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.
The Language Debate in Finland
Finnish female authors were active participants in the 1930s discussion of birth control and abortion that gathered momentum during the early years of the Depression. Katuojan vettä, the first popular success by novelist Helvi Hämäläinen, was a plea for motherhood as a natural event in the course of a woman’s life. Hämäläinen’s demands on behalf of motherhood combined with a satisfying sex life approach Ellen Key’s ideal.Ruumiin ikävä (1930; The Body’s Yearnings) by Iris Uurto is about a woman who leaves her husband. Such a bold depiction of sexuality by a young female author scandalised conservative cultural circles. Her description of instinct and the libido were inspired by the new psychology of the age. Inevitably, her books were fodder for 1930s controversies about morals in literature.
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.
All of Agnes von Krusenstjerna’s works revolve around the feelings of coercion, desperation, and revolt that the world of her childhood fostered. Her quest took her from the depressive chronicle of mental breakdown to a utopian dream of redemptive femininity.Her novels ask questions that women living through a period of sexual transition found both difficult and urgent: what role did sexuality play in female identity? How could women arrive at a life-affirming sensuality, free from the inherited baggage of sexual paranoia, misogyny, and denial of female desire? The strength of her storytelling is the ability to portray repressed and forbidden feelings, the secret of its suggestiveness and appeal, as well as its power to offend, alarm, and disgust the reader.
Much of the literature written by women after World War I bespoke a reaction to a new trend in sexual morality. The new age, the new woman, and the new sexuality echoed throughout its pages. With her “sex appeal” and “professional” relationship to traditional femininity, the new woman hovered around or simply crossed the line between the “good” and “bad” girl as defined by the old system of morality.Marika Stiernstedt’s prolific output reflects the temper of literature in Sweden in the first half of the twentieth century. She was a pacesetter in the 1920s. Her first twentieth-century novels examined infidelity and double standards in the spirit of Ellen Key. Relationships between women and men grew more complex in her later works.Her final work, Kring ett äktenskap (1953; About a Marriage), gives a no-holds-barred account of her infamous marriage to author Lubbe Nordström. The punctilious recital of the decline of an alcoholic and sexually ambivalent genius is unsparing in its directness. What good is freedom to the new woman if the new man turns out to be a cross between a hypocritical patriarch and a helpless child despite assurances of an egalitarian companionate marriage?
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.
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.”
“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.
How come a daughter of the liberal, albeit conservative ultra-respectable professor and hofmedicus (court physician) Carl Henrik Horn Nebelong was fooling about like a bohemian in Copenhagen cafés with her female friends and aspiring writers, and also writing audacious novels about the straitened circumstances of women’s desire in petit-bourgeois and double-standards patriarchal Denmark?