A number of social and ideological features became prevalent in the European transition from eighteenth to nineteenth century – the establishment of the middle-class family as culture-bearing and the Romantic idealisation of woman as partly the mother of God and nature and partly the unconscious and alien aspect of the man’s humanness. These features contributed to a union of the previous periods’ female types, the housewife and the salon hostess, in the woman of the Romantic intimate sphere. In this way, Romanticism gave the woman a cultural position by virtue of gender alone – a position which she had not had before and would soon lose again. The Romantic intimate sphere was, unlike the salon, a home, but not therefore simply a (petit) bourgeois nuclear family. It was a community of the sexes, which would realise the Romantic philosophy and religious attitude to life. By absorbing and conveying inspiration from the wider European movement, women’s literature played a key role in structuring this new identity of the intimate sphere.
The nineteenth century was the century of reading, and from the outset women – as readers and writers – captured a large part of the rapidly expanding literary market. Given that it was the women who had formerly been left out of the (Latin) academic culture, these women now formed the majority of all the new readers. Readers were particularly enthusiastic about entertaining prose fiction. Of the new varieties now put into production by the media, the main genres were first the fantastical (Gothic) and later the realistic novel. Women writers had access to the media, if, that is, they could tap into the readers’ desires and needs – and this they could.From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, female authors put their stamp on European popular literature in a manner that literary history has by no means chronicled to any adequate extent.
Female writers of the Romantic movement did not have the academic training in literary tradition enjoyed by the majority of their male colleagues; this did not, however, mean that they approached literature with no prior aptitude whatsoever. If anything, being voracious readers they were stuffed with the male writers’ descriptions of the world and of themselves. They had an overwhelming urge to supplement and correct these pictures of women and the world according to their own minds. The female writers displayed a strong sense of having something new to tell.They were, naturally, aware that they were inscribing themselves in a literary institution that neither bid them welcome to the profession nor accepted their texts as authoritative. It was not easy to win readers for the images of woman and world that the female writers were attempting to project. Furthermore, the gender dualism and idealisation of intimate sphere-femininity of romanticism meant that the women writers struggled to integrate their writing self in their female self-image.
The ideal of womanhood, as described in the eighteenth-century moral tales and bourgeois stage comedies, was not hushed and inarticulate. But it became so. For many women writers of the period, putting pen to paper seems to have been a welcome opportunity to break the silence that had descended on women’s lives in the first half of the nineteenth century – a rhetoric of silence.Novels and stories written by Nordic women in the mid-1800s often give a quiet, powerful female figure a central position in the gallery of characters. The good womanliness was hushed and self-sacrificing; but the women who began to speak and write also saw themselves as good women and envisaged that their voice and action could be the ideal, that the camp of the mute had something to say that could be of benefit to the nation and to human society.