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Writing a Women's Literary History: The Nordic Experience


Behind today's image of peaceful Nordic co-operation lies a history of domination, war and subjugation. This became evident when the first editorial meetings for the the Nordic Women's Literary History took place in 1981. However, a common love of literature and the excitement of creating something entirely new held the project together throughout 18 years. Editor Elisabeth Møller Jensen reflects on the achievements of the project.

FORUM/16.9.99 The first meeting for the Nordic Women's Literary History Project took place in Copenhagen in 1981. Publisher Merete Ries from Rosinante Publishing, initiated the project - she was later to gain international fame as Peter Hoeg's publisher, whose Smilla's Sense of Snow was one of the greatest literary successes in Denmark ever.

The idea for the project was presented to a small group of scholars from the University of Copenhagen. The original idea was to publish three national presentations of women's literature from 1800 to the present - one in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. On the organisation level, each volume was to have a national editorial committee and I was asked to spearhead the organisational effort for the collected volumes.

With this initial seed of an idea from the group of Danish scholars, Swedish and Norwegian researchers were invited to Copenhagen and the first of a long series of meetings took place.

The beginning of the 1980s was a relatively innocent era in our part of the world, and yet the first meeting was dominated by strong national tensions, which we at the time agreed to interpret as a result of a meeting held during an evening and night influenced by a lunar eclipse and other celestial occurrences.

In retrospect, we should perhaps have listened more closely to the events of this first meeting, because it was a demonstration of how difficult and demanding it would be to undertake and complete such a large and supra-national project. Which was only to become even larger.

Today, when questions of national identity have emerged everywhere and have become bloody reality in many parts of former Eastern European countries, it can come as no great surprise, that shadows cast by past history suddenly appeared behind each and every one of us and interlaced with discussions about whether or not it would be a good idea to write a common history of Nordic women's literature.

At the time, nevertheless, it came rather as a surprise to the Danish initiators, that behind today's peaceful Nordic co-operation and co-existence, loomed ancient and not so ancient beliefs, which belonged to an other and less peaceful era. Today most of us have forgotten that our collective past also is about imperialism, war, and domination - a history of one country's conquest of another, liberation and independence movements. About competition and power.

I believed, and I think we all believed, that dynamic forces in Scandinavian women's research communities were going go meet and inspire one another concerning this common project. Of course it would be difficult and demanding - nobody thought otherwise. However, nobody had the slightest notion that past national history also was being negotiated. And that each of us participated in this negotiation took most of us by surprise.

This first surprise was the first of a long series of new experiences and impressions concerning the collaboration that started here.

Later on, I was to be reminded that the Danish King Christian the Second was known as Christian the Tyrant in Sweden. He was the king, that in 1520 after waging war on Sweden crowned himself hereditary king, introduced a latter-day dictatorship and beheaded the entire Swedish aristocracy. The "Stockholm bloodbath" took place in Stortorget in the middle of the oldest part of Stockholm - literally right next door to where the editor of the Swedish edition Ebba Bratt Wittstrøm lived.

"A river of blood ran all the way down Stortorget," Ebba told me the very first time I visited Stockholm. It also dawned upon me that Norwegian post-modern women's researchers were still jubilant at Norway's hard-won independence from Denmark more than 150 years ago. To be quite honest, I have never given it a thought.

When the project later was to be expanded from a Scandinavian to a Nordic project with participation from Iceland, The Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland and Sameland - the national dimension was even more pronounced.

However, before the idea to expand into a Nordic project came into being, the idea to write an integrated Nordic history of literature arose. This was because it seemed that as soon as we began to discuss specific texts, literary trends or whole bodies of work, the desire to return to one's national base began to fade away. The Nordic meetings were truly inspirational, as they were held within a fertile professional community where scholars with common interests could mutually enhance and broaden their understanding of a particular period, a particular idea by discussing unknown but similar material.

When Nordic scholars of women's literature became aware of each others existence, new professional communities transcending national boundaries arose. The project, which in time came to comprise a Nordic editorial committee of 10 members and more than 100 contributors from universities throughout the Nordic countries, represented more than a generation of Nordic scholars of women's literature. The networks and personal contacts that were established within this context have been productive far beyond the publications that was the result.
If we briefly take time to look at the state of women's literature studies in 1980, the situation was very different in each Scandinavian country.

In Denmark, the professional community of women's literature scholars was quite large and we were able to choose contributors and staff from among a very wide-reaching professional community of scholars. At the time, there were already scholars who had been working for several years on a Danish history of women's literature.

In Norway there was a handful of very prominent and influential women's scholars, however, the community was smaller and a national Norwegian project did not seem to be in the pipeline. When the integrated Nordic Literary History was proposed, the Norwegian editorial committee decided to produce a national Norwegian production instead. The Nordic project thus had to find new Norwegian editors. The entire publication as such was never published in Norway, because the Norwegian Women's Literary History published its first volume five years prior to the publication of the first volume of the Nordic Women's Literary History in 1993.

In Sweden, the project acted as a unifying organisational force on national studies in women's literature, which hitherto had been concentrated at universities in Gothenburg and Stockholm/Uppsala and The University of Lund in Southern Sweden. With few exceptions Swedish scholarship in women's literature was carried forth by several scholars working on doctorates on single bodies of work. The task of attracting Swedish contributors to the project was therefore simply presented as an open invitation to participate. Later on, this proved to cause numerous problems both in co-ordinating material and in unfortunate but necessary refusal of material and subsequent frustrations.

On the other hand, several Swedish doctoral theses were initiated in the slipstream of the Nordic project. In its heyday, the project as a whole was almost a university in itself, and gave rise to an abundance of scholarly publications and aspirations. En route there were also examples of publications that almost ruptured the Nordic co-operation. Thus the Finnish editor of the Nordic Women's Literary History published her own Finnish Women's Literary history with material, that was remarkable similar to material already written in the Nordic context. The ensuing result was a breaking off of collaboration and new Finish editors had to be found. The project in fact never quite recovered from this loss, and particularly with respect to modern writers, the Finish material is in places not quite up to par.

But why write a women's literary history in the first place? In the present context, it might seem self-explanatory. Nevertheless, in the 1981 when we were approached to undertake the project, the editorial committee spent quite a lot of time and energy chewing over this very question. Because how does one best change the tradition of literary history? For this was in essence our agenda.

As students of literature and later as teachers at universities deeply influenced by the gender politics and politics in general of the 70s, it was a common experience, that women writers and their bodies of work were only very sporadically incorporated into the curriculum and research in general.

An examination of existing literary histories had clearly demonstrated that the literary canon was masculine. The history of literature was written as a succession of male writers, followed and supplemented by a row of lesser authors of the same sex, while the very few women, who were accorded a place in the literary canon simply served as exceptions to prove the rule, that the great author is a great male author. Women in canon are in other words anomalies, and other female authors are either categorised according to sex or under headings such as women writers, lady writers or more clearly stated "a peculiar province in Danish culture" - as a Danish classic of literary history describes a group of women writers, whose first novels appeared around the turn of the century.

Our doubts mainly concerned what one could call the ghetto-effect. Gender discriminates against women in traditional literary history, and would we not simply be compounding the error by using gender as a criterion in a new history of literature? What if living female authors would rather not be included in a volume with the Nordic of half of writers, who co-incidentally have the same sex? Would it have negative consequences to inscribe female writers into a new construction of literary history, rather than stubbornly and tenaciously criticising the absence of women in national presentations while waiting for things to change?

History does not go about describing itself, nor does literary history. There is always a "somebody" that gets history to talk and who chooses what to talk about, how much and for how long. By writing a women's literary history, we wanted to get women writers to talk to each other, so to speak, even though our most fundamental desire was to advance the voice of women writers in literary history in their own right, independent of gender. In other words, we wanted women writers to be completely integrated into the mainstream presentations of literary history. The question was, whether or not a Nordic Women's Literary History would be a step in that direction.

Today, after the Nordic Women's Literary History is completed and let loose upon the world to live its own life in libraries and with readers, I can only say that there is still hope. I think that our work has had an effect and that it will serve as a source of inspiration and as documentation of a great body of knowledge, which is not described anywhere else.

The Nordic Women's Literary History is an argument for remembering women writers, when literary histories are to be written again and as a momento of the neglect of previous times.

But however optimistic I was at the onset of the project, this is no longer the case. Women still write books and undertake scholarly work in a male-dominated culture. This is also the case in the Nordic countries, even though there are many of us who would contend that women have achieved a high status in our part of the world.

But what were the practicalities of the project? What about funding? During the first few years of the project it was a major undertaking to convince funding agencies that the project was viable and sustainable. Our first applications for funding were flatly refused. When we eventually decided simply to undertake the project come what may, we finally received funding from the Nordic Research Council for the Humanities, which for a period of 6 years financed a secretary, travel expenses and meetings for the editorial committee and a yearly seminar for all contributors.

The University of Copenhagen kindly provided us with an office. When I took directorship of KVINFO, the secretariat moved with me.

However, before funding became available, the members of the editorial committee met whenever and wherever it was possible - for example at conferences and seminars on completely different topics. We paid our own way and stayed at each others flats. There was a true spirit of communality and purpose in the heyday of the project not unlike the spirit of the early women's movement. The project would not have been feasible if not for the contributors enthusiasm and personal experience of involvement of the 1970s.

When we started publishing, editorial control was concentrated on fewer hands. The open invitations to participate ran a collision course with demands for quality and a high level of scholarship. The publication had to go the distance professionally and commercially, and as Editor-in-Chief I had to define my role as the person with final responsibility for the overall quality of the publication. This turned out to be a very demanding, challenging and ultimately necessary process.

This begs the question, how were we able to sustain a spirit of enthusiasm during the course of so many years. How were we able to keep so many people from so many different countries together - and to critically assemble and arrange such a huge body of material into one single chronological presentation?

Indeed, it was not easy. Most important and crucial to the project was simply a common love of literature. Each and every contributor to this Nordic Women's Literary History endured first and foremost out of devotion to the material, which each scholar was involved with personally and professionally. The experience of creating something entirely new and witnessing a whole new body of work growing out of our common endeavour has been the prime mover of this project. The final product of which has been published to critical acclaim.

Above and beyond the very valuable scholarly contacts which were established across national boundaries, and which in themselves infused the project with an invaluable and inspirational synergy, the Nordic perspective provided the project with an hypothesis.

When we placed Nordic texts from particular periods alongside each other, various textual layers appeared with new clarity. It seemed that exactly those literary traits that marginalised a woman writer in a national context, were traits that she had in common with her fellow writers in the other Nordic countries. Literary traits which did not fit the literary norm.

A body of work by a woman writer, which on a national level seems to fall by the wayside of traditional literary historical categories, gains new meaning seen in the context of a Nordic women's literary history. Composition, themes and aesthetic particularities interplay and create new patterns in a Nordic context. If we are to believe the renowned Swedish author Kjerstin Ekman, The Nordic Women's Literary History has "rescued women writers from being anomalies", as she stated at Gothenburg International Book Fair in 1997. For her it had been a kind of liberation to be inscribed in a literary tradition, where her body of work immediately blossoms in a dialog with other current as well as historical texts. And although it had never been our intention to either contend or prove that Nordic women writers had more in common with each other than they each had individually with their male colleagues in their national contexts, it has become quite clear during the course of our work, that you can indeed speak of a feminine aesthetic on a literary historical level.

In each and every literary period, there are individual women writers, who completely fall outside of the common literary historical patterns. Within the context of a Nordic women's history of literture, however, these perhaps strange and individual writers are prime examples of entirely new events in literary history.

An excellent example of this are the almost concurrent Nordic publications in the mid-18th century, where women writers apparently simultaneously work on ambitious projects on the spiritual emancipation of women. Thus in 1850 a rather peculiar little novel by the 18-year-old Mathilde Fibiger entitled Clara Raphael. Twelve Letters about a young woman, who in a series of letters to her friend exchanges ideas about the situation and possibilities for women in the world was published in Denmark. The book is about a young woman who seeks to define herself not in terms of her relation to marriage or family but in terms of a completely new kind of individual freedom and who eventually ends with an ambition to continue the struggle with her pen and her spirit.

After providing a living for herself as a private tutor, Clara Raphael discovers that she wants to become a writer and the novel ends with a stormy romance of the spirit - a kind of brother and sister relationship that openly disavows any carnal relationship to the loved one. At the time the novel caused an uproar, created literary controversy, and the sinful first time novelist was subject to a barrage of criticism. The spiritual love affair in particular provoked condescending condemnation as far-fetched and improbable.

If, however, one compares this remarkable and in places deeply moving text with the revolutionary Norwegian novel Amtmandens Døttre from 1848 or with the Swedish emancipatory heavyweight novel Hertha from 1856, that each unfold a story of the longing of women for for freedom and love, then Mathilde Fibigers slender volume appears in an entirely new literary historical light. Down to minute aesthetic detail, her novel shares composition and narrative structure with Camilla Collett and Frederika Bremer. She revolutionised Danish literature, but in the male canon, in the male literary dynasty, her literary importance will never rise above being a curiosity. Her work will at most become and interesting literary sociological case.

As a current example of inner literary connections between Nordic women writers, I would like to point out some of the most widely read and respected novelists in Nordic literature namely Kirsten Ekman, Kirsten Thorup and Herbjørg Wassmo. Each has worked on a huge ambitious literary project on the development of the Nordic welfare state, on hopes of women for the future and on disappointment and loss in the wake of progress. Kerstin Ekman, who starts her Katrineholm series at the beginning of the industrial age, tells the story of the development of modern Sweden through the point of view of women, while Kirsten Thorup's Jonna-series and Herbjør Wassmo's Tora triology tells the story of the development of the Danish and Norwegian welfare state from after the second world world 'til today.

Kerstin Ekman and Kirsten Thorup both start their stories in hope and longing for at better future, while Herjbørg Wassmo from the very start strikes a bleak and gloomy note. Her main character Tora is the product of a love affair between a German soldier and a Norwegian woman at the end of WW II. Tora's father dies before she is born and her mother marries a man who also is burdened by the shadows cast by the war. He is a psychological and physical cripple and as Tora's stepfather instills her life with fear from her earliest childhood. With a story of incest as her point of departure, Herbjørg Wassmo tells the story of a Norwegian province in the fifties seen through the eyes of a girl whose life has been defined by a fear that has lived in her before she was able to find words to express that fear. Read in isolation, one could be tempted to read the novel as a gloomy, typical 70s protest against this most tabu of issues. But the story does not evoke this type of reaction; rather it evokes a feeling of sadness at the story being told combined with a feeling of pleasure at the sheer beauty of the narrative.

If one subsequently reads Kirsten Thorup's very different novels about Jonnas coming of age in a post-war Danish province and superimpose Kerstin Ekmans novels, that have a longer historical perspective, one discovers that all three writers are deeply concerned with exploring and seeking to understand and describe those forces which drive history forward and at what price. When you reach both Ekmans and Thorups descriptions of contemporary society, their perspective is as gloomy and bleak as Wassmo's. In this comparison incest can be read as a symptom, a metaphor for a more serious loss. By writing a woman's story, they describe conditions of modernity - experienced as loss and deprivation in stark contrast to the triumph of a political rhetoric of new opportunities for women in family and society.

This is just one example of parallel trends in Nordic women's literature and an example of how it has been possible to arrange Nordic material. The editorial committee decided to forget all prior knowledge of the normal progression of the history of literature through well-known literary trends, periods, topics, etc. We shied away from treading the well-known path of filling out the blanks in the male canon. Instead we let the main bodies of women's literature create their own headlines, chapters and literary periods. When a German professor at literary seminar heard about the disposition for the first volume he spontaneously exclaimed with horror in his voice: "But you are catapulting yourselves out of the very tradition of literary scholarship!" We took this as a compliment, knowing full well that if tradition is to be changed and challenged, one sometimes has to walk new roads.

I still think we walked a new road with the Nordic Women's Literary History. And there are still many roads to be walked within literary women's scholarship. It is my hope that the Nordic Women's Literary History will serve as an inspiration for future research.

Elisabeth Møller Jensen is Director of KVINFO, the Danish Centre for Information on Women and Gender. She is Editor of The Nordic Women's Literary History

Translation: Annette Nielsen, Editor of FORUM for gender and culture.

This article is an adaption of Elisabeth Møller Jensen's Key Note Address at the Women's Worlds conference in Tromsø June 1999.

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