Tag Archives: Delineator

Nobel Prize Laureate Selma Lagerlöf: A Swedish storyteller whose own story couldn’t be told

Hello from Sweden, the land of ubiquitous candy

Candy in a store in Uppsala, Sweden.

and adorable groceries

Swedish groceries.

and clothes made of garbage

H&M label for pants made of recycled household waste.

and quaint swear words (“Devil!”)!

I’m spending September in Uppsala, half an hour outside Stockholm. The town is home to a 500-year-old university, so history is ever-present.

Sketch of Gustavianum at Uppsala University by Gustaf Johan Härstedt

Gustavianum, Uppsala University, Gustaf Johan Härstedt, ca. 1800

To get a sense of what was happening in Sweden a century ago, a relative blip in this ancient town, I turned to my trusty Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, 1915-1918. It pointed me in the direction of an article in the February 1918 issue of the women’s magazine The Delineator called “Women All Too Womanly – In Sweden.” The problem with Swedish women, it turns out, is that they’re not sparkling enough in society. They walk behind their husbands all self-effacing like this

Illustration of a Swedish woman entering a hotel behind her husband.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

instead of making a grand entrance like this

Illustration of a woman in an evening gown entering a room.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

and enchanting their dinner companions with bon mots.*

Not being convinced that skin exposure = emancipation, I decided to look elsewhere for insights into ca. 1919 Swedish women.** An article in the April 1915 issue of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas called “Selma Lagerlöf, Swedish Genius” seemed like just the ticket.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, ca. 1915.

Selma Lagerlöf, St. Nicholas magazine, April 1915 (Brown Bros.)

Lagerlöf, I learned, was born in 1858 and grew up on an estate called Mårbacka in west central Sweden. A semi-invalid as a child, she sat at home listening to visitors’ stories while her siblings played outdoors. She heard about wolves chasing sea captains across the snow and the Devil*** paying social visits, rocking in a rocking chair while the lady of the house played the piano.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, 1881.

Selma Lagerlöf, 1881

The family experienced financial setbacks that eventually forced them to sell Mårbacka, and  Lagerlöf set off for Stockholm to study teaching. While she was there, she started writing down those childhood tales. In 1891 she published her first novel, Gösta Berling’s Saga. It’s the fantastical story of a Lutheran minister who is sacked for drinking and carousing, takes up with a group of eccentric vagrants, and eventually comes to see the error of his ways.**** “And in less time that it takes to get around it,” St. Nicholas tells us, “the world hailed the writer as a genius.” Other novels, and other accolades, followed.

Like, for example, the Nobel Prize in Literature, which Lagerlöf won in 1909, beating out other contenders such as Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain, both of whom died the next year. She was the first woman to be awarded the prize.

Illustration of Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V.

Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V (Svenska Dagbladet, December 11, 1909)

If you’re thinking something sounds off here, there are a few things you need to know about the early days of the literature Nobel, which was first awarded in 1901. One is that writers from the Nordic countries had a distinct home field advantage, winning seven of the first 18 awards.*****

Also, the award in its early days bore the stamp of the Swedish Academy’s conservative permanent secretary, poet Carl David af Wirsén, who thought Nobelists should display “a lofty and sound idealism.” This, in his mind, disqualified not only Tolstoy and Twain but writers closer to home such as playwrights Henrick Ibsen of Norway and August Strindberg of Sweden.******

Photograph of Carl David af Wirsén with signature, 1877.

J. Wolf (from Literärt album, 1877)

And also, for a while, Selma Lagerlöf, whose characters, redeemed in the end or not, weren’t wholesome enough for af Wirsén’s liking. Whenever her name came up as a possible Nobelist, he would put forward other candidates, sometimes equally “unwholesome” writers who at least weren’t Swedish. But his fellow Swedish Academy members finally had their way in 1909, leaving af Wirsén a broken man.******* He died in 1912.

With her Nobel Prize money ($40,000, St. Nicholas informs us), Lagerlöf bought back Mårbacka, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Selma Lagerlof at her desk in her library in Marbacka.

Selma Lagerlöf at Mårbacka (Dan Gunner, date unknown)

St. Nicholas tells us that

With all her fame and fortune, Selma Lagerlöf remains the pleasant, unpretentious, fun-loving, kind-hearted woman of her school-teacher days. She has never married, and, since she is now about fifty-six years old, she will probably remain a spinster. But her friends are thick as the leaves in her beloved forest in full summer.

A spinster! Fun-loving! Friends thick as leaves in the forest! What could this mean? Having been through this before, I had my suspicions. I Googled “Selma Lagerlöf lesbian,” and the true story of her life emerged.

Portrait photograph of Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893.

Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893

A few years after the publication of Gösta Berling’s Saga, Lagerlöf met fellow writer Sophie Elkan, who became her lifetime friend and companion. The daughter of German Jewish immigrants, Elkan had lost her husband and only daughter to tuberculosis in 1879, and she dressed in mourning for the rest of her life.

Lagerlöf, apparently, was smitten from the beginning. At their first meeting, she lifted up Elkan’s widow’s veil, unbidden, and said, “You are very beautiful. I know we will become friends.” In a letter to Elkan, she wrote,

These kisses of yours that you convey in your letters, they are a great puzzlement to me. How am I to understand such merchandise? Are they promissory notes, or ‘samples without value’? Are such debts to be repaid in rooms milling with people, or in the greenhouse at Nääs?…In Copenhagen I see so many relationships between women that I must try to comprehend in my own mind what Nature’s intention is with this.********

Posed photograph of Selma Lagerlof leaning against Sophie Elkan.

Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan, date unknown

Lagerlöf’s desire for physical intimacy seems to have been unrequited, though. In a letter written before a planned meeting, Elkan wrote, “Hands off!”

Still, the two remained devoted friends, traveling together to Italy and to Egypt and Palestine, the setting for Lagerlöf’s successful novel Jerusalem, which was published in parts in 1901 and 1902, with this dedication:

To Sophie Elkan, my comrade in life and literature

In 1902, Lagerlöf met Valborg Olander, an educator and suffragist, and the two began a passionate affair. Life became complicated. Elkan may not have wanted a physical relationship with Lagerlöf, but that doesn’t mean she wanted someone else filling this void.

Swedish educator and activist Valborg Olander.

Valborg Olander, date unknown

Jealousy and subterfuge ensued. Olander’s letters brimmed with passion, and Lagerlöf apparently destroyed many of them so that Elkan wouldn’t find them. Her own letters to Olander were equally ardent. “Every time you are here, I try to kiss you so I can be happy for a few days, but I long for you even before you are out of the gate,” she wrote in July 1902. In another letter, she expressed the wish that Olander would stay overnight—“that would be divine.”

Elkan grew desperate, writing, “Oh dear, you won’t take Valborg—is it Valborg?—instead of me, will you?”

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander in the 1930s.

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander, 1930s (Skodsborg Badesanatorium, Copenhagen)

Olander became deeply involved in Lagerlöf’s literary affairs as well, and Lagerlöf wrote to her saying that “you are becoming a real writer’s wife.” Eventually the trio reached an uneasy peace, which lasted until Elkan’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1921.

Lagerlöf remained devoted to Elkan after her death. Toward the end of her life, she started writing down the stories that Elkan had told her about growing up as a Jewish girl in Sweden, thinking of tales of Vikings and kings as her own heritage until a schoolmate mimed a long nose and said, “Jew kid!” Lagerlöf never finished the project, but the stories she completed were published after her death, in 1940, at the age of 80.

I’ve found Lagerlöf’s books on sale at every bookstore I’ve visited in Sweden,

Books by Selma Lagerlof on a bookshelf.

Akademibokhandeln, Uppsala

but beyond her native country she’s a literary footnote, a hometown favorite who won the Nobel in the years before the award broadened its geographic and literary horizons. If she were alive today, she wouldn’t be a contender. On the other hand, if she were alive today, she would be able to live her life openly, and with pride.

Carlonia Rediviva, Uppsala, with pride flags

Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala

*The illustrations are by future New Yorker cartoonist Rea Irvin.

**In fairness, the writer of the article, American suffragist Frances Maule Björkman, does end up with a more nuanced view of Swedish women, who turn out to have not the slightest interest in sparkling in society but interesting thing to say under other circumstances.

Photograph of Frances Maule Bjorkman with a suffragist banner.

R.C. Beadle, A.H. Brown, and Frances Björkman, 1913 (Bain News Service)

***Oops, sorry, I mean the Evil One.

****It was Greta Garbo’s performance in the 1924 film adaptation of this novel that brought her to the attention of Louis B. Mayer and launched her American career. You can watch some scenes from the film, with commentary, in this interesting five-minute clip.

Greta Garbo in Gösta Berlings saga

*****This was partly because, during most of World War I, the prize was awarded only to writers from non-combatant countries. To this day, only France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have more literature Nobelists than Sweden, which is tied with Germany at eight.

******The Nobel Prize website fesses up to the errors of its ways: “As to the early prizes, the censure of bad choices and blatant omissions is often justified.”

*******Or, as a vivid if probably not very accurate Google Translate translation from this essay in Upsala Nya Tydning puts it, “a lonely and isolated loser.”

********This translation is from a fascinating article called “Selma and her Lovers” in the June 2007 issue of Scanaroma, the SAS inflight magazine (!). Other translations are mine, with the help of Google Translate.

The giggling battalion: Russian women soldiers through the eyes of an American war correspondent

Reporting about Russia’s battalions of women soldiers in the March 1918 issue of The Delineator, war correspondent William G. Shepherd asks everyone the same question.

What about motherhood?

I thought of how it must feel to be a soldier and know that your bullets were sinking into woman-flesh, destroying motherhood; and of how, in spite of all this, you must shoot to kill these women soldiers lest they kill you.

He gets an interview with Maria Bochkareva, the commander of the First Women’s Battalion. Amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution, her soldiers have deserted her, and she’s hospitalized in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). He asks her why she went into the war. Weren’t the men fighting well enough to suit her?

“Yes, indeed,” she exclaimed…“But I can’t see why there should be any difference between men and women in this war and so I enlisted and went to the front.”

“But women have got something that men haven’t,” Shepherd mansplains. “They have potential motherhood, and if you kill that, you kill the whole race.”

Maria Bochkareva and her soldiers with British suffragist leader Emmeline Pankhurst, 1917

Bochkareva, who at age twenty-eight has left two abusive husbands and fought in two wars, has a less sentimental take on the matter. “What is the use of motherhood in a country which is owned by an enemy?”

To Bochkareva, Shepherd marvels, the “girl” soldiers

are mere sets of brains that go to war. They are mere pairs of legs that can march, pairs of arms that can carry rifles, and most of all they include index fingers that can pull triggers, and good right eyes that can see marks.

Imagine!

Another issue weighing almost as heavily on Shepherd’s mind is the girl soldiers’ sex lives. He meets a deserter from Bochkareva’s battalion and asks her why she left.

“I left because there were too many bad girls in our company,” explained this seventeen-year-old miss in riding breeches who sat in a chair on the sidewalk before my hotel with her knees crossed.

“But I didn’t think morals had anything to do with fighting,” said my interpreter, who happened to be a celebrated Russian writer.

“Nothing to do with fighting!” exclaimed the girl. “Why, do you know you can never trust a bad girl in the firing-line?…I’ll fight for Russia, but not for that crowd.”

A light goes on in Shepherd’s head.

This was the first idea we got of the fact that in the girl legions of Russia, good girls make good soldiers and bad girls make poor ones.

The seventeen-year-old soldier goes on,

“Love hasn’t got any place in war, and when it comes to the other thing, it not only ruins girl soldiers, but the men soldiers, too.”

“But don’t the girls ever talk of their sweethearts at the front?” asked my interpreter.

“The girls who are in earnest don’t,” she said. “As soon as a girl begins to get sentimental or to talk about some man she likes, we just remind her that within a few days, if she is a good soldier of Russia, she may be dead.”

The Delineator, March 1918

Another thing about the girl soldiers: they’re so girly! In the barracks of another newly formed women’s battalion (made up, its leaders assure Shepherd, entirely of good girls),

Some of them were reading, some were knitting, and several of them were romping girlishly. One was trying to stick another with a hatpin and another was chasing a girl with a glass of water with which she threatened to deluge the fugitive. It was just such a romp as one might have expected in the hallways of an exclusive girls’ boarding school. Only the clipped heads and the trousers seemed out of place.

Earlier, he watched Bochkareva’s equally girly soldiers decamping for the front.

Men soldiers do not giggle when they climb into cars, but I must admit that these girl soldiers did. They helped each other remove their packs from their backs; they threw their short, stubby rifles into the cars and then boosted each other in as best they could. There was giggling a-plenty and even little shrieks of mirth; when a girl fell, there was a shout of laughter.

For all his condescension, Shepherd ends up respecting the soldiers of the “Battalion of Death,” as Bochkareva’s soldiers were known. They fought courageously against the Germans, dodging bullets as they took ammunition to the front lines. For military security reasons, he can’t provide the names of the heroes, but

I can say that it was Bochkareva’s band that captured a hundred Germans and forced them to throw down their rifles and throw up their hands and exclaim, “Ach Gott! The Russian women!”

The Delineator, March 1918

Shepherd visits some wounded veterans of the battle in the hospital and spots a German helmet. His interpreter asks the owner where she got it.

“I took it from a German soldier who tried to shoot me after he was wounded,” she said. “I was trying to help him, when suddenly he raised himself to his elbow and fired at me with his revolver.”

“What did you do?” we asked her.

“I shot him,” she said simply. “What else could I do?”

The Czar’s government, Shepherd tells us, authorized the women’s battalions in order to shame war-weary men into joining the army. But the situation was changing fast. On March 3, 1918, just as Shepherd’s story was hitting the newsstands, Russia made peace with Germany.

Maria Bochkareva (date unknown)

Bochkareva ended up on the wrong side of history. Branded an “enemy of the working class,” she was executed by the Soviet secret police in May 1920, at the age of thirty. The execution was against Lenin’s orders, and her killers were later put to death themselves.

As Bochkareva’s troops headed to the front, a Jewish seamstress stood sentinel on the train. At each stop, the soldiers faced insults and leers from men on the platform. At one station, a group of male soldiers tried to peer inside, saying, “We have come to see the girls.” The sentinel

made no outcry. She simply raised her rifle toward them and said:

“There are no girls here; only soldiers of Russia.”

(UPDATE: You can see Maria Bochkareva at a July 4 ceremony in Washington, D.C. in the last few seconds of this video, which I included in my post on the July 4 loyalty parade in New York.)