Nineteenth century Swedish women writers wrote international best-sellers
Emilie Flygare-Carlén and Fredrika Bremer were translated and distributed far and wide beyond Sweden’s borders in ten times greater volumes than the works of Carl Jonas Love Almqvist. But it is predominantly Almqvist who lives on in Sweden’s literary history. A research group at the University of Gothenburg has shown that a number of Swedish women writers were best-selling celebrities in the nineteenth century.
So who were the authors who represented Sweden on the international stage in the nineteenth century? Well, they were not predominantly men, in any case.
For five years, five researchers at the University of Gothenburg have been researching the authorships of five women: Julia Nyberg, Fredrika Bremer, Emilie Flygare-Carlén, Anne Charlotte Leffler and Selma Lagerlöf, and can now offer a new and more all-inclusive picture of Sweden’s literary exports in that period.
“We had a reading group where we studied nineteenth-century texts, and we started talking about the fact that women writers from that time were much more successful than they appeared to be from the description given in Sweden’s literary history. That was how we got started looking into this. What we found was more striking than we could ever have imagined in our wildest dreams!” says professor in comparative literature Yvonne Leffler, who has led the project.
The research group has mapped out the extent to which these writers were translated into other languages, the number of print runs of their books, and in what newspapers and magazines in other countries these writers and their books were written about.
A number of the writers were international celebrities, renowned and much loved in many places around the world. In Budapest, the press reported on Emilie Flygare-Carlén’s eye operation, and when Fredrika Bremer visited the USA, every step she took was covered by the press.
“They wrote about what places she visited, who she met, and about her appearance. And she also got to express herself on all manner of topics,” says professor in comparative literature Åsa Arping.
Strindberg was launched with the aid of Flygare-Carlén
The popularity of these writers was different in different countries, but in the USA, Germany, the UK and Eastern Europe, a number of them were highly successful. They were so successful in fact that they sometimes had to function as the drawcard when the writing of their male contemporaries was to be launched abroad.
“For example, Strindberg was launched in Czech with the aid of Flygare-Carlén, and Viktor Rydberg in the USA with the aid of Bremer,” says Yvonne Leffler.
It’s thanks to digitisation that it is now possible to show just how big these women writers were – it is only now that one can search in lists of published titles in digitalised catalogues and get results that are readily analysable. But it is also because no one has previously tried.
“This is a hidden piece of history. Of course that is very much due to the fact that it’s been men who have owned how literary history was written,” says Yvonne Leffler.
Critics took them seriously
Based on reviews of these writers’ books, the research group can also show that leading international critics took the authorship of these five women writers seriously and wrote about them in the same way as they wrote about the likes of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott.
But after the emergence of modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the authorships of these women writers started being seen as outmoded. They were shoved aside by a younger generation of men and branded as superficial best-sellers, far too sentimental and romantic to be taken seriously.
“They were too popular, too productive, and of course, they were women. And so they were branded as behind the times,” says Yvonne Leffler.
Written by: Elin Widfeldt
Photo: Johanna Hillgren
Yvonne Leffler, Professor of Comparative Literature, project leader, Phone: +46(0)31-786 5294, e-mail: email@example.com
For review copies, contact Nils Olsson, phone: +46(0)31-786 4522, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Swedish novels translated 1800-1899
- The book Swedish Women’s Writing on Export. Tracing Transnational Reception in the Nineteenth Century reveals new aspects of how literature from a small language area has crossed borders and opened up new ways to look at and work with literary history from an international perspective.
- The five authorships were selected from a range of literary genres: Julia Nyberg wrote Romantic poetry, Fredrika Bremer and Emilie Flygare-Carlén wrote Domestic Realism novels, Anne Charlotte Leffler wrote early Modernist plays, and Selma Lagerlöf wrote Neo-romantic prose during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
- The research group have entered all known editions of twenty Swedish writers, in all languages that could be found in digital library catalogues, in a new database. In this database you can quantitatively compare the women writers in the project with their male contemporaries such as Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, Zacharias Topelius, August Strindberg and Esaias Tegnér.
- The research group consists of Yvonne Leffler, Åsa Arping, Jenny Bergenmar, Gunilla Hermansson and Birgitta Johansson Lindh – all from the Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion at the University of Gothenburg.