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Women, history and the novel in 1840s Finland -

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News, 5/31/2006

Women, history and the novel in 1840s Finland

2006 sees the 100th anniversary of the year Finnish women got the vote. However, women did have a voice back in 1840s Finland when they engaged in debate on national ideals and what it meant to be a woman in society in terms of the family, love and marriage.


Finnish women arrived on the literary scene in around 1830, writing anonymously or, as was customary in those days, under a pseudonym. At that time, women writers were not yet politically engaged, but tended to write sentimental narratives that appealed to the emotions.

The first Finnish novel appeared in 1840 and was written by a woman. Fredrika Wilhelmina Carstens’ novel Murgrönan (Ivy) follows the continental tradition in terms of its form: it is an emotionally charged, sentimental novel, which takes the form of a letter and is laden with floral symbolism. The novel was a new genre in the 1800s and had become established in Finland by the end of the century.

Female writers in particular were interested in the novel, while male writers busied themselves with epic writing. The Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, appeared in 1835. The Finnish national poet, J L Runeberg, wrote epic poetry in the 1840s. His wife, writer Fredrika Runeberg, knew the novels of Walter Scott almost by heart and was herself a keen writer of historical novels.


Fredrika Runeberg. Photo: Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland


Female writers were multi-talented

Fredrika Runeberg (1807-1879) is a good example of a female writer of the day, as is Sara Wacklin (1790-1846). Both of them came from multi-talented families. They read widely as children and were interested in languages. One of the languages that Fredrika Runeberg knew was English, which was not a widely learned language in Finland back then. She is said to have read the works of Walter Scott in the original English and also to have translated them into Swedish for her husband. As well as being the first to read her husband’s work, she also assisted him in his journalistic work as an editor and translator.

Sara Wacklin was born into a bourgeois family in the northern Finnish city of Oulu. The gifted Sara Wacklin began her career as a teacher when she was only 16. This enabled her to support herself and finance her studies, which her impoverished family had not been able to do once her father died. Wacklin studied in Finland and on a course for female teachers at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1835. As Finland’s first female academic, she founded and ran schools for girls in Oulu, Turku and Helsinki. Wacklin had a reputation for being a skilful teacher: she applied the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on humanist education and departed from the rote-learning typical of the day by making her lessons inspiring and varied. She was also an outstanding story-teller.


Sara Wacklin. Photo: Finnish Literature Society


Wacklin ended her teaching career in 1843 and moved to Stockholm, where she wrote her book Hundrare minnen från Osterbotten (A Hundred Memories of Ostrobothnia). The style of Wacklin’s book, which portrays events in Finnish history, is ironic and satirical. Wacklin, who knew French, is believed to have been familiar with early 18th century French literature. Hundrare minnen från Osterbotten is reminiscent of Honoré de Balzac’s stylistically varied collection of short stories Les cent contes drolatiques (A Hundred Droll Tales).

Wacklin’s book was a commercial success in its day, which also pleased the cultural establishment of the day. Wacklin was praised for approaching the subject from the perspective of cultural history, for her fluent style and for her lively narrative. However, the life of many female writers of the day was overshadowed by fear of criticism. A well-known example of this is provided by Fredrika Runeberg, who was encouraged in her writing by her husband, who even stopped her from destroying her own manuscripts. The wife of the national poet and mother of their children found time to write only on Sunday afternoons and when she was ill.

Fredrika Runeberg did not release her historic novel Fru Catharina Boije och hennes döttrar (Mrs Catharina Boije and Her Daughters) for publication until 1858, even though she completed work on it in the early 1840s. The main characters in her historic novels set in Finland are women, and everyday life and chores form the backdrop to the narrative. The writer describes capable women who fulfil themselves and in so doing challenge the norms about conforming to the society around one.

Constructing national identity through the historical novel

In the cultural climate of 1840s Finland, it was possible to piece together history quite freely through narrative. The historical novel came into being in Europe at the same time as nationalism. In Finland, the novel acted as a forum for constructing Finnish identity and for ascribing national readings to historical events. In the 1800s, Finnish culture was subject to the rule of the Tsar of Russia in the Grand Duchy of Finland, where censorship prevailed, particularly in respect of all forms of political writing.

Women writers were thus engaged in debate in society in the Grand Duchy of Finland, and they used their work to highlight women's history and the role of women in the construction of the nation. In the 1840s, women's writing was the almost exclusive preserve of Swedish-speaking women from the upper echelons of society, who were in touch with the political and cultural events of the day through their husbands and relatives.

Finland has long acknowledged the part played by prominent women writers, such as Fredrika Runeberg and Sarah Wacklin, in developing Finnish literature. Research published in recent years has broadened our perception of individual women who had a prominent part to play, and has unearthed whole generations of women lost in the annals of history. At the same time, we have a broader picture of Finland's national literary canon. The construction of national identity and the awakening of national awareness have been seen as a major mission for Finnish literature. Swedish-speaking women writers from Finland played a part in this effort. Similarly, the "national" dimension has also been highlighted as part of the development of the novel in Europe.

Written by Minna Aalto
Ph D, researcher in literature

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Updated 5/31/2006


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