From Rhymes to Reforms in Iceland
With the Modern Breakthrough in the Nordic region in the 1880s, feverish female activity could be perceived everywhere. Women joined together in national women’s societies, working doggedly and energetically to put women’s issues on the agenda of the legislative authorities in order to ensure the implementation of laws. Writing in newspapers, journals, and literary works, it was young middle-class women – well-versed in languages, conversation, and good manners – who presented issues pertaining to women’s status as a social problem.Many women writers of the Modern Breakthrough experienced the new departure in the form of personal and artistic failure. They broke their backs or their pens on the modern paradox. But the emancipation project was not abandoned. For the women who continued to write for the rest of the century, and for those who made their debut around the turn of the century, the tension between ideals and disillusion, between movement and moment, was merely put in a different form.
It was a novel written by a woman, Mathilde Fibiger’s Clara Raphael. Tolv Breve (Clara Raphael. Twelve Letters), that provoked the debate about marriage and the comparative status of man and woman within marriage in Denmark.The novel caused annoyance in every political camp. Within a year, the book had generated almost twenty-five newspaper and periodical items, and ten pamphlets had been published on the matter. The demands for equality provoked particular furore.Mathilde Fibiger contributed two pamphlets to the controversy, and they made it even more apparent that fortifying women’s self-awareness was indeed her key intention. Clara Raphael. Tolv Breve has always been looked upon as the first manifesto of the women’s movement in Denmark. The novel’s message might well be ambiguous, but the attempt to express a total female subjectivity speaks to us over and across the radical changes that have since shaped women’s lives.
“Once the woman has risen,” wrote the Norwegian author Amalie Skram enthusiastically in 1880 of Henrik Ibsen’s Et Dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House), “she can no longer be stopped.” And stop – that was not on the agenda of Amalie Müller, as she was called at the time.In 1884, she married the Danish writer Erik Skram and moved with him to Copenhagen. And this is when she began writing in earnest – but she was never really akin to the Danish women of the Modern Breakthrough: her passion set her apart. While other women writers put themselves on the outside, Amalie Skram related totally to her material – with ruthless exploitation and self-exploitation. The blasé attitude versus the passionate attitude. As creative artist and woman, she was in an outsider position. Too intense for her Danish colleagues and categorically blacklisted in Norway.Amalie Skram’s stories are just as passionate studies of the depths of the mind as those of her contemporary, Freud, and her body of works thus goes beyond the Modern Breakthrough – towards the madness and knowledge of the twentieth century.
Emergence of a Female Public Arena in Norway
City and Text
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.
It was the capitalisation of societal economy that created a sympathetic ear to Nathalie Zahle’s ideas on education; the schools she set up over the years were pioneering in their endeavours to qualify women to meet the needs entailed by this change. It required women to be able to support themselves, to have knowledge and education.In accordance with this, women of the Modern Breakthrough constructed their novels as a process of cultivation. That this seldom succeeded, that their Bildungsromans turned into ‘breakdown’ novels, is not because they were bad writers, far from it, but because the novels reflect the twofold nature of modernity: liberation to exercise personal authority is simultaneously a setting at liberty, a loss of control.Erna Juel-Hansen, characteristically, came closest to filling the genre – of all the female Modern Breakthrough writers, she had the greatest confidence in headway being made. Her Bildungsromans are buoyed by an optimistic belief in the possibility of liberation and a will to – despite everything – project a whole female identity.
The women authors of the late nineteenth century wrote in league with and as challenge to the women’s movement. The most self-assured of the women writers could be publicly involved in well-defined key issues such as electoral rights for women, and in private would form unofficial networks with other women, for example in a weekly salon where they could discuss matters of doubt.These were women who did not pigeonhole moral conduct, for the very reason that they were open and therefore deeply affected by the change in mindset that triggered the controversy about morality: the sexualisation of gender. Very few of the women writers therefore spoke out in the ideological dispute. Instead, they used fiction to find their bearings in the state of womanhood. And here, they shaped a different and more dangerous picture of female sexuality than the clichés put on display in the public debate.
The mood during the 1880s was tense – and productive! It caused women to write like never before. In the period between 1870 and 1890 more than seventy women writers were published for the first time in Denmark – which was almost three times as many as in the two preceding decades. Many – most – could not be classified as modern, either in terms of theme or style, but the diversity shows that women were taking part. The many provided the groundwork for the few who planted the new era into language and ideas. This required more than courage – because these women wrote on doubt about gender. The many male pseudonyms are telling.As authors they had a hard time – were pressed from all sides: partly by the men, partly because they could not live from writing. Women would therefore typically use writing as one aspect of a wider cultural enterprise. Fiction was one way in which to use their voice – journalism, lectures, association work were others.