Fredrika Bremer: Sketches of Sweden and its Aristocracy

Fredrika BremerFredrika Bremer (1801 – 1865) was a Swedish writer and feminist reformer. Wikipedia (which I was forced to turn to as the 1844 introduction to the book spoke only of translation, not the author herself) states she is she is regarded as ‘the Swedish Jane Austen’ and further that ‘her novel Hertha prompted a social movement that granted all Swedish women legal majority at the age of 25 and established Högre Lärarinneseminariet, Sweden’s first female tertiary school.’ Also that in ‘1884, she became the namesake of the Fredrika Bremer Association, the first women’s rights organization in Sweden.’

Worth a read, then.

Fredrika Bremer -- New Sketches of Everyday LifeNew sketches of every-day life: a diary as translated by her contemporary Mary Howitt (released in 1844 in its English edition)  is widely available for free, which is why it is the book I have read. It is quite an enjoyable romance, complete with women’s rights and corruption in the regiments bringing ruin onto ‘good’ families and evil old rakes, and I enjoyed the form of diary entries. While I hate that people call her the Swedish Jane Austen (and she is far more romantically and grandly melodramatic), yet there is quite a similarity in morals and manners along with a sprightly heroine. I suppose this isn’t surprising given how interwoven European monarchies were, and the centrality of French culture. But how curious that apart from a host of references particular to Sweden and descriptions of scenery, I should never have guessed this did not take place in England or France.

Felix in the mean time is better, but his health appeared deranged by the irregular life which he has led. He recovers slowly. Lennartson endeavours to animate his mind, and to cheer his spirits. He often spends the evenings in reading Sir Walter Scott’s romances to him. (250)

Does Scott explain everything?

I am reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters on Sweden at the same time, which is fascinating. Bremer actually shares more with her, I think, both in terms of judgments laid upon polite society, as well as the exclamatory sentimentality afforded to emotions, especially those raised in relation to love, friendship and scenery.

I am leaving for Sweden today! Hurrah!

I am not above exclamation points myself. I have been reading much in preparation, as I enjoy, so there shall be a slew of Swedishness upcoming. But back to Bremer.

On Women

Women and the romanticism of their connections to nature, and much on the constraints of society (though quite a bit on its joys as well):

…I was a violent child, and in my whole being the opposite of the lovely and the agreeable, which my stepmother so highly valued, and of which she unceasingly spoke in quotations from the romances of Madame Genlis. I was compared with the enchantresses in these romances, and set down in proportion. In one word my stepmother could not rightly endure me, and I could not endure—Madame Genlis and her graces, who occasioned me so much torment. Ah! the sunburnt, wild girl grown up in the ‘moors’ of Finland, whose life had passed in woods and heaths, among rocks and streams, and amid dreams as wild and wonderful as the natural scenery amongst which she grew; this girl was in truth no being for the salon, for a French Grace. Transplanted from the fresh wilderness of her childhood into the magnificent capital, where huge mirrors on every side reflected every movement, and seemed scornfully to mimic every free outbreak which was not stamped by grace,—she was afraid, afraid of herself, afraid of everybody, and especially of the goddess of the palace. The governess and the servants called me ‘the Tartar-girl, ‘ ‘the young Tartar.’ (18-19)

I like how she describes two periods in relation to her step-mother, the ‘period of my adulation’, from 11-15 and the ‘epoch of opposition’  during her later teens. The ‘diary’ starts with her having returned after an unnamed disappointment at the age of 30. She is admired:

My stepmother said I was exactly at the handsome, ‘modern age,’ for a charming woman; in one word, ‘la femme la trente ans, la femme de Balsac;’  (26)

There are remarks throughout praising kindness, simplicity and virtue, and noting its absence in many women of society:

The Baroness Bella B., the Beauty, and Helfrid O Rittersvard, paid us a visit. Afterwards, Ake Sparrskold, Felix, and others. ‘The Beauty’ expatiated (quite mal-a-prapos, methinks) on the unhappiness and disagreeableness of ugliness. She pities ‘from her heart, plain people;’ but they must at least know that they are plain, and must stop nicely at home, and not exhibit themselves out in the world, and in society, where they can awaken only disagreeable feelings. I was provoked at this speech (93)

Thus it is, that the meoldrama emerges from ugliness underneath — what she likens to a volcano more than once:

Among all these dissipations, which reign in the house; amid all those beautiful toilets and artificial flowers, and all these so-called pleasures, still strange symptoms break forth, which testify of the volcanic soil upon which they dance. (142)

Hers remains a terribly romanticised vision of women’s place, and the happiness they may attain.

I now know very well that I never can love Felix properly, because I cannot highly esteem him, as I will and must highly esteem my husband; but”
“But what, my sweet Selma?”
“If I can make him and others happy, then—neither shall I myself be unhappy. And then—God will give me, perhaps, a child, which I can love, and in which I can have pleasure in the world.”
“With this Selma wept quite softly, leaning on my shoulder. (141)

But not all of them…there is another kind of life possible for women, one more of the mind and culture. There is a desire independence here, though clearly it requires independence of money and position:

I like Brenner greatly; but not so much as I love my own independence, the peace of my soul, and the prospect of a peaceful and care-free future. I will be his friend, but no more. I dread marriage; I dread that compulsion, that dark deep suffering, which the power of one being over another so often exhibits. I have seen so much of it. (191)

Thus class and gender intersect, though Bremer would claim all the suffering for the wealthy even as she acknowledges the poverty around her — though this is one of the very few places she does so:

On the long ill-built street, I saw a herd of ragged, pale children, old women and aged men, living pictures of sickness, of poverty, and age; and I contemplated misery in all gradations of human life—in all its weeping shadows. And amid all these shadow-figures there yet probably was not one who would have exchanged his lot with mine, if he could have seen into my heart. Ah! the severest kind of-wretchedness is not that which exhibits its rags in the streets, and at night conceals itself in great deserted buildings — it is that which smiles in polite companies, which shews to the world a joyful exterior whilst sorrow gnaws its heart. (222)

Fredrika Bremer is herself of this wealthy class, of course.

fredrika bremer

On the Country

I love these descriptions of nature, and pearls! Who knew these could be found there…

On the shore where I was born, on the alder- fringed streams of Kautua, I often went, as a child, pearl-fishing, when the heat of the sun had abated the rigour of the water. I fancy still that the clear cool waves wash my feet; I fancy still that I see the pearl muscles [sic mussels they must be] which the waterfall had thrown together in heaps in the sand of the little green islands. Whole heaps of these muscles I collected together on the shore, and if I found one pearl among them what joy! (23)

On Stockholm

We dwelt upon the Blasieholm, exactly upon the limits of the fields planted with trees, where the Delagarde Palace, with its towers, had elevated itself for centuries, and had been burnt down in one night. I look out from my window, and see and hear the roaring of the broad stream which separates the city from Norrmalm, and on whose shores have been fought so many bloody battles; on the haven, the bridge of boats, the royal castle, with the Lion Hill; the river promenade, further on, beneath the north-bridge; and on the other side of the island of the Holy Ghost, the blue water of the Malar, and the southern mountains. From among the masses of houses upon the different islands, raise themselves the bold spires of the church-towers. To the left I have that of St. Catharine; to the right, that of St. James; and further off, the royal gardens, with their rich alleys, and I should never come to an end, were I to name all that I have and govern—from my window. And in my chamber, I have my pencils, my books, and myself. (29)

The older sections:

…over the bridge and through the streets into the city. There are the oldest memories of Stockholm; here is the heart of the Stockholm city, which also has the form of a heart; here flowed the blood of the nobles of Sweden in streams from the hand of Christiern; here the streets are narrow, the lanes dark; but here also is the Castle of Stockholm; and here lift themselves even now, a mass of houses, which shew by their inscriptions cut in stone, the strong fear of God which built up in ancient times the realm of Sweden. (169)

And this, on what a city, particularly a capital city of a hierarchical and cultured society, should be:

Once saw I a chief-city without any towers, with- out any one building exceeding in beauty and size the rest; all were equal, and people said, ‘see here the image of a true social community.’

But no! thus appears it not. When a people come to the consciousness of its full life, its cities and its buildings will testify of it: there must the flaming spires of the temples ascend to the sky; there must columns of honour stand in memorial of great men; there must magnificent palaces (not private ones!) express the sense of greatness in a noble public spirit; there must the beautiful express in manifold forms the good in the life of the state. (89-90)

On the pageantry of the aristocracy’s life

This is ongoing — glittering balls in glittering palaces and a parade of notables in beautiful dresses.

I confess, I love the dresses.

She makes much of the sledges, and I could almost wish we were going at a time when we could have done something similar

Felix wished to drive Selma, and St. Orme invited Flora to his sledge. This was to be covered with tiger-skins, and would be drawn by fiery piebalds, which Flora had seen, and found much to her liking. This sledge was to lead the procession, which was to drive through the principal streets of the city to the park, where they were to dine, and after that were to dance, and so on. (74)

There is more:

Yet is it a purely-northern enjoyment, which a purely northern life has—such a pleasure-excursion as this in the clear winter air, under the bright blue heaven, upon the snow-white earth! They fly away so gaily and lightly,—the open ones covered with skins and with white nets, which flutter over fiery, foaming horses, they fly along so fleetly to the play of the jingling bells. And it feels so irresistibly pleasant thus to drive away over the earth in a train of joyous people, and by the side of a friend who participates in every feeling, every impression. (195)

On even the Swedish benefiting from the ‘adventure’ of colonialism

I think this means Brenner joined the French Foreign Legion, and helped conquer Algeria…and this saved him.

at the time when France made war on the States of Barbary. Lennartson managed so with Brenner’s connexions that he should take part in this campaign, and fitted him out at his own expense, though at that time he was anything but rich. Lennartson, in his plan, had rightly judged of his friend, and accomplished his salvation.

With strong natures there is only one step between despair and heroism. With a lock of Lennartson’s hair upon his breast, and his image deeply stamped upon his soul, the young Brenner plunged forward upon a path on which dangers of every kind called him forth to combat. To him, there was more than the conquering of people and kingdoms; to him, there was the winning again of honour; the winning again the esteem of himself, of his friends, and of his fatherland. And with the most joyful mad-bravery, he ventured his life for that purpose. The young Swede divided dangers and laurels with the Frenchmen. And upon the wild sea waves, in battle before the walls of Algiers, in combats with Arabs and Kabyles on the soil of Africa, the French learned highly to esteem a bravery equal to their own (a greater is impossible), and to love a humanity towards vanquished foes, with which they are not so well acquainted.

Afterwards, Brenner accompanied some French learned men on their dangerous journey into the interior of Africa. (67)

I am bewildered at the gap by what she imagines his travels in Algeria and Africa to have been, and the harsh reality of conquest as they actually were. Small wonder he rarely spoke of them:

Many times I request that he should call forth some remembrances out of his restless life, pictures of another climate, of seas and wildernesses, of glowing Africa and strange Egypt; scenes from the battle-fields around Atlas. It is rare that he will relate anything of this; but how curiously and desiringly do I not then listen! These pictures are so grand, and, I acknowledge, something grand also in the nature which has conceived them. (134)

This anecdote serves as such a brilliant metaphor for Europe’s colonial legacy:

Brenner now related— “It was in Egypt, near to Thebes. I rambled one  morning out into the surrounding desert to hunt, and happened to see a vulture sitting not far from me, among the ruins of fallen monuments. This bird is known for its strong power of life, and is dangerous to approach when it is wounded; it has a strength almost incredible. I shot at him, and hit him on the breast, and as I believed mortally. He remained however sitting quietly in his place, and I rushed to him that I might complete my work, but in that same moment the bird raised itself, and mounted upwards. Blood streamed from his breast, and a part of his entrails fell out, but notwithstanding this he continued to ascend still higher and higher, in wider and wider circles. A few shots which I fired after him produced no effect. It was beautiful, in the vast silent wilderness to see this bird, mortally wounded and dyeing the sand with his blood, silently circling upon his monstrous wings higher and ever higher; the last circuit which he made was unquestionably a quarter of a mile in extent; then I lost sight of him in the blue space of heaven.” (272-273)

While the company are impressed with such a strange story, it somehow causes them to think even better of Bremer. How better to explain colonialism and orientalism — the European admires great strength and beauty, shoots it, and then admires it still more as it struggles through its death throes.

For a final hilarious, and slightly ill-judged sentence:

Even the larva of suffering can receive wings, can fly in the night, and be lighted by its stars, and bathe in its dew. (233)

Perhaps it suffers in translation. The whole introduction sheds an interesting light on the ongoing problems of translations not rceieving enough pay, not being credited, of being stolen and violently edited down and released in cheap editions that can never earn enough royalties to pay for the translator’s time — if indeed there were ever an intention of paying for it.  Some things never change, this is from Mary Howitt the translator:

And what have we got instead, from this advocate of public good? An importation and reprint of anonymous abridgments of these works, got up and curtailed, both in style and quantity, into the limits suited to the American cheap market, and abounding with Americanisms, which all well-educated persons will be careful not to introduce into their families; as “she is a going”—” vanity belittles a woman”—”sleighs, and sleds, and sleighing,” for sledges and sledging—”surroundings,” for environs; with such Yankee slang as “he got mad in love, and she gave him the bag,” etc.; as any one may convince himself who looks into these eye-destroying small prints. (vii)
— Mary Howitt, 1843, The Grange, Upper Clapton

[Bremer, Fredrika (1844) New sketches of every-day life: a diary. Vol. 1 Tr. [from the Swedish] by Mary Howitt. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans]

 

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