Norwegian Magdalene Sophie Buchholm’s urge to write must have been strong – and conflict-ridden. She actually produced numerous poems, many of which were published in journals and poetry anthologies during the 1780s. The majority, however, were collected in her Poesier (Poetic Writings) and published in Copenhagen in 1793. The collection was issued in the author’s full name – she obviously saw no need to conceal the fact that she was a woman.In terms of content and choice of genre, the writer was typical of her period. Her output included elegies, ballads, commemorative poems, an ode, and a héroïde, plus quite a few songs. The sensitive and elegiac poems make up the majority of her oeuvre.
In the eighteenth century the Swedish Countess Maria Gustava Gyllenstierna was characterised as “a woman of great talent and noble heritage, who has honoured her Country and her Sex in these our times.” She is considered to be one of the skilled literary women of the time; she is listed in contemporary catalogues of Lärda Swenska Fruentimmer (Learned Swedish Women) and she is described as such in the directory of Swedish nobility.She was the second wife of Privy Councillor Carl Bonde and bore him five children, all the while accompanying him on trips to, among other places, Finland and England. He died in 1699. Maria Gustava Gyllenstierna was a widow for nearly forty years, during which time she devoted herself to her writing at Tyresö Castle just outside Stockholm. Translations from German and French made up a large part of her literary output.
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.
There is a great variety in the quantity of creative or academic material passed down to us from each of the approximately one-hundred-and-fifty illustrious writing women living in the Nordic region between 1500 and 1800. If we pick out the Nordic women’s literary oeuvres and gather them together, big and small, we see the Nordic region in fine bloom, with committed, moving, keen, sincere, quality writing often arranged in bouquets around a scholarly family, a manor or a convent. A female consciousness and a literary aesthetic equal to those found elsewhere in Europe is clearly present in the work of the Nordic “feminae illustres”.
“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.
By and large, what we can find out about Ingeborg Grytten, one of Norway’s two seventeenth-century poetesses, has to be gleaned from her hymns. We do not even know the year of her death. But we know that she was familiar with Dorothe Engelbretsdatter’s Siælens Sang Offer, because she borrowed material for her melodies from it.Thus the west coast of Norway produced the first two female Norwegian poets. They came from the same supernational clergy class that was, at the time, the custodian of writing – and of women’s writing too.
Christiane Birgitte Koren is best known for her diaries, written between 1808 and 1815 but not published until 1915, as: “Moer Korens” Dagbøger (Mother Koren’s Diaries). For the most part, the writer addresses herself to her closest family, but there are also texts addressed to friends and acquaintances in Denmark and Norway.Her diaries are an outlet for the expression of emotion and intellect. The mother’s role in the family involved being an agent of humanity and culture in the home, and within this parameter Koren could apply herself to theatre criticism, literary reviewing, the telling of folktales and anecdotes, and, not least, to passing on knowledge of human nature and her experience of life.Christiane Koren published three plays, Dramatiske Forsøg (Dramatic Attempts), in 1803. Her plays were not performed in her lifetime, nor has posterity shown them any interest.
Whereas Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical Romanticist in her writing as well as in her life, the Nordic female authors found it more difficult to rise above the prejudices of what was suitable for women. In Sweden at least, a patriarchal religiosity sanctioned a widespread oppression of women at all levels. To this must be added the male-chauvinist profile of the Romantic writers.The passive female ideal, propagated by Rousseau and dominant on the continent, was what the female English, French, and German authors tried to escape from by going into exile, both metaphorically and literally. In Scandinavia this way out was seldom used. The great Swedish exception is Fredrika Bremer.
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.
In Denmark and Sweden in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women sometimes recorded hymns and sacred songs, either from collector’s zeal or for use in private worship, and on occasion perhaps purely as material for a translation or writing exercise. Towards the turn of the seventeenth century, an increasing number of women, primarily in Denmark, not only made copies of other people’s hymns but also wrote their own. There is a marked difference between women’s hymn writing in Denmark and in Sweden. In Denmark we can find the names of writers with an extensive output, women who published a number of collections in their own name. These women found themselves in the contemporary spotlight, the subjects of tribute poems and requests for reprinting of their song collections. In Sweden, on the other hand, women primarily wrote single hymns for Pietist and Herrnhuter communities. The hymns were included in hymn books published from around 1730 onwards.