A life of one’s own

Issue 1/1984 | Archives online, Authors

L. Onerva. Photo: Otava, 1907

L. Onerva. Photo: Otava, 1907

When L. Onerva (1882–1972) published her novel Mirdja in 1908 she was twenty-six years old. Two previously published collections of poetry had already established a reputation for her as a promising young writer and she was also achieving a name as a first-rate critic. Her career thus began in circumstances which augured well for distinction and fame, both of which came to her, although her fame derives not only from her literary abilities – it is due in part to the notoriety of her private life. Her works, always thought to have a biographical element, are often read for glimpses of bohemian and artistic life at the start of the century.

In the puritanical climate of the period Onerva was unquestionably unusual, although Finland was not without independent and literary women. Onerva had many talents; she was well educated, and when she met Eino Leino, the most famous poet of the day, she had published her first collection of poems. This meeting changed the nature of Onerva’s life. She left her husband. Leino’s marriage also broke down and the couple ran away to Germany and Italy for a year. They were never married and both later married other people. Nevertheless, their profound friendship lasted until Leino’s death in 1926.

L. Onerva’s Mirdja was published in the year she spent abroad with Leino. At the time the work was interpreted as an account of that experience and a picture of the writer’s own private life. The critics found it difficult to free themselves from their preconceived expectations and many associated the erotic experiences and character of Mirdja Ast, the eponymous heroine, with the writer herself. The novel aroused a vociferous moral furore. It was thought to be an exposition of the basest human instincts, a work with nothing uplifting or positive. Female critics warned against Onerva as a sower of destruction. The work, quite correctly as it happens, was interpretated as a ‘blood-red challenge to society and conventional morality’. It is, indeed, directed against the bourgeois values of the time.

What is revolutionary or audacious about this work? For the modern reader there is nothing sensational about an evaluation of existing conventions or a description of a young woman’s erotic life. We are accustomed to these. If we are to understand how the novel broke conventions and created a new way of viewing reality we must examine the expectations of the period.

The book is an account of Mirdja Ast’s spiritual growth from youth to her death. What was new for the time was the way in which the work concentrates on the development of the central character’s intellect and emotions by bringing out all the experiences that affect her inner life. External events do not hold much significance. The portrait of Mirdja emerges from her conflicts with conventional morality and her relationships with different men. She is looking for someone dominant and fulfilling but the men she finds are all inadequate in some way. She is looking for a man to respect her as a human being. She is looking for love but comes to see friendship as the only lasting human relationship.

The book is written deliberately from a woman’s point of view. Mirdja is definitively feminine, but she represents the new style woman, who hasn’t yet a place in society. She recognizes her own emotional and intellectual persona more clearly than most women of her day. She is able to see herself and others and their relation to society with merciless clarity. She can do this because she is not bound by the presupposed behaviour patterns of society. This is possible for her because she has not been brought up or educated in the way conventional for most women of her time. Her childhood and youth were spent in the care of an uncle who took personal responsibility for her individual schooling. She has lived freely without any kind of social obligation. She doesn’t come into contact with society until she enters the university as a student. She is brilliantly gifted but her tragedy is that her upbringing has not prepared her for the society in which she must live.

The contemporary outrage at the moral basis of the work was based on the manner in which the central character’s personality is unveiled rather than the questions the book asks about social conventions. It was, in particular, the description of Mirdja’s sexual desires and feelings which overstepped the bounds of what the reading public considered proper. It is important, however, to understand that the main aim of the book is to describe Mirdja’s states of mind. It is pointless to scour the work for erotic passages. Onerva was presenting a picture of the emotional life of the new, wide-ranging female. She made Mirdja physically aware – in other words she was aware of the unconscious dammed up emotional facets. Many critics were discomforted by this very thing: that natural impulses and instincts were given so much prominence. The Freudian view had not yet taken hold in Finland. Above all, the reading public were not accustomed to the approach, in particular the acknowledgement that women, too, had sexual desires, or if they did were labelled ‘bad women’. Mirdja, however, is an undergraduate who, in addition to many other dubious features, is seen by the bourgeois women in the book as someone who associates only with men. In truth, Mirdja does not have contact with the normal world of women and this sets her apart, even though she herself is thoroughly feminine.

In another respect Mirdja is the new style woman: she sees herself as a female Don Juan, forever restless: ‘How was it that she had been sentenced to travel the road of the seeker, the road of a cursed conscience, like all Don Juans, those eternal Wandering Jews of love, whom nothing on earth could save … Mirdja herself would be able to discuss the type better now, and she now knew a new variety: the female Don Juan … ‘

Mirdja is a tragic figure; she is the victim of her own environment and upbringing, not able to find self-realization in the circumstances in which she lives. She sees around her twisted human beings whose misconceptions about life lead to the woman losing her individuality and succumbing. Yet she herself is not strong enough to break through the prejudices of her environment. She is not able to use her brilliant gifts. Nothing comes of her. Similarly, she does not achieve emotional fulfilment. In the final analysis she is a very lonely person and her end is a tragic one. Her mind becomes clouded, the boundary between fantasy and reality vanishes and Mirdja drowns in a swamp, looking for the child she has never had.

At the time of its publication the critics neither wanted to nor were able to see the tragic dimensions of the book. They only got as far as those aspects which did not come up to their own standard of values and used these to reveal how new and revolutionary Onerva’s work was. Although Onerva is sympathetic towards her main character, she is not tolerant of her selfishness or inability to form satisfactory human relationships. The modern reader probably finds little interest in Mirdja’s somewhat pathetic and sentimental sexual fantasies and feelings; for us the striking feature is the way the work reveals how difficult the creative woman finds it to correlate the different aspects of her being: the intellectual, the emotional, the biological. In order to achieve this correlation, a radical change is needed in the attitudes of both men and women.

In the decade after the publication of Mirdja, L. Onerva brought out several short stories and novels. All reveal with the greatest accuracy the convolutions of woman’s social position. Her many female characters represent different levels of Finnish society. Some are independent women who have found a career of their own; educated, divorced, unmarried, married. But they all have one thing in common: whatever role they have, they have all had to deny some essential aspect of themselves. The two main obstacles to women achieving their natural independence are seen as inadequate education and lack of financial autonomy. Years later Virginia Woolf dealt with these same problems, and with the same emphasis, and A Room of One’s Own (1929) became a sacred text of feminism.

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