In 1937 Tove Ditlevsen first had a poem published. The poem can be read as an allegory of her writing career, which was to produce one of the most significant bodies of work written by a woman in the Danish post-war period. Underneath the extremely simple surface, the poem anticipates recurring themes such as female identity, memory, and creativity. Loss of childhood, and especially of the symbiotic relationship to the mother, is the foundation of Tove Ditlevsen’s melancholy poetics.Her writing is one long memory process, first in the form of fiction, but gradually also in essays with an autobiographical reference point and in essayistic fragments of memory, until she published her autobiographical works proper. Once the autobiographical material had been exhausted and all the key characters in her childhood universe – her mother, her father, and her brother – were dead and her husband had left her, Tove Ditlevsen ended her life as she had presaged.
Aase Hansen and Ellen Raae belonged to a generation of women for whom citizenship had been won, but the victory did not feel like a personal triumph. Along with writers such as Johanne Buchardt, Ellen Duurloo, children’s book author Estrid Ott, working-class writer Caja Rude, and Karen Bjerresø, they comprise a group interested in and troubled by the interplay between women’s demands on life and the new age as promise and threat.This is a group of writers whose fate in the annals of literary history has largely been one of silence.
The Inter-War Period
The Danish author Karen Blixen’s writing career came late and against a backdrop of heavy personal losses: financial problems forced her to abandon the coffee farm in Kenya, and the great love of her life, Denys Finch-Hatton, died in a plane crash. The losses are not just something linked to personal biography. In her re-workings, they grow into manifestation of a modern experience of loss of worth, a divided mind, and emptiness.Although Karen Blixen’s losses were profound and concrete, her realisation of life was also extraordinary and rich. This combination makes for a conflict that prompts her to go behind the tradition of realism and back to a narrative tradition stemming from the Arabian Nights, from Boccaccio, and from Cervantes’s stories in Don Quixote (1605 and 1615). A tradition which she combines with the eighteenth-century philosophical novels that have a narrator who deliberately plays with illusion and story, as we see in, for example, Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître (1796; Jacques the Fatalist and his Master). Furthermore, she finds inspiration in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales with their compressed accounts of human psychology and transformation.Alongside the general atmosphere of loss and interruption and distorted human relations, the characters have an incentive in the question of where and how humankind can find hope.
In 1944, fifteen years after Arnold Norlind’s death, his wife, the author and historian of religion Emilia Fogelklou wrote a biography of him. She was 66 years old. The book Arnold became the first volume of Emilia Fogelklou’s autobiographical trilogy, the high point of her prolific output.The books may seem out of order at first. Why does she not tell her story chronologically or in flashbacks? Arnold answers that question. Meeting Norlind was both the culmination and the beginning of her life. The book is one of the great love stories in Swedish literature, and a singular coming-of-age narrative.
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.
Author and journalist Elin Wägner was a central character in the struggle for women’s suffrage in Sweden, and she was committed to pacifism. She wrote around twenty novels, a handful of short story collections, and many radio plays, wherein she over and over again argued that women had to emancipate themselves so that they could “find a form of their own.”
Women have always dominated the world of Finnish theatre as playwrights, producers, and directors alike. The long list of playwrights, includes Minna Canth, Elviira Willman-Eloranta, Maria Jotuni, Hagar Olsson, and Hella Wuolijoki.Finnish theatre is a young phenomenon and from the beginning it was heavily influenced by radical thought, nationalism, the labour movement, and Ibsenian realism. But the predominance of women stems from Finnish cultural history: their antecedents in popular poetry. Popular poetry offered strong female characters and positive role models. Playwrights drew on this inspiration to exalt young women who radiate sexuality, mature and responsible wives, and wise old matriarchs.
Norwegian writer and participant in the public debate Nini Roll Anker hid behind the eloquent pseudonym Jo Nein (a play on Yes/No). The daughter of a family of civil servants from Western Norway, she wrote with great commitment about power and contradiction in bourgeois society. Her social commitment spanned a half-century and produced a wealth of fiction. Being a prominent figure in the arts, Nini Roll Anker’s was a crucial voice in the Norwegian debate on art and society. She supported the women’s cause and the mushrooming labour movement, but her key position was that of critical intellectual.Her literary universe sees nature and play, dream and passion as quality rating for a meaningful life. These vital “imaginary” values, as she called them, often get into conflict with the characters’, particularly the women’s, devotion to duty and loyalty to family. Nini Roll Anker’s books appeal to women’s responsibility for upbringing and their social responsibility. She sees women’s complicity in war, but regards the hostilities as men’s work. In her criticism of the established Church, she pays particular attention to the way in which patriarchal techniques of governance couple religion and sexuality.
Sigrid Undset’s writing career spans forty years and thirty titles, mainly short stories, novels, biographies, and essays. The crowning achievement being her major novels on the medieval characters Kristin Lavransdatter and Olav Audunssøn, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She was a dominant figure in the Norwegian literary milieu throughout the period between the World Wars, and in 1935 she was appointed chair of the Norwegian Society of Authors. She wrote numerous newspaper articles and essays drawing attention to the danger of the mushrooming fascism, and when Germany occupied Norway in 1940 she had to flee to the United States.Her writing investigates the condition of being a woman, particularly the terms on which a modern woman was expected to live her life and the options she had for creating meaning and substance to her existence. Her pen is motivated by the belief in a human ability to improve and update fundamental conditions of life. Also, there is a strong sense of the need to see the individual human life as part of a greater whole – a coherence that Sigrid Undset found when she converted to Catholicism in 1924.Her texts are never one-dimensional. Now and then she could be chastising, both in her writing and in her private activities. But she was only condemnatory where she saw her fundamental humanist values being trampled underfoot.