Vibeke Grønfeldt’s body of work has grown steadily and is now very comprehensive. However, despite the weight, despite the attention and respect surrounding her work, it stands strangely isolated in the literary debate. Just as the author still lives on the small Danish island of her birth, Samsø, so her work similarly insists on remaining on the fringe of culture.
After a marriage to celebrated Danish writer Jeppe Aakjær that did not last, Marie Bregendahl coped with life as a single mother by keeping house for her brother who owned a dairy in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen. Nor was she able to go back; exodus and city were forever part of her make-up. The tension between the rural culture of her childhood and the anonymised city life, in which the individual had to create an identity for her- or himself, became the empirical sounding board for her entire body of works.In this, she carried on the Modern Breakthrough’s naturalistic portrayal of reality, but in her very own distinctive way in which the traditional narrative forms and the modern woman’s chaos of conflicting experience both found a voice.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘sons of the people’ formed a united front against the bourgeois culture and ‘decadence’, and a new popular realism entered Danish literature. And the daughters of the people – well, they too embarked on new paths, and a few tried their luck as authors.These women writers cannot be seen as a group in the same way as the rural male writers can. They were isolated women dotted around Denmark, and for most of them writing was a sideline to the work that put food on the table. On the other hand, their rural origin meant that they had some material in common. Acquisition of a written language meant personal liberation for women from the lower classes – a way out of the trammels of class and the anonymous gender.
On the threshold to the twentieth century, the doors to the world stood open. At last the individual had the prospect of liberation from the restrictive bindings of religion, class, and gender. With the new world picture as its mental sounding board, the new century opened up for a progressive process of integration.Women and ordinary people gained access to bourgeois written culture, and they then of course made their mark on this culture.While male writers and scientists were shoring up their threatened masculinity by categorising “Woman” under “primordial Nature”, the women were surely and steadily gaining ground in the men’s bastions of power.
With the Modern Breakthrough in the Nordic region in the 1880s, feverish female activity could be perceived everywhere. Women joined together in national women’s societies, working doggedly and energetically to put women’s issues on the agenda of the legislative authorities in order to ensure the implementation of laws. Writing in newspapers, journals, and literary works, it was young middle-class women – well-versed in languages, conversation, and good manners – who presented issues pertaining to women’s status as a social problem.Many women writers of the Modern Breakthrough experienced the new departure in the form of personal and artistic failure. They broke their backs or their pens on the modern paradox. But the emancipation project was not abandoned. For the women who continued to write for the rest of the century, and for those who made their debut around the turn of the century, the tension between ideals and disillusion, between movement and moment, was merely put in a different form.
“Once the woman has risen,” wrote the Norwegian author Amalie Skram enthusiastically in 1880 of Henrik Ibsen’s Et Dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House), “she can no longer be stopped.” And stop – that was not on the agenda of Amalie Müller, as she was called at the time.In 1884, she married the Danish writer Erik Skram and moved with him to Copenhagen. And this is when she began writing in earnest – but she was never really akin to the Danish women of the Modern Breakthrough: her passion set her apart. While other women writers put themselves on the outside, Amalie Skram related totally to her material – with ruthless exploitation and self-exploitation. The blasé attitude versus the passionate attitude. As creative artist and woman, she was in an outsider position. Too intense for her Danish colleagues and categorically blacklisted in Norway.Amalie Skram’s stories are just as passionate studies of the depths of the mind as those of her contemporary, Freud, and her body of works thus goes beyond the Modern Breakthrough – towards the madness and knowledge of the twentieth century.
City and Text
Adda Ravnkilde’s slender body of work stands out in the topography of women’s literature as a landmark of ‘something good and important’ – and also of fictionalisation and randomisation. Her life and work manifest a concentration of the optimistic urge towards breaking through, reaching that which is real – the real speech, the true personality.Adda Ravnkilde was equipped with antennas that were able to pick up these zeitgeist signals, and this was probably for the most part because she was an outsider; unprepared as she was for modern city life, modernity hit her as a sexual bewilderment. Opposites merged in her body and writing: the provinces versus the city, purposefulness versus chance, realism versus Romanticism.She took her own life at the age of twenty-one, but before that she had managed to experience thwarted desire, departure from the paternal home, and an artistic breakthrough. The latter, however, she did not live to see; her works were not published until a year after her death.
It was the capitalisation of societal economy that created a sympathetic ear to Nathalie Zahle’s ideas on education; the schools she set up over the years were pioneering in their endeavours to qualify women to meet the needs entailed by this change. It required women to be able to support themselves, to have knowledge and education.In accordance with this, women of the Modern Breakthrough constructed their novels as a process of cultivation. That this seldom succeeded, that their Bildungsromans turned into ‘breakdown’ novels, is not because they were bad writers, far from it, but because the novels reflect the twofold nature of modernity: liberation to exercise personal authority is simultaneously a setting at liberty, a loss of control.Erna Juel-Hansen, characteristically, came closest to filling the genre – of all the female Modern Breakthrough writers, she had the greatest confidence in headway being made. Her Bildungsromans are buoyed by an optimistic belief in the possibility of liberation and a will to – despite everything – project a whole female identity.
The women authors of the late nineteenth century wrote in league with and as challenge to the women’s movement. The most self-assured of the women writers could be publicly involved in well-defined key issues such as electoral rights for women, and in private would form unofficial networks with other women, for example in a weekly salon where they could discuss matters of doubt.These were women who did not pigeonhole moral conduct, for the very reason that they were open and therefore deeply affected by the change in mindset that triggered the controversy about morality: the sexualisation of gender. Very few of the women writers therefore spoke out in the ideological dispute. Instead, they used fiction to find their bearings in the state of womanhood. And here, they shaped a different and more dangerous picture of female sexuality than the clichés put on display in the public debate.