Finnish writer Minna Canth became a single mother, businesswoman, and author all at once. Instead of being satisfied with the simple and retired life of a widow, as was customary at the time, she became the most controversial of Finnish authors and shaped the direction of the country’s drama. Obituaries described her as a national hero, and her plays are still among the most popular on Finnish stages.
A number of social and ideological features became prevalent in the European transition from eighteenth to nineteenth century – the establishment of the middle-class family as culture-bearing and the Romantic idealisation of woman as partly the mother of God and nature and partly the unconscious and alien aspect of the man’s humanness. These features contributed to a union of the previous periods’ female types, the housewife and the salon hostess, in the woman of the Romantic intimate sphere. In this way, Romanticism gave the woman a cultural position by virtue of gender alone – a position which she had not had before and would soon lose again. The Romantic intimate sphere was, unlike the salon, a home, but not therefore simply a (petit) bourgeois nuclear family. It was a community of the sexes, which would realise the Romantic philosophy and religious attitude to life. By absorbing and conveying inspiration from the wider European movement, women’s literature played a key role in structuring this new identity of the intimate sphere.
“My entire being has almost been shattered by the overwhelming power of love.” The power of love in this 11 November 1918 diary entry by Finnish author Aino Kallas was the very wellspring of her artistry.Maila Talvio’s writing found itself at the epicentre of the Nordic debate about sexual morality and was inspired by Ellen Key and others. Beneath the concept of enlightenment and liberation, however, lurks a coherent narrative of sexual fear, pessimism, and longing for death.
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.
Friederike Brun presided over her salon for more than forty years. Here, she gathered together such famous cultural figures as C. E. F. Weyse, D. F. R. Kuhlau, Jens Baggesen, Adam Oehlenschläger, Just Mathias Thiele, Bertel Thorvaldsen, J. L. Heiberg, and many foreign guests; the salon was a sort of open house.The golden age of the salon was during the period from 1810 to 1816. The weekly evening reception was a particularly bustling affair. During dinner, and later in the evening during intervals between music, tableaux vivants, and readings, the guests conducted cultured aesthetic conversation. The entertainment was supplied by visiting artists, and by Friederike’s daughter Ida. Brun wrote throughout her entire life, and published fifteen volumes of miscellaneous works, of which the early texts in particular were well received.Friederike Brun has to be viewed as a transitional figure – just as the whole salon culture is a transitional phenomenon – between a predominantly feudal and a predominantly bourgeois culture. She and her salon manifest a lived Utopia of a third way: between feudalism and capitalism, between the female and the male as keenly defined spheres. The salon provided, for a brief period, a forum for contrasts.
In the seventeenth century, les précieuses formed their own salons in protest against the vulgarity of the court of Henri IV. These salons were coveted gathering places for the cultural elite. The focal point of the salon was the witty conversation, often taking place in the boudoir, the intimate space. Between the court culture’s ceremonial salon hall and the bourgeoisie’s private parlour, the salon culture gave place to specialised forms of fellowship created and run by the brilliant and witty hostesses. One did not converse, but discussed earnestly and heartily subjects of an intimate, political, and cultural nature.The précieuses and the pre-Romantic salons alike inspired the Scandinavian salon culture. Sophisticated Nordic culture of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was multilingual. Developments in Europe were thus speedily adopted in their corresponding Nordic settings. The salon culture has not been dealt with to any great extent in the annals of literary history. When a hostess is named it is because of the men she has assembled around her; however, the hostesses were creative artists in their own right.
The Modern Breakthrough in Sweden
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.
Approaching her forties, Thekla Knös published some poems that essentially conform to a cheerful, pious, and snug – homey – idealism. By her contemporaries she was regarded as a typical exponent of everyday culture. The contemporary literary critics commended Knös’s poems and saw in her lyric poetry a confirmation of the thesis that the ‘historical period of art’ had ended. This did not mean that the poem, or poetry, had had its day, but that it had been given a new function, namely to embellish everyday life.Accordingly, the field of poetry was opened up to the female poet as well. Her interest in children is striking. Not only does she write about children, she also writes for children, and her career as a female author is thus typical of the period. Unfortunately she vanished to the place where so many creative and frustrated women formerly ended their lives, the asylum.