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.
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.
Camilla Collett’s major work Amtmandens Døttre (The District Governor’s Daughters) is the first realistic ‘propaganda novel’ in the annals of Norwegian literature, and the first Norwegian novel to take a broad and critical look at conditions offered to women in the better-off strata of society. The work was no run-of-the-mill novel when it was published in 1854-55. Many people were affected by the thematic line of the book: the attack on marriages of convenience and marriages contracted solely to provide for the woman, the complaints about the restricting parameters of life for women. Even the male critics were delighted in the innovation of her style.After Amtmandens Døttre and a volume of Fortællinger (Short Stories), Camilla Colett stopped writing fiction. Instead, she used the 1860s to explore the grey area between autobiography, memoirs, and travel writing. She then took the plunge and concentrated on polemical writings, publishing two new volumes of Sidste Blade (Last Leaves) in 1872 and 1873, and in 1877 the collection that was to be her breakthrough as feminist cultural critic, Fra de Stummes Leir (From the Camp of the Mute).Her writing career drew to a close with two new collections of essays, and a number of one-off articles on a range of subjects. She must be given a large measure of credit for the strong feminist influence exercised on the Norwegian Modern Breakthrough, and she contributed to avoidance of the deep divide between the female and male outlook on sexual morality that marked Danish cultural life in the 1880s.
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.
Ellen Key put focus on complexity. not only in connection with the women’s cause but in general with regard to the relationship between tradition and modernity. It was in connection with her efforts to reconcile the contradictions between conservatism and radicalism into something more complex that Ellen Key became a controversial figure. Her writing became a medium: it did not point inward, towards itself, it did not produce works of fiction; rather, it served as a melting pot. Her works display an immense cultural receptivity and at the same time her works stand apart in their originality, in her visionary, unifying approach. Tradition is not contrasted with modernity but is understood in the light of her commitment to day-to-day politics. The women’s cause, the working-class movement, popular education, and the modern divide between natural science and religious attitudes are an ever-present context in all of her works. Ellen Key became an organic bond between the Modern Breakthrough and the new century’s modernistic currents.
The Swedish writer Hilma Angered-Strandberg offers something of an aesthetic manifesto. She wants her fiction to spring forth, both “from a desire to write in the moment of inspiration, and from a desire to be useful, to grasp people’s ears and force them to listen to all the things that are wrong and shameful out here”. The lines are written with reference to her breakthrough work Västerut (1887; Out West), which is a collection of short stories set in the Swedish west-coast province of Bohuslän. Throughout her life, Hilma Angered-Strandberg was possessed by a desire to write. Through bitter experience, she realised that if an author wants to depict life in a credible way, she must in her fiction allow herself the lack of order that is characteristic of life itself.
Hiding behind the pseudonym Stella Kleve was Mathilda Kruse, a young woman from the south-Swedish province of Scania who was later to be known as the author Mathilda Malling. She was well-educated and widely-travelled; and she wanted to follow the newest trends in her writing – her pseudonym became synonymous with loose morals.Her portraits of women provoked the public. This was something she was absolutely conscious of: she wanted to write about the modern woman who knows herself and her sexual desire, and who is even capable of controlling, coldly and calculatingly, the game between the sexes.Stella Kleve’s women were indeed playing on the very verge of the forbidden. This is why it is tempting to read her portraits as female counterparts to the decadent male heroes in the contemporary literature in, for example, England, France, and, of course, the other Nordic countries. Or, why not: as a female challenge to the mostly male-dominated modern literature.
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.
Henrik Ibsen did not always go unchallenged. On the contrary, several of the women of the Modern Breakthrough felt provoked to correct or revise Ibsen’s original text, and time after time his portraits of women turn up in their plays and short stories, but rewritten on the basis of a different horizon of understanding. Two obvious examples from 1882 of such a female, partly subversive dialogue with Ibsen are Anne Charlotte Edgren Leffler’s short story “Tvifvel” (Doubt), and Alfhild Agrell’s play Räddad (Saved).These texts clearly show how Ibsen’s portrayal of women served as a challenge, a set piece that had to be tested and partly destroyed in order for the two female authors to arrive at a more credible story.