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.
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.
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.
Under her pseudonym ‘Harold Gote’ (Harold the Goth: the Gothic/Nordic herald), Frida Stéenhoff was to present some of the most progressive and radical contributions to the period’s debate about society and about women. Due to her visions of a gender-equal and classless society, she became “the timber owners’ and the wholesalers’ bête noire”. However, Frida Stéenhoff’s wish was not only to expose the period’s sexism in her texts. It was just as important to her to formulate strategies that would bring about change. One of her main points was that motherhood can only be harmonious if the woman is able to support herself. Her works of fiction bear resemblance to the programmatic pamphlet and the predictable one-party plea, and this is to the detriment of its aesthetic effect. Nevertheless, her fiction and her pamphlets form an important link in Nordic women’s literature. Thanks to her avant-garde voice, these works helped to advance the woman’s position, and Frida Stéenhoff became one of the leading feminist theoreticians around the turn of the century.
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.
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.
The Modern Breakthrough in Sweden