Tales from the Outskirts of Society
The Women Writer’s Group in Ostrobothnia
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.
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 Welfare Society Viewed from Below
Social criticism and new consciousness in Norwegian women’s literature of the 1970s.
Ingeborg Refling Hagen’s stories from the 1920s demonstrate national-romantic features and also a new form of poverty-realism in which rural life is presented without any nostalgic romanticisation of an authentic culture. The novels of Gro Holm and Magnhild Haalke are also free of nostalgia. Gro Holm exposes the oppression of women in rural communities, and in Magnhild Haalke’s novels nature and life of the common people provide the setting for in-depth psychological portraits.These three writers take very different approaches; however, while casting a new and critical gaze upon the ‘old society’, their writing is deeply rooted in the culture they see under threat of disintegration.
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.