Agnes Henningsen’s world is like a geographical and ideological map. Denmark is mirrored in Europe, Danish province in Copenhagen city, ingrained middle-class in radical bohemian; and the widely different attitudes of the times converge – social, political, religious – assembled in a hot-spot: that of love and independence, which in Agnes Henningsen’s writings are the absolute premise of female desire.She takes issue with the sanctimonious institutionalisation of love – which causes hypocrisy, martyrdom, hysteria, and furtiveness, while continually threatening any natural development of the female sexual life.
With the Modern Breakthrough in the Nordic region in the 1880s, feverish female activity could be perceived everywhere. Women joined together in national women’s societies, working doggedly and energetically to put women’s issues on the agenda of the legislative authorities in order to ensure the implementation of laws. Writing in newspapers, journals, and literary works, it was young middle-class women – well-versed in languages, conversation, and good manners – who presented issues pertaining to women’s status as a social problem.Many women writers of the Modern Breakthrough experienced the new departure in the form of personal and artistic failure. They broke their backs or their pens on the modern paradox. But the emancipation project was not abandoned. For the women who continued to write for the rest of the century, and for those who made their debut around the turn of the century, the tension between ideals and disillusion, between movement and moment, was merely put in a different form.
“Once the woman has risen,” wrote the Norwegian author Amalie Skram enthusiastically in 1880 of Henrik Ibsen’s Et Dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House), “she can no longer be stopped.” And stop – that was not on the agenda of Amalie Müller, as she was called at the time.In 1884, she married the Danish writer Erik Skram and moved with him to Copenhagen. And this is when she began writing in earnest – but she was never really akin to the Danish women of the Modern Breakthrough: her passion set her apart. While other women writers put themselves on the outside, Amalie Skram related totally to her material – with ruthless exploitation and self-exploitation. The blasé attitude versus the passionate attitude. As creative artist and woman, she was in an outsider position. Too intense for her Danish colleagues and categorically blacklisted in Norway.Amalie Skram’s stories are just as passionate studies of the depths of the mind as those of her contemporary, Freud, and her body of works thus goes beyond the Modern Breakthrough – towards the madness and knowledge of the twentieth century.
Emergence of a Female Public Arena in Norway
The mood during the 1880s was tense – and productive! It caused women to write like never before. In the period between 1870 and 1890 more than seventy women writers were published for the first time in Denmark – which was almost three times as many as in the two preceding decades. Many – most – could not be classified as modern, either in terms of theme or style, but the diversity shows that women were taking part. The many provided the groundwork for the few who planted the new era into language and ideas. This required more than courage – because these women wrote on doubt about gender. The many male pseudonyms are telling.As authors they had a hard time – were pressed from all sides: partly by the men, partly because they could not live from writing. Women would therefore typically use writing as one aspect of a wider cultural enterprise. Fiction was one way in which to use their voice – journalism, lectures, association work were others.
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.
Under her pseudonym ‘Harold Gote’ (Harold the Goth: the Gothic/Nordic herald), Frida Stéenhoff was to present some of the most progressive and radical contributions to the period’s debate about society and about women. Due to her visions of a gender-equal and classless society, she became “the timber owners’ and the wholesalers’ bête noire”. However, Frida Stéenhoff’s wish was not only to expose the period’s sexism in her texts. It was just as important to her to formulate strategies that would bring about change. One of her main points was that motherhood can only be harmonious if the woman is able to support herself. Her works of fiction bear resemblance to the programmatic pamphlet and the predictable one-party plea, and this is to the detriment of its aesthetic effect. Nevertheless, her fiction and her pamphlets form an important link in Nordic women’s literature. Thanks to her avant-garde voice, these works helped to advance the woman’s position, and Frida Stéenhoff became one of the leading feminist theoreticians around the turn of the century.
Henrik Ibsen did not always go unchallenged. On the contrary, several of the women of the Modern Breakthrough felt provoked to correct or revise Ibsen’s original text, and time after time his portraits of women turn up in their plays and short stories, but rewritten on the basis of a different horizon of understanding. Two obvious examples from 1882 of such a female, partly subversive dialogue with Ibsen are Anne Charlotte Edgren Leffler’s short story “Tvifvel” (Doubt), and Alfhild Agrell’s play Räddad (Saved).These texts clearly show how Ibsen’s portrayal of women served as a challenge, a set piece that had to be tested and partly destroyed in order for the two female authors to arrive at a more credible story.
The Modern Breakthrough in Sweden
Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s novel Det går an. En tavla ur livet (It Can Be Done! A Picture out of Life; Eng. tr. Sara Videbeck) is a sharp and sweeping rejection of the Romantic image of the woman and a simple and elegantly presented utopia of love. It gave rise to the most heated and profound gender-political dispute on the literary scene in nineteenth-century Sweden, until the ‘morality controversy’ a few decades later. Some of the writers defended Almqvist, but most of them criticised him strongly.Without exception, the female authors who participated in the debate regarded Det går an as a male fantasy. The fact that Almqvist attached such great importance to the separation of sexuality from the institution of marriage made it almost impossible for the women to embrace his book wholeheartedly, although they shared his feminist views on other issues.