The Danish author Karen Blixen’s writing career came late and against a backdrop of heavy personal losses: financial problems forced her to abandon the coffee farm in Kenya, and the great love of her life, Denys Finch-Hatton, died in a plane crash. The losses are not just something linked to personal biography. In her re-workings, they grow into manifestation of a modern experience of loss of worth, a divided mind, and emptiness.Although Karen Blixen’s losses were profound and concrete, her realisation of life was also extraordinary and rich. This combination makes for a conflict that prompts her to go behind the tradition of realism and back to a narrative tradition stemming from the Arabian Nights, from Boccaccio, and from Cervantes’s stories in Don Quixote (1605 and 1615). A tradition which she combines with the eighteenth-century philosophical novels that have a narrator who deliberately plays with illusion and story, as we see in, for example, Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1796; Jacques the Fatalist and his Master). Furthermore, she finds inspiration in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales with their compressed accounts of human psychology and transformation.Alongside the general atmosphere of loss and interruption and distorted human relations, the characters have an incentive in the question of where and how humankind can find hope.
Sweden was the first among the Nordic countries to allow women access to a university education. Female students ostensibly lived under the same conditions as their male counterparts: they shared ideas, instructors, visions of the future. In reality their situations could not have been more at odds. Men were the beneficiaries of longstanding traditions and the innate right to public support. Like extraterrestrial creatures, women found themselves in an alien world. Women asked themselves whether they should try to blend in and focus on what they had in common with men or accentuate their own special qualities. In the 1880s and early 1890s, any term or concept suggesting that they somehow deviated from the norm was scrupulously avoided. Just before the turn of the century, they switched strategy, placing ‘femininity’ in the spotlight and adding the notion of ‘difference’ to their repertoire. The tide turned in 1896, the year Ellen Key published Missbrukad kvinnokraft (Misused Female Power). Demands for emancipation and equal opportunity were supplanted by the concept that women should enrich society and culture with their unique qualities. Love and emotional liberation took centre stage. Women acquired a fresh sense of dignity, as well as new responsibilities, by virtue of their gender. And the women academics of the time did not remain unaffected.
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.
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.
How come a daughter of the liberal, albeit conservative ultra-respectable professor and hofmedicus (court physician) Carl Henrik Horn Nebelong was fooling about like a bohemian in Copenhagen cafés with her female friends and aspiring writers, and also writing audacious novels about the straitened circumstances of women’s desire in petit-bourgeois and double-standards patriarchal Denmark?
The few Icelandic women writers to appear around the turn of the twentieth century travel from the countryside to Reykjavík. But it is not contemporary Iceland that frames, in their literary works, their depiction of Icelandic women’s struggles of the modern age.They choose the past as a time frame, the journey back to the patriarchal farming community from which the contemporary identity conflicts and attempted exoduses spring. From this perspective, they thematise the conflicts between duty and freedom and the ambivalence concerning women’s new liberation.
Emergence of a Female Public Arena in Norway
Camilla Collett’s major work Amtmandens Døttre (The District Governor’s Daughters) is the first realistic ‘propaganda novel’ in the annals of Norwegian literature, and the first Norwegian novel to take a broad and critical look at conditions offered to women in the better-off strata of society. The work was no run-of-the-mill novel when it was published in 1854-55. Many people were affected by the thematic line of the book: the attack on marriages of convenience and marriages contracted solely to provide for the woman, the complaints about the restricting parameters of life for women. Even the male critics were delighted in the innovation of her style.After Amtmandens Døttre and a volume of Fortællinger (Short Stories), Camilla Colett stopped writing fiction. Instead, she used the 1860s to explore the grey area between autobiography, memoirs, and travel writing. She then took the plunge and concentrated on polemical writings, publishing two new volumes of Sidste Blade (Last Leaves) in 1872 and 1873, and in 1877 the collection that was to be her breakthrough as feminist cultural critic, Fra de Stummes Leir (From the Camp of the Mute).Her writing career drew to a close with two new collections of essays, and a number of one-off articles on a range of subjects. She must be given a large measure of credit for the strong feminist influence exercised on the Norwegian Modern Breakthrough, and she contributed to avoidance of the deep divide between the female and male outlook on sexual morality that marked Danish cultural life in the 1880s.
Elisabeth Hansen wanted to do it all: instruct humankind; write edifying and entertaining novels; describe foreign countries; and discuss the economy, social conditions, and the role of the arts. And thus she did, quite fearlessly, but her greatest gift was displayed in the role of journalist; she had a distinct flair for vivid depiction of detail, and when at her best she had a dry and intelligent wit.Recognition was not forthcoming, however, where the writer would really like to have seen it: for her novels. She insisted that women also had need of learning and intellectual development. This message, however, could not be delivered directly in the context of a novel – she reserved it for the self-portrait that she put on public display. The dogged determination, and the essentially male conduct she chose, was quite remarkable.
In their everyday stories, essays, and novels, the female Romantic prose writers had to express themselves in relation to a male Romantic rhetoric that, in the work of a number of male theologians, served to provide the myth of innocence with substance and sociality in the bourgeois home. Female worthiness becomes a central issue for many female writers of the day.