The number and quality of treatises discussing women’s talents or lack there of was high sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. The works were divided up by genre and were available in both printed and handwritten form. It is an established fact that readers in the Nordic countries were familiar with European concepts such as “Feminae illustres” (illustrious women), “Feminae doctae” (learned women), “Musa decimal” (the tenth muse), and so forth. Awareness of “feminae illustres” or “feminae doctae” seems to have been linked to the Renaissance period. There were, of course, earlier examples of learned women, but the desire to count them and classify them, and even promote them, would seem to have been a Renaissance inclination that surfaced among the progressive male learned circles.
In Denmark and Sweden a number of renowned literary gathering-places materialised in circles where creative writing and the dissemination of literature were becoming professions in their own right. Such a place was created by Karen Margrethe Rahbek at Bakkehuset near Valby Bakke outside Copenhagen. She established her person and her home at Bakkehuset as the hub of a variable circle of friends with an interest in the written word; people who were also the public face of literature in their day. In each their way, Karen Margrethe Rahbek and her husband acted as midwives to a new generation of writers.Even in its own day, Bakkehuset had an almost mythological glow, one reason being that it represented emancipation from German and aristocratic influence and from the system of patronage. It was Kamma Rahbek’s expressed wish that Danish alone be spoken at Bakkehuset. Similarly, she made a virtue of the circumstance that few of Bakkehuset’s guests had title or rank. At Kamma Rahbek’s gatherings it was the human qualities that counted. Through the myth of Kamma Rahbek, a male-dominated literary history has contributed to a definition of modern femininity as ‘the other’.
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.
Friederike Brun presided over her salon for more than forty years. Here, she gathered together such famous cultural figures as C. E. F. Weyse, D. F. R. Kuhlau, Jens Baggesen, Adam Oehlenschläger, Just Mathias Thiele, Bertel Thorvaldsen, J. L. Heiberg, and many foreign guests; the salon was a sort of open house.The golden age of the salon was during the period from 1810 to 1816. The weekly evening reception was a particularly bustling affair. During dinner, and later in the evening during intervals between music, tableaux vivants, and readings, the guests conducted cultured aesthetic conversation. The entertainment was supplied by visiting artists, and by Friederike’s daughter Ida. Brun wrote throughout her entire life, and published fifteen volumes of miscellaneous works, of which the early texts in particular were well received.Friederike Brun has to be viewed as a transitional figure – just as the whole salon culture is a transitional phenomenon – between a predominantly feudal and a predominantly bourgeois culture. She and her salon manifest a lived Utopia of a third way: between feudalism and capitalism, between the female and the male as keenly defined spheres. The salon provided, for a brief period, a forum for contrasts.
In the seventeenth century, les précieuses formed their own salons in protest against the vulgarity of the court of Henri IV. These salons were coveted gathering places for the cultural elite. The focal point of the salon was the witty conversation, often taking place in the boudoir, the intimate space. Between the court culture’s ceremonial salon hall and the bourgeoisie’s private parlour, the salon culture gave place to specialised forms of fellowship created and run by the brilliant and witty hostesses. One did not converse, but discussed earnestly and heartily subjects of an intimate, political, and cultural nature.The précieuses and the pre-Romantic salons alike inspired the Scandinavian salon culture. Sophisticated Nordic culture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was multilingual. Developments in Europe were thus speedily adopted in their corresponding Nordic settings. The salon culture has not been dealt with to any great extent in the annals of literary history. When a hostess is named it is because of the men she has assembled around her; however, the hostesses were creative artists in their own right.
In the history of Swedish literature, Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht is usually credited with introducing subjective poetry. She was the first writer in Swedish literature to view her writing as a vocation, an assignment, a cultural calling in itself. This is in turn linked to her status as one of the first Swedish cultural personages to live by her pen. As Levertin writes of Mrs Nordenflycht: “She is the first modern individual in Swedish literature.”Throughout her writing career, Mrs Nordenflycht pleaded for an improvement in women’s status. She spent much time and energy refuting the contention of women’s weakness, demonstrating that the woman is just as mentally capable as the man, and arguing that she, like him, should be permitted to use her abilities and mental powers.
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’.
The eighteenth century can exhibit many pictures of women who, directly and in particular indirectly, are occupied with their own literary creation, and the stage-management of the creative woman in these portraits has been very carefully thought through and is sometimes extremely detailed.
Sweden’s first woman writer Sophia Elisabet Brenner’s work was in the form of poems for special occasions. She paid tribute to royalty and people of high rank on their weddings and their birthdays, and after victories in battle, and she wrote poems to the bereaved and to the deceased. She did not forget her friends, of course, but the majority of her recipients were higher up the social ladder.Two-thirds of her collected occasional poems were addressed to the uppermost social class; they were the ones it was worth paying your respects to, and we know from her contemporaries that Mrs Brenner’s poems were in demand and valued highly. It was not totally unknown for panegyric poetry to be written in honour of talented intellectual or artistic women of the day, and she also wrote poems on the deaths of women and children.