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.
The socially conscious Swedish writer Moa Martinson, The enfant terrible of the welfare state for two decades, her first name was a household word. The sexual, historical, and psychological projects that inform Martinson’s writing are closely intertwined. Much of her fiction documents the awareness of working-class women during a time of great social unrest when the labour movement became a force to reckon with and class consciousness manifested in organised forms, and can also be read as a feminist critique of the failure of the labour movement to demand social reforms for women.Making the fertile body of a woman the centre around which the literary material is organised was new to Swedish literature. Most of Martinson’s female characters are strong but ambivalent. They are bound to their biological destiny but strive to transcend it. She encountered opposition from the critics for her unpolished portrayals of women’s bodies and sexuality. Placing sexuality in the foreground allowed her to depict women’s existential condition.
Korpfolksungen (The Raven People’s Child) is the Finland-Swedish author and artist Irmelin Sandman Lilius’s fortieth book. She made her debut aged nineteen in 1955 and has since then established herself as one of Finland’s internationally best known writers of children’s books. Korpfolksungen unites several of the typical elements in Irmelin Sandman Lilius’s oeuvre: sliding between the real and the fantastical, between childhood and the world of the adult, between mythical time, historic time, and the present makes her a boundary-breaking, multi-layered writer for readers of all ages.In the society that Irmelin Sandman Lilius builds in book after book the protagonists are the poor of the back lanes. The world of the poor is a minutely described women’s world, wherein the girls take on the tasks of women, take on adult responsibilities, and provide for themselves. In her later works, Irmelin Sandman Lilius far more often steps into a more autobiographically determined reality. In exquisite little illustrated books, she returns to her childhood and youth.
With her remarkable debut novel Tjärdalen (1953; The Tar Kiln), Sara Lidman laid the ground for a magnificent literary world, to which her oeuvre remained faithful. Her novels are constructed around a multitude of people, united in the village. Usually this village is situated in Norrland, on the outskirts of civilisation, but it has scions in Africa and Vietnam. Its characteristics are poverty and exploitation – but at the same time it is presented as a strangely rich collective.In terms of themes, tough questions of guilt and treason are raised, but they are wrapped in a loving, forgiving narrative, in a continued balancing act between law and grace. At times, Sara Lidman’s main contribution was only partly that of the author. Just as important was the debater, the playwright, and above all the political speaker Sara Lidman. She appears in an unusual combination of being fact-oriented yet in possession of an emotional language, a mixture of the front reporter and the Canticles. Exemplary, loved, and hated.
Ingeborg Refling Hagen’s stories from the 1920s demonstrate national-romantic features and also a new form of poverty-realism in which rural life is presented without any nostalgic romanticisation of an authentic culture. The novels of Gro Holm and Magnhild Haalke are also free of nostalgia. Gro Holm exposes the oppression of women in rural communities, and in Magnhild Haalke’s novels nature and life of the common people provide the setting for in-depth psychological portraits.These three writers take very different approaches; however, while casting a new and critical gaze upon the ‘old society’, their writing is deeply rooted in the culture they see under threat of disintegration.
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.
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.
Maj Hirdman’s diaries testify to the zeal with which she planned a series of books – one about working-class women, an autobiography, a popular history – in her quest for “the way out of degradation.” But her journey from diarist to professional author was long and bumpy. She tried to write at the same time that she ran a household, took care of children, lived in poverty, and suffered one illness after another. She managed to publish poems and short stories, but her submissions were frequently rejected.She was 33 when Anna Holberg (1921), her first novel, was brought out. Hirdman never made a genuine breakthrough. Modernity was the springboard of her writing career. Overcrowding, children, and drudgery may have robbed her of certain intellectual and wilful qualities. In their place came the great struggle between the dream of motherhood and the world of men.In exposing the conflict and search for an identity, Hirdman crafted a new language, a spirited voice for an ambivalent generation of women.
The deaf seamstress Maria Sandel, was a feminist, an active Social Democrat, and a favourite among Ellen Key’s circle. She has been referred to as the Fredrika Bremer of the proletariat. She was “among the strangest people who have ever held a pen in their hand”. For twenty-five years, she occupied a little room with a tiled stove in supportive housing. This place served as a rich source of material.She was a Swedish pioneer when it came to writing about overcrowding, the struggle to put bread on the table, the need for women to work two or three times as hard as men. But her goal was much more ambitious than mere social realism. She cloaked her ethical commitment in literary garb. Feminism was part of her project; she wanted to “correct men’s perception of women”. Like many others, she drew inspiration from Charles Dickens’s novels. And as was the case with other contemporary proletarian authors, her thinking was shaped by the labour movement’s goal of “raising up the working class.”
The work of collecting material from the oral tradition of nineteenth-century Finland received financial support from the government and resulted in one of the world’s largest collections, not only of oral poetry, but also of women’s poetry. At least half of the recorded texts come from women: female singers and narrators.The collection efforts focused on content; rarely was any attention paid to the bearers of the tradition – the people who sang the songs or told the tales. We know that many were women, but virtually all of them remained anonymous and faceless.This article will only look at part of the extensive tradition: the ancient runes, documented in Kalevala meter (lyrical poems and ballads), and itkuvirsi (lamentations), which were sung exclusively by women. In all, there are approximately 145,000 texts in the first group, and approximately 3000 in the second.