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Omslag: Swedish Nineteenth-Century Novels as World Literature

Swedish literary history needs to be rewritten


The international breakthrough for Swedish literature took place much earlier than researchers have previously thought. And it was female writers who made Sweden known as early as in the middle of the 19th century. This is shown by research from the University of Gothenburg, which examines how Swedish novels were spread and reviewed.

– It was not at the turn of the century 1900 with August Strindberg and Selma Lagerlöf that Swedish literature first reached international acclaim. As early as in the 1840s, Swedish novels were the most read books of the time in Europe and the USA, says Yvonne Leffler, Professor of Literary Studies.

Last year, a research group led by Yvonne Leffler was able to show that Swedish female authors such as Emelie Flygare-Carlén and Fredrika Bremer were best-selling celebrities during the 19th century. This study shows even more clearly that their male colleagues Carl Jonas Love Almqvist and Viktor Rydberg did not have the same international impact at all.

With the help of digitized material, Yvonne Leffler has now been able to see how Swedish novels by both female and male authors were spread in Europe and the USA, via Danish translations and then to German. German translation was important because it was the dominant language in Europe.

Several different translations at the same time

The books were then translated from German into, for example, Polish, Czech and Hungarian, but also into English and Dutch. One and the same novel by Fredrika Bremer and Emelie Flygare-Carlén and later also by Marie Sophie Schwartz, often appeared simultaneously in several different translations.

– The publishers competed to publish their novels and to be first. The three ladies were definitely among the most prolific novelists of their time. And many European writers wrote works in response to their novels, a kind of remake and fanfiction.

The English translations spread rapidly both in England and in the United States, often first in New York before being published in London. Once they broke through in English, they were often translated directly from Swedish by Swedish immigrants in the United States.

– The large spread in the USA was probably due to the fact that there was not a large domestic novel production there yet. And that they wanted to read other literature apart from novels by English authors. The preference for Swedish novels can perhaps be seen as part of the liberation from England.

Great reviews

By reading the reviews, literary articles and author portraits of the time, Yvonne Leffler has also found out what reactions the Swedish novels received in the international press. She notes that authors such as Fredrika Bremer and Emilie Flygare-Carlén were praised for good milieu portrayal, credible portraits and the ability to discuss important issues. Something that led to their quick breakthrough.

– As writers, they represented something new while writing the type of broad-based family novels that contemporary audiences in Europe and the United States wanted. In addition, their gender, that they were women, seems to have been an advantage in the middle of the 19th century. As women, they were considered more capable at portraying contemporary everyday life in the home and relationships between people.

Still, the novels that were most appreciated then are missing in today's Swedish literature handbooks. Something that Yvonne Leffler believes is due to the literary taste of literary critics and historians of the last century. At the end of the century, the qualities of the earlier more cosmopolitan novels became a disadvantage. They did not correspond to anything typically Swedish and thus not the literary norm that was dominating at the end of the 19th century.

– In comparison with the realistic novels of the modern breakthrough, they were considered old-fashioned and belonged to an older romantic or sentimental novel type. In addition, there was a clear masculinization of literature at the end of the 19th century.

If female novelists had previously been a sign of quality, it would now, on the contrary, become a disadvantage.

– To a large extent, it is contemporary taste judges and later literary historians who decide what survives. The works that have ended up in literary history handbooks have a tendency to survive. It takes a lot to re-evaluate an already established history writing, says Yvonne Leffler.

Text: Thomas Melin