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.
With the twenty-four stories in En Hverdags-Historie (An Everyday Story) from 1828, Thomasine Gyllembourg consolidated a new literary tradition – the realistic prose story. She shows her reader around in the external forum where everyday life takes place, ornamented with particulars that might seem like knick-knacks, but which all share in the function of making her universe recognisable actuality. While En Hverdags-Historie shows family life in a concave mirror, a number of Gyllembourg’s other short stories reflect family life in a magic mirror.When Thomasine Gyllembourg wrote her everyday stories, the nuclear family was still a new phenomenon, and she herself had lived through a considerable part of its cultural genesis. With En Hverdags-Historie, she positions herself midstream between the old family with its awareness of lineage and the new family with its orientation towards the individual, and from this vantage point she views the evolution of the family, weighs up loss and gain, and exposes the inherent cracks in the foundation of the nuclear family. The trends identified by Thomasine Gyllembourg in the 1840s thus anticipate the particular modern way of life that would be put to debate some decades later in the literature of the Modern Breakthrough.