The Language Debate in Finland
Three female Finland-Swedish authors who are generally included among the second wave of modernists began writing in Helsinki during the 1930s: Solveig von Schoultz, Mirjam Tuominen, and Eva Wichman. The war sliced through their lives and rewrote the terms of their careers.They explored new means of describing their experience, renewed the short story genre, and modified modernist poetry in various ways. Schoultz turned the spotlight on what she later called “society’s smallest cell, interpersonal relationships”, while Tuominen illumined the fundamental ethical issues of the age with the passion of Cassandra, and Wichman – whom the war radicalised – wrote political battle songs.
The writing of Rut Hillarp is suffused by refined erotic mysticism, far from the primitivist sexual Romanticism of the 1930s modernists. Her kinship with the Swedish erotic poet Erik Johan Stagnelius, their vacillation “between spiritual sensuality and sensual spirituality”, their eroticised experience of life. But the glue that ultimately holds Hillarp’s poems together is the “now”.She has been compared with both Edith Södergran for her erotic poetry and Karin Boye for her sexually charged spirituality. The ultimate objective is guilelessness. The experience of pain and ecstasy is a means of becoming more receptive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Four women poets made their mark on literary Sweden on the threshold of the twentieth century. Jane Gernandt-Claine’s writing, which consisted of five short story collections and twelve novels, in addition to poetry, was her link to Sweden. Ever since her debut in 1893, the topics for her prose had come from other countries. All of Gernandt-Claine’s writing reveals a strong commitment to women while portraying heterosexual love as the ultimate goal and greatest pleasure that life has to offer.Anna Cederlund argued for the importance of beauty in everyday life. The last poem in her book testifies to a powerful force outside herself, that of love. Harriet Löwenhjelm’s oeuvre consists of twenty-two diaries with vignettes, etchings, and drawings, book manuscripts, letters, and poems. She is known for playing the jester and hiding behind various disguises. She knew where her poses came from: the first link in the chain was commedia dell’arte. Karin Ek wanted to reach all Swedish people. Her dearest wish was to convey her love for poetry, a “source of universal happiness.” Her own song grew out of both passion and suffering; poetry was her lifeline.
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.
The authors of ecclesiastical history tend to be theologians and church leaders. Traditionally speaking, they are usually men, and women play a relatively obscure role in their writings. But many women were active in the multitude of revival movements that sprang up in the nineteenth century. New structures gave rise to different kinds of literature, and the spiritual currents of the Nordic countries rippled with female writers, hymnists, and preachers.As a major ingredient of Norwegian spiritual and cultural life, Haugianism was one of the many Nordic revival movements that emerged in the nineteenth century. Haugianism paved the way for Camilla Collett’s indefatigable struggle and for other forces of women’s liberation in Norway.