A womanly pursuit

Issue 4/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Fredrika Runeberg

Fredrika Runeberg. Photo: Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland

The wife of the national poet was not herself expected to write – quite the reverse, in fact. But, says Merete Mazzarella, Fredrika Runeberg (1804–1877) did

She was married to the national poet.

What is a national poet? Someone who is hugely admired in his own time, who helps to forge a national identity, who appears to bear the responsibility for the future of his people on his shoulders. Young nations like Finland – before 1809 a part of Sweden, from 1809 to 1917 an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian tsar – need national poets; old nations – like Sweden or Denmark – do not. A national poet is a father figure, thus almost inevitably a man.

Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877) was to become the national poet of Finland; a journalist, teacher and writer. The first poem from his collection of epic poems, Fänrik Ståls sägner (‘The tales of Ensign Stål’, 1848–60), became the national anthem. Since he was Swedish-speaking – as was the whole of the educated class at that time – we have an interesting paradox: his concept of the Finnish national character was actually created in Swedish.

Fredrika Runeberg (1807–1879) was his wife. She bore him eight children, supervised a big household and made innumerable guests comfortable – guests who all came for his sake, to listen to him, to adore him. She put up with his moods, with his demands of which she tells us: ‘Once when we were standing in a room with yellow walls he said: “For a wife to agree with her husband is a small matter; what really matters is that she should think like him. If he says that that yellow wall is black, it is not enough for her to say that it is black, she should also herself really think that it is black.” Strangely enough this is more and more what actually happens the longer you live together.’

Read carefully; this indicates more than just two people growing together over time – Fredrika Runeberg was submissive to the point of masochism.

Fredrika was, however, also a highly interesting person in her own right. Née Tengström, she came from a far more cultured family than her husband: she was the niece of the first archbishop of Finland. She was at least as intelligent as her husband, and more well-read. From early on she loved Walter Scott; in her old age she read John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women. She is often called Finland’s first woman journalist: in the 1830s she helped her husband edit a Helsinki newspaper.

She lived in an age and an environment which was highly suspicious of women’s intellectual endeavours – ‘every moment used for reading was considered a moment almost stolen from one’s husband’s purse’, as he said in her autobiography, but by getting up extremely early in the mornings or staying up late at night she nevertheless managed to produce three books. In point of fact, she wrote much more, but much of what she wrote she burned in a spirit of what can only be described as passive aggressiveness.

What was published is a collection of short prose pieces, Teckningar och drömmar (‘Sketches and dreams’, 1861) and two historical novels, of which the earlier, Fru Catharina Boije och hennes döttrar (‘Mrs Catharina Boije and her daughters’, 1858) would have been Finland’s first historical novel if it had been published as soon as it was it completed, in 1843. But Fredrika feared that it would be considered unwomanly for her to publish in a genre which no man in the country had as yet attempted and so the manuscript was put away until 1858 when Zachris Topelius’s two volumes of historical short stories, Fältskärns berättelser (‘Tales of an army surgeon’, 1853–67) had got under way.

What does Fredrika Runeberg write about? Her real aspiration, which she never managed to fulfil, was to write a world history of women. But she wrote about women in many different parts of the world: women in the Siberian tundra, women in the South Sea islands – she would have loved to travel, and read innumerable travel books, but ironically she never got the chance to leave Finland.

Fredrika set both her historical novels during times of war because she could see that with the men away fighting women could assume more responsibility and also in a sense gain more freedom. She argues for more education for women. She writes about marriage for love: though she is conservative in the sense that she takes it for granted that women should be subservient to their husbands, she insists that they should be able to love and respect them. But she also writes about what happens to women when the men they have committed themselves to stop loving them and, with her second historical novel, Sigrid Liljeholm (1862), she becomes the first writer in Finland to have a heroine who neither marries nor dies but finds a sense of purpose in work.

Fredrika constantly worried what her husband thought of her work, but one suspects that he hardly thought of it at all. And isn’t this a timeless phenomenon? Women obsess about what the men in their lives might be thinking about every little thing they do, but basically the men just have their minds on other things.

In 1863 Johan Ludvig Runeberg suffered a stroke, and for the remaining fourteen years of his life Fredrika spent most of her time looking after him, sitting at his side up to twelve hours a day reading to him. She hardly got out of the house, she had few visitors but she had an extensive correspondence – mainly with her six sons (two of her children had died in infancy) who, unlike her, were able to travel all over Europe, to Italy, France, Germany and England. She also continued to read and to keep up with current events; war and peace, the advancement of democracy, the gradual liberation of women.

In a letter to a girlhood friend she says: ‘You know, Augusta, I love these modern times, so youthful, so vital. In my innermost soul I rejoice at progress – and progress is what I see. I’m grateful not to be one of those old people who’re convinced that things are going badly simply because things have changed since their youth and are desperate to stop the wheels of time because they think the whole carriage is about to overturn. I, too, would like to take hold of those wheels but only in order to be able to keep up.’

In her old age Fredrika wrote a slim autobiography, Min pennas saga (‘The story of my pen’), but apparently it was not considered ‘important’ enough to be published until in 1946.

Are her books still readable today? They do require some effort on the part of the reader, but I for my part would claim that they are more readable than the work of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, who some years ago was labelled ‘a minor poet’ by the eminent Yale scholar George C. Schoolfield (in his history of Scandinavian literature – much to the dismay of Finnish traditionalists, it must be said.)

In the 1970s the feminist movement increasingly regarded Fredrika as a victim, a symbolic representative of all the oppressed wives of the past. I suspect it is a role she would have hated: like Märta Tikkanen (born 1935) – wife of another, more modern writer with a huge ego, Henrik Tikkanen (1924–1984) – she would probably have said that though it was tough being married to a genius, she would never have settled for anything less.

Fredrika Runeberg is intensely modern as a woman struggling to combine many different roles. She may have hid her light under a bushel, ever openly admitting to her literary ambitions. But she is in a sense more modern than the protagonists of the women’s movement of the 1970s, where I set my own bearings. Those militant campaigners wanted to simplify their lives by getting rid of potted plants, carpets – sometimes even their husbands. Today’s young women want it all: they take it for granted that they can have careers, but they also want to be lovers, mothers, caregivers and housewifes.

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