By Elisabeth Møller Jensen, Chief Editor
The Story of Women’s Literature
Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie (The History of Nordic Women’s Literature) is about the words that women have written over the centuries, and it is about the Nordic region. Even though the Nordic countries have evolved in their individual ways, a sense of affiliation, of a Nordic identity, is part of the self-image in the region.
A Nordic approach has proven to be a fruitful and rewarding point of reference for the project. It has become apparent that from time to time women’s works written during the same era, but in different places across the Nordic region, manifest the very features that have isolated a woman writer nationally. Features that did not fit into a dominant literary norm. A woman writer’s pen that cannot be accommodated by national conventional literary categories will sometimes seem self-evident when looked at in a Nordic literary context. Motifs, themes, and aesthetic qualities interact and create new patterns within a Nordic framework.
It has not been the objective of Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie to demonstrate that Nordic women writers have more in common with one another than each has with her national male colleagues, but while working with the material it has become clear that in terms of literary history there are grounds on which to talk of a female aesthetic. By way of example, Leonora Christina might well be a unique and unusual writer in a Nordic context, but when juxtaposed with Agneta Horn her writing becomes part of a female pattern. Her presentation of allegiance to father, husband, and God is not a purely personal matter, but also a specific dilemma related to her gender. Reading Leonora Christina’s Jammers Minde (Memory of Lament) and Agneta Horn’s diary side by side can thus help flesh out the seventeenth-century female profile.
There is, therefore, good reason to speak of literature written by women in the sense of women’s literature. Both in men’s and in women’s literature, one gender is doing the talking. If we want to know what it is talking about, and how it speaks, then the first prerequisite is an ability to understand that a male pen not only writes generally about existential issues within a given culture, but also on behalf of a specific gender, and that a female pen not only writes on behalf of a gender, but also generally about existential issues within a given culture.
Over the last twenty-five years, women writers on the Nordic literary scene have so convincingly walked the corridors of the literary institution that today it is an open question as to whether it is men or in fact women who account for literary innovation. Literary historians will in future no longer be able to base their research and findings exclusively on the fundamental concepts and aesthetics in the works of male writers; a completely new approach will be necessary, and it is going to be exciting to see how that challenge will be resolved.
The paradox of femininity has historically been, on the one hand, a struggle to be part of history, of power, of institutions, and on the other hand resistance to that very process, because integration within it would mean loss of identity, of femininity. As writers, as lovers of literature, and as women, the group behind Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie is working at the heart of the paradox of femininity, just as women writers always have done.
The history of a national literature should, of course, provide an appropriate account both of men’s and of women’s writings. A place where texts written by either sex could meet, enter a dialogue and stand head to head. With the occasional exception – there to prove the rule that major authors are synonymous with major male authors – the women writers have, however, either been absent from literary history, misconstrued, or underrated. We have therefore had to present Nordic women writers from the Middle Ages to today within a women’s literary tradition that reads them on the texts’ own terms, and thereby on the gender’s own terms.
Not because gender, in our view, is the most significant feature of an author’s writing, but because the tradition of literary history has shown us that gender has always functioned as a criterion for the survival chances of an oeuvre in the shared consciousness that a national history of literature claims to encapsulate. It is therefore our hope that Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie will inspire future histories to read women writers in dialogue with male writers of their own day.
The term “canon” was used in the early Church to specify books of the Bible which, unlike so-called apocryphal texts, were considered to be genuine Holy Scriptures. It is also an ‘official list’, as used in the Catholic Church to designate a catalogue of acknowledged saints, and in literary terminology the canon of a national literature is a body of writings approved by the experts as being the principal works.
The number of women writers who are included in this ‘canon’ tradition in the Nordic region can be counted on the fingers of one hand for each respective country. The rest are either completely forgotten – however great their impact, popularity, and significance in their day – or they are allocated a special place in the history of literature, a place where the women are kept. The message being: the subject matter of a female pen is so particular that it falls outside normal literary evaluation. The most curious example of this practice is probably still Vilhelm Andersen’s major history of Danish literature, in which female authors, along with writing schoolteachers, are described as “A peculiar province in Danish culture”.
Existing histories of literature are therefore far more concerned with men’s literature than with women’s literature. And it is thus no great problem to pick the few women writers out of accounts of literary history – leaving the methodology unaffected for the simple reason that the literary system of periods, genres, themes, qualitative evaluation, and comparison is constructed around male oeuvres, by male scholars, organised and structured on the basis of a male perspective on the world, examining male identity. Including, of course, and not least, a male perspective on women and femininity.
The first choice that we, the editorial board of the Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie project, therefore had to face was the extent to which we would endeavour to insert the women into a literary-historical tradition, or if we should take the women’s actual written works as our starting point and then endeavour to think freely from scratch. We chose the latter model, and asked ourselves what would actually happen if we made the women writers the central characters of a story in which they had hitherto been marginalised. What happens to the history of literature when women’s literature is the focus of attention? What happens if literary history is written from a basis of women’s writing instead of – as has hitherto always been the practice – looking at the female pen from the traditional vantage point of literary history?
For a brief period we thought it would be necessary to establish an overall literary-historical theory about women’s literature. Very soon – fortunately – we realised that a theory of that kind is an impossibility. Today there is no inclusive concept of what a woman is, or what femininity is. Nor, therefore, is there any overarching theory of women’s literature. So we decided instead to read the women writers’ texts from the beginning, waiting for new structures to emerge. The crucial question asked throughout the process has been: where and when does something decisively new occur in Nordic women’s literature? And so we just had to wait until the outline gradually materialised from the material we were working with, which in many cases had never been studied before.
The first real confirmation that we were on the right track came at an international seminar, when a German professor exclaimed in indignation that we were catapulting ourselves out of the scholarly tradition. That was the first time we felt confident about the project we had embarked upon. The tricky bit has, of course, not been the study of women authors and their works. The challenge has been to conduct the research in critical opposition to – but without forgetting – the tradition in which we as literary scholars have been trained. As far as we could see, this was the only scholarly valid methodology.
Another challenge was inherent in the composition of the group running the project, which spanned three or four generations of scholars. One hundred contributors from university settings throughout the Nordic region have had to collaborate from their backgrounds of widely differing nationally-determined methodologies and theoretical parameters. The editorial board has therefore had the major task of structuring a large, in part unfamiliar, and certainly never previously juxtaposed material, while at the same time working out a structure that would allow a large degree of freedom for the individual contributors. This condition of the process has had a number of consequences for the manner of exposition. The crucial factor is possibly that we have written ourselves clear of the very different theoretical schools to which the scholars belong. And we have all made an effort to be very open in our evaluation of each oeuvre, entailing as little ideology and as much freedom for each contributor as possible without losing sight of the whole.
Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie comprises five volumes in all: four volumes of text and a concluding bio-bibliographical volume. The story begins in Iceland during the transition from oral narrative tradition to the introduction of written culture. And it ends with a chapter on Sami and Greenlandic women’s conquest of written language in our own time. The story of Nordic women’s literature during the intervening one thousand years is told in a mainly chronological sequence covering Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland – most fully accounted for in the three Scandinavian countries, where each national women’s literary history has been addressed before, but a good start is made with Finland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland.
Each volume has a title indicating the place, the energy or inspiration, from which women of the period wrote – seen, that is, from the vantage point of scholars today. The first volume, which goes up to the nineteenth century, is thus called I Guds navn (In God’s Name); the nineteenth century is then covered in a volume entitled Faderhuset (House of the Father); the third volume, Vide Verden (Wide World), runs from the turn of the century to the 1950s and 1960s; the fourth and final text volume, På jorden (On Earth), covers the most recent generation of women writers.
I Guds navn (In God’s Name) 1000-1700
The religious context of women’s writing throughout by and large the entire first long period is so striking that the title I Guds navn (In God’s Name) went without saying. Our overall endeavour has been to show how and by which various routes, from which places, circumstances, and institutions women’s writing has evolved. We follow the movements between various forms of writing, pursuing stories that flow into one another and which occasionally come to a dead end. We shape the horizon around the somewhat overlooked women hymn writers by also reading the witches’ confessions and inserting the Marian songs as a resonance chamber. Through the various institutions of the Church, through the learned culture, the theatre, and Pietist revivalist movements, through prayer books, friendship albums, family books, autobiographies, and journals, we move towards the texts that, in the eighteenth century, would gradually demand to be seen as part of a public literary domain. And we end the first volume with a Nordic chapter on the oral literary tradition which went on to attain a literary reputation. By “we” I am referring to the Nordic editorial board: Rakel Christina Granaas, Margaretha Fahlgren, Elisabeth Møller Jensen, Beth Juncker, Dagny Kristjansdóttir, Anne Birgitte Richard, Anne Birgitte Rønning, Christina Sjöblad, Birgitta Svanberg, and Ebba Witt-Brattström.
Elisabeth Møller Jensen
Faderhuset (House of the Father) 1800-1900
Authors such as Amalie Skram and Victoria Benedictsson, in particular, provided material for women’s literary studies in the early 1970s. The motivating inspiration was realisation that the Modern Breakthrough was also an important period for women’s literature. Skram and Benedictsson exposed the double standards and sexual hypocrisy in late-nineteenth-century bourgeois marriage, which in many ways fitted well with the 1970s feminist rebellion in the wake of which there was a wave of re-publications and literary research studies. In Denmark this research harvested its finest achievement in the form of Pil Dahlerup’s dissertation Det moderne gennembruds kvinder (1983; Women of the Modern Breakthrough).
Det moderne Gjennembruds Mænd (Men of the Modern Breakthrough) had been catalogued by Georg Brandes in 1883. It took another one hundred years before it was the women’s turn, and it transpired that the modern women, who had inspired Ibsen’s dramas and Strindberg’s paranoia, had to a large extent spoken for themselves in their day, putting into words their own thoughts about the age of transformation in which they lived.
“Sun, you say – where should I get that from?” was Victoria Benedictsson’s response in a letter to Georg Brandes, dated 1887, after he had criticised her for the lack of sunlight on her words. Personally, he wrote, he liked to bathe each one of his sentences in light or in music. Women in the late nineteenth century, on the other hand, wrote such strikingly depressive and sombre texts that many of the novels end with a woman’s suicide – much like many of the writers’ own lives.
On the surface it might seem strange that the social progress of the times was unable to engender sunshine in Benedictsson’s pen. There is a major discrepancy between women’s new opportunities for education and work and their written tales of inner loss and destruction.
Equally mysterious is the euphoria and longing found in women’s literature of the Romantic period. Seen from our viewpoint, the first half of the nineteenth century was claustrophobic in its confinement of women to the family, in its almost total exclusion of women from public life. However, perhaps the Romantic gender philosophy offered women their own identity by assigning them a completely new importance vis-à-vis home and community.
The Romantic femininity proved, nonetheless, to be an achievement that had to be abandoned. The system broke down when Romantic theory of the ideal femininity had to be reconciled with the idea of the individual’s right to full self-realisation.
In particular, the juxtaposition of femininity and motherliness made for problems. Everything that did not fall into the sphere of motherliness was considered to be unwomanly affectation. However, women had also adopted the Romantic philosophy of self, which was thus on a collision course with the Romantic gender philosophy. It almost goes without saying that this tension came to full expression in the life and work of the women writers. Thomasine Gyllembourg, Fredrika Bremer, Mathilde Fibiger, Fredrika Runeberg, and Camilla Collett, for example, were all agents for a Romantic view of human nature, but their passion for writing was in itself overwhelming proof that – as women – their ambitions and desires went beyond the domain of motherhood. The yearning in their pens, the euphoria and hope of a completely other life is still controlled by a belief that it is possible to win an identity without simultaneously losing femininity.
Perhaps it can be said that Romantic women’s literature fundamentally expresses a wish to change the world on women’s terms, and perhaps this is the hope that the foremost representatives of naturalism recognise as being unattainable.
Claustrophobia, euphoria, depression, and revolt in nineteenth-century women’s literature have many and various manners of aesthetic expression. But there is one feature the women writers share: the house of the father. The patriarchal self-perception can be seen in recognition and rebellion alike. In that sense, nineteenth-century women remain daughters, and the house of the father is the sphere from which women write throughout the century. From the hostess in her salon to the good femininity of Romanticism and on to the unhappy narrative of naturalism, the house of the father is filled with nineteenth-century Nordic light and darkness.
Elisabeth Møller Jensen
Vide verden (Wide World) 1900-1960
“My self-confidence depends on the fact that I have discovered my dimensions. It does not become me to make myself less than I am.” Thus wrote Edith Södergran in her introduction to Septemberlyran (1918; Eng. tr. The September Lyre) and in so doing pronounced herself to be a woman so ahead of her time that it is probably not until we reach the self-assurance of young women today that her lyric project is rendered fully comprehensible. Her ecstatic poetic self was heard throughout the Nordic region – and was borne out by her scandalous self-awareness.
Edith Södergran’s poet-self found its voice at the same time as women’s political-self found a voice when, in the early years of the twentieth century, one by one the Nordic countries granted women the right to vote. It is this female self that binds together the first major chapter in Vide verden (Wide World). Education, paid employment, and organisation in women’s associations sent woman out of the nineteenth-century house of the father, and the women writers proceeded to write contemporary novels about this new life, about all the choices and the new enterprise that now shaped their identity. When women move from family out into the wider community they change, when the woman enters the man’s world she becomes in part someone else. And women’s new experiences were now wrestling with the form and aesthetic challenges of the novel.
With Sigrid Undset and Thit Jensen leading the way, a Nordic generation of women writers rewrite the vision of the whole person, the dream of a modern life in which work and motherhood can be combined. They started publishing around the turn of the century, and in the early decades wrote contemporary novels – until they reached a point where either vision or realism had to be abandoned. Both Sigrid Undset and Thit Jensen maintained the vision in their overhauling of the historical novel, which allowed for rounded portraits of strong women from the Middle Ages. Here childbirth, erotic love, and the grand female character could be united – and avoid clashing with the reality that forced women to choose between gender and individual.
Sigrid Undset, possibly more than most, understood and feared the magnitude of women’s latent powers. And so it was from her pen that the horror resulting from free realisation of desire was most strongly articulated. She knew how heavily the burden of culture fell on women, and her fear of the consequences of a female upheaval was correspondingly huge.
“I have been unfaithful to my husband,” is thus the troubled opening sentence in Sigrid Undset’s first published novel, Fru Marta Oulie (1907; Mrs Marta Oulie). This declaration, with its admission of guilt and promise of freedom, leads into a modern novel of destiny, sexual drive, and death, as if civilisation in its entirety relied on women’s fidelity and on monogamous love. In Fru Marta Oulie there is an implied connection between the woman’s adultery and the husband’s illness. Figuratively, the unfaithful and pregnant Marta’s absent menstrual blood is coughed up from her deceived husband’s illness-plagued lungs, and thus the desirous woman’s guilt becomes the theme for a completely new literary genre, one in which the world is shaken up by the women’s new existential life choices.
Women’s desire could not only be accounted for in terms of guilt and shame, however. Throughout the Nordic region, and especially in Sweden and Finland, authors such as Agnes von Krusenstjerna, Moa Martinson, Karin Boye, Iris Uurto, and Helvi Hämäläinen were writing about a multiplicity of desire, which in itself comprised a force for change and new ventures that disqualified the writers from polite literary society.
The inter-war literary and political preoccupation with the sexualised mother’s body was replaced in the post-war period by a new focus on the child as bearer of hope and survival. Tove Jansson, Astrid Lindgren, and Tove Ditlevsen thus open the last big section, “Køn og krig” (Gender and War), which takes the story of Nordic women’s writing in the 1940s and 1950s up to the modern writers such as Asta Sigurdardóttir, Sonja Hauberg, and Elsa Gress.
In Nordic literature, the twentieth century begins in 1891 with Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berlings saga (Eng. tr. The Story of Gösta Berling), and the century reaches its aesthetic peak with writers such as Sigrid Undset, Edith Södergran, Cora Sandel, Karen Blixen, and Tove Ditlevsen. Each is so unique that she defies definitive interpretation – in Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie they are highlights in a varied stream of oeuvres that throw light on one another and, taken together, form a literary-historical compass for themes and textual forms both in men’s and in women’s writing.
Elisabeth Møller Jensen
På Jorden (On Earth) 1960-1990
På jorden (On Earth), in the midst of the throng of writers who ceaselessly evolve and change the female textual universe, Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie has reached the present day. The cultural-historical and literary-sociological material that filled and explained the oldest texts, in particular, has gradually lessened and is now replaced by a more text-orientated presentation of the literary narratives written about our own time. As in the first three volumes, we have had to pick and choose, single out and sort out – because this account cannot and should not cover everything, include everything.
When claiming, in Le Deuxième Sexe, (1949; Eng. tr. The Second Sex), that it is “in man and not in woman that it has hitherto been possible for Man to be incarnated”, Simone de Beauvoir was running late – the onset of modernism sees the decisively new step that women in large numbers are writing their way into the heart of the literary institution, and they are doing so with such authority that it looks as if female gender experience has radicalised the modernist idiom. Modernism’s thematics of alienation, breakup, and loss of self were given aesthetic form in the work of new writers in the 1950s and 1960s – women such as Birgitta Trotzig, Eeva-Liisa Manner, Inger Christensen, and Eldrid Lunden. It was to a great extent in women’s creativity that common humanity found expression.
The times were also on women’s side, as they took up a central role in the changes sweeping through Nordic society after the Second World War. Riding an economic boom, all the many women who were new to the labour market helped to create the financial and structural conditions for the Nordic welfare state. And women writers in the Nordic region embarked on a fresh key narrative about the female subject in transformation. With Suzanne Brøgger and Märta Tikkanen as the superstars, the public literary forum of the 1970s was both Nordic and female to an extent that had not been seen for a century. Women writers transformed and revamped the book market, which was now dominated by a call for new knowledge, new narratives about the actuality of women’s lives, new accounts of the tremendous changes brought about by an industrial culture, welfare state, and new gender contracts between men and women.
When the grand narratives of the period could be told, it was again women writers who carried along the Nordic readers, intensely searching out the riddle, the dream, interpretation, and explanation. In Sweden, Kerstin Ekman with Häxringarna (1974; Witches’ Rings), like Sara Lidman with Vredens barn, (1979; Child of Wrath), went back to the early days of industrialisation in order to trace the development of modern Sweden. Kerstin Ekman wrote about life in the little Swedish town of Katrineholm, and Sara Lidman wrote her “Railroad Books” about life in Norrland. In Denmark and Norway respectively, Kirsten Thorup with her series of novels about Jonna, starting with Lille Jonna (1977; Little Jonna), and Herbjørg Wassmo with her Tora trilogy, starting with Huset med den blinde glassveranda (1981; Eng. tr. The House with the Blind Glass Windows), set out at the end of the Second World War to tell ambitious grand narratives about post-war Nordic history and modern women’s history. The common challenge in works by Lidman, Ekman, and Thorup is sounded by bright, hopeful beginnings and sombre conclusions with a critique of civilisation; the happy optimism of development that permeated the politics of feminism is by and large absent.
The showdown with the 1970s, which was already in full swing when the first Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie meeting was held in 1981, has had the positive effect of helping to protect the project from built-in ideological obsolescence. For a long time, however, the dispute over the 1970s was to prove a negative threat to the capacity for uninhibited reflection on the period and for a fresh approach: in the same way that women’s ‘Breakthrough’ literature, with Amalie Skram and Victoria Benedictsson as the leading Nordic figures, was quickly reduced to “problem literature” and was not rediscovered until the 1970s, the decade was hardly over before women’s writing, regardless of genre, had been pronounced “confessional literature” – in the sense of ‘bad literature’ – across the board. In Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie, too, contributors and editors alike ran away from the controversial 1970s chapter, because “their” writer’s work was better than the confessional, better than the movement, indeed, she was, when all is said and done and regardless of the publication date, not a 1970s writer at all.
As is evident simply from looking at the table of contents, the battle of the 1970s ended with admission of legacy and debt. After two stringently edited opening chapters on 1960s modernism – “Fornyelser” (Changes) and “Forandre sproget” (Changing Language) – the lengthy central chapter, “Bevæge verden” (Transforming the World), became a manifestation of the vigorous and innovative multiplicity of the period, with scope and space for names, trends, genres, and new forms of text. Composing a literary history of the writing of the day is perhaps determined to an even greater extent than composing a literary history of one’s own gender by the personal outlook of the members of the group of scholars researching the project. But if you are researching your own gender in your own day then there are already some provisos for the account you will be giving. At all events, with Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie 1960-1990 it will be clear that the project has been planned and carried through by a generation of women for whom an experience of the 1970s as aesthetic inspiration, experimental, and innovative, remains intact.
With the young writers of the 1980s, who in literary terms are “daughters” of the 1960s rather than of the 1970s, the aesthetic project is revitalised. Visions, in a postmodern manner, become versions, and the emptied tales are filled with meaning and completely new signification in a primarily aesthetic, language project. If you want to create a new country and “Blive sig selv” (Become Yourself), you have to go out to the frontiers. But when women writers today aim at new aesthetic ventures, gender puts obstacles in their way: a woman is still evaluated traditionally in relation to, above all, the content of her writing. When the female author ambitiously revitalises the literary mode and the aesthetic idiom, her work risks being labelled incomprehensible or a failure. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, one could therefore be tempted to think that the need for a history of women’s literature remains relevant for as long as the woman who sees herself as an individual continues to be treated as a sex.
The project, which began I Guds navn (In God’s Name) with a chapter about women in the sagas of the Icelanders, closes the circle way up in the North with a chapter on women writers in Greenland and the Sami Language Area. Here the transition from oral narrative to the literary written culture occurred late and in our own day. Between the first and last keystroke, between the prologue to the project, “Vølvens spådom” (Prophecy of the Völva), and the epilogue, “Oprindelige folk” (Indigenous Peoples), one thousand years of Nordic literature has thus been described from the vantage point of Nordic women writers.
The final publication will be a concluding volume of bio-bibliography Liv og værk (Life and Works) with a good 800 entries on Nordic women writers throughout the ages. In Liv og værk, the throng we now stand amidst, and which has deep and strong roots, is viewed historically and in alphabetic order.
Elisabeth Møller Jensen