Ingeborg Stuckenberg saw Johannes Jørgensen’s, Helge Rode’s, and Viggo Stuckenberg’s renouncement of the Modern Breakthrough as a betrayal of everything they had believed in and fought for. She had inspired, critiqued, composed music for her friends’ poems, and written texts for her husband’s literary output. And yet she had no opportunity for countering their deceit. No, she would not be muse, not priestess, not Valkyrie for others – she would be her own soldier.She saw no prospect of being this in turn-of-the-century Denmark. In the spring of 1903, she left everything behind, went to Bremen, and boarded an emigrant ship bound for New Zealand. The following year, on 12 August 1904, she committed suicide, thirty-eight years old.
From Rhymes to Reforms in Iceland
When the Danish author Magdalene Thoresen let Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson publish her first book Digte af en Dame (Poems by a Lady) the ‘women’s question’ had long been a topic of political debate and a literary theme. Her oeuvre, which would soon prove to be one of the most extensive and significant of the period, addressed the issue in its own particular larger-than-life way, blending some of the most patriarchal notions of Romanticism with aspects of the new cultural departures of the decades to come.The focus of Thoresen’s works is the depiction of nature and people in the Norway that became her adopted country. Her biggest popular success was the two-volume ‘travelogue’ from the northernmost area, Billeder fra Midnatsolens Land (Pictures from the Land of the Midnight Sun). She achieved her greatest success, in the opinion of reviewers and readers, with her travel books, but these did not represent her main genre. Most of her literary output falls within two other genres: the ‘peasant tale’ and the realistic contemporary drama.
With the twenty-four stories in En Hverdags-Historie (An Everyday Story) from 1828, Thomasine Gyllembourg consolidated a new literary tradition – the realistic prose story. She shows her reader around in the external forum where everyday life takes place, ornamented with particulars that might seem like knick-knacks, but which all share in the function of making her universe recognisable actuality. While En Hverdags-Historie shows family life in a concave mirror, a number of Gyllembourg’s other short stories reflect family life in a magic mirror.When Thomasine Gyllembourg wrote her everyday stories, the nuclear family was still a new phenomenon, and she herself had lived through a considerable part of its cultural genesis. With En Hverdags-Historie, she positions herself midstream between the old family with its awareness of lineage and the new family with its orientation towards the individual, and from this vantage point she views the evolution of the family, weighs up loss and gain, and exposes the inherent cracks in the foundation of the nuclear family. The trends identified by Thomasine Gyllembourg in the 1840s thus anticipate the particular modern way of life that would be put to debate some decades later in the literature of the Modern Breakthrough.
Camilla Collett’s major work Amtmandens Døttre (The District Governor’s Daughters) is the first realistic ‘propaganda novel’ in the annals of Norwegian literature, and the first Norwegian novel to take a broad and critical look at conditions offered to women in the better-off strata of society. The work was no run-of-the-mill novel when it was published in 1854-55. Many people were affected by the thematic line of the book: the attack on marriages of convenience and marriages contracted solely to provide for the woman, the complaints about the restricting parameters of life for women. Even the male critics were delighted in the innovation of her style.After Amtmandens Døttre and a volume of Fortællinger (Short Stories), Camilla Colett stopped writing fiction. Instead, she used the 1860s to explore the grey area between autobiography, memoirs, and travel writing. She then took the plunge and concentrated on polemical writings, publishing two new volumes of Sidste Blade (Last Leaves) in 1872 and 1873, and in 1877 the collection that was to be her breakthrough as feminist cultural critic, Fra de Stummes Leir (From the Camp of the Mute).Her writing career drew to a close with two new collections of essays, and a number of one-off articles on a range of subjects. She must be given a large measure of credit for the strong feminist influence exercised on the Norwegian Modern Breakthrough, and she contributed to avoidance of the deep divide between the female and male outlook on sexual morality that marked Danish cultural life in the 1880s.
In their everyday stories, essays, and novels, the female Romantic prose writers had to express themselves in relation to a male Romantic rhetoric that, in the work of a number of male theologians, served to provide the myth of innocence with substance and sociality in the bourgeois home. Female worthiness becomes a central issue for many female writers of the day.
It was a feeling of sorrow and hopelessness that led the actress Johanne Luise Heiberg to start writing her memoirs in 1855, at the age of forty-two: Et Liv gjenoplevet i Erindringen (A Life Relived in Memory). The most highly-acclaimed Danish actress of the Romantic Age, she had become a myth in her own lifetime. But the demand for greater realism on stage gradually began to signal a new era.In her four-volume memoirs, the desire for clarification also becomes a construal in words, highlighting and illuminating those parts of the personal story needed to create the lasting monument to her life and art. A description of a life seen through sharply selective eyes. To glorify and preserve – and also to understand – that which had been, her own ephemeral art.
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.
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.