By the mid-1790s the Swedish author Anna Maria Lenngren was already a major name. She bridged the two great literary golden ages in the history of Swedish literature: on the one side, the Gustavian epoch, and on the other side, Romanticism, which had its breakthrough in 1809.Between 1793 and 1800, Anna Maria Lenngren wrote one-hundred-and-twenty poems. Thereafter, they flowed more sparsely from her pen. In 1800, the Swedish Academy awarded her an annual pension. In 1798, she began preparing a list of the texts that might be considered for inclusion in a collected edition of her works. Her proud programmatic poem “Invocation”, published in 1809, which outlined her aesthetics and was addressed to Apollo, would suggest that she took her writing most seriously. If all that her lyre has produced is “capricious fancy”, she says in the final stanza, then it deserves to be crushed! It is a highly self-assured and self-important voice speaking, and in the face of incipient Romanticism’s “delirium” the voice asks for Enlightenment “courage”.
In the eighteenth century the Swedish Countess Maria Gustava Gyllenstierna was characterised as “a woman of great talent and noble heritage, who has honoured her Country and her Sex in these our times.” She is considered to be one of the skilled literary women of the time; she is listed in contemporary catalogues of Lärda Swenska Fruentimmer (Learned Swedish Women) and she is described as such in the directory of Swedish nobility.She was the second wife of Privy Councillor Carl Bonde and bore him five children, all the while accompanying him on trips to, among other places, Finland and England. He died in 1699. Maria Gustava Gyllenstierna was a widow for nearly forty years, during which time she devoted herself to her writing at Tyresö Castle just outside Stockholm. Translations from German and French made up a large part of her literary output.
There is a great variety in the quantity of creative or academic material passed down to us from each of the approximately one-hundred-and-fifty illustrious writing women living in the Nordic region between 1500 and 1800. If we pick out the Nordic women’s literary oeuvres and gather them together, big and small, we see the Nordic region in fine bloom, with committed, moving, keen, sincere, quality writing often arranged in bouquets around a scholarly family, a manor or a convent. A female consciousness and a literary aesthetic equal to those found elsewhere in Europe is clearly present in the work of the Nordic “feminae illustres”.
The seventeenth-century Danish noblewoman Birgitte Thott was the foremost Danish learned woman of her day, a “femina docta”, a “femina illustris”. She is one of the few Danish women whose passing was marked with tribute poems in Latin, and probably the only one to have been honoured by poems in Greek too. She would have been delighted by the poems. In her treatise Om et lyksaligt liv (On a Happy Life), she praises the Romans for having introduced a law stating that women should also be accorded funeral orations in which they are praised according to their deserts, just like men. A long, printed funeral address in Latin by professor at Sorø Academy Jørgen Rosenkrantz has been preserved. The text provides an impression of her life. Funeral oration is by nature a eulogistic genre with scope for exaggeration, but Birgitte Thott’s language skills have been corroborated by so many others that we may take Rosenkrantz at his word. Her translations speak for themselves in bearing out her talents, even though they might not cover all the languages she apparently actually spoke.
“Gynaeceum” is Greek and means ‘women’s chamber’. In the Renaissance the word was used as a genre designation for a literary historical category: a catalogue of women who were notable by virtue of their writings or some other form of artistic or intellectual activity.The gynaecea typically had a systematic or alphabetic structure, making them suitable as reference works. By looking up a famous woman’s name, the reader is introduced to her family via a few laudatory adjectives and her own intellectual achievements. The information is often kept brief.The Nordic region has an excellent collection of home-grown gynaecea. The genre is particularly well represented in Denmark. This small collection of Swedish biographies, and the quite numerous Danish and Norwegian biographies included in the Danish gynaecea, makes for a picture of active artistic and intellectual circles of women in these Nordic countries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And we can only presume that the same could be said of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Finland. And that there were women in the Nordic region who considered themselves members of the European ‘club’ of cultured women.
Magdalena Sofia, ‘Malla’, Silfverstolpe hosted the most well-known learned salon in Sweden, frequented during the 1820s and 1830s by famous male authors of the time. Through her contact with these famous men Malla Silfverstolpe has gone down in history, whereas her own person and her individual contributions to the salon culture have been marginalised.Her great memoirs, published posthumously in four volumes, are at one and the same time the most important document about the Swedish salon culture and the most interesting literary text by a woman that has issued from this cultural milieu. This latter dimension has been neglected, and the work has primarily been highlighted as a historical source of knowledge about the period’s famous men. Yet, with her close examination of the conditions of emotion, she offers a unique insight into the contradictions of women’s lives and women’s culture in the early nineteenth century.