Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer (1801–1865) is known in the United States primarily for the written observations she made during her American travels in the late 1840s and early 1850s, many of them dealing with the lives of African-American slaves. In her own time, however, Bremer's novels were known all over Europe and the United States, appearing in translated versions almost as fast as they were published in Swedish.
As a writer, Bremer was a pioneer advocate for women's rights. Her novels were built around female characters who were more independent than any others in Swedish literature up to that point, and who suffered the effects of a repressive, completely male-dominated society. Bremer's novel Hertha (1856) dramatized the need for legal rights for women, and it was credited with providing the impetus for reforms improving the status of women that were implemented in Sweden in the years following the book's publication. In many ways, Bremer was a full counterpart to the women writers in larger European countries who worked to develop the new political and cultural consciousness that led to a broader demands for women's rights.
Intentionally Malnourished Despite Wealth
Bremer was born on August 17, 1801, in Åbo, Finland, which was ruled by Sweden at the time. In 1804 her banker father moved to the Swedish capital of Stockholm; they also had a castle called Årsta in the Swedish countryside and spent their summers there. Bremer's strict Lutheran upbringing was restrictive even by the standards of the nineteenth-century European upper classes, which generally kept young women cloistered and subjected them to strict regimes of social indoctrination. Her mother, believing that a dancer-like build represented an ideal of femininity, severely limited the amount of food Bremer and her four sisters could eat, and she probably suffered from what would now be called clinical malnutrition. The Bremer sisters, only one of whom ever married, were essentially kept housebound for most of their youth, forbidden even to take short walks. However, Bremer did receive, from tutors and governesses, a solid education that included the classics of Swedish and German literature, philosophy, and religious and ethical thought.
When Bremer was in her late teens, she undertook a Grand Tour—a tradition among privileged European families according to which a young person on the verge of adulthood would visit the great capitals of the Continent, visiting art collections, hearing concerts and studying music, and generally rounding out his or her cultural education while seeing something of the wider world. Bremer was still kept under very tight rein. When the family's carriage became stuck in the mud, she was not allowed to get out, no matter how long the predicament might last. But Bremer's Grand Tour was nevertheless a profound formative experience in many ways. Her diaries began to show a sharp feminist consciousness, and after visiting a Swedish university library she wrote sarcastically to a friend that if she had dared to actually open a book, a professor would have materialized to remind her that there were no cookbooks in the collection. "All my youth was strange—I had a constant feeling of being able to go mad suddenly and instantly," she wrote in another letter quoted on the Official Gateway to Sweden website.
And for the first time, Bremer saw how the other half lived. In her book Life in the Old World (as translated by Sarah Death on the website of the Årstasällskapet for Fredrika Bremer Studies), she recalled what she saw from her carriage as it rolled through Paris. "Beauty and ugliness, luxury and misery were overtly displayed alongside each other," she wrote. "Splendid processions of people riding and in carriages thronged the boulevards; the crowd of spectators extended into the side alleys, where wretched creatures exposed open wounds and maimed limbs, women lay on the ground covered in black cloth, surrounded by pale, semi-naked children. The young gentlemen of the boulevard stepped right over them."
Bremer returned to Stockholm, hardly ready to marry and enter the whirl of high society. Instead she had a strong desire to learn more about the world and to change it. She made the acquaintance of a radical young Lutheran minister, Per Johan Böklin, who suggested philosophical books for her to read, and with whom she corresponded voluminously. In the 1820s she began to do charitable work teaching children and taking care of the old and the sick. And, partly in order to fund an expansion of this enterprise, she began to write novels, issuing a series of them under the collective title Sketches of Everyday Life. The first one, Axel and Anna (English translations of all of Bremer's novels appeared in London in the 1840s and 1850s), was published in 1828, and she produced them steadily until 1848. One of the most widely read was The H Family of 1831, later retranslated as The Colonel's Family. They were stories of domestic life, written primarily for women and drawn from Bremer's own experiences and those of her contemporaries. Although they did not have the overtly feminist themes of Bremer's later writing, they featured women as central characters, and they displayed humor and an insight into women's feelings that had to that point been unknown in Swedish literature.
Continued to Live with Parents
Beginning around 1840, Bremer's writing started to become internationally famous. European audiences snapped up new translations of her novels, and she was well enough known even in the United States that long lines of autograph seekers greeted her when she arrived in that country in 1849. Yet ironically this success did little to change Bremer's living situation. As a woman, she had no control whatsoever over her own financial or legal affairs. For the first part of her writing career, she remained in her mother's home (her father died in 1830). At one point she asked for a room of her own where she could write and study, even in the attic, but her mother turned the request down.
Bremer made a declaration of independence of sorts when Böklin proposed marriage to her; she refused the proposal and did not see the minister for several years, although they continued to write to each other. It is possible that her decision was the result of a conviction that, at the time, a woman would find it impossible to combine domestic life with a full commitment to writing. Bremer was twice (in 1831 and 1843) awarded the Gold Medal by the Swedish Academy, and her writing had begun to deepen. Her 1842 novel A Diary was the first book in the history of Swedish literature to be written by a woman about a single woman. On its second page, the main character describes herself this way (as translated by Sarah Death): "Independent in fortune and position in life, I am now able to taste freedom after many long years of captivity, a freedom to follow, at the age of 30, nothing but my own inclination." In the first half of the nineteenth century, those were revolutionary words. Brothers and Sisters (1848) deserted the world of Stockholm high society for a depiction of a utopian experiment founded along the lines dreamed of by philanthropic societies. Bremer's progressive spirit remained animated by her Christian beliefs, and she once remarked that Christ was the originator of true liberalism.
One major step Bremer took as a result of her new independence was to begin to travel. She made two lengthy international trips; the first, to the United States and Cuba, has been more closely examined, but the second was also remarkable. Bremer arrived in New York in 1849, knowing no one but known by many. She stayed in the United States for two years, traveling all over the country. Bremer's motivation in visiting America was that she wanted to glimpse humanity's future; she saw it as a country of people who hoped to build a new world, and she was fascinated by idealistic religious groups such as the Quakers.
Bremer immersed herself in American life. Carrying a sketchbook, she went west to spend time among Native Americans. She visited Washington and sat in the gallery as the struggles over slavery that led to the Civil War were waged in Congress, and she cultivated close contacts in the intellectual centers of New York and Boston, visiting writers such as the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. She visited prisons and went to the rough Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan for a first-hand look at the American underclass. Bremer's observations were published in several volumes in 1853 and 1854 under the title Homes of the New World. Again, the book found an international readership and was translated into English immediately.
Made Close Observations of Slave Culture
The most unusual sections of the book dealt with the institution of slavery, which Bremer considered a severe failing of America's otherwise free society. Bremer visited plantations and wrote down slave narratives, music, and folkways. When she went still farther south to Cuba, she proved an acute observer of the presence of African cultural traits in the lives of black Cubans, traits that were more hidden under the institution of American slavery. Bremer's writings about slaves constitute one of the largest bodies of detailed observations that have come down to us about slave life.
On the way back to Sweden, Bremer stopped in England to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851 and its fabulous Crystal Palace, the first World's Fair. Back in Sweden, she plunged into the nation's political life to a degree she had avoided up to that point. In 1854, during the Crimean War, she wrote a newspaper column urging Christian women's organizations worldwide to join in an anti-war alliance. Her proposal was criticized by conservative writers, including the editorial board of the Times of London that published her article in England.
Criticism intensified after Bremer published Hertha, or The Story of a Soul, a novel whose title character was a mouthpiece for Bremer's views on women's rights. As Bremer predicted, the novel stirred strong controversy, partly as a result of a scene in which its heroine applies bandages to the knee of her fiancé—such close physical contact between unmarried people was considered taboo. The main thrust of the novel was to promote the majority—the conferring of full civil rights—to women at the age of 25 in Sweden. Bremer was backed by liberal elements in Swedish society, and her book was credited with spurring passage of a law in 1858 that revoked many of the privileges of the Swedish patriarchy.
By that time, Bremer was already in the middle of another odyssey. She traveled through Switzerland to Italy, where she met the pope, and then through Greece to the Middle East, where she delved into the region's long history, traveling at times on horseback, at the age of about 60. The several Swedish-language travel narratives that resulted were later collected under the English title Life in the Old World. Bremer returned to fiction writing upon her return to Sweden, but her final novel, and her satisfaction at witnessing the evolution of democracy in Sweden, were cut short by her death at Årsta on December 31, 1865. One measure of her lasting influence was the large number of women's peace groups that continued to flourish throughout the twentieth century and beyond.
Rappaport, Helen, Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, ABC-CLIO, 2001.
Stendhal, Brita K, The Education of a Self-Made Woman: Fredrika Bremer, 1801–1865, Edwin Mellen Press, 1994.
"Fredrika Bremer: A Contemporary from the Last Century," Sweden.se: The Official Gateway to Sweden, http://www.sweden.se (January 13, 2006).
Translated passages from Bremer: En biografi (Swedish-language biography of Bremer), Årstasällskapet för Fredrika Bremerstudier, http://www.fredrikabremer.net/burman.htm (January 13, 2006).