Norwegian author Amalie Skram (1846-1905) was one of the key Scandinavian writers in the Naturalist school, which flourished in late nineteenth-century Europe. This literary movement emphasized the mundane ordinariness of everyday life, and was marked by a deeply pessimistic streak that was sometimes infused with passages of a sexually frank nature. Some of Skram's best-known works draw on the time she spent in psychiatric hospitals to cure her of depression.
Born Berthe Amalie Alver on August 22, 1846, Skram spent her childhood in Bergen, Norway's second largest city. Unlike the capital of Oslo, called Kristiania during Skram's lifetime, Bergen was less centrally located on the Scandinavian peninsula, instead situated on the country's fjord-dotted, mountainous west coast. North Sea fishing was a mainstay of the local economy, but Skram's father, Mons Monsen Alver, together with her mother, Ingeborg Lovise Sivertsen, had a moderately successful farm supply business. She was able to attend a private academy for girls in Bergen, but when she was 17 years old, her parents' business failed. To avoid a stint in a debtors' prison, Mons Alver fled to the United States, leaving his wife to care for Skram and her four brothers.
Pressured into Marriage
The family's financial situation was precarious, and Skram's mother encouraged her to marry an older man, Bernt Ulrik August Mueller, who was a ship's captain. Skram agreed to the match. A 2003 article by Unni Langas in Scandinavian Studies quoted Skram's recollections of that time: “I suffered a misfortune and the misfortune was that I was married before I was properly grown up. Literally. The fault was not only this, that suddenly poverty overtook my home which had previously been such a happy one, but to a greater extent my childish lack of understanding, and my longing to experience something terrible.”
Skram's decision was not an altogether unwise one, for she traveled widely with Mueller because of his line of work. In 1864, about a year after their marriage, they sailed to the West Indies and then on to Mexico, returning the following year. Skram soon became a mother, and by 1869 she and Mueller had two young sons, Jacob and Ludvig August. The couple then embarked on a trip around the world by ship with the boys. Skram's travels afforded her some rich experiences of life outside of Bergen and Scandinavia, which would not have otherwise been available to a woman of her class and era.
Moved to Oslo
Skram's husband was unfaithful, however, and the adjustment of returning to Norway and her role as a homebound wife and mother was also difficult for her. The marriage soured, and she and Mueller separated in 1878; their divorce was finalized two years later. This period of crisis precipitated a nervous breakdown for Skram, and she spent some time in a psychiatric hospital. Afterward, she decided to move to Kristiania with the boys, and became involved in the city's flourishing arts community. She came to know several leading Norwegian writers, among them Arne Garborg (1851-1924) and Bj⊘rnstjerne Bj⊘rnson (1832-1910), and was influenced by the burgeoning Naturalist literary movement that had began to imprint itself on Scandinavian literature. Its leading literary name was France's Émile Zola (1840-1902), and its works were a reaction to the Romantic movement that had dominated the first half of the nineteenth century. Adherents of Naturalism believed that human destiny was shaped by forces already determined by the laws of nature, a bleak view that seemed to resonate with Skram.
Skram's first novel was published in 1882 under the name Amalie Mueller. Little English-language information about this work, called H⊘iers Leiefolk, survives. Two years later, she wed a well-known Danish literary critic, Erik Skram, and in 1885 they moved to Copenhagen, Denmark's capital. A few sources cite Skram's novel that appeared that same year, Constance Ring, as her first published work. It incited somewhat of a scandal for Skram back in Norway for its frank depiction of a woman and her sexual liaisons, which were assumed to be autobiographical.
Skram had better success with her four-volume epic novel Hellemyrsfolket (People of Hellemyr), published between 1887 and 1898. This saga of a peasant family began with Sjur Gabriel (1887), about a fisherman on Norway's rough west coast. Literary critic Laura Marholm Hanson wrote of this first installment in an essay titled “The Woman Naturalist: Amalie Skram” that was reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, asserting that “there is not a single false note in the book, and not one awkward description or superfluous word …. She describes human beings as they are to be found alone with nature, [and] tells of their never-ending, unfruitful toil, whether field labour or childbearing, the stimulating effect of brandy, the enervating influence of their fear of a harsh God—the God of a severe climate—the shy, unspoken love of the father, and the overworked woman who grows to resemble an animal more and more.”
Depicted Life Aboard Vessel
The next Hellemyrsfolket title was To Venner (Two Friends), which also appeared in 1887. The story centers on Sjur Gabriel's grandson, who leaves Hellemyr for the open seas as a ship's cabin boy. Hanson gave this novel high praise as well, noting that Skram's portrayal of life aboard a trade vessel that plies the Atlantic Ocean route between Jamaica and Norway was particularly realistic: “The description of how the entire crew, including the captain, land at Kingston one hot summer night to sacrifice to the Black Venus, and the description of the storm and the shipwreck … on the Atlantic Ocean, the gradual destruction of the ship, the state of mind of the crew, and the captain's suddenly awakened piety;—it is all so perfectly life-like, so characteristically true of the sailor class, and so full of local Norwegian colouring, that we ask ourselves how a woman ever came to write it.”
There were two other books in the Hellemyrsfolket saga, S.G. Myre and Afkom, but Skram wrote several other works in the interim. These included Lucie in 1888 and Forrådt (Betrayal), published in 1891. Among all of Skram's novels, the latter book is the most reflective of the Naturalist literary style. Its protagonist is a young woman named Ory, who marries an older man, a sea captain, and the plot hinges on their disastrous honeymoon. Ory feels repulsion at the idea of her husband touching her, and freezes when others make comments or jokes to her about being a bride on her honeymoon. Criticized as stubborn and immature, she begins to withdraw altogether and seek solace in religion. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Anna Vaux asserted that “Ory wields her purity with a biblical wrath which turns her from angel to monster with frightening alacrity.” A stunning act of violence and madness concludes the story, which Vaux called “startling and direct in its portrayal of alienation and exclusion.”
Suffered Second Bout of Depression
Another bad marriage was the subject of Skram's next novel, Fru Inés (Frau Ines), published in 1891. Similarly, a young woman's financial hardship after a divorce was the theme of Skram's only play, Agnete. Her own second marriage had seemed to be a happier match than her first, but she endured another bout of depression after the birth of her daughter Johanne, and in 1894 entered the Copenhagen City Hospital. She was later transferred to a psychiatric hospital near Roskilde, Denmark. The experience became the basis for two novels, both set in a psychiatric hospital and both published in 1895: Professor Hieronimus and På St. J⊘rgen. The heroine of both is Else Kant, a painter who is struggling to complete a particularly problematic painting, but the pressures of being a wife and mother prevent her from devoting the necessary time to it. Anxiety breeds insomnia, which triggers depression, and finally she agrees to a “rest cure” in a hospital.
At the hospital, Else comes under the care of a wellknown psychiatrist, the Professor Hieronimus of the first title, but soon finds herself trapped in a nightmarish cycle— everything she says is perceived as the wrong response, the doctor tells her. According to Langas's article, “Everything she says and does is interpreted as a sign of her insanity.” When Else challenges Hieronimus, he deems her irrational, and their exchanges begin to take on the quality of farce, as he seems to deliberately infuriate her. Finally she is transferred to another care facility for the seriously mentally ill.
At one point, Else sees the staff handling the body of a woman who spent much of her life in the institution and has recently died. Contemplating her own fate, she returns to her room and begins writing a series of letters to Hieronimus. In the first one, she tells him that she wishes to describe her state of mind without him flying into a rage, and as Langas noted, “This strategy turns out to be Else's main rhetorical weapon: to adopt the tactics of the enemy as her own. At the same time she writes herself out of the chains of hysteria, she writes him into them. Using this method, the professor is dethroned as a doctor and reinstated as a patient: Hieronimus Hystericus.”
In Else's final letter to the esteemed doctor, she signs herself “your sincere enemy,” just as Skram herself had done when she was finally discharged from her Danish psychiatric episode. The real letter had remained on file for a number of years at the hospital, according to Langas, and the episode may have led to the resignation of Dr. Knud Pontoppidan, director of psychiatric care at the Copenhagen Hospital, ostensibly to take a job elsewhere. Pontoppidan was quite well known in his day, but Skram's allegations of mistreatment were not the first to be made against him.
Tale Frightened the Public
Once again, Skram's novels of psychiatric abuse ignited a minor scandal in Norway, and less so in Denmark, which was a more progressive country, but in both places there were calls for legal reform and improved treatment for the mentally ill. Professor Hieronimus appeared in English translation in 1899, and a reviewer for Bookman called it “courageous, vital and startlingly vivid.” The critic noted that while Skram's novel depicts scenes and events that may seem horrific to the average person, “to read the story is inevitably to feel that such a condition of things does exist somewhere, since it is described with a graphic simplicity that it would be impossible to surpass.”
Skram's second marriage ended in 1899, but she remained in Copenhagen, where she died on March 15, 1905, at the age of 58. Her works were rediscovered by feminists and literary critics only much later in the twentieth century, and a few previously unpublished works appeared in the original Norwegian in the mid-1970s. Constance Ring was translated into English in 1988 by Judith Messick and Katherine Hanson, and a second English translation of Professor Hieronimus appeared as 1992 with a new title, Under Observation.
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Dennis Poupard, Volume 25, Gale, 1988.
Bookman, August 1899.
Publishers Weekly, October 12, 1992.
Scandinavian Studies, Spring 2003.
Times Literary Supplement, February 20, 1987.