Female poets of the early twentieth century discreetly described sexual experiences in terms of grass that smoulders or is flattened like a mat beneath the lovers. Eventually, the euphemisms grew unnecessary and Eros’ significance to a generation of female poets becomes obvious in the work of Berit Spong, Ingeborg Björklund, Greta Knutson, Martha Larsson, Maria Wine, Ingeborg Erixson, and Elsa Grave, among others.
In Edith Øberg’s literary novels, women’s relationships with each other increasingly come to the fore as men recede into the background. Øberg is most interested in women as creative subjects of their lives. Her later novels, which exhibit an unmistakable interest in psychoanalytical concepts, offer penetrating insights into issues surrounding female identity.Her examination of the unconscious roots of sexual needs and conflicts is particularly fascinating, placing her in the thick of the cultural debate about modernism during the interwar period. Her in-depth studies of fragmented female psyches, breeding grounds for repressed conflicts due to puritanical upbringings, traumatic childhood memories, and guilty erotic ties challenge the view perpetrated by male vitalists of women as uncomplicated instinctive creatures. Her first four novels touch on taboo subjects.
Coming-of-age novels by women after World War I often have a significant lesbian theme. The role model is frequently a single, independent career woman, described as attractive, strong, efficient, and intelligent. Coming out of the closet was not without its risks. Homosexual acts were criminal offences and Swedish psychiatrists regarded homosexuality as a disease until 1979.Finding a means of describing and expressing a sexual orientation that had been outlawed and suppressed for centuries – and that had been defined and discussed by male medical, psychiatric, and literary ‘ experts’ only – was no easy task. What the ‘new women’ of the inter-war period needed, besides visibility, was a language capable of reflecting female sexual desire and experience outside the domain of men, of describing an existence beyond the ken of traditional sexual categories.
Sår som ennu blør (Wounds That Still Bleed), a novel in verse by Karo Espeseth, is an account of a sexual sadist and his relationship with a young woman. The novel exposes the connection between gender and war in inter-war Europe. The man is driven by the accumulation of repressed rage, hatred, vengeance, and desire. Espeseth demonstrates his affinity with a general culture of violence that has long been linked to ideals of masculinity and sexuality.Unfortunately, the subsequent debate revolved more around sexual morality, superficial ideals, and literary decadence than the question that Espeseth tries to raise: what is the cause and dynamic of violent sex? In the wake of the pitiless criticism and lack of comprehension that Sår som ennu blør aroused in Norway, Espeseth stopped writing poetry. Not until 1983 did she break her self-imposed silence.
Nuoren opettajattaren varaventtiili (The Young Teacher’s Safety Valve) by Hilja Valtonen was the first modern Finnish light novel, a trendsetter for its humour and cheekiness. She published close to thirty bestsellers between 1926 and 1975. Her heroines are career women, often self-taught, and marriage is described as an attractive option, if not the only one. A number of the novels are incisive analyses of inequality in marriage, portraying the modern man as “old-fashioned at heart”.The new wave of popular Finnish novels by women dauntlessly combined romantic intrigue with analyses of inner conflicts. The novels of Elsa Soini examine the status of the modern woman in inter-war society. She depicts several generations of women from turn-of-the-century suffragettes to modern tomboys with upper secondary or university degrees. Her works call the sharp dividing line between femininity and masculinity into question.
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.
Women writers of the so-called primitivist movement write about lawless passion. The female characters of their novels often pay with their lives for their forbidden passion. The novels formulate a more or less explicit critique of the way that patriarchal society links ownership of the earth to that of women as sexual objects while maintaining a level of erotic ambivalence – a strategy that successfully attracted wide female readership.The novels reflect thoroughgoing knowledge of the joys and hardships associated with tilling the soil. Nor do they skip over the role that women’s crafts played when it came to ensuring survival of the family farm. Both male and female primitivists wrote about sexuality in a frank and open manner. Female primitivism decoupled the ambivalence of the sentimental literary tradition from its religious, patriarchal assumptions and turned it into a sensual code that stood on its own.Female desire in these books burns down villages, devastates marriages, slaughters farmers, and allows women to affirm themselves by listening to their bodies. Eventually, they and their offspring are punished mercilessly, often with death.
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.
Finnish author Eeva Kilpi made her debut in 1959 with the collection of short stories Noidanlukko (Moonwort), and during the 1960s she published a number of novels and short story collections in which the pairs of opposites – man and woman, body and intellect, but even more city and countryside – were the mainstay. With the collection of poems Laulu rakkaudesta (1972; Songs of Love) and the novel Tamara (1972; Eng. tr. Tamara), Eeva Kilpi became one of the leaders of the Finnish women’s literature scene. One of the central themes of her oeuvre is the assertion that the city and modern technology kill not only plants and animals but also people. She has a singular mix of longing for the village and militant eco-activism, and her organic and holistic vision of life is clearly expressed in her writings. With her autobiographical trilogy she writes the history of WWII from the perspective of women and the Finnish home front. She enables the reader’s own memory work while describing her own, and she consistently completes the critique of civilisation that has been the driving force throughout her works.
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.