Tales from the Outskirts of Society
Anna Bondestam took up literature after a Nordic novel competition in 1936 in which her debut novel, Panik i Rölleby (1936; Panic in Rölleby), was the runner-up. Klyftan (1946; The Chasm), Bondestam’s autobiographical novel, reaches into the most intimate corner of her life: her childhood experiences of the Finnish Civil War in Jakobstad in 1918.As an account of the civil war, Klyftan is a harbinger of the more open approach that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Read as a trilogy, Vägen till staden, Stadens bröd, and Klyftan are not only a journey through changing Finnish society, but an uncelebrated slice of women’s history: the lives and political education of factory workers.
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.
In the 1980s, the historical novel, a centuries-old favourite among female readers, underwent a process of serious revision. The female heroes were brought up to date. The heroines were adapted to the contemporary world, and together with the new romance literature, the new feminist historical novel captured the interest of women readers.New women writers throughout the Nordic region began to write about hidden, forgotten, overlooked, or entirely unknown women from past centuries, and the books were welcomed by huge audiences (and by reviewers) with such overwhelming interest that it began to look like just the genre for which they had all been searching for so many years.
The Welfare Society Viewed from Below
Aase Hansen and Ellen Raae belonged to a generation of women for whom citizenship had been won, but the victory did not feel like a personal triumph. Along with writers such as Johanne Buchardt, Ellen Duurloo, children’s book author Estrid Ott, working-class writer Caja Rude, and Karen Bjerresø, they comprise a group interested in and troubled by the interplay between women’s demands on life and the new age as promise and threat.This is a group of writers whose fate in the annals of literary history has largely been one of silence.
On Literary Sexual Politics in the 1930s
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.
Maj Hirdman’s diaries testify to the zeal with which she planned a series of books – one about working-class women, an autobiography, a popular history – in her quest for “the way out of degradation.” But her journey from diarist to professional author was long and bumpy. She tried to write at the same time that she ran a household, took care of children, lived in poverty, and suffered one illness after another. She managed to publish poems and short stories, but her submissions were frequently rejected.She was 33 when Anna Holberg (1921), her first novel, was brought out. Hirdman never made a genuine breakthrough. Modernity was the springboard of her writing career. Overcrowding, children, and drudgery may have robbed her of certain intellectual and wilful qualities. In their place came the great struggle between the dream of motherhood and the world of men.In exposing the conflict and search for an identity, Hirdman crafted a new language, a spirited voice for an ambivalent generation of women.
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.”