I, Vega Maria Eleonora Dreary

Issue 4/2008 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Chitambo (Schildts, 1933)

I was born in 1893, of course. That, as everyone knows, is the proudest year in the history of Nordic polar research. It was the year in which Fridtjof Nansen began his world-famous voyage to the North Pole aboard the Fram. Mr Dreary viewed this as a personal distinction and a sign that fate had fixed its gaze on him. He at once took it for granted that I was destined for great things, and he showed much skill in fostering the same foolish idea in me….

My father had decided that in order to commemorate the notable year of birth and place the seal upon my unique position in life I should receive at baptism the strange-sounding but all the more meaning-laden name of Fram [‘forward’]. My mother was naturally in despair. At first she said nothing and dedicated herself to gathering allies for the expected confrontation instead. In the usual irrational way of women, she ran to the neighbours and complained. They listened, slightly amused and slightly scandalised. The most benevolent of tried to persuade her that it was merely one of Mr Dreary’s jokes, but the malicious did all they could to egg her on. Mr Dreary smiled contentedly into his beard and thought: let the old women chatter – the girl shall be called Fram! Being able to vex my mother and her pious friends was a source of indescribable enjoyment for him. The more scandalised they felt, the more clearly did he feel his superiority in their milieu.

On the same day that the holy rite was to take place, the storm broke. My mother wept and pleaded and wrung her hands, but to no avail. Mr Dreary was immovable, and remained so….

Weeping, my mother took me to be baptised. She quietly informed the godparents that the girl was to be called Maria Eleonora – a Christian and respectable name. There was a sense of relief, a conviction that Mr Dreary had backed down. He went about beaming, extending cordial greetings to everyone. But when the priest arrived, Mr Dreary raised his voice and curtly informed that the girl’s name was to be Fram. In a longer statement, delivered with gravitas, he laid out the considerations that had led him, as the girl’s earthly guardian, to make this choice. This speech produced general despondency.

People in difficult situations often have brilliant ideas and so it was with the priest, too. Like a flash of lightning out of a clear sky the name Vega suddenly presented itself to his inner vision. As an Arctic exploration vessel, the Vega was as illustrious as the Fram, was it not, and even more so! After all, there was still uncertainty as to how the Fram would fare. One fine day it might perhaps be learned that the ship had gone down and all its crew had perished. That was something Mr Dreary had not thought of. He grew pensive and rather long in the face. No, the Fram was not yet something to raise a cheer for, but Nordenskiöld’s Vega, now there was a name that would surely fit. With such a name one could calmly sail into life’s storms. And then, too, Nordenskiöld was one of us, a meritorious son of Finland.

The priest did not need to say more. He had touched the most sensitive strings in Mr Dreary’s heart. Moved, Mr Dreary thanked the eloquent priest for drawing his attention to these symbolic circumstances. Then he said:

‘Let the girl be called Vega.’

Mr Dreary could probably have thought of many other names to replace the unfortunate Fram, had he been given a little more time and not been ambushed by the priest during the ceremony itself. There were several wonderful names to choose from among ships that had steered out upon uncharted seas. Think of the proud squadron with which Fernando de Magallanes embarked on his perilous voyage. Trinidad! Concepcion! Victoria! What radiance accompanied these names! I would have willingly had one of them. How easily they have evaporated, those names my schoolteachers tried to imprint on my memory – but the names which Mr Dreary taught me in the happy truancy of the imagination will never be effaced. Their symbolic splendour has only grown more beautiful with the years, like the splendour of old gold.

I can still distinctly feel the thrill of delight that crept down my spine as I sat on my stool at Mr Dreary’s feet, endlessly listening to his stories from seafaring history. Only the loftiest heroism was capable of satisfying me, and stories that lacked elements of defiance in the face of death left me quite unmoved. Mr Dreary himself derived indescribable enjoyment from moments of this kind. When the desperate, starving crew was faced with a critical situation, and they were threatening to mutiny, he would fall suddenly silent and give me a meaningful look. I would quiver with excitement and my little heart would beat violently. But I did not move and uttered not a word, just fixed my gaze on his lips. Then he would get up and strike a cocky pose, as one does on deck in an extreme situation, with death before one’s eyes, and he would hurl out some incredibly heroic words uttered by the leader of the expedition:

‘Though I am forced to eat the leather on the ships’ mast yards, I shall not perish until I have completed my work.’

We both had a passionate love for lines of this kind. They formed the longed-for climax of every story, and when it was finally reached we fell into each arms, gripped by an inexplicable emotion which neither of us was able to control. We heard the wind singing in the ships’ rigging and saw that it was still the wind singing the same intoxicating song: glory calls us, calls us… Such was the wind that filled your sails, my childhood’s Trinidad, Concepcion, Victoria!

If anyone had seen me only at home or at school they might well have thought that I was the virtuous daughter my mother wanted, a veritable Virgin Mary. In this world I lived asleep. A heaviness rested on my soul and my body, I felt tormented by my clothes, my pigtails, my duties. This profound discomfort made me apathetic, something I suppose to be the precondition for virtuous conduct in childhood. My mother did all she could to foster the domestic virtues in me, the only virtues a girl in our circles was thought to need. She placed special emphasis on dusting.

That repugnant ceremony was performed each morning with minute exactitude, under my mother’s implacable gaze, with the result that I came to hate every piece of furniture and every object in our home. I loathed all those things so profoundly that I would probably have kicked them and broken them apart, had not fear held me back and compelled me to assume an air of submission and go around dusting and polishing in a manner that was idiotic and absurd. Lord knows, if there had been an interval of only a few days since the last dusting, some dust might have actually gathered, making one feel some purpose in what one was doing. But no, the whole point of womanly labour is that it must be so refined that it cannot be seen! This total absurdity is typical of all such work that is considered to belong to woman by nature.

It was the same with the work which is so tellingly called ‘handwork’ – as though women could ever be allowed to do anything with their brains! Patching and darning were all right. Not because darning was enjoyable, not that either; it was slow and tricky and petty like everything else in our home. But at least it a task worthy of a human being compared to all those silly tablecloths and monograms and embroideries on which one was supposed to spend one’s time. Cross stitch and stem stitch, fore stitch and back stitch and pothooks of every conceivable kind, devilishly devised in order to give the absurdity a semblance of meaning. When the hole was darned and the torn cloth patched one did at least have the satisfaction of having done something sensible. But all of those tablecloths, piles of which lay in the chest-of-drawers and were taken out once a year to be aired – they were the real handwork. Mrs Dreary and her friends poured all their womanly ambition into their strange patterns. They showed off these patterns to one another every time they met and woe to anyone who had ‘forgotten her handwork’ and without this covering mantle simply sat down at the coffee table to hear gossip and drink coffee. The others would purse their lips say that it could happen to anyone and that not everyone always had a suitable  piece of handwork ready, but their tone and looks said all too clearly that this woman was a sloven. They knew the sort of thing that women like her got up to. In fact, the handwork was much more than it professed to be, it was one of the great symbols of decorum, a sign of its possessor’s social status, a testimonial of respectability, conscientiousness and virtue.

In this company I had to sit, decently bowed over a piece of handwork, in an unbearably cramped position and also under close surveillance. My hair was drawn back so tight that it hurt my scalp, my nose shone from continual washing with soap and water, my undergarments were so thick that I could hardly move, my dress was so tight and my neckband so high that a straitjacket would truly have come as a relief. The old ladies beamed with contentment and said: Your daughter is a great credit to you, dear Agda. In this company I learned to loathe my own sex. The dull apathy in my inner being caused an incipient gleam of fighting spirit to rise slowly but surely to the surface of my consciousness.

[1909, Helsinki]

One evening I went to the theatre, to all appearances the same old, ordinary Miss Dreary, confused by a thousand contradictory impulses that bubbled up from the restlessness of my blood and mind, and I emerged from there like one who knew her mission in life, a hero, a liberator, a young Napoleon.

I had made a great decision.

I had gone like everyone else to see the great Ida Aalberg in the role of Nora – I tried as best I could to keep up with the more noteworthy events in cultural life. But what I saw was a revelation! My own rebellious longing embodied in a dazzling female revelation. I was hardly able to sit still, so dreadfully did I suffer as I watched them tighten the noose around her neck. My eyes were glued to her as though my life were at stake. One could feel how horrible that home was all the way up to the gallery where I sat, how detestable, narrow and poisoned it was. I shook with indignation, I could not understand her indecision. Was she really unable to see through that man, how selfish and foolish he was, and utterly unworthy of a woman such as herself? And the children were the same, of course! I clenched my fists in impotent rage, I dug my fingernails into the velvet of the barrier in front of me and in a state of passion and overexcitement whispered proud words to my heroine.

And look, a miracle has happened! There she comes in her simple attire – serious, reserved and firm as a fortress. That is what a woman ought to look like! ‘I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me. It is for that reason that I cannot remain with you any longer.’

My heart beats with violent joy, my eyes flash with lightning. The infamous scoundrel of a man speaks of her most sacred duties of course, of husband and child and what people will say. ‘I have other duties just as sacred… Duties to myself.’

My heart laughs with delight. How wonderful it is that she can say this! Myself! She just says it, calmly, majestically, as such things ought to be said. Who can harm her when she is able to talk like that? But does anyone believe that this parrot will fall silent as a result? One might think he would have had about as much as he could take, but no! He just starts going on about her being a wife and mother. Above all else, a wife and mother, has one ever heard the like? I half get up from my seat, mutter my protests, hear hisses behind me, but in uncontrollable ecstasy lean far over the balcony as if 1 could catch from the air the passionately longed-for final words:

‘I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being…’

Did you all hear that? Before all else a human being! I must reflect on all these things and find out what they mean. Do you realise their significance? If no one else does, Vega Dreary does. At that very moment I hear the sound of the door shutting after Nora, the door through which she breaks out of her home, I sense the curtain going up on a mighty drama in which I myself have been chosen to take part.

I am ignorant and conceited, I know nothing of real life, but even so I am seized by the same inspiration which in those years passes through the entire female world, which drove the suffragettes to battle, induced high-born women to hurl stones through shop windows and pour acid through letter-boxes, to climb into ministerial cars in order to shout their ‘Women’s suffrage, Mr Asquith!’ in the face of the terrified statesman. I have no idea that such things are taking place perhaps I don’t even know that, before the women of every other country, the women of my own been have granted the right to vote. I have never even heard of the existence of a venerable institution like the Finnish Women’s Union, and have given even less thought to its mission of elevating women in the intellectual sphere and improving their economic and civil status. The little sewing circles in Limingo, Suojärvi, Kangasala, Finby, Pargas, in the most remote parishes and in the largest cities across the land, perform their work entirely without my knowledge, sewing and darning and organising on a small scale in order to help impoverished mothers and children, provide work for indigent women, support orphanages, workhouses, weaving schools, libraries. If I knew anything about them I would despise the sewing circles from the bottom of my heart. I know nothing of the women in my own country who work in quarries, copper mines brickworks, in match factories, sawmills, pulp mills, paper mills, in cotton bakeries, flour mills, tobacco factories, who earn their living by cooking, lace making, needlework, washing, ironing, copying, book binding, stevedoring. Even if I knew of them and had seen their bended backs, their tired and worn hands, I would have no idea that it is these women, the most disempowered and despised of all, who with their hard, underpaid labour, their double service in community and at home, have laid the foundations for women’s freedom and have made it possible for every Nora to open the door of her home and say: Before all else I am a human being!

I understand nothing of what is really going on, don’t see the connections, don’t grasp the extent of the revolution that is underway, now silent and concealed, now shouting with banners and hallelujahs. Least of all do I perceive that labour is the kernel of this as of all other revolutions, the sacred freedom of labour. But I do grasp something, at least, there is something that I sense instinctively like a call, an exhortation, a fanfare. I recognise the spirit that speaks in Nora’s lines, recognise it as my own, the fighting spirit. This unites me with all those of whom I know nothing, my sisters, my scattered and faltering legionnaires the world over.

Ida Aalberg was honoured like a queen that evening. In those days she was such a great star that her arrival at our National Theatre was merely a guest performance, in between her triumphs in St Petersburg and on the continent. The people were packed in crowds on the square outside the theatre, formed a human chain to the hotel where she was staying, cheered, wept, lifted her in their arms. I was one of those who pushed their way to the front! The tears ran down my cheeks, I shouted and cheered with all the might of my lungs. In spite of the biting winter chill, my coat fell open, and it never occurred to me to cover my bare head as I stood before this lofty, tragic figure, the first woman I had ever seen who could hold her head high. What good fortune that I at least had a leather cap to press passionately to my chest!

As I stood there like this I presented a thoroughly odd spectacle. and it was not surprising that the great diva noticed me as she passed. Perhaps she also felt touched by such naïve and obviously youthful enthusiasm. She stopped right in front of me, took a rose from her bosom, handed it to me with a radiant smile and said: Thank you for coming, dear child!

I stood rooted to the spot holding the rose, the sacred rose of the elect. The people talked and babbled around me, they pushed and shoved me in the crush, trod on my toes. I stood still and looked at my rose. I no longer shouted, cheered, wept, or swam in a sea of bliss. The great solemnity of what had happened to me filled me with a pure, lofty, stern emotion, a responsibility, a demanding certainty that required me to muster all my inner strength. In my eyes it was not the celebrated actress who had given me the rose and marked me out from everyone else. It was Nora, the Nora my passionate heart had summoned forth and experienced with the last drop of its red blood, it was she who had given me the rose and said to me: Don’t give in, Vega! In a glittering second of inner perception, the secret direction of my conflicting sensations and experiences and the jealously hidden goal of my proud, indomitable dreams were revealed to me, by a gesture of fate.

It was then that I resolved to become the knight of the proud, free woman! With the rose in my hand I gave a holy vow that I would never betray this cause. Never in my life would I marry, never submit to a man’s enticements! Free, untouched and pure I would lead women on to victory. Activity long subdued and repressed burned again with glorious flames within me, and the fighting spirit in my being, the dissension in my name claimed their due. Within my inner self, Atahualpa’s avenger rose up from his humiliation, swords clattered, armies prepared for battle. What music to my ears! What beatitude to my breast! I would show them all, show Mr Dreary and all who called me woman and tried to exclude me from a life of freedom and danger and what a woman could achieve in this world. To think that no one had perceived this before! That was something I could not grasp. I was convinced that I was going to create a worldwide movement.For surely women could not voluntarily allow themselves to be shut in like this, like Nora, for example, become dependent and be treated like children all their lives? A woman only needed to be brave and get to the top, and then all the others would follow. And the brave woman was I, Vega Maria Dreary!

I walked home to Gräsviksgatan street in the beautifully sparkling clear and starry winter night, nursing my rose, my delicate flower, in order to protect it from the cold of a merciless universe.

Translated by David McDuff

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