Camilla Collett (1813–1895) broke new ground in Norwegian literature with the publication of her first novel in 1854. The District Governor's Daughters is considered the first feminist tract from a Norwegian writer, as well as Norwegian literature's first piece of modern fiction, for its use of psychological themes to relate a tale of romance thwarted by social convention.
Collett's novel has been described as "a demand for the emotional and intellectual liberation of women" by scholars Irene Engelstad and Janneken Øverland, discussing its place in the literary history of the Scandinavian nation. They further noted that it was "regarded as a breakthrough for the cause of sexual equality in Norway."
Schooled in Denmark
Collett was born into a prominent, politically connected family that included a brother, Henrik Wergeland, who would later enjoy immense literary acclaim. Their mother, Alethe Dorothea Thaulow Wergeland, came from a long line of government officials, and had an artistic temperament she passed on to both children. Collett was born on January 23, 1813, in Kristiansand, on the southern coast of Norway, but she would be linked to the town of Eidsvoll, outside Oslo, for a number of reasons. Her family settled there in 1817, when her father became the Lutheran pastor of Eidsvoll, but Nikolai Wergeland had already taken part in Norway's constitutional assembly in Eidsvoll some three years earlier. Collett's father was a well known pastor and leader in the independence movement, and at that 1814 political gathering, Norway formally declared its independence from Sweden and Denmark, the two neighboring powers that had dominated it for centuries.
Collett's father was a progressive man, who supported the idea of a formal education for Camilla as well as her brother Henrik, who was five years her senior. She was sent to the Herrnhut Institute at Christiansfeld, in present-day Denmark. By the time she was 17 years old, Henrik had emerged as a celebrated new literary name in Norway, which was in the midst of a cultural awakening spurred by nationalist fervor. Like his father, Henrik had also studied for the ministry, but by the late 1820s had become the leader of a new romantic nationalist movement in Norway. His poetry and drama celebrated Norwegian culture at a time when the fashion among many of the more established writers and literary critics was to maintain and even strengthen artistic ties with Sweden, Denmark, and the rest of Europe. Because of this culture war, Wergeland's work was usually subject to scathing criticism by Norway's literary establishment. One of his harshest critics was Johan Sebastian Welhaven (1807–1873).
For a period of time in the early 1830s, Wergeland and Welhaven carried on a vigorous debate in newspapers and magazines, with attacks, counter-attacks, and input from others, including Pastor Wergeland. Welhaven was also the son of a pastor, but unlike Collett's brother, he was of a more conservative mind. It was Welhaven who supported the idea of bringing Norwegian culture into step with movements and styles elsewhere in Europe.
Became Enamored of Family Foe
One of this feud's more fascinating aspects, however, was the fact that the Wergeland-Welhaven quarrel-which historians of Norwegian literature have generally termed a defining event in the formation of a national cultural identity-was conducted around the same time that Camilla Collett was romantically involved with Welhaven. Her personal recollections of this time were revealed in Optegnelser fra Ungdomsaarene, which was written when she was in her early twenties but published posthumously. It began as a journal of this period of time, but she made many revisions and added footnotes to it over the course of her life. "The book, though cast in the form of a private diary, reads throughout like a novel," noted a 1927 review by G. M. Gathorne-Hardy in the Times Literary Supplement, but the critic also faulted it for sentimentality. Her tale, Gathorne-Hardy continued, "particularly in its earlier stages, falls constantly into bathos and occasionally reads like a parody of the style by which it was inspired."
Collett's recollections are mainly of her contact with Welhaven, whom she occasionally refers to as "Saint Sebastian," and there is only some discussion of the literary feud. She does write at one point that she erased part of her brother's manuscript when she found a diatribe against Welhaven on the page, which angered Henrik. Over time, the ardor between Collett and Welhaven cooled, and each married another. She revisited her journal over the years, and the attention she gave to it seems to suggest that the romance was a pivotal event in her life, though she later wondered if she was merely a pawn in the literary feud. Optegnelser fra Ungdomsaarene included letters from Welhaven expressing his love, and in one footnote, she wondered, "Did he carry on this lengthy game with coldblooded calculation? Was it his insatiable hatred for my family which drove him ingeniously to strike them in their most vulnerable point, in me?"
In 1834 Collett left Norway for France. She spent the next three years there and in Germany, studying literature. In 1841 she wed Jonas Peter Collett, who was nearly 70 years old at the time. He had also taken part in the Eidsvoll event, and had served a number of years as a high-ranking government minister by then. In 1845 her brother Henrik died of tuberculosis, and Jonas died in 1851, leaving her a widow with two young sons. After that, she left Norway and settled in Copenhagen, Denmark, and produced her most famous literary accomplishment, The District Governor's Daughters.
Published First Novel
In its original Norwegian title, Amtmandens døttre appeared anonymously in 1854–55. The story is set 20 years earlier, in Eidsvoll, and relates the tale of Sofie Ramm, who falls in love with Georg Kold, the young man her family has taken in to serve as a tutor to her younger brother. But matches based on romantic love were rare at the time in Norway, and middle class or even nominally landed families generally arranged their offsprings' marriages. The unions were carefully considered in order to provide the maximum advantage to the social or economic status of the family. "Collett never forgave society for its complicity in smothering women's capacity for love, which she regarded as the supreme feminine instinct," wrote Sherrill Harbison in a review of The District Governor's Daughters for Scandinavian Studies. "Conventional marriage, her novel warns, was a trap designed by society to deaden the aches of love sacrificed; 'in a word, they suffocated woman's entire faith in great happiness and gave her small pleasures as compensation.'"
In the novel, both Sofie and Georg are believers in the idea of a marriage based on love, not one that merely furthers the family interests. But a misunderstanding ends their contact, Sofie predictably marries another man, "and begins her descent to cheerless drudge," noted a contributor to Publishers Weekly in a review of the English-language edition, which did not appear until 1992. The same critic also called Collett's novel "a portrait of the rigid Scandinavian society of the period," and mentioned her later influence on the bleak works of Henrik Ibsen, Norway's most famous playwright and considered the founder of the modern drama form.
Collett's novel was doubly notable because there were few authors of merit writing in the Norwegian language during the early 1850s. Most literature lovers read English or French novels in translation, with the works of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo among the top sellers. Though The District Governor's Daughters met with a somewhat lukewarm critical reception, "it had a great influence on later Norwegian writing," wrote Harald Beyer in A History of Norwegian Literature. Beyer cited one work by Ibsen that appeared less than a decade later as a particularly obvious descendant. Love's Comedy, dating from 1862, is Ibsen's critical look at bourgeois marriages, and its characters mention what they view as an absence of love in arranged matches.
Realized Novel was Her Polemic
The District Governor's Daughters was also the first piece of Norwegian fiction to examine the lives of women. At the time when it appeared, women in Norway had very few legal rights. Unmarried women, for example, could not enter into financial transactions regarding property they had inherited without the approval of a male relative, and married women had no rights whatsoever, and were subject entirely to their husband's authority until an 1888 law ended this. Though Collett's novel did not address specific reforms, "instead she demanded a change of attitude," wrote Beyer, "an understanding of the woman's heart. Into this cause she flung all her glowing passion, writing with bitterness and sympathy and an amazing boldness. She spoke of her novel as a 'shriek,' and many felt it to be just that."
Collett's novel was translated into other European languages after its original publication, but did not appear in English until the early 1990s. In the review of this translation for Scandinavian Studies, Harbison discussed its place in nineteenth-century women's fiction in general. "Stylistically it bridges romanticism and realism," the critic asserted, "sharing features with … Jane Austen's comedies of manners, and Charlotte Brontë's headstrong heroines colliding with Victorian ethics of female self-sacrifice." Beyer asserted that Collett's "example helped to encourage other women to enter the literary arena, most of them minor though interesting figures. Not until Amalie Skram did one arrive who could equal or surpass the writing of Camilla Collett."
Collett spent the remainder of her years living in various European capitals, including Stockholm, Berlin, and Paris, and devoted her subsequent literary energies to nonfiction and political essays. She returned to Norway around 1885. In 1893 she was feted on the occasion of her 80th birthday, and no less than Ibsen himself was her official escort to the party. She died on March 6, 1895, at the age of 82. Other works of merit from her pen include I de lange Nætter (In the Long Nights), a memoir of her childhood and early years that appeared in the early 1860s, and two collections of essays, Fra de Stummes Leir (From the Camp of the Mute) and Mod Strømmen (Against the Mainstream). In 1977 she became the first woman whose image appeared on a Norwegian banknote.
Beyer, Harald, A History of Norwegian Literature, Translated and edited by Einar Haugen. New York University Press/The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1956.
Publishers Weekly, July 20, 1992.
Scandinavian Studies, Summer 1993.
Times (London, England), March 15, 1895.
Times Literary Supplement (London, England), June 9, 1927.
"Norwegian Women Writers," http://www.reisenett.no/norway/facts/culture_science/norwegian_woman_writers.html (January 12, 2006).