Hearth, home – and writing

Issue 4/2007 | Archives online, Extracts, Non-fiction

Extracts from Fredrika Runeberg’s Min pennas saga, (‘The story of my pen’, ca. 1869–1877). Introduction by Merete Mazzarella

The joy and happiness I experience at being able to see into [her husband] Runeberg’s soul, at living with him in his heart and his thoughts, belong far too firmly to the mysteries of my soul that I should wish to attempt to express them in words. But of the life that existed around us I should like to try and give an impression of sorts.

We moved to Borgå in 1837. I was unfamiliar with the town and knew only a little old lady, weak with age, and found myself very lonely indeed, accustomed as I was to living with relatives and a genial circle of friends. I did, however, still have my two eldest sons at home to keep me happy and occupied.

Little by little I had begun to understand all the more clearly quite how unbefitting activities involving books or pens were for a woman. Back then, every moment used for reading was considered a moment almost stolen from one’s husband’s purse, not to mention a moment used for writing. Indeed, I would oftentimes forgo an evening’s entertainment attended by my peers, and use the money I would have spent on the entrance fee to, for instance, have someone knit me a few pairs of socks and, instead, use the time I would have needed to knit the socks myself for reading or writing, thus to placate my conscience as I had not in fact wasted any time. It was therefore with a certain calm that I listened to other women as, with the utmost pathos, they declared that one absolutely ought not read, but rather that one should devote oneself entirely to one’s household and one’s children (and diversions and guests and one’s toilette and perhaps the occasional game of cards, I silently added to myself). And yet these same women, who would have raised their arms in horror had they guessed at my pastimes with a pen during a quiet moment, were the very women who most often asked me for my patterns and help cutting their children’s clothes and advice on housekeeping and cooking problems.

The fact remains that neither advice nor means nor our opinions on the matter afforded them the possibility to dress their children like small aristocrats, whereby the maintenance of their clothes would have required less work, rather they were given the freedom to roam around as they pleased, frolicking in stones and soil and snow and ice to their hearts’ content, and thus the women lined their children’s simple clothes, even though this meant that they had to sew new ones more often and were constantly patching, darning and turning them inside out. This all took time, especially when I made all the children’s clothes myself, both winter and summer clothes, and even once they were tall students at least summer clothes and waistcoats. [1] The boys’ reading also took up much of my time. With the exception, perhaps, of Lorenzo, I read all their rudimentary lessons with them, and with Walter this continued until he entered the upper elementary school. Once they had begun attending school, they needed help with their exercises, and naturally I first had to acquire at least a passing acquaintance with the unfamiliar subjects in which I was to assist them. A little geometry, a basic grasp of Latin grammar, a little preparation to help them translate [the work published by J.V.] Snellman. From the time the boys had grown up considerably, I also joined them in reading modern languages.

I had to be rigorous and hardworking to make time last – and rigorous I was, at times more than my strength allowed. Gregarious as Runeberg was, his company sought by many, our house became a meeting place for all manner of guests, and sometimes for many weeks at a time not a single day would pass without at least a few visitors in the house, who would stay until late into the evening, indeed often until well into the following day. These groups consisted mostly of men, and I rarely saw them, though considerable amounts of my time were nonetheless taken up with these daily, more or less improvised functions. It was not all that seldom that we had lady guests, too; then, naturally, I would be present and play the role of hostess, even if the visitors were there solely to see Rbg [ J.L. Runeberg].

Far more seldom did I venture out into the world. My need for society life was filled entirely by the company around the house, and when some evening it occurred that we had no guests, I found the unusual calm most pleasing.

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I am reminded of the oft repeated claim that women’s literature is plain nonsense. To this one might add that among the meagre number of woman writers that have existed throughout time, it is possible that, unnoticed because of the unjustness of circumstance, there ought to exist as great a percentage of noteworthy woman writers as among the millions of male pens that have allowed their creations out into the world. It seems strange that this could indeed be the case.[2] But with regard to myself, and to a great number of other woman writers, I find some truth in the above statement. There must be some weight in an airship if it is not to be blown around by the wind, and where could we women achieve that, denied a more substantial knowledge as indeed we have been until now? With my burning desire for knowledge, how could I not have fulfilled my desire had I been a boy? How could one not have given me the means with which to acquire a solid education, a basic knowledge? But a girl, that is another matter entirely. For her, knowledge must remain a sealed book. Luckier than most of my peers, I was able at least to attempt to collect the crumbs of knowledge that could be filtered from the dregs of literature, that which is usually thrown away, but which, as with the froth in a pot of porridge, always contains small crumbs of nourishment. Yes, luckier than for most women of the time, the door to knowledge’s garden of paradise was not closed too firmly for me, and at times I would try to sneak inside, happy to gather myself a small crop of straw and twigs, for the fruit and the flowers were too high up to be reached without help.

What I learned in this manner thus possibly became a dawn to a general overview of all manner of things, chaotic and without any steadfast points of reference. I would have fared badly in an exam, with the exception, perhaps, of one dealing with languages. To this day, it seems that this is what real education for women is considered to be. Only recently, on the subject of school exams, it was claimed that such things would be harmful for girls but are useful for boys, for they need to test their abilities. Girls, it seems, do not need to test theirs.

On such wavering foundations, only bad literature can be built. Another assumption, which occurs with some regularity, is that nature itself has denied women the very inclination towards literature. But by the same reasoning one ought also to say that nature has denied a certain class of men, for instance shop assistants, the inclination to become authors. Such peoples’ literary creations would be no better than the average woman’s, and the reason for this is the same: a lack of basic, scholarly education hidden under the light of a superficial, if somewhat flawed, ‘façon’. Strangely enough, the best novelists in America, Sweden and, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others, even in France are women: Becher Stowe [Harriet Beecher Stowe], F. [Fredrika] Bremer, George Sand.

In my case, writing was an unconditional necessity, a comfort in times of worry, a vent when my mind was overflowing with thoughts and emotions. I must write, even if no one is ever going to read what I have written. Thus I instructed myself not to exaggerate, but to stick demurely to the footsteps of the novelists of the time, and not to be so ‘unwomanly’ as to dare express a thought of my own. That such a thing is deemed unseemly for a woman I have both read and heard all too often. But, to take to market the same as thousands of others; this surely cannot be considered so extremely brazen that it may not be forgiven, I thought.

But there came a time when I felt so deeply, bitterly unhappy that I no longer concerned myself with where the boundaries of decency lay. As I latterly wished to seek comfort in poetry, its very source also had to arise from within me, if its light were to refresh me. That is when I wrote ‘Simrith’.

When Rbg later read this little piece, together with the even smaller piece ‘A dream’, I noticed that it made him very happy indeed. He beamed at me and said: ‘this is excellent, you should give it to Joukahainen’ [a literary calendar]. This is one of the happiest moments my pen has given me.

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The end is near, I am 62 years old and can leave this world uncertain as to whether what I have written, thought, dreamt and loved is anything but a glowing shame, and whether I never ought to have allowed anyone to see that which I had been driven by an irresistible desire to write down. That Runeberg considers what I have written to be good, I must believe, for to doubt this would be an affront to his sense of truthfulness, and since he has never been wont to flatter me, why, in this precise matter, would he have deviated from his habits? I am now reminded of two of his comments. Once, when I mentioned that it would be more difficult for me to appear in print precisely because he is a true master, he replied: ‘Now now, they need to see that the apprentice is good enough, too’. Another time, when I claimed that he had submitted an article too valuable to be printed in a mere calendar, I think it was about Sven Dufva, he replied: ‘I need to make sure I am not surpassed by your article’.

Most of my work I have conceived and, indeed, written down at times when my illness kept me bedridden and I had not the energy even to sew lying down. It is in such a manner that large parts of Mrs C[atharina]Boije have come about. Much of it was thought out whilst sewing, whilst nursing children, whilst cooking, then hastily noted down on a Sunday evening, an afternoon when Runeberg tarried outside longer than usual and the people in the house were asleep, or at other such opportune moments.

A man writes when he wishes and feels inspired to do so, a woman, at least one with children and a household, when she can and has time, happy and grateful at having been able to, as it were, purloin such a joy for herself. I must admit that I have often seen the colour fall from butterflies’ wings long before time allowed them to be fastened to paper. Oftentimes the length of a piece had to be adapted according to how long I had to write it down. But when my heart swelled in my breast, when my pulse raced violently, how the storm in my soul would not relent whensoever I had the chance to escape into the dreamy images of poetry, even if a long time passed before I allowed myself a moment to commit these often faded images to paper.

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[1877]

I have now entered my seventieth year. The last few years have been more peaceful, better than many that have gone before. Runeberg has been sprightlier and calmer, my eyesight has at least not worsened, though my hearing has weakened all the more. My life has not been so entirely lonely. When one considers that I may now leave Runeberg for hours at a time, as he too can once again read unhindered, I am sometimes visited by some acquaintance. My sons and their wives and children are often around the house, particularly in the summer. During the past year I have written several new pieces. A number of them in prose to commissions from Folkvännen, but mostly in verse. Strangely enough, it seems as though I am no longer afraid of writing verse, as had been the case in the years since Runeberg’s reputation began to grow. It struck me that to do so would be to try and push my way up beside him; how else can I describe the feeling that so impeded me? Now, given that he has not written anything in over 12 years, and, for the reasons mentioned above, that I enjoy a more or less stationary existence, I now have the courage to delve into the art of verse. That my hunger and desire to write has grown in the light of the great compliments Runeberg has extended my work, all of which I read for him immediately after writing it, I need hardly mention.

It is strange that, at almost 70 years of age, I should embark upon a new path when with a younger mind I could likely have created far more accomplished works. But, as I have said, I neither dared nor wished to tread a path upon which I felt that I should not even attempt to achieve success, for which I would at the very least have required the self-belief to say ‘I too am a painter’, but naturally such impudence would never occur to me.

Translated by David Hackston

 

Translated by David Hackston

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