The Language Debate in Finland
The change of decade from the 1980s to the 1990s was interesting and eventful for Swedish minority literature in Finland. Epic depth, psychological intensity, and fully formed characters, a rich subject matter integrated in a convincing intrigue, narrative skill, and consciousness of form, interesting metafictional reflections, and the ability to create suggestive fictional universes – all these technical virtues of the novel are found richly represented in the new golden age of Finland-Swedish prose, which, furthermore, is dominated by women writers.For the Finland-Swedish poets who made their debuts in the 1980s and 1990s, “women’s poetry” is no longer relevant. “Use” poetry has done its part, and consolidating sisterhood and agitation are no longer necessary. The interest is more in poetry as language.
The Åland islands author Sally Salminen made her debut with the novel Katrina (1936; Eng. tr. Katrina), which became one of the biggest Nordic bestsellers of all time. The social critique implicit to the book aroused strong feelings in her native village of Vargata on Vårdö Island.The novel opened the door to a literary career, but grew to be a burden as well. Sally Salminen ended up publishing a total of seventeen novels, travelogues, and autobiographies. But Katrina overshadowed everything she did. Her last four books were autobiographical, and among these, Upptäcktsresan, has been called one of the best Finland-Swedish novels about the 1920s.
Ragnhild Jølsen’s life and writing is marked by the tension between her rural home village and the bohemian milieu in the capital city, between robust popular traditions and aesthetic sophistication. From her very first publication in 1903, she was welcomed as remarkably mature, unusually gifted, and singular. But her “brutal, raw power” and “blatant, intensely erotic scenes” led many to believe that the author must be a man.Her books are concerned with a type of woman who is beautiful, vulnerable, and sensual, and whose mind vacillates between dream and reality. She broke sexual taboos and courageously showed that she saw body and mind as a whole package. Her literary output is a long way from the bourgeois, earnest, and everyday approach that characterised Norwegian literature in the early decades of the twentieth century. The sensitive, perceptive and the fantastical, exaggerated were key elements in her books and continued to be so.
The writing of Regine Normann (1867-1939) lent a new dimension to the Norwegian region of Nordland. She fused folklore with authentic depictions of everyday life. Her innovative idiom normalises the Nordland dialect in a way that permits the rhythmic narrative style to bring out the region’s mystical and popular mentality.Her many collections of legends, a number of which she had already used in her novels, place her as a folklorist who passed down the oral tradition. Many of Normann’s books revolve around conflicts and power struggles between different generations of women. The autocratic, vindictive, and pietistic mother figure reappears in various guises.The female characters in her Nordland tales have been spared a conventional, middle-class upbringing. Getting pregnant by your fiancé is no sin. In the Nordland of yore that Normann depicts, the natural, unbridled urges of the flesh can find satisfaction. However, Normann’s later works exhibit a pronounced religious tone.
Súsanna Helena Patursson one of a number of women writers in the national movement. She wrote the first Faroese theatre play, Veðurføst (Layover Because of Bad Weather), which was performed in 1889. She encouraged women to participate in the public discussion forum, to get an education, and she instructed them as to how house and home should be organised. She edited and published the first Faroese women’s magazine, Oyggjarnar (1905-08; The Islands), making housekeeping, interior design, and cooking recipes a national and political issue.Among Paturssons female successors may be counted women such as Billa Hansen, Andrea Reinert, and Maria Mikkelsen. While these women travelled out into the world in order to learn, get ideas and, not least, experience, Johanna Maria Skylv Hansen’s writing took her back to the old rural community.
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.
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.
The Female Pattern in Folk Poetry and Folklore Collection
The Swedish author Victoria Benedictsson felt like “a pariah, a mangy dog”. Before she settled on the pseudonym Ernst Ahlgren, she had long vacillated between the alternatives ‘Tardif’, the tardy, and ‘O. Twist’, the unwelcome. Her authorship is based on this conflict of identity. “I am a woman. But I am an author – am I not, then, something of a man as well?”, she wonders in 1888. Her own life was short and ended tragically.But for a period of a few years in the middle of the 1880s she was astonishingly productive. Her works spoke to the core of the morality controversy’s debate over female identity. Her intellectual vitality during this short period stands in contrast to the image of a sickly, doomed person, which has dominated her posthumous reputation.