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.
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.
Swedish Emilie Flygare-Carlén’s first novel, Waldemar Klein (1838), to a great extent plagiarises the well-known style of Knorring’s novels. But later on she developed a profile all her own. The discussion of sexuality, men, and women that von Knorring had introduced was to be further developed, in a modern direction, by Flygare-Carlén. She did not shy away from calling the man’s egotism vis-à-vis the other sex by its rightful name, or from exposing the woman’s strategic duplicity with regard to engagement and marriage.Whereas Knorring describes sexuality as passionate and pent-up at one and the same time, Flygare-Carlén more explicitly sees it as a necessary but fatal drive. As her writing career progresses, she also shows how a determined woman may not always be able to change her situation but is at least able to influence it. It is undoubtedly her courage in giving a positive depiction also of vigorous women that is the secret of her great financial success as a bestselling author. In 1862 Emilie Flygare-Carlén was awarded the Swedish Academy’s large gold medal, and in 1865 her last important work appeared, the autobiographical trilogy Skuggspel (Shadow Play).
In the 1810s the talented Baroness Sophie von Knorring had published six novels. She now only holds a place as a footnote in literary history. The reason may be that she was a paradox? An aristocrat of a nearly Gustavian stamp, yet also an unsparing critic of the arrogance of birth, she belongs to the most refined milieus, which she exposes without mercy. Her critics refer to her outmoded view of women and believe that her main topic is the indissolubility of marriage.To a modern reader, the real purpose of Knorring’s novelistic art is to describe the issues connected with female eroticism and the idealising power of passion. The message of the moral double standards, as well as the subtle nuances that distinguish ‘pure’ from ‘bad’ women, is what Knorring tirelessly analyses. When in her novels Sophie von Knorring examines how women’s passions become ‘criminal’ compared with men’s moral double standards, she is in the good company of the great authors of world literature. Germaine de Staël, Rousseau, and Johanna von Schopenhauer.
The writing career of Sara Elisabeth Wacklin is a good example of how difficult it was for one of the narrative talents of the semi-public salons to become an author. Just before her death, the three volumes of her lifework, Hundrade minnen från Österbotten (A Hundred Memories from Ostrobothnia), were published. Since it contains examples of all the period’s prose styles, the work forms an interesting link in the history of both the Finnish and the Swedish novel.Even if the book may be regarded as belonging to the contemporary literary tradition of native realists, it can also be interpreted in terms of a searching and experimental effort. This plurality may be a result of Wacklin’s attempt to also offer an unaffected depiction of the Ostrobothnian woman and her conditions of life. The publication of Hundrade minnen från Österbotten became a lengthy affair. The Finnish publisher insisted on a subscription list to guarantee the sales. This never proved necessary, for the work became a considerable success.
Wendela Hebbe, who was active in the 1840s at Aftonbladet, the biggest and most scandalous newspaper in Sweden, has gone down in history as the country’s first permanently employed female journalist. But she was much more than that: she was Sweden’s first female publicist. Her small salon in her office in the Gamla Stan quarter of Stockholm soon became a meeting-place for the men of the new spirit. A circle of free publicists involved a politicised literary culture.In Wendela Hebbe’s journalism, the social tendency of the period is noticeable, but it can be more difficult to discover in her fiction, which employs an unusually high number of voices and experiments with various genres, from Romantic texts and everyday prose to depictions of the lives of common people. In the period from 1846 through 1850, Wendela Hebbe published a number of articles that aimed at publicly exposing the extreme poverty that women in particular could be living in. At the same time, Wendela Hebbe’s literary production is an interesting example of how difficult it was for the female life experience to find its literary form. She did not have an adequate genre for this.
Whereas Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical Romanticist in her writing as well as in her life, the Nordic female authors found it more difficult to rise above the prejudices of what was suitable for women. In Sweden at least, a patriarchal religiosity sanctioned a widespread oppression of women at all levels. To this must be added the male-chauvinist profile of the Romantic writers.The passive female ideal, propagated by Rousseau and dominant on the continent, was what the female English, French, and German authors tried to escape from by going into exile, both metaphorically and literally. In Scandinavia this way out was seldom used. The great Swedish exception is Fredrika Bremer.