Let us imagine our international, contemporary literary celebrities
-authors, critics, publishers -at some conference, in New York, Paris or
Beijing, gathered to discuss some dear and topical subject:
literature's limits, its masks, escapism or social responsibility, or
its role in world peace.
Let us make a small inquiry among them: who was Fredrika Bremer? Will
there be a complete silence? No, some of them seem to remember. A
Scandinavian woman who wrote novels in the 1800s?
De la Démocratie en Amérique?
Olof Södermark, 1843
Quite right. Fredrika Bremer is not forgotten. But the fact is that if the question had been put to the same kind of people a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, no one would have hesitated. At that time Fredrika Bremer was well-known outside her country. Sometimes her readers at home in Sweden complained that her works had been published in English or German before they came out in Swedish.
All of the subjects that I imagine an international literary conference today would have on its agenda, interested Fredrika Bremer. She occupied herself with contemporary social and political questions and she was one of the most widely traveled persons of her time.
When she arrived in New York in 1849, people were virtually queuing up at her hotel to shake her hand, ask for an autograph, or invite her home. Although she did not know a single American at her arrival, she was never without a place to stay during the almost two years that her journey lasted.
Her First Works
Fredrika Bremer was born in 1801 in Finland, at that time still under Swedish rule. The family moved to Sweden when she was very young.
She was approaching her thirties before she entered public life. Outwardly her debut was successful. Around 1830 the novels started to come out which the unkown author -she published anonysmously -had given a telling subtitle: "Sketches of Every-day Life". It was not long before her identity was revealed. She received a gold medal from the Swedish Academy, and her "Sketches" came in a long succession: The H-Family, The President's Daughters,The Neighbors and The Home, to mention the most important.
Their popularity shows that the author was able to offer the reading public something new: novels in which they could recognize their own lives. Her subtitle pointed to a new literary genre. In the handbooks she is found under headings like "liberalism" or "realism" in contrast to a description like "romanticism".
Her readers were often women. They understood that she depicted women's lives, pains and joys as no one hade done before. Through her books the family, the household, love entanglements, and the psychological relations between men and women became new literary themes. Her entrance into literature marks the birth of the bourgeois novel in Sweden. It can be described as the dean of Swedish literary history, Henrik Schück, has done: "Before her time the novel in Sweden had been more or less pleasure reading, a literature of which the educated classes were almost ashamed. Fredrika Bremer gave the novel a philosophical content, it became a part -and an important part -of the cultural development. It was ennobled, so to speak."
Journey to the New World
When Fredrika Bremer arrived in New York in 1849 she was nearly fifty years old. She was short of stature, unpretentious in her external appearance, dressed in black, and wearing a laced bonnet over her hair. She traveled alone. The world -and she herself -did not consider her a beauty. Many found her "dreadfully plain" in her appearance according to Catharine Sedgwick, at that time the most widely read American woman writer, and one of those who met the Swedish writer in New York.
Fredrika Bremer did not make the journey to America in order to be looked at or to answer questions from interviewers. She had a certain purpose, and the destination of her travels was not chosen by chance. She wanted to look into the future of mankind. She wanted to scrutinize the American utopia.
During her two years in America she was constantly on the move. She traveled to the north to visit the Indians, to talk to them or make sketches of them, for she always carried her sketchbook with her. She traveled south along the Mississippi to meet slaveowner families, but was at least as interested in the slaves. She wanted to know how they lived, how they were treated, and to hear their stories about their own lives.
She climbed up to the Capitol in Washington to listen from the public gallery to the arguments about the hottest question of the day, slavery, and took painful note of the concessions in the current law to the Southern slaveowners. Slavery was the big blot in the records of this America which offered a freedom which in other respects her Europe was lacking.
She was passionately interested in America's many "societies". She visited Quakers and Shakers. She looked up settlers and descendants of Swedes. She listened to sermons in all kinds of churches. She wanted to find out how the prisons were organized, and she talked with the prisoners. She wanted to know about the opportunities for education and work for women.
She walked into that notorious district Five Points in New York to look at the slums: prostitutes, deviates and homeless people. She visited American literary colleagues -Lowell, Emerson, Hawthorne, Washington Irving -in their homes, sketched them, read their books in depth, and argued with them. She especially observed American homes: their everyday life, expectations, women's roles, and social life.
She extended her travels to Cuba where she stayed a few months during the spring of 1850. All the time she sketched. And she constantly recorded -spontaneously and vividly -impressions and reflections of what she saw. It was done in long letters home, mostly to her younger sister Agathe.
Dear Agathe! When after her return to Sweden she edited her travel impressions, she kept the letter form. The Homes of the New World. Impressions of America, in several volumes, was published on both sides of the Atlantic during the first years of the 1850s.
The reception of this work in the United States was mixed; some of her readers were shocked by her candidness. The letters are a mirror of the contemporary society, and the families she had stayed with are portrayed. In Sweden the work became a success.
Fredrika Bremer had been the author of the home and the family and had been criticized occasionally for the limited social importance of the aristocratic or bourgeois settings which she depicted. In her novels of the 1830s the home had been described as a world. Now she described the world -America -as a home, and humanity was her subject. Her America-letters are written in a rapid impressionistic style, following the chronology of her travels. They are a living and incomparable document from the time of the American melting pot at the middle of last century. In the language of our time they could be called a journalistic achievement. There is no doubt, however, that her letters are characterized by a very determined view of life and by a reflecting intellect which make them into something more and greater than momentary impressions. They mirror not only America but also their author.
Travels to the Old World
Fredrika Bremer was to repeat this journalistic feat. Some years later she again left Sweden. This time she was absent for five years and would be sixty years old on her return to Sweden. She went first to Switzerland, then to Belgium and France, from there to Italy and the Pope's Rome, to Palestine and the Holy land, and to Turkey and Greece.
This time also she was motivated by personal interests. In Switzerland she wanted to explore the new "free church" and the modern liberal theological currents. In Rome she became absorbed in a study of the differences between the Lutheranism in which she had grown up and Catholicism and had the opportunity to discuss these questions with the Pope during a visit to the Vatican. In Jerusalem she followed the wanderings of Jesus Christ. Greece was in many ways the highpoint of her journey, and she was to stay there for several years.
People, landscapes, questions of the time; history, art and religion. The result of this long journey was a work in six volumes about life in the Old World (1860 -62). Although this travel book does not have the form of letters but of a diary, it is as freshly observing and at the same time reflecting and commenting as the letters from America. With these works -and, one might add, the book about England for which she gathered material during her voyage home from America and which is called Englandin 1851 - Fredrika Bremer places herself among the great travel book writers of the last century.
In Sweden Fredrika Bremer worked within a tradition following the scientist and traveler Carl von Linné whom she admired. She too was interested in botany, as can be seen from her many drawings, but her field of study was the development of society and social life. Her travel books are part of what she considered her life project: the search for a tenable life philosophy. It has taken time, and perhaps only today is it possible, to comprehend how coherent and consistent her life and authorship really were.
The fact that she was able to give such a vivid and stratified picture of the America and Europe of her time, that she could describe the life of society both from the bottom and from its ruling class, and that she was able to go beyond class and sex barriers as she did, had without doubt to do with what ought to have been her greatest obstacle at that time: the fact that she was a woman, and that she traveled alone.
In an almost miraculous way she turned her biggest handicap to advantage. How did it happen, who was she, this Miss Bremer?
Departure from a Strait-jacket Upbringing
Even those of her countrymen today who have not read Fredrika Bremer, tie her name to the long political struggle which finally led to legal majority for women in Sweden. Because of her they probably also know something about the rigidity which marked the education of girls from her class: the daughters of the upper middle class.
Fredrika's upbringing was in accordance with the times: a rigid set of norms, exercised in a social isolation so strict as to resemble life in prison. The Bremer family had five daughters -and four of them remained single. In one sense their childhood and adolescence were privileged, perhaps even a good example: they were taught drawing and foreign languages, they took lessons in dance and music, and they were instructed in modern literature - the dramatic works of Schiller were read aloud when the family met in the evenings in the drawing-room of the castle of Årsta, where the Bremer family spent the summer half of the year, or in the elegant apartment in Stockholm.
But it was an upbringing focused on teaching how to please, with ideals which could be found in Madame de Genli's once so popular novels. In the case of the Bremer sisters it was executed in an atmosphere of insensitivity and extreme duress. Apparently it was even physically dangerous to their health; to all appearances the Bremer sisters suffered from severe undernourishment because of the meticulous restrictions in their food consumption. They were to grow into sylphs according to their mother's concept of beauty. They were kept inside the four walls of their home; even a walk outdoors was an unattainable dream. No real food for the soul, no intellectual help to wrestle with existential questions, were offered. Although the family was rich, it was not until she began to earn money from her books that Fredrika had any money to call her own.
A distressing letter from Fredrika Bremer to her mother, written when she was already a recognized writer with a considerable reputation, contains the humble request for some litte space to call her own - even if only a cubby-hole in the attic - where she might think and write. This request was refused. Echoes of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own are to be found in women's literature all through the ages.
The legal incapacity of the unmarried woman made Fredrika totally dependent: she was not allowed to manage her own money, nor marry without the permission of her guardian, and she had, of course, absolutely no political influence. In addition, all higher education was closed to women.
It has been suggested that this situation explains the large proportion of women writers in the bourgeois literature of the 19th century: it was simply a field where they could make themselves heard when other means were closed. At the same time women writers were the first to formulate new and subtle insights about shifts in the life of society which neither contemporary philosophy nor science were able to capture.
A new audience was coming into existence, a reading middle class. The novel became the area where the contradictions of the time could be shown. The novel became a focal point for social debate and discussions of ethics; finally it became the very instrument for social change (Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is an illuminating example).
The childhood and youth of Fredrika Bremer is classic. We recognize its elements in the situation of other women writers from the same time. Less classic perhaps in the psychological constellation. which happened to exist in her family. Her father was not only a patriarch of the old school; he also happened to be a man of an unstable psyche, and his despotism was reinforced by periodical and severe depressions. His periods of silence and bad temper increased the isolation of the family and the vulnerability of the daughters.
A psychologically complicated web arose: rebelliousness and inner revolt on Fredrika's part, but at the same time feelings of suffocation, consciousness of guilt and longing for reconciliation. Her youth passed through years of apathy and depression; without any light, without any hope, as she herself has put it.
But it was from this childhood and youth that she took material for her writing. In her novels from the 1830s we sense her biography, but now transformed by a fresh and humorous eye. No one has with greater passion and warmth than she -in diaries and letters -expressed how a misguided upbringing and lack of love can shatter a young person's courage to live.
In Sweden, her novels have often been read against the background of her biography. And naturally she deals with a personal trauma in them; in various parts of her novels her very complicated relationship with her father is noticeable. Still, it is remarkable and noteworthy how free as an author she stands from the reality of her own life and background. Already at her debut she was on her way to find a personal philosophy which would help her not only to understand and explain her own life, but also to make her into a real artist.
Form and Style
Many of the women writers who were contemporary with Fredrika Bremer are today considered to belong to trivial literature. Fredrika, however, succeded in finding a formula for her novels which raised them above the trivial: a combination of high and low, or an "ideal realism", which neither allowed the subject-matter to be reduced to clichés, nor gave it the artificiality which quickly becomes dated.
Obviously Fredrika Bremer's novels may to a reader of today sometimes appear "chatty" or "romantic". Critics usually explain this by pointing out that she did not yet master realism but remained in the imaginary world and style of romanticism. This is an interpretation which to my mind obscures her originality. A modern school of study in Sweden, often represented by women, has recently started to uncover the underlying structures in the works of Fredrika Bremer.
There exists in her novels a realistically and soberly observing eye and a profoundly personal voice. To whom does it belong? One of Fredrika Bremer's strokes of genius as a writer was her introduction of the female narrator, the eye through which her families are described and scrutinized. In The H-Family this narrator has a revealing name, Beata Hvardagslag (Beata Everyday). In other novels she has a less symbolic name but the same function.
Through the narrative voice a distance is achieved and also a chance to play with form. Fredrika Bremer's novels fluctuate between epic story-telling, dramatic dialogues, parts of letters, even inserted poems. The reader senses that this is fiction, art. But behind the female fictional narrator there is another, "the author" of the book, who in urgent moments may push aside the narrator to communicate something in earnestness or in confidence.
The voice of the author may be heard when the narrator's perspective by necessity becomes too limited. While Fredrika Bremer's narrator stands for much of the realism and soberness in the novels -in accord with a large part of her contemporary readers -the voice of the author supplies something else: the myth, a larger and broader interpretation of existence.
Recent Bremer research has shown -contrary to biographical reading or social interpretation of the message of this authorship -that Fredrika Bremer's novels use several codes simultaneously; its complexity is deeper than a breach of style between "romanticism" and "realism".
She smuggled, as the literary scholar Birgitta Holm has expressed it, contraband into literature: a message in several strata. She gave to the grammar of the novel a new and unexpected "pattern of inflection." The message was coded, but in one way or other it had to do with liberation: her own, women's and finally humanity's.
She could not speak out in plain language. The times did not allow it. Perhaps she herself in addition was too complicated a person. In any case, this is what saves her work from relegation to the ranks of fast forgotten trivial literature.
Father Revolt and Theological Questions
"All my youth was strange -I had a constant feeling of being able to go mad suddenly and instantly," Fredrika wrote in 1832 in a letter to the friend who perhaps meant more for her development than anyone else. His name was Per Johan Böklin and he was a young minister and teacher in the southern Swedish city of Kristianstad. They met by chance when she came to spend the winter with her sister who hade moved there with her husband. She was to study philosophy under his guidance, and asked him for help in putting her thoughts in order, which due to lack of systematic studies she found confused.
Her meeting with Böklin and the death of her father -which occurred around the same time -were two decisive milestones in the life of Fredrika Bremer. Under the leadership of Böklin she studied Plato and Herder, became familiar with Hegel's philosophy of history, and for the first time in her life she had the opportunity to discuss the theological questions which had become stumbling-blocks for her.
Who was God? A capricious father, indifferent to the suffering to which the living beings in His creation were exposed? A dark despot, a self-sufficient sovereign who demanded blind and unreasonable obedience? Was it His will that women were subordinate to men, as she had read in the Scriptures? What did the words of the Bible mean, how should they be interpreted? How to explain the existence of evil, how to understand the torments of the innocent, the animals, and the nature?
She could not have found a better sparring partner for her trying questions than Böklin: well-read and broadminded, politically radical, a minister in the Lutheran Church but influenced by the new Platonism and Christian mysticism, as well as deeply convinced of the equal worth of men and women in the face of Our Lord. Not least important was that he showed her the road to another aspect of God, namely Christ. That is to say, God in human shape, once subject to the same conditions and the same sufferings as human beings.
One of Fredrika Bremer's most central and most forgotten books -never republished -is called Morgonväkter (Morning Watch, 1842). In reality it is a religious pamphlet directed against a work much debated at the time, Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Christ) by the liberal theologian D.F. Strauss.
Here Fredrika Bremer accomplishes a delicate balance. She herself was extremely broadminded, according to many almost heretical, in questions of the Christian religion. Strauss's reading of the Bible was partly her own: that the Bible has mythical elements, that old materials have survived undigested in the New Testament, and that the gospels are marked by human shortcomings in their authors.
On one point, however, she is unrelenting in her criticism: namely Strauss's view of Christ as the ideal man; i.e. the elimination of the miraculous and the divine. If Christ was only a human being, and if God was something else than Christ -he would then again be the "oriental despot" on an invisible throne, a gentleman whom Fredrika Bremer declares she can neither honor and love, nor obey: "I have said it, and I repeat it: the man Jesus Christ means more to us than God if he himself is not -God!"
Her theological pamphlet, which attracted attention not least because it was written by a woman, was given the subtitle "Confession." That was also what it was. Here we have her view of life in a concentrated form. She is a Christian mystic, like Kierkegaard -whose writings interested her and about whom she wrote -convinced that eternity exists side by side with the temporal, and that divine grace can surround us in short and amazing moments of our life.
Even in Fredrika Bremer's most soberly realistic novels the transcendence of the miracle is a sounding-board, and when she writes about political reforms it is with a spiritually transformed humanity as objective. Her Christian belief was, however, not especially pious, and at the end of her life she still called herself a sceptic and a searcher. She was unsympathetic to the worldly power of the Church.
The conversations she had begun with Böklin in Kristianstad touched her own weak spot: the dark and difficult father figure who demanded blind obedience, and the rejected child's burning desire for love. But they also laid the foundation for her way of thinking -a freely perceived Christian faith -which fundamentally questioned the order of the patriarchal society, its economic laws and inequality. She can be called a "Christian socialist," which in any case is a label nearest to her politcal belief. During the 1830s she was indeed influenced by Bentham, and she knew Marx, but utilitarianism or Marxist historical materialism could not satisfy her, since her own social utopia contained a spiritual dimension lacking in both of them.
This dimension is evident in her novels from the 1840s, The Bondmaid, A Diary, or Brothers and Sisters. The latter is an attempt to depict a utopia founded on sisterhood and brotherhood, where philanthropic movements, social associations or societies are implements for changing conditions. As a realistic model it is awkward and immature, but the direction in which her thoughts were moving is obvious. Her long travels out into the world were now being prepared.
Böklin remained her friend for life. Their relationship was, however, disturbed by his proposal of marriage. It created a severe crisis for her and made their contact impossible for several years. Usually it is said that she chose to live alone in order to be able to accomplish her literary work. Perhaps this is true. It was still almost impossible to be a wife, mother and housewife and at the same time complete a literary life work.
When it comes to this somewhat dark point in Fredrika Bremer's life it is, however, difficult not to have some thoughts: so many of her novels circle in different ways around the forbidden and dangerous love for the father/the despot. Already in The H-Family this constellation appears in the young woman Elisabeth's ecstatic and life-consuming passion for her guardian, her uncle. It is a passion which threatens to ruin the marriage and the domestic happiness which Fredrika Bremer otherwise voices in her novels from the 1830s. This part of the book belongs to what is usually called too romanced or romantic in her -that wich breaks up the frame of realism.
It is possible that she here faced something that she was forced to express, but which in reality disturbed and threatened her attempt to establish a harmonic view of life: the obscure and incomprehensible sensation that the oppressor and the despot can excite passion and ardor in the victim.
In any case, one must perhaps percieve that the mild and considerate Böklin -and according to her own description sometimes rather dull -was not the man that Fredrika Bremer's livelier temperament and more passionate spirit demanded. She did not find that kind of man and remained single. The crisis-inflicted break-up with Böklin took time to heal.
Fifteen years were to pass before they met again, but they continued their correspondence; the letters they exchanged and which have survived are warm and sincere, giving us a vivid picture of Fredrika Bremer's life and development. Not unexpectedly, she belonged to the great letter writers of her time, and her correspondence with frineds and colleagues in Sweden (Tegnér, Geijer, Viktor Rydberg, just to mention a few) and in other countries (H.C. Andersen, Henri-Frédéric Amiel) belongs to Swedish literature as much as her novels and travel books.
Hertha and Women's Liberation
At the end of her life Fredrika Bremer wrote in a letter that with one of her books she had risked - "no, sacrificed" - her popularity as a writer. Conscious of that while she was writing it, she confided in her addressee: "that I still did it has since made me happy and will make me happy until my death".
The book she is referring to is the novel Hertha or the Story of a Soul, which she wrote between her two extended travels abroad. It was published in 1856. At that time she was in Switzerland and did not have to partake in the pungently critical, partly downright rude reception her book received in Sweden. The liberal press supported her, but in the conservative press the criticism was relentless.
Hertha deals with women's liberation. With a subtle but meaningful change in the subtitle she had chosen for so many of her novels, "Sketches of Every-day Life," she named it on the first page "A Sketch from Real Life." In an afterword she gives a report of the way in which the Courts of Appeal, the Supreme Court and Parliament in her country had treated the proposals for female legal majority of age from 1832 to date. She gives an account - with bitterness and bite - of all the winning arguments against such a reform and even makes a direct parallel: "Quite the same reasonings we have listened to in North America's slave states in arguments for the maintenance of slavery. It was all for the benefit and happiness of the slaves!"
In her voice there is nothing of the compromise or understanding so very much present in her earlier family novels; here the polemical Fredrika Bremer speaks: "It seems to us difficult to tell for which of these two, the woman or the man, the opinions of their courts are most humiliating; for her who 'de jure' by force will be kept bound, in order that she might as married be fully submissive to her husband's guardianship, or for him who cannot in his bride try to win the free woman who through her full and free acknowledgement of his worth gives him her hand but an unfree, subjugated being who takes him because she has no other means of making a living or achieving a relatively independent existence. Completely free she can hope to become only through his death or by divorcing him. That is why I have heard more than one young, intelligent woman say: 'I would marry today if I only knew for sure to become a widow before night'."
Hertha starts like so many of Fredrika Bremer's novels as a divertissement in the bourgeois society. But very soon behind the erotic complications another theme is noticeable. She tells how Herta and her beloved do not "get each other" - because of a father who does not want to let his daughters marry in order not to lose the right to their inheritance from their mother (a quite realistic reason for the resistance to the majority for women). For Hertha this leads to a maturing process. Before she dies she has founded a free school for young people - not only for women but also for the young men whose education does not teach them anything about real life or their own inner life. And she does not do it alone but together with the man whom she finally marries.
The intimacy between these two - the fact that Hertha at one time bandages the knee of her fiancé - was enough to raise a storm in the conservative press. But Fredrika Bremer had more to offer, among other things a dream vision of female spirits who could find no other way of achieving a taste of freedom than through prostitution. In the novel she is loyal to the unmarried mother who alone takes care of her child. She praises work - and cooperation. She draws the contours for a pedagogy of freedom, maturity and human growth.
She was right: with this book she risked her popularity as a writer. Certainly, she had "preached" also in her earlier novels. But that could be swallowed. In literary handbooks Hertha has until our days often been considered artistically unfinished because of its "tendency." The judgement is, however, unfair. Fredrika Bremer describes or depicts as much and with the same stylistic means as in her earlier novels; the variations in her narrative technique are of the same kind, and the only thing that really separates Hertha from the earlier novels is the degree of seriousness.
Recently the mythological theme of the novel has been the subject of special interest: Fredrika Bremer was passionately interested in myths: Scandinavian fairy tales, Nordic sagas, Greek mythology. In Hertha there is evidence of her knowledge of Cretan fertility myths and matriarchal religions. Behind the "tendential work" something else is obviously apparent: an attempt at a reconciliation between life principles on the most profound level, a revision of the patriarchal image of the world which we seem to have inherited from Christianity or the Judeo-Christian culture.
And still earlier, during her American journey, it is possible to intercept her - perhaps half subconscious - search for another archetype. Her letters from Cuba are permeated with impressions from nature, mirroring a world in balance between male and female elements; a harmonic androgynous world. She interpreted and described Cuba as an human Eden, an original paradise. Sensitively she registered the dances of the Blacks - most probably with elements from the myths of the Yoruba religion - where male and female balanced each other, and where another and more primordial web of conceptions could be seen.
There are reasons to believe that she, under the surface, allowed her innermost dreams of a rebirth of humanity to enter Hertha. But the novel was also immediately recognized as the foremost pamphlet against the want of majority for women. The first reform came just two years later, in 1858. The novel did not bring this about, but was undoubtedly a part of the political work behind it. As Hertha in the novel must go directly to the king with her prayer for change, Fredrika Bremer herself had used her authority to influence the stand of the monarch and thereby the resolution in Parliament.
While she was writing Hertha, Fredrika Bremer had also entered public politics in a different way than earlier. In 1854 she published an appeal to the women's organizations of her country to unite and work for peace - the Crimean War was in process. And somewhat later she sent to the London Times an "Invitation to a Peace Alliance" directed to all the Christian women's organizations of the world.
Her article could be read in The Times on August 28, 1854. In the same issue the editorial dissociation from such a foolish proposal was published. It was echoed by the Swedish press in scornful remarks, as was also her work for better prison care and pensions for women teachers. Thus, she was somewhat prepared for the public storm her novel Hertha was to stir up.
Obviously the assault on her also had other grounds: her rigid and backward Sweden was undergoing great change. The class society - nobility, clergy, burghers and peasants - in which she had grown up and which had kept her in such a painful isolation, was near its end. The political contrasts were harsh, and Hertha landed in the frontline.
Fredrika Bremer died in 1865, only a few weeks after the victory of the reform which replaced the four estates with a more modern representative democracy. At Årsta, where she had retired, she listened carefully to the rumble from the debates in Stockholm. She received the news of the successful parliamentary reform from her friends, who after the announcement proposed a toast to Fredrika Bremer. It seemed natural. Both directly through articles and personal influence and indirectly she had worked for an increase of political democracy. If the message in Hertha was equality between the sexes, in practice it demanded political reform: majority for everyone, including women. Fredrika Bremer had worked at times patiently, at times in an indignant voice for these reforms.
"A hearty thank you for the toast," she wrote from Årsta. "Thank God, I feel I can accept it with a clear conscience. Yes, I have worked for these things. But I could have done it better, more evenly. But it is not so easy to get out of centuries' old swaddling-clothes in which you have been tied up since your childhood, and moreover the true and good resignation stands quite near the false one."
She was deep into a new work, a novel which was to have the title Aurora -red light of dawn. It was not to be finished; death intervened. For quite some time Årsta had not belonged to the family, but she rented a couple of rooms from the new owners. With them and a large group of children from the poor cottages around the castle she had celebrated Christmas. After the early service on Christmas Day she became ill from pneumonia. She died within a week. People from the region carried her coffin on the snowy roads, strewn with spruce twigs, to Österhaninge churchyard where she was buried.
The most beautiful obituary about her was written long after her death by her fellow writer and Nobel prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, who was only seven years old when Fredrika Bremer died. In a short story called Miss Fredrika, Selma Lagerlöf pays tribute to her as a pioneer and explorer. She lets her be honored by all unmarried women of her time, whose lives she gave worth and dignity, and to whom Selma Lagerlöf herself belonged.
The story is also a touching and deeply knowledgeable portrait in Lagerlöf's fairy-tale style. In the shape of a dark and splendid prince, dressed in a scarlet robe, Death comes on his horse to Årsta castle to abduct the aged Fredrika. Selma Lagerlöf well knew how during their childhood Fredrika and her sisters had dreamt of being "abducted" when they traveled by horse and wagon around the castle -abducted from the milieu that kept them imprisoned.
In Lagerlöf's story, Death - the prince and liberator - brings Fredrika to heaven, where "He, the only one" is waiting. By him she is taken on a whirling flight "upwards, upwards." But "the next day there was deep sorrow all over the land of Sweden, sorrow in wide parts of the world."
Selma Lagerlöf knew very well that she owed thanks to Fredrika Bremer, whose work had cleared the way for the free flight of fantasy, myth and fairy tale which were the insignia of Selma Lagerlöf as a writer. Fredrika Bremer was of course trapped in the "swaddling-clothes" of her time, in conventions, and taboos. But the person who reads her today with an understanding of the difficulties she had to overcome, has not only a lot to learn about her time, its way of living, and its society - he will also meet a brave, creative and free spirit.
We have not yet caught up with her. Such conditions in our world or relations between people have not yet arisen which would allow her to rest in peace.
Translation: Ingrid Claréus
Swedish Institute Date of publication: 1 Jan 1988
Agneta Pleijel, (born in 1940) is a writer of poetry, prose and drama. She has been a literary critic and professor of drama and has published five novels, translated into many languages, in English The Dog Star (Hundstjärnan, 1989) and from her collection of poetry Eyes from a Dream (Ögon ur en dröm, 1984)
Works by Fredrika Bremer in English Translation
The Homes of the New World, 1853
Life in the Old World, 1860
The Neigbours, 1842
New Scetches of Every-Day Life, 1843
Strife and Peace, 1843
A Diary, 1844
Life in Dalecarlia, 1845
Father and Daughter, 1859
The Colonel´s Family, 1995
Shaky puddingsFredrika Bremer's fictional way with food and drink.
by Sarah Death
(First published in Swedish Book Review Supplement 2003: Food and Drink in Sweden and Swedish Literature. p 13-17.)
My research on the novels of Fredrika Bremer was far behind me, but some quotations from Familjen H*** (1831, translated as The Colonel's Family, Norvik Press, 1995) and Grannarna (1837, The Neighbours) persisted in my head. There was one about the stimulating effects of a 'strengthening Arabian drink', coffee. There was another about a pudding which had to be placed a particular way on the table so the young hostess's mother would not see that one side had collapsed. And there was a third concerning a breakfast served by a new wife to some appreciative guests. It suddenly struck me that they were all to do with food and drink, but why were they proving so memorable?
I knew I had had frequent recourse to recipe books of the mid-nineteenth century (Eliza Acton, Mrs Beeton) when translating Familjen H***. There is copious evidence of a good appetite and healthy interest in food in Bremer's extensive correspondence, but this was by no means a foregone conclusion in view of the contradictory messages about food which she received as a girl. The Bremer girls' mother thought they should aspire to the near-anorexic eighteenth century feminine ideal, and fed them very frugally, yet insisted that Fredrika and one of her sisters should be schooled in advanced cookery skills for their coming domestic role. Bremer also saw hunger and poverty first-hand when she decided as a young woman to embark on good works on her father's estate. So it is perhaps no surprise that, like Charles Dickens in his novels, she is often prompted by social conscience to dwell on the feast/famine contrast, for example in Presidentens döttrar (1834, The President's Daughters) where the narrator, a governess from a poor background, critically observes the abundance of rich food at her master's table, particularly in one dinner-party scene featuring oysters, lamb cutlets with green peas, cold pike with lobster tails, ices, pastries from Behrends and fresh peaches. Mamselle Rönnquist herself pointedly drinks milk instead of wine and selects a homely apple rather than hothouse fruit.
It may be that food in Bremer's novels is memorable because she is writing from her own experience of cooking and eating. In this she is totally unlike Strindberg, a writer who is renowned for his food scenes but was in real life scarcely able to make his own coffee, let alone his dinner. Bellman, another Swedish writer known for literary eating and drinking, offers on closer inspection little in the way of physical sensations (there is even research to suggest he had no sense of taste or smell), whereas Bremer on occasions seems to take an almost sensual pleasure in her own food descriptions, as in her account in Familjen H*** of honey cakes ìflowing with aromatic juices 'and plum tart 'light, delicious, exquisite'.
Nor does Bremer ever try to deny that food is a basic human need even for women, unlike her contemporary Charlotte Brontë, whose heroines at times seem free from all earthly appetites. While Brontë and, before her, Jane Austen, considered it vulgar for their female characters to speak appreciatively of food, Bremer in her ëfamily novelsí of the 1830s shows a healthy relish for good food and drink as a positive and socialising element in family life. Those female characters who refuse to eat are either ill or deeply unhappy, and their companions are seen eagerly trying to tempt their palates.
Food is not just food in Bremer's novels, however, it is also a narrative device: used in imagery, in characterization and for creation of atmosphere. In characterization, it is a convenient and universally accessible short-cut to a person's nature and motivation. A good example was one of those memorable quotations in my head, from the epistolary novel The Neighbours. The central character Fransiska, who has just come to the district as the bride of the local doctor, writes to her friend of the first time she receives guests as mistress of her own home: 'I had prepared a little breakfast, and my eggs, my fresh butter, my foaming chocolate were praised in no small measure.' These words are a distillation, one could say, of her character, her role in the novel, and Bremer's food philosophy. Firstly, Fransiska is nervous in her new, housewifely role, and her reaction to the success of her breakfast reveals not only pride but also some relief.
Secondly, the breakfast is composed of fresh ingredients, with dairy produce from Fransiska's own animals. (We should recall here that Bremer campaigned for animal rights.) This novel eschews descriptions of sumptuous dinner parties and concentrates on simpler things, like the 'freshly-baked rye bread and milk warm from the cow' with which she hopes to feed up her sickly friend Serena. Party food at Fransiska's consists of home-made cakes and lemonade; or duck from the local lake, with fresh vegetables and salad. Fransiska swiftly develops her own garden into a virtual smallholding with cows, chickens, ducks and turkeys, peas, beans and gooseberry bushes. The novel as a whole idealize s rural life in the province of Småland, and is a sustained hymn of praise to simple, locally-produced, home-cooked food, making Bremer a very early protagonist of environmental awareness and organic products.
Bremer also uses food as a direct characterization device, likening a person to a particular foodstuff; the most memorable example is again in The Neighbours, when Miss Hellevi Husgafvel prepares Fransiska for coming encounters with her new neighbours by comparing them to different dishes. According to Hellevi, they vary from watery soup to horseradish; she calls the doctor and Fransiska 'a plum pudding served with a sweet, fiery sauce, without which it would be far less tasty'. Fransiska secretly thinks of Hellevi as 'preserved ginger; if you eat it occasionally, you think: delicious! But you would not want it every day.'
Similar culinary games with an underlying characterising function introduce Bremer's Hemmet (1839, The Home), which opens with the Frank family in a tableau round the dining table, a recurring motif in the text. They await the arrival of eldest son Henrik's new tutor, Jacobi. He reveals himself in the first few days as a thoughtless glutton with a vast intake of jam, sugar and coffee. But as he settles in and reveals himself as a likeable, skilful tutor, food is mentioned less and his eating resumes normal proportions. Interestingly, when he later courts the eldest daughter Louise and finds himself in competition with her rich cousin Thure, Thure is the one painted as a mindless, chomping figure, who hunts, shoots and farms on an almost industrial scale on his large estate. His food habits are quite alien to the home-baked Frank family, and Louise rejects his suit. Moderation in one's enjoyment of food is clearly an important indicator of strength of character in Bremer's view: in The Colonel's Family too, a self-indulgent fiancé is rejected in favour of a man to whom mental nourishment is more important than cutlets and sweetmeats.
Louise marries Jacobi, bears him nine children and at the end of the novel gathers three generations of her family about her, serving them pasties, milk, coffee, arrack punch and a 'really uplifting' lemonade. In other words, she triumphs as hostess and mistress of her house, but Bremer is well aware that the route to that triumph is not always smooth; she dwells in various of her novels on the domestic challenge facing a young wife, epitomized in the first, critical visit of her parents to the new home. This is where we return to the lopsided pudding in the opening quotation: it features in The Colonel's Family on just such a day. Newly-wed Emilia serves all her father's favourite dishes in an effort to impress, and even passes scrutiny with her mother when sister Julie turns the sub-standard pudding round just in time.
Scenes like these with Emilia and Louise recur quite predictably in Bremer's 'family novels'. Adelaide in The President's Daughters and the slightly older Fransiska in The Neighbours both undergo variations of the test, the latter almost failing at the last hurdle because her biscuits melt together in the oven. But interestingly, if Bremer's women can survive these baptisms of fire they then find themselves in a position of considerable domestic power. The authority of Beata Hvardagslag, the 'household adviser' and narrator of The Colonel's Family, has been much discussed in this light. The whole novel is suffused with the imagery of cooking: chapters have titles like 'Midday meal. A little of everything, all stewed together' and the resolution of the narrative is compared to the successful preparation of a clear wine jelly. At the external plot level, Beata's foolproof recipes and common-sense advice make her indispensable in a troubled household at times verging on the hysterical. In this, her first novel, Bremer repeatedly deploys food to bring the narrative down to earth from its more romantic or melodramatic excursions. The most famous instance is that of son Carl, who is desperately trying to reach his beloved to save her from an uncertain fate, but finds himself cornered by his pursuers in a pantry. The place is full of good food... .
In The Neighbours, Bremer gives a psychologically sensitive account of a new wife boldly testing the limits of her domestic power. She not only steals a sheet of her husband's best writing paper to bake biscuits on, in order to test his reaction, but also finds she can quell his anger with a pie fresh from the oven and persuade him out on pastoral picnics he would never have dreamt of enjoying. In this sphere, the men in Bremer's novels are largely passive consumers; whenever they get involved in the preparation of food and drink there is usually a mess or a disaster. When Jacobi and Henrik try to make pancakes for the whole family in The Home, there ensues a slapstick scene from which Louise must rescue them. The Colonel (The Colonel's Family) causes havoc in the kitchens as he makes wine cup for his daughter's wedding party. But the men are at the women's mercy when it comes to the timing of meals. When Elise Frank in The Home is distracted from her domestic duties by her new - and illicit - interest in writing novels, her 'horribly punctual' husband, outraged to find she has forgotten to order tea, flounces off to his club where he partakes of a predictably bad meal. The system of values in Bremer's novels always underlines that home food is the best, whether it be routine meals, picnics in the country or grand dinners for special occasions. The majority of the meals she depicts are shown as celebrating or cementing family life, and in almost all cases it is women who are responsible for them. Women's control of the day-to-day food supply in these novels gives them some leverage in a time of patriarchal authority.
Food has another function in Bremer's novels for us today: as a source of historical information. We learn much of the eating habits of the day, such as the times of meals: dinner was apparently eaten at two in the afternoon, tea was taken at six or seven, and the evening meal could be as late as nine in the evening. We also learn much about attitudes to certain foods, for example coffee, which in the 1830s was still relatively new and exotic. Bremer refers repeatedly to its 'Arabian' origins, but makes good and frequent narrative use of the contrast between inclement weather, stormy nights and the warmth and cosiness of a coffee party round the fire.
Fruit is another interesting example, featuring widely in Bremer's family novels, and especially popular with the children there. Historically this is perhaps surprising, as there is evidence that fruit was considered harmful to children, a potential source of stomach disease. It was widely forbidden to the children of the upper classes until the discovery of vitamins around 1900. Perhaps Bremer was again ahead of her time? She certainly appears aware of the health-promoting properties of fruit; invalids and sickly people in her novels are seen receiving grapes. Often a gift to a loved one, fruit also appears in many of the family tableaux as if to provide colour and a sense of occasion, combining the pure and healthy with a feeling of luxury and a certain ritual resonance.
Bremer even employs the symbolic potential of fruit to tackle the then taboo subject of sex. Fruit often occurs in conjunction with courting couples in her novels. She is far from unique, of course, in exploiting fruit's link to fertility and to things forbidden. For a generation well-versed in the Bible, the obvious association would be to the Garden of Eden and the Fall. No one is more closely linked to fruit, however, than the well-meaning but wayward Petrea in The Home. Much of Petrea's story revolves around fruit, which causes trouble whenever she comes into contact with it. She gets lost in the forest searching for raspberries, for example (and is almost bitten by a 'serpent'), and spends her dress allowance on tempting apples and oranges. Petrea's predominant characteristic in the novel is her quest for knowledge, and her childhood attraction to inaccessible fruit can be read as a metaphor for her precocious urge to learn.
Space does not permit discussion of the ubiquity of food imagery and metaphor in Bremer's novels, but there are some lovely examples: a cruel brother, for example, likens his sister's dress fabric to 'spinach and porridge', and love is referred to as 'that heavenly yeast capable of leavening even the heaviest sour dough of this earthly life'. As for Bremer's correspondence with Victorian cookery book writer Eliza Acton, and how recipes from The Neighbours and The Home found their way into various editions of Acton's Modern Cookery, that is another story.
All translations from Swedish are my own. This is an abridged re-working in English of a paper first given as part of the Fredrika Bremer Bicentenary Year programme at a seminar at Södertörns högskola, Stockholm, 6 March 2003. The full text is published in Swedish in: 'Mina ägg, mitt färska smör, min skummande chocolad blefvo ej litet prisade' Om matens roll i några Fredrika Bremer-romaner. Gastronomisk kalender 2003 (Gastronomiska Akademiens årsbok, 42), pp 37-57.
Sarah Death (born 1956) translator, literary scholar, and editor of UK-based journal Swedish Book Review (www.swedishbookreview.com) lives and works in Kent, England. She gained her Ph.D. at University College London in 1985 for a thesis on the works of Fredrika Bremer and Elin Wägner. She has translated novels by Swedish writers of various periods, including Fredrika Bremer's Familjen H ***, 1831: The Colonel's Family, 1995, Norvik Press (www.llt.uea.ac.uk/norvik_press).
FREDRIKA BREMER (1801-1865) was a Swedish author
Translated by Sarah Death
FREDRIKA BREMER (1801-1865) was a Swedish author of international renown. Between 1828 and 1858 she published a large number of novels, short stories and travelogues, and in the 1830s her work started to appear in translation in other countries. Britain and the United States became her main markets abroad, and her work influenced many of the Victorian novelists, among them Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. The issue of women1s rights was her main concern, and her work had a great impact on Swedish and international suffrage campaigns and feminist ideology. Bremer's works still appear in new editions, in Sweden and to a lesser extent abroad.
The following three extracts are from Carina Burman's biography of Fredrika Bremer, Bremer: En Biografi (Bremer: A Biography). Bonniers, Stockholm, 2001. 618 pages. Colour plates; black and white illustrations. ISBN 91-0-057680-8.
The extracts reflect different phases of Bremer's life and works: her youth; her mature novels of the 1840s; and her journeys to the USA and Britain and the resulting travel writing. The translation into English is by Sarah Death.
The biography itself has copious notes but these have been omitted here.
from CHAPTER 2
"Fredrice has spun together a Historie".
Debut as Artist and Writer, 1820-31.
Even in her youthful travel diary, Bremer emerges as a confirmed feminist. She often ridicules men and sees them as unworthy of women, who marry out of sheer goodness. In Göttingen she was impressed by the 300,000 volumes in the University Library, but then thought better of it and wrote to her female friend that there was no need to envy her:
Oh no, Agathe. If you had been there, you would have done as we did, opened your eyes wide, let your mouth gape open, cried Gracious me! and once you had read the Titles of a few of the Books, Medeçine, Chirurgie etc. would withdraw in indifference, for - you are a Woman, you are not permitted to be learned and should one presume to open a book, so perhaps the Professor would remind one that this collection did not contain any Cookery books! Ah, it is sometimes hard indeed to follow the motto: Content With Your Lot.
But Fredrika was not content with her lot. The travel diary provides insight not only into what happened to her, but also into her thoughts and dreams. Despite the excitement of the journey, she longed to be elsewhere. In Switzerland she dreamt of secluding herself with her friend in "a little Hermitage" and devoting herself to "Painting, music, reading, the lofty pleasures of the arts combined with the more beautiful life of Nature." In the mountains she encountered some "cheerful and good-looking little Savoyard boys". In her travel notes they were little more than a picturesque detail, but the vision remained with her as a reminder of the contrast between their freedom and her own lack of it. The memory surfaced in 1834, in a letter to her long-time mentor Böklin, sighing: "Oh, how I envied the ragged little Savoyard among the Swiss mountains!" Much later, in Lifvet i gamla verlden (Life in the Old World, 1860; translated as Two Years in Switzerland and Italy, 1860), she still recalled them. The boys' freedom was in stark contrast to the claustrophobia of the Bremer family's closed carriage, and the adult Bremer spoke with some justification of "feeling blocked up" - though their comfortable form of travel did not actually impede her airways, it left her gasping for intellectual and spiritual breath.
Travel, it seems, was not much fun. Fredrika returns time and again in her notes to the food, and often grumbles about it. On one occasion she apologises for this to her addressee, but with the excuse, "You must know, my little one, that when travelling the meals are veritable high points." The Bremer girls may have gone dashing through Europe in a carriage, but they were just as constrained as back home. Propriety often obliged them to stay in their hotel, and if the carriage got stuck in the mud (as it often did) they were not allowed to alight however much they begged. Yet Bremer's major source of concern was still what she describes to her confidante Agathe as "little aggravations". Clearly the journey was not improving her father's moody temperament. Fredrika grew depressed, complained in her diary of her "indifference" and at the beginning of September fell ill with a bilious disorder. A little earlier, she described herself and other women as shackled: "truly we often resemble those lesser butterfly orchids which I have seen in the Fields so ensnared in Goosegrass that they cannot send up their modest flower therefrom, but must lie still along the ground." This sense of being bound seems deeply rooted in Fredrika and is reflected in numerous ways in the imagery found throughout her work.
One might almost suspect that her father1s tyranny was a contributing factor in driving Bremer to distraction and into her bilious attack. Her illness forced the family to slow the pace of their travels. They remained at Darmstadt for almost three weeks. The sisters read, went to the theatre and made excursions. Fredrika lay in her room attended by the doctor, Baron Wedekind, and hardly aware of her surroundings. Even once she had been declared fit and they had resumed their journey, she suffered bouts of melancholy and dwelt a great deal on death.
The travel diary ends in Lausanne on 12 October. Bremer's brother Claes was left in Geneva, where he was to complete his Grand Tour studying with a professor. A year earlier, he had enrolled at the University of Uppsala after successfully sitting the obligatory theological entrance examination. The rest of the family spent the winter in Paris, where the daughters' education was finished and polished. They attended theatrical performances and parties, and saw famous actors and opera singers: Talma, Duchesnois, Mlle Mars, Pasta and Mainville Féodor. The girls took lessons in music, drawing and painting from first-class teachers.
In Paris, the family lived at the Hotel de Bruxelles in Rue Richelieu. Napoleon had died in May of that year, and their ultra-Bonapartist guide, Clair, was constantly heard to maintain that everything was better "du temps de l'Empereur." This was the era of the Restoration. War and revolution were past, and a Capetian king was once more on the throne. Louis XVIII was the younger and cleverer brother of the executed Louis XVI and known as "le désiré", the desired one. The seventeenth Louis, son of Marie Antoinette, had in all likelihood died in 1795 at the age of ten. His uncle then declared himself king of France, but spent his manhood years in restless activity, conspiring against the enemies of the royal house.
Through contacts in the banking world, the Bremer family found their way into Paris society. Many years later, Fredrika recalled how she and her sisters played charades with the girls of the French Holtenmann family. But the city was most unlike the Stockholm they were used to. In Life in the Old World, Bremer describes the family at that time as "like some small Scandinavian craft thrown into the surging Paris sea and half-lost there." A middle-aged writer by then, she too allowed herself to be carried away on a wild flood of words when describing the scene:
Beauty and ugliness, luxury and misery were overtly displayed alongside each other. Splendid processions of people riding and in carriages thronged the boulevards; the crowd of spectators extended into the side alleys, where wretched creatures exposed open wounds and maimed limbs, women lay on the ground covered in black cloth, surrounded by pale, semi-naked children. The young gentlemen of the boulevard stepped right over them. Well-attired young men pursued women beseechingly; easy women could not keep their hands from the gentlemen. The evenings brought a swarm of human moths onto the streets; Palais Royal was a blaze of light, gambling clubs and dazzling shops; but after four in the afternoon it was dangerous for a young woman to cross its courtyard, even holding her mother1s hand.
With its refreshing fountains in the Tuileries, its throng of people, of laughing "pajazzos", old women making soup and much-beaten children, Paris was "a great, melodramatic piece of theatre, which left the young spectator almost dizzy in the head and made him [sic] laugh and cry at the same time."
These impressions were wide-ranging and educational. And yet the outcome of all these travels was not positive. In her autobiographical note, written in 1831, Fredrika writes that the impressions renewed the two passions of her childhood, the desire to know and the desire to enjoy. "I suffered like Tantalus," she concludes. In the ancient underworld, Tantalus was of course punished for crimes against the gods by having to stand in water beneath trees heavy with fruit, but finding that the branches raised themselves and the water ebbed away whenever he tried to eat or drink. The young Bremer was tortured by the same terrible hunger and thirst - not of the body, but of the soul. "Not for all the goods and gold in the world, not even for the poetic genius of Tegnér, would I wish to make such a journey in that way again", she wrote later in her autobiography. What is unusual is not that Bremer was discriminated against on grounds of her sex, but the intensity with which she felt herself oppressed and wronged. Even in her youth, she experienced a distinct sense of being an outsider. She was ugly, hopeless, rich - and a woman.
from CHAPTER 7
"Christ is the originator of true liberalism."
Religion, sex, philanthropy and politics 1842-48
p 226-29: A Diary
Bremer's early biographers Sophie Adlersparre and Sigrid Leijonhufvud see the winter of 1842 reflected in her ground-breaking theological essay Morgon-väckter (Morning Hours) and the winter of 1842 in En Dagbok (A Diary). Bremer now left behind her the concentrated action of Hemmet (The Home) and the picturesque fells and hills of Strid och Frid (Strife and Peace) and moved to her own home territory - the world of the capital city and its society. She also threw herself with energy and enthusiasm into her own social life, lived "in many-sided contact" with the world and was able to sum up the winter as "the most enjoyable, the most lively I have ever experienced". Bremer's urge to socialise came in part from working on the novel, and both she and her representatives combed Stockholm society for "folly and absurdity" to put into the book. From this point on, Bremer was to alternate the settings of her novels between upper class society and picturesque rural regions such as Dalecarlia, Norrland and the island of Gotland.
A Diary is mentioned for the first time in a letter of October 1841, when she has just set it aside to work on Morning Hours. Woman and man, love and emancipation are the novel1s themes. A Diary has none of the mildly incestuous love found in Famillen H*** (The H*** Family, re-translated as The Colonel1s Family 1995), nor does it share Grannarne's (The Neighbours') marital warmth or quest for purity. A number of literary historians have characterised A Diary as a "novel of intrigue", but for Bremer it was an entirely new departure. The question of women's rights was central to all her novels - somewhat less in Strife and Peace - but here, the issue of emancipation is brought to a head. A Diary depicts a wealthy 30-year-old woman, Sofia Adelan, who has been awarded legal majority status by His Majesty the King. Around her are a number of twenty-year-olds with thoughts of marriage, but she herself has no intention of relinquishing her independence - and yet falls in love with a mature widower.
A Diary is a novel of love in adulthood. Intrigue weaves itself about the younger generation - not least the somewhat manic-depressive Flora and the fawning St. Orme - but Sofia's love is the focus of interest. She, however, considers herself too old for such things. Her clothes are hopelessly old fashioned - "rococo", as her younger sister puts it - and so is she. Yet her fashionable stepmother takes a different view. Sofia is of "that beautiful, that modern age for an attractive woman" - she is a certain age, just like Balzac's women.
Bremer, too, had experienced a second youth at the age of thirty. Now she was ten years older and working on " a new romanticisation of everyday life". In a letter to Böklin in April 1842, she described in some detail the emotions this work was prompting in her:
Oh, Böklin! What days I have experienced this winter and spring! what fullness of life I have enjoyed. [...] In the mornings, between 8 and 1, I live among feelings and thoughts which are beyond description, which I should not permit myself to experience and relish in, were the pleasure not the basis of my activity on others' behalf [...].
In letters that followed, Bremer made various further comments on the book. In December 1842 she almost despaired, and on several occasions she likened the amorous theme of the book to "spirit-distilling of the mind". A Diary was nonetheless very close to her heart - its setting was identical to her own, its main character not unlike herself, and the emotions those she was attempting to suppress in her own life. In a letter to Böklin, she referred to the book as "a piece of personal confession: 'Dichtung und Wahrheit'." The act of writing it seems to have affected her to a remarkable degree. Whereas the writing of The Neighbours had made her fear dying, because the literary characters would die with her, the writing of A Diary found her living out all her characters' emotions. Fredrika Bremer's letters for the period 1842-43 often match the diary of Sofia Adelan word for word. Writing in September 1842 to her friend Malla Silfverstolpe, well-known hostess of a literary salon and herself constantly in love, Bremer quoted a song she had translated herself: "I care for no one at all, at all / if no one will care for me". Sofia Adelan uses the same song lyrics repeatedly as an expression of her own philosophy of life.
Nor was this correspondence between Bremer's personal and literary turn of phrase limited to the verbal sphere. Her description to Böklin of living "among feelings and thoughts" is borne out by her own later written accounts of the time. She wrote to Frances von Koch - her confidante in intimate matters - of life at her Årsta home in the summer of 1843:
Charlotte unravels tangled skeins of wool, while I write novels and conjure up flames of fictional love which at times virtually ignite me too, obliging me to throw myself into the sea every now and then for a refreshing bathe. N.B. not like poor Sapho!
Sappho of course drowned herself - according to unconfirmed reports - because she was unrequited in love. This confidence offered by Bremer to her friend, however, contrasts with a letter to the poet Tegnér in early May, in which she wrote: "a Diary with flames of love and passion, but I myself thereby as cool as - this current weather." It may simply have been that she felt it politic to keep Tegnér, now Lord Bishop in Växjö, at arm's length. There were more reliable allies to be had, like Malla Silfverstolpe.
During the summer of 1843, the two ladies discussed love in their letters. The salon hostess was not enamoured of emancipation, but she knew about love. They also had a shared anxiety on the subject: their good friend (and Malla's old flame) Adolf Fredrik Lindblad had fallen in love with Jenny Lind, who was living at his house. Bremer blamed herself, for having brought the couple together. In April 1843, she made what sounded like a definitive pronouncement on love: "I did not become happy until I looked for love not in another human being's breast as before but at - the feet of the Merciful One. Since then, all is calm and fulfilment."
By renouncing earthly love and concentrating on work and religion, Bremer had spared herself distress and attained harmony. But love was part of life. Working on A Diary reminded her of its existence.
A Diary is the first novel about a single woman to be written by a woman in Swedish literature. Women living alone had featured on the periphery of Bremer's books, especially The Neighbours, and C.J.L. Almqvist had written his infamous Det går an (It Can Be Done) about the unmarried Sara Videbäck, who opted to live in a free relationship with her man. On the second page of A Diary, the first-person narrator Sofia Adelan characterises herself: "Independent in fortune and position in life, I am now able to taste freedom after many long years of captivity, a freedom to follow, at the age of thirty, nothing but my own inclination."
The novel consists of Sofia's diary entries about her return to her stepmother's house, about her half sister Selma and cousin Flora, about the diplomat St. Orme with "the look of a slanderous snake" and the irreproachable "Viking" Vilhelm Brenner. In narrative technique, the book conforms to the usual conventions of the diary form. The novel is not divided into chapters and consists of entries dated from 1 November 18** to 17 May the following year. It features museum visits, grand balls, sledging parties and domestic visits - all one could wish for from stay in Stockholm society. A Diary is a dazzling portrait of Stockholm, and that in itself was enough to make the inhabitants of the capital want to read it. The depiction of subtle shifts wrought in the city by changing seasons and weather conditions is reminiscent of Balzac. The French author is indeed one of the names resonating through the novel. He is often referred to, and when a French novel is being discussed and criticised at one point, it is very probably one of Balzac's works that is implied.
from CHAPTER 9
"and the very air contained something so wonderfully vibrant, sparkling, young"
The Years in America 1849-51
and CHAPTER 10
"Everywhere I shall seek to see both the best and the worst"
Travel Writer, Philanthropist and Internationalist, 1851-54
Bremer went to America firmly resolved to study society and the position of women. Once there, she found she was also expected to take a stand in the slave question. She was thrown into a hectic round of socialising she had not foreseen, but also made new friends with whom she continued to correspond for the rest of her life. Marcus and Rebecca Spring even came to visit her in Sweden. Many of the male friends were writers, artists and other well-known names, but most of the female friends were "ordinary" women, wives and mothers, from intellectuals like Rebecca Spring and Maria Lowell to those with more concerned with the practical side of life, like Anne Howland in Charleston. They varied from women of Bremer's own age to young girls - in the north, in the south and in Cuba. Much could be said, and much has already been written, about Bremer's time in America, and the effect on her of its climate, people and literature. There is just as much to say about how she in turn influenced the view of America of her fellow Swedes and other Europeans - and the Americans1 view of themselves. There is enough material for a whole new book to cover this aspect of the subject "Fredrika Bremer and America".
The summer of 1850 was one of the most important periods in Swedish-American relations, at least in fictional terms, for that was the summer of Karl Oskar and Kristina's arrival in New York in Vilhelm Moberg's multi-volume emigrant epic. In the late summer of the same year, Fredrika Bremer's travels took her from Niagara to Wisconsin and out across the prairie. There she met Swedish immigrants and three generations of a family called Fairchild - mother, daughter and granddaughter. The episode came at the mid-point of her American journey and also found its way to the mid-point of her travelogue Hemmen i den nya verlden (The Homes of the New World, 1853-54).
The Fairchild family home lay on the edge of the prairie, and Bremer was invited to stay there. She was far away from Boston and Cambridge, far away from Emerson winning her over with a glass of fresh spring water. Here she encountered another America - the land of the pioneers and settlers. Bremer wrote in English in a letter to the daughter, Sarah Dean: "When I think of the sunflowers on the prairies of Wisconsin I see you among them, with your little one on your arm; and to that lovely image my thoughts often rivet, and it never goes out of my mind." Among all the splendid episodes in The Homes of the New World, those days in Wisconsin stand out as something special. The standard Bremer features are all there - the family, the sense of community, the charming children. But for once, the account stops in its tracks. The reader is allowed to pause and rest, listening not to some historical overview but to an archaic stillness. In this stormy American journey, the prairie was the calm point at the eye of the storm. It was composed of day-to-day peace and quiet, little children and huge sunflowers:
Why do I seek the temple of the sun shining high above the earth? Is not every sunflower a temple, more beautiful than those of Peru or Solomon? (The Homes of the New World)
There on the prairie, among the sunflowers, is the centre point of the American journey - in terms of chronology, length and perhaps spirit too.
On September 13 1851, Fredrika Bremer left America, showered with gifts from friends and strangers alike. Marcus and Eddy Spring waved goodbye as the steamer Atlantic put out, and soon forests and water were all that remained to be seen of the New World. She found herself "between two lifetimes and two worlds". Her time in America soon seemed like a dream, "a sun-drenched, burning, intensely vital dream." Now she could hear the call of the Old World.
The nineteenth century had entered its second half. In America, Melville's Moby Dick and Beecher-Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin were appearing; in Italy, Verdi was composing Rigoletto; and in England, the architect Lewis Cubitt was putting the finishing touches to his design for King's Cross Station. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) would rule the British Empire for another fifty years. The industrialisation of her kingdom was complete, and the smoke hung thickly over London. Art was avantgarde, Pre-Raphaelite. Dickens was at the height of his career and the Brontë sisters had just embarked on theirs. The new Australian state of Victoria had proved rich in gold, a fact which was to have a greater impact on Bremer's work than she could ever have imagined. But as the Swedish authoress stepped ashore in England on 23 September 1851, after a sea crossing of only eleven days, the main topic of discussion was the Great Exhibition.
Europe had been toying with the idea of a world exhibition for some years. France saw itself as the obvious host, but the revolution of 1848 put paid to such ambitions. Instead, Queen Victoria's beloved consort Prince Albert took the initiative in arranging the Great Exhibition. It was a magnificent gesture, worthy of an empire where the sun never set. Klara Johanson, who edited and published Bremer's English travel writings in book form in 1922, calls the exhibition "the apotheosis of English success". The enormous Crystal Palace, the world's first piece of purely modernist architecture, was built specifically to house the exhibition. Its iron and glass structure consisted of a central arched hall flanked by wings with decorative towers. Those who saw the palace were enchanted and waxed lyrical about its beauty.
So even the outer shell of the world exhibition was exquisite, while inside the Crystal Palace, 13,900 exhibitors gathered. The whole world was exhibiting the products of its art and industry, from native canoes to over-refined artistic objects of western civilization, such as a pianino in the shape of an artichoke. Half the exhibition floor was reserved for the British Empire - chauvinistic perhaps, yet easy to understand in view of the sheer vastness of the area over which Victoria ruled. But the exhibition was also perceived as an emblem of a new and better age. The corn laws had been repealed, free trade flourished and England could afford to be a little less insular than before. The English tourist industry experienced its first boom, and the exhibition did wonders for Prince Albert's public image. Admittedly there were dissenting voices raised against the invasion of hordes of foreigners, and mumblings about revolution at the gates, but after the inauguration of the exhibition in May 1851, Albert's popularity in the country rivalled even that of Wellington, the Iron Duke.
In the course of the five and a half months it remained open, the exhibition had six million visitors, from Britain and abroad. Classes of London schoolchildren were admitted to the Crystal Palace free of charge, and an 84-year-old woman was said to have walked all the way from Cornwall to see it. Many came to England specifically to visit the exhibition, but Bremer was not one of them. It was never anything more than secondary in her eyes, though that did not stop her devoting a whole section to it in her account of her time in England.
Her primary reason for visiting England was a less obvious one - apart, of course, from the prosaic fact that England was on the way home to Sweden. What she evidently wished to study in England was industrialisation, socialism and the labour movement. In April 1851 she was planning a stay of a month or so. She wished to renew her acquaintance with her translators Mr and Mrs Howitt and the young lawyer and philanthropist Joseph Kay, and to meet the socialist writer Charles Kingsley. England, too, became the subject of a Bremer travelogue. England om hösten år 1851 was serialised in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, beginning in January 1852, and published as "England in the Autumn of 1851" in Sharpe's London Magazine, 1852. Bremer had apparently adopted the habit of making notes whenever she was travelling. She mentions travel notes from America, and copious notes survive from her journeys in the Old World, 1856-61. England in the Autumn of 1851 is written in the first person, but is closer in form to a piece of travel writing than to a set of private letters. Klara Johanson nonetheless categorises it as biographical, maintaining that none of her other writing "represents such an emphatic and fervent confession of her aspirations to understand life". Some private letters and a few eye witness reports from her time in England also exist, though they are far fewer in number than those from her American trip.
England welcomed Bremer with storms, rain and hail, but she had not come to admire the scenery. The steamer Atlantic docked in a location described by Bremer as "the manufacturing districts", and her first goal was to study industry and the effects of industrialisation. As a believer in progress, Bremer was interested in how things had developed in England. Two years before she had found the country in the grip of a cholera epidemic. In just a few days, she had seen more suffering than in all her ten months in Denmark, and had imagined she could hear the laments of the child workers from the "factories". Now, the employment of the youngest children had been abolished. Children were permitted to work in industry from the age of ten, but a half-day's schooling was often provided at their workplace.
In Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, Bremer visited factories, worker's housing and "ragged schools". Swedish industry was still undeveloped, and it is significant that Bremer uses the archaic term "manufacturing". In Sweden, industrial development had only reached the manufacturing phase, "a transitional stage between craftsman trades and the full operation of factories."
In the industries of England, Bremer could discern new hope for humanity. And yet she missed the patriarchal model of mutual dependence she was used to at home on the Årsta estate. The factory owner hired workers, but took no responsibility for them. Though the workers seemed healthy and the factories not exactly unpleasant, Bremer found it hard to come to terms with the working conditions there. In the textile factories of Manchester she noted "the strenuous attention" the women paid to their work. "They allowed themselves no time to look up, let alone turn their heads to talk. Their lives seemed to hang by the cotton threads." It was just as bad for the men, who sometimes existed only as "a screw or limb" in a machine. That was why, Bremer said, it was every factory worker's dream to leave the city and buy a little house in the country.
America had hailed Bremer as a celebrity. England adored her no less. She was lauded in the press, and offered a (presumably metaphorical) "cherished fireside seat". Bremer, however, had had enough of society life, and her stay in America had taught her to put her foot down. She therefore relinquished the warmth and comfort of the fire in favour of factory floors and slums.
England reaped the harvest of seeds sown in America. In America, there were still hints of the little old lady in what Bremer wrote; but in England, that tone had given way to mature social observation, and a receptivity even to subversive modern theories. Klara Johanson speculates in her "Orientation guide" to England in the Autumn of 1851 that one of Bremer's study visits to Manchester could have taken her to the Ermen & Engels cotton mill, one owner of which had recently written a revolutionary text with a colleague named Marx, although his appearance bore no resemblance to that of a "refugee hero of the revolution". Bremer was, after all, well read in socialism. Just as in America, her private letters differed from her published travel writings - but in this case it is the letters which are obliging and decorous, whilst the travel writing is suffused with social awareness which sometimes turns to anger. This is not the amiable narrator of Midsommarresan (Midsummer Journey), but the social reformer of Syskonlif (Brothers and Sisters).
The normally staunchly royalist Bremer took exception to the enormous sums of money Victoria and the Prince Consort had spent on stables and kennels.
What? £119,000 on stables and kennels, for the entertainment of fine horses and dogs - and this at a time when Ireland is starving, or forced to emigrate in dire poverty; when in England itself there is still an infinite amount to be done for human beings - when so unimaginably much could be done for the common good with these sums?!
Such things have sparked revolution before now, Bremer maintains. When she heard her English friends saying what a good example the Queen was to her subjects, she was sceptical. It seemed to her that the Queen was dancing on the very edge of the abyss with her "light foot - a darling little foot it is said to be."
Queen Victoria was thus not one of the sights Bremer felt drawn to seek out. But the Victorian age was so synonymous with its queen that she was hard to avoid. An author with a worldwide reputation like Bremer's would no doubt have been granted an audience, but she had no wish to meet the Queen. She was curious to see what she looked like, however. Her account of her stay in England describes a visit to Windsor with the authoress Anna Maria Hall. There, Bremer's beloved Swedish umbrella conveniently happened to fall out of her carriage into the Queen's path. As Bremer retrieved it, the Queen, out riding, galloped by with a smile - and that smile reconciled Fredrika with Victoria.
This sounds like a story arranged for literary purposes, but Mrs Hall's account confirmed the meeting, and fact is sometimes stranger than fiction. Meeting the Queen and feeling something of her "magical power" made Bremer more mildly disposed and willing to forget the disharmony sown earlier in her tale by the stables and kennels. In keeping with the ideals of her time, she did not like things that were thorny, ugly or disharmonious, and her writings always have a harmonious ending.
Carina Burman, Ph.D, Assistant Professor at Uppsala University, has written extensively on 18th and 19th century literature. In 2001 she published Bremer: En Biografi, a biography of Fredrika Bremer. She is also a well-known novelist. Her fifth novel, Babylons gator: Ett Londonmysterium (The Streets of Babylon: A London Mystery) was published in 2004 by Albert Bonniers förlag. Carina Burman is a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University, and a corresponding member of the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland.