The Danish author Karen Blixen’s writing career came late and against a backdrop of heavy personal losses: financial problems forced her to abandon the coffee farm in Kenya, and the great love of her life, Denys Finch-Hatton, died in a plane crash. The losses are not just something linked to personal biography. In her re-workings, they grow into manifestation of a modern experience of loss of worth, a divided mind, and emptiness.Although Karen Blixen’s losses were profound and concrete, her realisation of life was also extraordinary and rich. This combination makes for a conflict that prompts her to go behind the tradition of realism and back to a narrative tradition stemming from the Arabian Nights, from Boccaccio, and from Cervantes’s stories in Don Quixote (1605 and 1615). A tradition which she combines with the eighteenth-century philosophical novels that have a narrator who deliberately plays with illusion and story, as we see in, for example, Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1796; Jacques the Fatalist and his Master). Furthermore, she finds inspiration in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales with their compressed accounts of human psychology and transformation.Alongside the general atmosphere of loss and interruption and distorted human relations, the characters have an incentive in the question of where and how humankind can find hope.
After she liberates herself from the inspiration from Herman Bang and from her husband’s ‘guardianship’, the author Karin Michaëlis finds the combination of epistolary and diary novel that she would go on to develop into her sphere of excellence. She becomes famous, and much in demand for public lectures. With the outbreak of the First World War, however, Karin Michaëlis simply had to reach for her journalist’s pen. As reporter, she makes no secret of her contempt for war, and calls attention to the enormous human costs.As a reporter, she carefully chooses her figurative language, and can for once give free rein to the pathos which, in her fiction, must constantly be held in check. She consigned the myth of the good mother to the grave. The portraits of real-life damaged women and the visions showing children as levers for a new world are rooted in the indignant pathos that was the weakness at the beginning of her writing career, but which later became its strength.
Sigrid Undset’s writing career spans forty years and thirty titles, mainly short stories, novels, biographies, and essays. The crowning achievement being her major novels on the medieval characters Kristin Lavransdatter and Olav Audunssøn, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She was a dominant figure in the Norwegian literary milieu throughout the period between the World Wars, and in 1935 she was appointed chair of the Norwegian Society of Authors. She wrote numerous newspaper articles and essays drawing attention to the danger of the mushrooming fascism, and when Germany occupied Norway in 1940 she had to flee to the United States.Her writing investigates the condition of being a woman, particularly the terms on which a modern woman was expected to live her life and the options she had for creating meaning and substance to her existence. Her pen is motivated by the belief in a human ability to improve and update fundamental conditions of life. Also, there is a strong sense of the need to see the individual human life as part of a greater whole – a coherence that Sigrid Undset found when she converted to Catholicism in 1924.Her texts are never one-dimensional. Now and then she could be chastising, both in her writing and in her private activities. But she was only condemnatory where she saw her fundamental humanist values being trampled underfoot.
Súsanna Helena Patursson one of a number of women writers in the national movement. She wrote the first Faroese theatre play, Veðurføst (Layover Because of Bad Weather), which was performed in 1889. She encouraged women to participate in the public discussion forum, to get an education, and she instructed them as to how house and home should be organised. She edited and published the first Faroese women’s magazine, Oyggjarnar (1905-08; The Islands), making housekeeping, interior design, and cooking recipes a national and political issue.Among Paturssons female successors may be counted women such as Billa Hansen, Andrea Reinert, and Maria Mikkelsen. While these women travelled out into the world in order to learn, get ideas and, not least, experience, Johanna Maria Skylv Hansen’s writing took her back to the old rural community.
The few Icelandic women writers to appear around the turn of the twentieth century travel from the countryside to Reykjavík. But it is not contemporary Iceland that frames, in their literary works, their depiction of Icelandic women’s struggles of the modern age.They choose the past as a time frame, the journey back to the patriarchal farming community from which the contemporary identity conflicts and attempted exoduses spring. From this perspective, they thematise the conflicts between duty and freedom and the ambivalence concerning women’s new liberation.
When the Danish author Magdalene Thoresen let Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson publish her first book Digte af en Dame (Poems by a Lady) the ‘women’s question’ had long been a topic of political debate and a literary theme. Her oeuvre, which would soon prove to be one of the most extensive and significant of the period, addressed the issue in its own particular larger-than-life way, blending some of the most patriarchal notions of Romanticism with aspects of the new cultural departures of the decades to come.The focus of Thoresen’s works is the depiction of nature and people in the Norway that became her adopted country. Her biggest popular success was the two-volume ‘travelogue’ from the northernmost area, Billeder fra Midnatsolens Land (Pictures from the Land of the Midnight Sun). She achieved her greatest success, in the opinion of reviewers and readers, with her travel books, but these did not represent her main genre. Most of her literary output falls within two other genres: the ‘peasant tale’ and the realistic contemporary drama.
Elisabeth Hansen wanted to do it all: instruct humankind; write edifying and entertaining novels; describe foreign countries; and discuss the economy, social conditions, and the role of the arts. And thus she did, quite fearlessly, but her greatest gift was displayed in the role of journalist; she had a distinct flair for vivid depiction of detail, and when at her best she had a dry and intelligent wit.Recognition was not forthcoming, however, where the writer would really like to have seen it: for her novels. She insisted that women also had need of learning and intellectual development. This message, however, could not be delivered directly in the context of a novel – she reserved it for the self-portrait that she put on public display. The dogged determination, and the essentially male conduct she chose, was quite remarkable.
Christiane Koren’s travel diary from her journey to Copenhagen is a first-rate and personal story about the dawning of the new century in Denmark. With elegant, spirited, and eloquent prose, Koren shares her experiences with her friends and family. The eighteenth century was irrevocably over, and Koren’s description of life in Madam Møller’s boarding house and at Bakkehuset tells us about the new female role of muse and ‘poet mother’ within an intimate circle of young men and up-and-coming geniuses.
The writing career of Sara Elisabeth Wacklin is a good example of how difficult it was for one of the narrative talents of the semi-public salons to become an author. Just before her death, the three volumes of her lifework, Hundrade minnen från Österbotten (A Hundred Memories from Ostrobothnia), were published. Since it contains examples of all the period’s prose styles, the work forms an interesting link in the history of both the Finnish and the Swedish novel.Even if the book may be regarded as belonging to the contemporary literary tradition of native realists, it can also be interpreted in terms of a searching and experimental effort. This plurality may be a result of Wacklin’s attempt to also offer an unaffected depiction of the Ostrobothnian woman and her conditions of life. The publication of Hundrade minnen från Österbotten became a lengthy affair. The Finnish publisher insisted on a subscription list to guarantee the sales. This never proved necessary, for the work became a considerable success.