The Finland-Swedish writer, Monika Fagerholm, combines, in one book after another, the reader-friendly characteristics of realism – plot, strong local colour, and interesting characters – with a bold revival of the storytelling of traditional prose in unusual ways. She entertains and experiments; she has her cake and eats it, too.
In Edith Øberg’s literary novels, women’s relationships with each other increasingly come to the fore as men recede into the background. Øberg is most interested in women as creative subjects of their lives. Her later novels, which exhibit an unmistakable interest in psychoanalytical concepts, offer penetrating insights into issues surrounding female identity.Her examination of the unconscious roots of sexual needs and conflicts is particularly fascinating, placing her in the thick of the cultural debate about modernism during the interwar period. Her in-depth studies of fragmented female psyches, breeding grounds for repressed conflicts due to puritanical upbringings, traumatic childhood memories, and guilty erotic ties challenge the view perpetrated by male vitalists of women as uncomplicated instinctive creatures. Her first four novels touch on taboo subjects.
The Finnish author Hagar Olsson’s debut from 1916 was brought out the same year as Edith Södergran’s first poetry collection. According to literary historians, the twin events marked the birth of Finland-Swedish modernism. Dagens Press (The Daily Press) hired Olsson as its literary critic in 1918, providing her with a venue to wage her celebrated campaign for ‘modernity’ in art and literature. Her entire literary project is about faith in the life force, the power of the spirit to transform the world, and the artist’s holy calling. She achieved the most significant formal renewal in her dramatic works. Olsson was largely interested in creating political theatre that preaches and agitates.The theme of “the new woman” and associated issues was more conspicuous with each novel Olsson wrote in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Her association with the group that published the radical feminist magazine Tidevarvet and with the Women´ s College for Civic Training at Fogelstad whetted her appetite for women’s issues.
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.
After she liberates herself from the inspiration from Herman Bang and from her husband’s ‘guardianship’, the author Karin Michaëlis finds the combination of epistolary and diary novel that she would go on to develop into her sphere of excellence. She becomes famous, and much in demand for public lectures. With the outbreak of the First World War, however, Karin Michaëlis simply had to reach for her journalist’s pen. As reporter, she makes no secret of her contempt for war, and calls attention to the enormous human costs.As a reporter, she carefully chooses her figurative language, and can for once give free rein to the pathos which, in her fiction, must constantly be held in check. She consigned the myth of the good mother to the grave. The portraits of real-life damaged women and the visions showing children as levers for a new world are rooted in the indignant pathos that was the weakness at the beginning of her writing career, but which later became its strength.
Norwegian writer and participant in the public debate Nini Roll Anker hid behind the eloquent pseudonym Jo Nein (a play on Yes/No). The daughter of a family of civil servants from Western Norway, she wrote with great commitment about power and contradiction in bourgeois society. Her social commitment spanned a half-century and produced a wealth of fiction. Being a prominent figure in the arts, Nini Roll Anker’s was a crucial voice in the Norwegian debate on art and society. She supported the women’s cause and the mushrooming labour movement, but her key position was that of critical intellectual.Her literary universe sees nature and play, dream and passion as quality rating for a meaningful life. These vital “imaginary” values, as she called them, often get into conflict with the characters’, particularly the women’s, devotion to duty and loyalty to family. Nini Roll Anker’s books appeal to women’s responsibility for upbringing and their social responsibility. She sees women’s complicity in war, but regards the hostilities as men’s work. In her criticism of the established Church, she pays particular attention to the way in which patriarchal techniques of governance couple religion and sexuality.
Around the year 1800, Danish-German aristocratic circles in Denmark and in the state of Schleswig-Holstein enjoyed a flourishing ‘salon culture’. Seen in a Scandinavian context, the most interesting salon was that of Charlotte Schimmelmann, which was much-visited and known throughout Europe. As wife of Ernst Schimmelmann, Denmark’s Minister of Finance, and for a period also Privy Councillor, Charlotte Schimmelmann presided over many official social functions. She always made sure there were scholars and artists in attendance.By gathering the royal court, nobility, diplomatic corps, and the higher official class in her salon, Charlotte Schimmelmann positioned herself at the heart of political events. She won her reputation as salon hostess, however, by being considered a ‘bel-esprit’, widely-read and well-informed about the latest European currents in scholarship, philosophy, and literature, and as the driving force behind her husband’s activities as patron of the arts. As salon hostess, she built bridges between central Europe and provincial Denmark, between high politics and intellectual life. But in the final decade of its existence, the Schimmelmann salon was but a faint reflection of its former self.
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.
Charlotta Dorothea Biehl was the most productive Danish woman writer of the eighteenth century. She repeatedly made effective use of the letter in her writing. Not least in a year-long and extensive correspondence with her close friend Lord Chamberlain Johan Bülow. At his request Biehl wrote Mit ubetydelige Levnets Løb (My Insignificant Life) in the form of a large-scale letter, intended to be distributed and read among Bülow’s circle of friends and influential persons of rank.Her private letters would not have been written with the intention of circulation, but surely Biehl had hoped that Johan Bülow would keep the private letters for the benefit of posterity. If so, she was not mistaken. To this very day they are kept among Johan Bülow’s papers, carefully preserved for anyone who would like to make the acquaintance of “the spinster scribe”.
Madame de Sévigné turned the epistolary genre into a women’s genre, not in the sense that it was mostly populated by women, but because the women in this one genre had the status of role models, both for men and for women.Starting with Madame de Sévigné, and moving through numerous collections of letters written by women (and men, too), we eventually reach, a good one hundred years later, Charlotta Dorothea Biehl, in whom we find an amazingly undiluted Nordic counterpart to Madame de Sévigné. Madame de Sévigné created a female genre, Miss Biehl executed it ‘to the letter’.