Nordic novels in the 21st Century are filled with female detectives, gothic heroines and monsters. While the female protagonist in male authored narratives is often transformed into a destructive monster, female authors tend to draw upon supernatural features in order to thematise the female protagonist’s self-realisation and liberation from both the dominant gender contract and traditional family configurations. Leonora Christina Skov, Olga Ravn, Majgull Axelsson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are among some of the main exponents of the gothic novel.
The nineteenth century was the century of reading, and from the outset women – as readers and writers – captured a large part of the rapidly expanding literary market. Given that it was the women who had formerly been left out of the (Latin) academic culture, these women now formed the majority of all the new readers. Readers were particularly enthusiastic about entertaining prose fiction. Of the new varieties now put into production by the media, the main genres were first the fantastical (Gothic) and later the realistic novel. Women writers had access to the media, if, that is, they could tap into the readers’ desires and needs – and this they could.From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, female authors put their stamp on European popular literature in a manner that literary history has by no means chronicled to any adequate extent.
The greatest part of Aurora Ljungstedt’s popular writings, which were published in nine volumes in the period 1872-82, consists of short stories, sometimes put together to form a greater whole thanks to a recurring gallery of characters. Her most used pseudonym, ‘Claude Gerard’, is taken from one of the Paris novels by Eugène Sue, and she may be said to have further developed in a psychological direction the tension-creating serial novels of the 1840s, with their lost letters, foundlings, scheming scoundrels, and mysterious events.Her plots are always well crafted, and she meets the public’s demand for vice to be punished and virtue rewarded. In her ample production of novels there are examples of pure horror Romanticism, but also skilfully written crime stories. Her often colourful female criminals and drab male criminal investigators reflect general tendencies in the period’s crime literature.
Swedish Emilie Flygare-Carlén’s first novel, Waldemar Klein (1838), to a great extent plagiarises the well-known style of Knorring’s novels. But later on she developed a profile all her own. The discussion of sexuality, men, and women that von Knorring had introduced was to be further developed, in a modern direction, by Flygare-Carlén. She did not shy away from calling the man’s egotism vis-à-vis the other sex by its rightful name, or from exposing the woman’s strategic duplicity with regard to engagement and marriage.Whereas Knorring describes sexuality as passionate and pent-up at one and the same time, Flygare-Carlén more explicitly sees it as a necessary but fatal drive. As her writing career progresses, she also shows how a determined woman may not always be able to change her situation but is at least able to influence it. It is undoubtedly her courage in giving a positive depiction also of vigorous women that is the secret of her great financial success as a bestselling author. In 1862 Emilie Flygare-Carlén was awarded the Swedish Academy’s large gold medal, and in 1865 her last important work appeared, the autobiographical trilogy Skuggspel (Shadow Play).
Wendela Hebbe, who was active in the 1840s at Aftonbladet, the biggest and most scandalous newspaper in Sweden, has gone down in history as the country’s first permanently employed female journalist. But she was much more than that: she was Sweden’s first female publicist. Her small salon in her office in the Gamla Stan quarter of Stockholm soon became a meeting-place for the men of the new spirit. A circle of free publicists involved a politicised literary culture.In Wendela Hebbe’s journalism, the social tendency of the period is noticeable, but it can be more difficult to discover in her fiction, which employs an unusually high number of voices and experiments with various genres, from Romantic texts and everyday prose to depictions of the lives of common people. In the period from 1846 through 1850, Wendela Hebbe published a number of articles that aimed at publicly exposing the extreme poverty that women in particular could be living in. At the same time, Wendela Hebbe’s literary production is an interesting example of how difficult it was for the female life experience to find its literary form. She did not have an adequate genre for this.