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Norwegian woman writers

By Irene Engelstad and Janneken Øverland


The first modern novel in Norwegian literature The District Governor's Daughters (Amtmannens Døtre) was published in 1854-55. It was well ahead of its time. Not until the 1870s, when the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes pointed out the need for literature which would promote a debate on social problems, was there really any room for realistic writing that addressed the problems of the time. The District Governor's Daughters was issued anonymously, but it was scarcely any secret that the author was a woman. Her name was Camilla Collett (1813-1895). She was a widow with two sons, belonged to the ruling class of state officials and was the sister of Norway's most gifted and controversial poet, Henrik Wergeland.


Camilla Collets novel was primarily a demand for the emotional and intellectual liberation of women. Although she did not call for explicit reforms to promote the emancipation of women, this work is regarded as a breakthrough for the cause of sexual equality in Norway. Camilla Collett herself was a strong inspiration for the women who formed the first women's rights organization in 1884. According to the author, her book could equally well have been called "A Nation's Daughters": it was a contribution to a national "story of the female heart". At that time a woman's sole lot and purpose in life was to marry, be supported and devote herself to family life. But when this life's mission was not based on the free choice of spouse -- and this was very rarely the case -- women's adult lives were bound to be tragic, asserted Camilla Collett. The radical element in Camilla Collett's demand that women be allowed to choose their own husbands was that it would result in women being treated as independent and responsible individuals, which was hardly the case at that time.

A few examples of contemporary legislation illustrate this. Not until 1863 were unmarried women accorded the same rights as adult men, primarily the right to dispose of their wealth or other economic means as they wished. Married women had no rights and were subject to their husband's authority right up to 1888. Only when new legislation was passed in 1918 and 1922 were they accorded full equality with their husbands in economic affairs. Up to 1913, when the universal franchise was introduced, women had no say in politics. Throughout the last century it was almost unheard of for a woman to speak in public. At best this was regarded as unladylike and improper. The fact that Camilla Collett defied convention was a source of inspiration to the women who came after her. In 1879 one of these women wrote a review of Collett's collection of essays Mod Strømmen (Against the Mainstream) and characterized the authoress as a "personified protest " against the suppression of women in society. The critic's name was Amalie Müller She was divorced and supported two sons. Later she remarried and became well known under the name Amalie Skram (1846-1905). Amalie Skram came from a lower social class than Camilla Collett. Unlike the latter, she never went to a girls' school abroad in order to learn languages and classical literature. She had no education. Just before her 18th birthday her father left his family and emigrated to America. Amalie married immediately after this in order to be supported. Most professions and educational institutions were closed to women up to the end of the last century. Not until 1882 did the first woman take the examen artium -- the final upper secondary examination. By 1884, women could sit for all the degree examinations at university level. But resistance to this was strong and very few women could actually avail themselves of the possibility. A few professions, such as teacher, telegraphist or office clerk were gradually accepted as suitable posts for women, but they earned only one third to half of what men earned. Many women were forced to marry in order to be supported.

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In Amalie Skram's first novel Constance Ring, published in 1885, Constance is confronted with expectations that she find a job after the death of her husband. But she does not consider this step to be practicable because a job in industry would for her mean loss of social caste and so many professions were closed to women. In the latter half of the 1800s, prostitution in the major towns had the stamp of official approval. Many working class women were forced to enter this profession in order to earn a living. They frequently had additional jobs, for instance as seamstresses. Such situations were accepted by the lawmakers of the period, right up to the twentieth century. At the same time it was taken for granted that the higher class woman was devoid of strong sexual desires and needs, and was therefore admirably suited to be "the man's moral ideal". The eminent Norwegian poet, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, had to travel to America to hear scientific lectures on female sexuality before he was convinced that a woman's sex drive equalled that of a man. But the concept that women lacked the capacity for sexual abandonment pursued the female authors too, far into the following century.

This is apparent in the first novels of Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), in her first novels written between 1907 and 1920. She belonged to the first generation of women one may characterize, with some degree of truth, as emancipated. She attended a commercial college and supported herself as an office clerk for many years before leaving for Rome to realize her ambition of becoming a painter. She also married a painter, finding out that as a married women she was expected to subordinate her own artistic talents to those of her husband. She was forced to give up painting when her first child was born. Sigrid Undset later divorced. She went on writing and attained the highest peak of literary recognition, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928.

Sigrid Undset's masterpiece, a trilogy about the life of Kristin Lavransdatter set in the Middle Ages, is one of the most-read works in Norway. A major new film based on the Kristin books, directed by Liv Ullman, is to have its premiére this year.

Sigrid Undset's contemporary novels depict the life of a modern woman in a way that would have been unthinkable at the time of Camilla Collett and Amalie Skram. Many of her women have a profession: they smoke and take part in leisure activities such as skiing. They also go on country weekends with young men, unchaperoned. Such activities would have been considered highly improper in the 1880s. But these women too, like those in the books of Nini Roll Anker (1873-1942) and Cora Sandel (1880-1974), live in a society and a time where they, as women, are subject to male dominance, in addition to the biological laws of their sex -- pregnancy, birth, motherhood. Each in their own way these writers addressed the issues of unwanted pregnancy and motherhood. During this period there was a call for new legislation to define the father's responsibility for illegitimate children. There was also a call for information on contraception and for a relaxation of the laws concerning voluntary abortion. Issues like these, which involved direct intervention in women's biological processes, split the female camp in two. Sigrid Undset was a vehement opponent of any intervention, while Nini Roll Anker and Cora Sandel could be almost propagandist in their defence of the rights of unmarried women in this respect.

Another bone of contention in the 1920s was the married woman's right to go out to work. This problem was accentuated during the great depression of the 1930s, when limitations on women's right to work were used as a means of regulating unemployment. In her novel Den som henger i en tråd (The one who hangs in a thread) (1935), Nini Roll Anker told the tale of a strike among women workers fighting to keep their jobs in a time of economic recession. In the period between the two great wars women nevertheless made a considerable mark on the literary scene -- so strong in fact that some people claimed that the period was dominated by women writers. This was probably due to the fact that the Norwegian Society of Authors elected at this time its first woman chairman -- Sigrid Undset. Her second-in-command for a period was her friend, Nini Roll Anker.

After the Second World War, women authors have made their mark within every literary genre, and have in some ways been innovative too, within spheres such as lyrical poetry, the radio play, the fantasy novel and the poetical short novel. Names such as Solveig Christov (1918-1984), Torborg Nedreaas (1906-1987), Inger Hagerup (1905-1985), Gunvor Hofmo (born 1921), Bergliot Hobæk Haff (born 1925), Bjørg Vik (born 1935), Eldrid Lunden (born 1940), Liv Køltzow (born 1945) and Cecilie Løveid (born 1951) are just a few who deserve mention.

In society as a whole, women have officially achieved equality with men in every sphere of activity. The government of Gro Harlem Brundtland has consistently followed a recruiting policy that brings women into the Cabinet and the national assembly, the Storting. Despite this, men still hold the main positions of power, not least within cultural life, and while the number of female authors has increased radically since Camilla Collett's time, only a quarter of the members of the Norwegian Society of Authors are women. It is therefore, something of a paradox that women read more books than men, and women writers such as Anne Karin Elstad (born 1938) and Herbjørg Wassmo (born 1942) have achieved the biggest sales.

On the other hand this is perhaps not so strange, since both Elstad and Wassmo have followed in the Sigrid Undset tradition by choosing to give their novels a historical setting. Historical novels have always been extremely popular in Norway.

Elstad writes about the nineteenth century in her series of novels about the people at Innhaug.

Wassmo does the same in her books about Dina, Dinas bok (1989) (Dina's book, 1994) and Lykkens sønn (1992) (Son of Joy). Dina is a "new" literary character in Norwegian literature. She is probably the first woman to break the bonds of the realistic literary tradition. She is as proud and strong as an Amazon, she rides, smokes, plays the cello and has a sex life - in Northern Norway in the 1860s! For this character, Wassmo has taken elements from women depicted in the old Nordic sagas, Bible characters and magic realism. The three books about young Tora, who has a Norwegian mother and a German father and grows up in poverty in the far North just after the Second World War are considerably more restrained.

Bjørg Vik, another popular prose writer, completed a trilogy with autobiographical elements in 1994. In these books, we follow the main character through her childhood and youth in Oslo during and after the last war to a potential career as an author.

The last part of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s have seen women conquering new ground, both in real life and in literature. Several Norwegian women have followed the men to the South Pole. In Norwegian literature, women are on their way towards a lasting position in the field of crime writing, traditionally a male bastion. Kim Småge introduced her swimming heroine as early as 1983 in the novel Nattdykk (Night Dive) and has subsequently produced short stories and novels. In the 1990s she has several worthy followers, such as Anne Holt and Kjersti Scheen.

The primary contribution of women authors to Norwegian literature in recent years is a new energy. In the 1970s and early 1980s they were most interested in writing about the life of modern women, showing what it might be like to view the world through women's eyes, for good or ill. We have lately seen greater breadth in both the forms of expression and the content of literature written by Norwegian women. Metaphorically speaking, we might say that women authors have really let their hair down. We see this not least in books by younger authors such as Vigdis Hjorth, Marianne Fastvold and Sissel Lie, who all present refreshing, untraditional female characters.

Sissel Lie, perhaps the most poetic of them, has with Løvens hjerte (1988) (The Heart of the Lion, 1990) and her two most recent novels, Reise gjennom brent sukker (1992) (Journey through burnt sugar) and Rød svane (1994) (Red Swan), moved with the language of fairy tale and myth into difficult human relationships, such as those between man and woman or mother and daughter.

Many good novels have been written in the Norwegian language in the 1990s and several women figure among the most exciting short story writers. Lisbeth Hiide has proved to be a daring author, inspired by psychoanalysis, Merethe Lindstrøm writes charmingly on children, loss and grief and Laila Stien writes from the borderland between the Norwegian and the indigenous Sami population in the far north.

The vitality and variety to be found in the works of the very newest women writers bode well for the final years of this century.


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A History of Norwegian Women Writers - a pioneering effort

The first continuous history of fiction written by Norwegian women was presented 1988-1990 in the three volume work, Norsk Kvinnelitteraturhistorie (A History of Norwegian Women Writers) In an international context this was a pioneering project. It was published by the Pax Publishing House in Oslo, its editors consisting of five literary historians -- all women. The three volumes cover the period from 1600 to the 1980s.

The idea of compiling a history of Norwegian women's literature gradually emerged in the institutions for research on women at the universities of Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Tromsø. It was partly inspired by the women's movement of the 1970s. Ten years elapsed between the start of planning and the publication of the final volume. Some support was provided by official Norwegian research institutions. The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities financed the post of editor for three years. The four other editors worked at universities or in publishing houses. The editorial staff wrote almost half of the 75 chapters. The remaining chapters were written by specialists in the field of comparative literary history at Norwegian universities. Five of the contributors are men.

The first volume covers the period 1600 to 1900, the second 1900 to 1940 and the third the period up to the 1980s. The over 750 pages deal with more than 700 authors. In addition, the final volume includes a 40-page reference section, where the biographies and bibliographies of Norwegian women writers are indexed.

The purpose of the work is to cast light on female writers and their position and significance in the history of Norwegian literature. In contrast with traditional literary histories, male writers are accorded only subsidiary notice in the books. Some have claimed that this manner of compiling a literary history promotes a "ghetto" attitude. The view of the editors is that focusing solely on female authors and their works is a fruitful way of creating a fresh, comprehensive picture of the whole history of Norwegian literature. Right up to the present day there is a clear tendency to "anonymize" women; not only in everyday situations but also when the aim is historic and cultural self-awareness.

When Norwegian history and literary history are written and the major lines are drawn up, women are often the losers. Frequently, there is room for only a few, major women writers. At the same time, however, a large number of relatively insignificant male writers are included. By compiling a literary history which focuses only on women, space was created for many more women writers, and more details could be provided on each one.

After having worked with this material and these writers for a number of years, the editors gained considerable knowledge of women authors. It is obvious that the earlier ones in particular had a difficult time combining their writing with the normal life of a woman. But they managed it. They wrote in the attic, at the kitchen table or in the middle of the night. We know from world literary history that this was not just a Norwegian phenomenon. Two nineteenth century writers, English Emily Brontë and Swedish Fredrika Bremer sat in their kitchens and made literary breakthroughs, contributing remarkable novels to the literature of their countries.

In Norway Camilla Collett was not the only one of her kind. Around 1850, minister's wife, cookery book author and mother of seven Hanna Winsnes (1789-1872), secretly wrote Gothic novels of entertainment, under the pseudonym of Hugo Schwartz. The novel was in many ways an accessible literary vehicle for women. Writing novels did not necessarily require a formal education. But experience of life was an advantage, combined with insight into the human mind -- an insight richly provided by the caring role of women. Thus, in a way, the women writers were positioned right at the heart of their novels, either in the kitchen or the sitting room. The proximity between the life of a woman and the life depicted in their books gave them an advantage.

In 1927 Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One's Own. Here she stated categorically that women must have rooms reserved just for themselves -- not only in the purely physical sense but also in the mental one -- in order to become creative artists. Despite this, many women authors sat in the rooms of others for decades. That is, if they did not do the same as Sigrid Undset around 1920. Surrounded as she was by her many children, she realized that only the night was hers alone. Consequently, she sat and wrote at night -- in the kitchen.

Despite the fact that the editors collected information on the lives and fortunes of women writers, it was their books they chose to write about. They opted for the literature rather than the biographies -- although the latter frequently read like novels of fright or fantasy.

The traditional histories of literature often emphasize authors' biographies and the individual author's whole body of works. Norsk Kvinnelitteraturhistorie approaches the subject in a rather different way. It describes the forms of literature, the novel, the play, lyrical poetry, and one by one the sub-genres; hymns, memoirs, essays and the newest forms: children's literature, so-called trivial literature, radio plays etc.

Norsk Kvinnelitteraturhistorie establishes that women played an important part in building up these different forms of literature. It also shows how women's contributions differed from those of men within the same literary genres.

The editors' fresh approach in compiling a literary history revealed new facts. One of them was that a large number of female authors followed in the steps of Camilla Collett in the second half of the last century. They focused on the realistic novel and prose. They wrote novels, short stories and biographies. Camilla Collett, Hanna Winsnes, Magdalene Thoresen (1819-1903) and, a little later, Alvilde Prydtz (1846-1922) were among the most prominent.

Alongside this growth came another one; that of prose works for children, a natural sphere for women writers. They dominated this genre for a very long time, and later developed the cult of juvenile fiction for girls -- an imported fashion. The editors also found out that a large number of women were writing radio plays during the post-war period. A few literary genres are prominent through all three volumes of Norsk Kvinnelitteraturhistorie. One of these is lyrical poetry -- from the pioneering hymns of Dorothe Engelbretsdatter (1634-1716), to the overwhelming number of women writing modernistic poetry from the 1960s onward. The editors were surprised to find so many female lyric poets, for example in the period from 1900 to 1940. The chapter on this period shows that a major problem facing the female lyric poets was that the "design" of love poems had so far been based on a man's love for a woman. All the imagery had been formed for the purpose of describing a man's attraction to a woman, and his admiration for her.

The first outspoken female lyric poets of this century came up against a wall when they attempted to write about "what it was like" for them. "Get yourself a boyfriend" was the advice given by a publisher to Halldis Moren Vesaas (born 1907) prior to her literary debut.

Apart from following up literary genres and studying developments within them, Norsk Kvinnelitteraturhistorie includes 20 intimate portraits of individual authors. Among them are well-established writers such as Dorothe Engelbretsdatter, Amalie Skram, Sigrid Undset and Cora Sandel, who are viewed with fresh eyes, and less known writers such as Alvilde Prydtz, Barbra Ring (1870-1955) and Edith Øberg (1895-1968). Here too are contemporary authors like Ebba Haslund (born 1917), Anne-Cath Vestly (born 1920), and Cecilie Løveid (born 1951). Norsk Kvinnelitteraturhistorie testifies to a fact that has not always been apparent in ordinary literary history: that female literary culture has been a living reality in Norway for several centuries.

«Norsk kvinnelitteraturhistorie»

(A History of Norwegian Women Writers),
volumes I-III (1988-1990),

Pax Publishing House A.S., Oslo

About the editors:

Dr. Philos. Irene Engelstad,
Editor-in-chief for Norwegian fiction,
Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo

Dr. Philos.
Jorunn Hareide

Professor of Nordic Literature,
University of Oslo

Mag. Art.
Irene Iversen

Professor of Comparative Literary Science,
University of Oslo

Cand. Philol.
Torill Steinfeld
Research fellow at the University of Oslo

Mag. Art.
Janneken Øverland

Editor-in-Chief, Bokklubben Dagens Bok, Oslo


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