Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf achieved her international breakthrough when she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909. At this point, she was already one of the most reputable and respected writers in the Nordic countries. The loss of her beloved childhood home, Mårbacka, resonates as a pain point in her work – a recurring theme that undergoes a number of variations in one novel after another. And through this essential lack in life, the enforced exile, Lagerlöf, who ostensibly had nothing left to lose, entered a world of memories and retrieved from it an original language which permeated everything she wrote, and which spoke to all social strata and to both children and adults. She wrote that she wanted to be read by all, including the farmwives in rural areas.And she still is.
Maj Hirdman’s diaries testify to the zeal with which she planned a series of books – one about working-class women, an autobiography, a popular history – in her quest for “the way out of degradation.” But her journey from diarist to professional author was long and bumpy. She tried to write at the same time that she ran a household, took care of children, lived in poverty, and suffered one illness after another. She managed to publish poems and short stories, but her submissions were frequently rejected.She was 33 when Anna Holberg (1921), her first novel, was brought out. Hirdman never made a genuine breakthrough. Modernity was the springboard of her writing career. Overcrowding, children, and drudgery may have robbed her of certain intellectual and wilful qualities. In their place came the great struggle between the dream of motherhood and the world of men.In exposing the conflict and search for an identity, Hirdman crafted a new language, a spirited voice for an ambivalent generation of women.
In 1909, the battle for women’s suffrage is raging. From London Elin Wägner covered “the greatest movement the world has ever seen”, the Fourth Congress of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. She was the most indefatigable opponent of the Swedish patriarchy for four decades.Her first memorable work was Pennskaftet (1910; Eng. tr. Penwoman), a novel that became a bible for “the new woman”. But Wägner is not alone. Selma Lagerlöf and Ellen Key are among the many Swedish women writers who join the struggle for women’s suffrage, and their authorships undergo a transformation in the heat of battle.
“My entire being has almost been shattered by the overwhelming power of love.” The power of love in this 11 November 1918 diary entry by Finnish author Aino Kallas was the very wellspring of her artistry.Maila Talvio’s writing found itself at the epicentre of the Nordic debate about sexual morality and was inspired by Ellen Key and others. Beneath the concept of enlightenment and liberation, however, lurks a coherent narrative of sexual fear, pessimism, and longing for death.
The post-1814 world was a different place. The dual realm Denmark-Norway was dissolved, and Norway entered a union with Sweden. Women’s diaries from the period tell of daily life under the dramatic historical changes. One direct motivation for the women to write their memoirs was often the next generation’s wish for first-hand knowledge of the past.The oldest of the memoir-writers chronicle everyday life and the march of history, and often speak directly to their children or to other close relatives. These reminiscences are intended for the private sphere; they have no literary ambitions. Other memoirists had the public domain in mind. The best-known of these was Camilla Collett. Her work Amtmandens Døttre sounded the starting signal for women authors, and was Norway’s first major realist novel.
The ideal of womanhood, as described in the eighteenth-century moral tales and bourgeois stage comedies, was not hushed and inarticulate. But it became so. For many women writers of the period, putting pen to paper seems to have been a welcome opportunity to break the silence that had descended on women’s lives in the first half of the nineteenth century – a rhetoric of silence.Novels and stories written by Nordic women in the mid-1800s often give a quiet, powerful female figure a central position in the gallery of characters. The good womanliness was hushed and self-sacrificing; but the women who began to speak and write also saw themselves as good women and envisaged that their voice and action could be the ideal, that the camp of the mute had something to say that could be of benefit to the nation and to human society.
Friederike Brun presided over her salon for more than forty years. Here, she gathered together such famous cultural figures as C. E. F. Weyse, D. F. R. Kuhlau, Jens Baggesen, Adam Oehlenschläger, Just Mathias Thiele, Bertel Thorvaldsen, J. L. Heiberg, and many foreign guests; the salon was a sort of open house.The golden age of the salon was during the period from 1810 to 1816. The weekly evening reception was a particularly bustling affair. During dinner, and later in the evening during intervals between music, tableaux vivants, and readings, the guests conducted cultured aesthetic conversation. The entertainment was supplied by visiting artists, and by Friederike’s daughter Ida. Brun wrote throughout her entire life, and published fifteen volumes of miscellaneous works, of which the early texts in particular were well received.Friederike Brun has to be viewed as a transitional figure – just as the whole salon culture is a transitional phenomenon – between a predominantly feudal and a predominantly bourgeois culture. She and her salon manifest a lived Utopia of a third way: between feudalism and capitalism, between the female and the male as keenly defined spheres. The salon provided, for a brief period, a forum for contrasts.
In the seventeenth century, les précieuses formed their own salons in protest against the vulgarity of the court of Henri IV. These salons were coveted gathering places for the cultural elite. The focal point of the salon was the witty conversation, often taking place in the boudoir, the intimate space. Between the court culture’s ceremonial salon hall and the bourgeoisie’s private parlour, the salon culture gave place to specialised forms of fellowship created and run by the brilliant and witty hostesses. One did not converse, but discussed earnestly and heartily subjects of an intimate, political, and cultural nature.The précieuses and the pre-Romantic salons alike inspired the Scandinavian salon culture. Sophisticated Nordic culture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was multilingual. Developments in Europe were thus speedily adopted in their corresponding Nordic settings. The salon culture has not been dealt with to any great extent in the annals of literary history. When a hostess is named it is because of the men she has assembled around her; however, the hostesses were creative artists in their own right.
Eighteenth-century diaries, like the letters, were written with one or more readers in mind – be they children, family, or future generations. These readers were sometimes addressed directly in the text. The eighteenth-century diary does not have the private or outright secret quality that it acquires in the course of the nineteenth century, when it is often written as a journal intime as the writers become more analytical and self-scrutinising.Queen Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta’s diary is the only extant nineteenth-century diary to offer more incisive analyses of personal feelings. She was well-read and cultured, with a good understanding of the French art of letter-writing, and she had most likely learnt to analyse emotions from the examples of both Richardson and Rousseau. Her diary thus forges a natural transition to Romanticism’s journal intime and the emerging new view of human nature.
Professor J. S. Sneedorff highlighted the Danish translation of German author Margaretha Klopstock’s Briefe von Verstorbenen an Lebendige (Letters from the Dead to the Living) as an example of the modern national language he wished to promote.One reason for the eighteenth-century’s growing interest in women writers, and particularly letter-writers whether new or old, well-known or less well-known, was that women wrote in the national language and could thus be used as illustrations of practical usage in the occasionally highly abstract debate about what the national language ought to be. Moreover, women were not rigorously schooled in the Latin tradition of scholarship – the confinement from which liberation was sought.