Tales from the Outskirts of Society
The Åland islands author Sally Salminen made her debut with the novel Katrina (1936; Eng. tr. Katrina), which became one of the biggest Nordic bestsellers of all time. The social critique implicit to the book aroused strong feelings in her native village of Vargata on Vårdö Island.The novel opened the door to a literary career, but grew to be a burden as well. Sally Salminen ended up publishing a total of seventeen novels, travelogues, and autobiographies. But Katrina overshadowed everything she did. Her last four books were autobiographical, and among these, Upptäcktsresan, has been called one of the best Finland-Swedish novels about the 1920s.
Women writers of the so-called primitivist movement write about lawless passion. The female characters of their novels often pay with their lives for their forbidden passion. The novels formulate a more or less explicit critique of the way that patriarchal society links ownership of the earth to that of women as sexual objects while maintaining a level of erotic ambivalence – a strategy that successfully attracted wide female readership.The novels reflect thoroughgoing knowledge of the joys and hardships associated with tilling the soil. Nor do they skip over the role that women’s crafts played when it came to ensuring survival of the family farm. Both male and female primitivists wrote about sexuality in a frank and open manner. Female primitivism decoupled the ambivalence of the sentimental literary tradition from its religious, patriarchal assumptions and turned it into a sensual code that stood on its own.Female desire in these books burns down villages, devastates marriages, slaughters farmers, and allows women to affirm themselves by listening to their bodies. Eventually, they and their offspring are punished mercilessly, often with death.
The socially conscious Swedish writer Moa Martinson, The enfant terrible of the welfare state for two decades, her first name was a household word. The sexual, historical, and psychological projects that inform Martinson’s writing are closely intertwined. Much of her fiction documents the awareness of working-class women during a time of great social unrest when the labour movement became a force to reckon with and class consciousness manifested in organised forms, and can also be read as a feminist critique of the failure of the labour movement to demand social reforms for women.Making the fertile body of a woman the centre around which the literary material is organised was new to Swedish literature. Most of Martinson’s female characters are strong but ambivalent. They are bound to their biological destiny but strive to transcend it. She encountered opposition from the critics for her unpolished portrayals of women’s bodies and sexuality. Placing sexuality in the foreground allowed her to depict women’s existential condition.
In the 1980s, the historical novel, a centuries-old favourite among female readers, underwent a process of serious revision. The female heroes were brought up to date. The heroines were adapted to the contemporary world, and together with the new romance literature, the new feminist historical novel captured the interest of women readers.New women writers throughout the Nordic region began to write about hidden, forgotten, overlooked, or entirely unknown women from past centuries, and the books were welcomed by huge audiences (and by reviewers) with such overwhelming interest that it began to look like just the genre for which they had all been searching for so many years.
Throughout her long and popular writing career, Martha Christensen built on social realism and a critical involvement in how society treats the weak. In her stories, the social system itself becomes a powerful character that prevails over individual will.Martha Christensen’s critical socio-psychology is not directly political in the same way as Dea Trier Mørch’s stories about the relationship between the individual and society. In her work, the system becomes the necessary organisation and the holistic entity that forms cohesion in individuals’ lives and takes care of them. However, her attitudes and her entire body of work are a critical depiction of the modern welfare society and its view of humanity.Her texts remain within the social structure she criticises, whereas the critic of modernism Anne Marie Løn, following her urban novel Veras vrede (1982; Vera’s Anger), journeys through time, the country, and other types of social life in her search for a positive counterpart to the destructive city.
The Welfare Society Viewed from Below
Ingeborg Refling Hagen’s stories from the 1920s demonstrate national-romantic features and also a new form of poverty-realism in which rural life is presented without any nostalgic romanticisation of an authentic culture. The novels of Gro Holm and Magnhild Haalke are also free of nostalgia. Gro Holm exposes the oppression of women in rural communities, and in Magnhild Haalke’s novels nature and life of the common people provide the setting for in-depth psychological portraits.These three writers take very different approaches; however, while casting a new and critical gaze upon the ‘old society’, their writing is deeply rooted in the culture they see under threat of disintegration.
Ragnhild Jølsen’s life and writing is marked by the tension between her rural home village and the bohemian milieu in the capital city, between robust popular traditions and aesthetic sophistication. From her very first publication in 1903, she was welcomed as remarkably mature, unusually gifted, and singular. But her “brutal, raw power” and “blatant, intensely erotic scenes” led many to believe that the author must be a man.Her books are concerned with a type of woman who is beautiful, vulnerable, and sensual, and whose mind vacillates between dream and reality. She broke sexual taboos and courageously showed that she saw body and mind as a whole package. Her literary output is a long way from the bourgeois, earnest, and everyday approach that characterised Norwegian literature in the early decades of the twentieth century. The sensitive, perceptive and the fantastical, exaggerated were key elements in her books and continued to be so.
The writing of Regine Normann (1867-1939) lent a new dimension to the Norwegian region of Nordland. She fused folklore with authentic depictions of everyday life. Her innovative idiom normalises the Nordland dialect in a way that permits the rhythmic narrative style to bring out the region’s mystical and popular mentality.Her many collections of legends, a number of which she had already used in her novels, place her as a folklorist who passed down the oral tradition. Many of Normann’s books revolve around conflicts and power struggles between different generations of women. The autocratic, vindictive, and pietistic mother figure reappears in various guises.The female characters in her Nordland tales have been spared a conventional, middle-class upbringing. Getting pregnant by your fiancé is no sin. In the Nordland of yore that Normann depicts, the natural, unbridled urges of the flesh can find satisfaction. However, Normann’s later works exhibit a pronounced religious tone.