Tora Dahl certainly paid her dues before becoming a widely read author. She began writing in her late teens but did not publish her first book until the age of forty-nine. Her real breakthrough, which greatly expanded her readership, came after the age of seventy. The first part of her eighteeen-volume autobiography appeared in 1954. It is a unique project in the history of Swedish literature.Dahl’s books span nearly an entire century. The story starts in the late nineteenth century. The long chronicle of a woman’s progress as Sweden modernises is not only a unique cultural document, its consistent feminine perspective is new, fascinating, and provocative from the standpoint of literary history. While chronicling her labyrinthine road to a successful writing career, the series also reflects her growing disillusionment. The history of a struggle to be heard.
Elsa Gress’s pen is, in her own word, heretical. The root cause and partial explanation for the repeated theme of being left out is a reflection of her personal experience of feeling like the odd one out, of feeling misunderstood, of speaking but not being heard. In her books of memoirs, the enforced feeling of otherness during her childhood and adolescence is seen as the background against which she establishes herself in the role of “professional outsider”.Her writing career is characterised by the clash between wanting to maintain a marginal position – being an outsider, who sees more clearly – and wanting to be heard and understood. That a woman writer, and particularly a woman who participates in the public debate, will be subject to prejudice is, in Elsa Gress’s view, a fate common to women who pick up a pen.Her own works were either praised as being “just as substantial and perceptive as a man’s” or she was called “acutely malicious as only an intelligent woman can be”. As castigator of society, culture, and gender, she certainly made sure the readers were “listening” – but she did not get them to toe her line.
Many Norwegian women writers living under the mid-twentieth-century shadow of war ask this question: what is it like to live at a time when everything has been so drastically changed after a war?Some of these writers address the Second World War directly in their novels, while others work through the psychological crises that have followed in the wake of war. This is true of Solveig Christov, Aslaug Groven Michaelsen, Bergljot Hobæk Haff, and others.
In 1922 the Norwegian writer Sara Cecilie Margareta Gjörwel Fabricius published her first short story – an ‘artist story’ from Paris – under the pseudonym “Cora Sandel”. Although she lived in Sweden for the rest of her life, she continued to write in Norwegian.Her female and male characters are more likely to be complete contrasts than loving couples. The tension in her texts is found in the force-field between woman and man. Time and again, Cora Sandel depicts the man as seen through the woman’s eyes. Cora Sandel had a sense for transgressing genre. A number of her prose works have the vigour of drama while, at the same time, the poetic idiom is inherent in the detail, in the use of rhythm and language parallels, and in the imagery. The papers she left behind include poems and drafts of plays.Cora Sandel has been called writer of ‘the unsaid’. The underlying irony and the deeper truths between the lines – together with her ability to create low-key but also defiantly optimistic women – make her texts so good.
When Sweden introduced universal suffrage in the 1920s, a number of established authors used the autobiographical genre to tell their story and forge their artistic identity. Largely due to well-established authors like Selma Lagerlöf, Mathilda Malling, Helena Nyblom, and Marika Stiernstedt, women’s autobiographies acquired greater literary status in the Sweden of the 1920s. The trend peaked in the 1940s and reflected both growing interest and greater feminine self-assuredness. At first glance, such works may appear to be simply margin notes – documentary evidence of their lives behind, alongside of, or prior to their art. Not unexpectedly, however, the autobiographies fully reflect the professions of their authors. They vary greatly, but what all these autobiographers had in common, however, was that they focused more on their writing than their personal lives. Of equal importance is that they furnish their readers with clear instructions for interpreting their works.
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.
As a proponent of family planning and contraception, Danish writer Thit Jensen was a both loved and controversial participant in the public debate of her day. Unsurprisingly, the ‘personality project’ – to be a person, standing on one’s own two feet, following one’s resolve, and having the courage of one’s convictions – is a motive force in all her works. The dream of a unified whole steers the personality project: to be able to love and to work, develop one’s self and serve others, combine private and societal, be an artist, not just in name but in fact.Thit Jensen’s personal and artistic visions are united by a structure of female solicitude. She wanted to do more than the conventional forms of the novel could manage. She combines novel of formation and novel of development with social commentary, bordering, but not finding, a collective form. She thus bursts open the form, but does not find a new form that could unify and support her desire for accomplishment.
The bohemian authors aspired to a sense of life and art that could break open the boundaries both for oppressive bourgeois respectability and fatuous modernity. This applied to the women of the bohemia as well. But for them, freedom and liberation were not synonymous with the feminists’ demand for the right to vote, but a question of self-realisation in love and art.If the male figure-heads of the bohemian milieu caused scandal, the women did too – and to no less a degree. As bohemians they offended against every norm of what constituted a decent life for a woman as wife, as mother, as the heart and mind of the home. At the same time, it was for this femininity that they were fetishised in the bohemian milieu.
New Faroese Women’s Literature
The far too rapid and crude modernisation and urbanisation of Iceland had psychological consequences and caused cultural upheavals. The Icelandic women writers of the period 1930-1965 attempted to analyse the processes they were exposed to, and attempted to trace connections back and forth in time in order to find a meaning in their strange daily lives.Many issues were discussed by women during those years, in a rejection of the post-war ideology of women as carers and housewives. There were also many small out-bursts of frustration and opposition to the arrogance and obvious misogyny of the male literary elite. But the arrogance and contempt nevertheless had an effect, and the younger women’s literature of the 1950s and 1960s is often characterised by caution, distance, and self-censorship. Ambitious debuts were few and far between, and the women’s novels became in general shorter, sparer – every single word was carefully weighed.The short stories of Unnur Eiríksdóttir, Drífa Viðar, and Ásta Sigurðardóttir are all marked by linguistic self-awareness, formal inventions, and absurd or grotesque touches. Modernism was emerging, and it was the young urban women who prepared the way for it.