her works were not published until a year after her death.
Although Swedish writer Victoria Benedictsson is uncompromising in her repudiation of the advocates of ‘free love’, she is herself a true Modern Breakthrough author. She does not shy away from addressing the most forbidden issues. It is not the ideas of the time but the conditions of the body in the new morality that increasingly becomes her great theme. The body becomes her instrument and artistic barometer, and she minutely registers its signals. The experiment is risky and requires her to aim at the foremost advocate of the Modern Breakthrough in Denmark, Georg Brandes. Stora boken (The Big Book), her posthumously published diary, details the fateful encounter. Victoria Benedictsson takes one step further than her female colleagues when she points out the price to be paid for the period’s ‘free love’, namely the obliteration of female desire and the destruction of the female body. In her zeal for truth, as a ‘modern’ author, she overlooks the patriarchal resistance. Stora boken is a unique documentation of the historical moment when the female object becomes a subject and, threatened with extermination, begins to speak. For this insight and for this work of art, Victoria Benedictsson paid with her life.
The Swedish author Victoria Benedictsson felt like “a pariah, a mangy dog”. Before she settled on the pseudonym Ernst Ahlgren, she had long vacillated between the alternatives ‘Tardif’, the tardy, and ‘O. Twist’, the unwelcome. Her authorship is based on this conflict of identity. “I am a woman. But I am an author – am I not, then, something of a man as well?”, she wonders in 1888. Her own life was short and ended tragically.But for a period of a few years in the middle of the 1880s she was astonishingly productive. Her works spoke to the core of the morality controversy’s debate over female identity. Her intellectual vitality during this short period stands in contrast to the image of a sickly, doomed person, which has dominated her posthumous reputation.