Collett, Camilla (1813–1895)
Collett, Camilla (1813–1895)
Pioneering Norwegian feminist and Norway's first feminist-realist novelist. Pronunciation: KOL-let. Born (Jacobine) Camilla Wergeland on January 23, 1813, in the small Norwegian city of Kristiansand; died on March 6, 1895; daughter of Nicolai (a cleric) and Alette Dorothea (Thaulow) Wergeland; sister of poet Henrik Wergeland (1808–1845); educated at home until 1827, when she spent two years at the Herrnhuters' school in Christiansfeld, Germany; married Peter Jonas Collett (a lawyer), July 14, 1841 (died, December 1851, age 38); children: four sons, Robert (b. 1842), Alf (b. 1844), Oscar (b. 1845), Emil (b. 1848).
Had first meeting with the poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven (early 1830); traveled on the Continent (1834 and 1836–37); published first independently written article (1842); published first (and only) novel (1854–55); awarded a literary gold medal (1863); made first honorary member of Norsk Kvinnesaksforening (The Norwegian Women's Cause, 1884).
"Nogle Strikketøjsbetraktninger" ("Musings while Knitting"—a collection of articles first published in Den Constitutionelle; 1862); Amtmandens Døttre (The District Governor's Daughters; her only novel, published in two parts 1854 and 1855); Fortællinger (stories; 1860); I de lange Nætter (In the Long Nights; 1862); Sidste Blade (Last Leaves; 1868, 1872, 1873); Fra de Stummes Lejr (From the Camp of the Mutes; 1877); Mot Strømmen (Against the Current; I: 1879, II: 1885).
It was the end of January 1830 and in Christiania (as the Norwegian capital of Oslo was then called) the streets were cold and dreary. Seventeen-year-old Camilla Wergeland pushed open the gate to the wealthy merchant Herre's townhouse and was about to ascend the steps when she heard the voices of two men who were just leaving. One voice belonged to the son of the house, a devoted friend of hers. The other man's voice, resonant and with a Bergen accent, was that of a stranger. Shyly, she hid behind the corner of the house while the two men passed.
The young girl guessed that the visitor was the poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven (1807–1873), already at 22 enjoying a considerable reputation among the capital's intelligentsia. But although the incident impressed itself on her mind, she had no way of guessing that he would be the catalyst for her long battle for open, honest relations between men and women, and for women's rights in society. Most Norwegians know that the torment of her protracted relationship with Welhaven was made worse because her family held publicly opposed views to those of his circle. What is often overlooked, however, is that the ideas propounded by Welhaven and his friends happened to express her own opinions. And those opinions had little to do with love and everything to do with her own character and talents, with her background and education, and with historical developments in Norway.
Camilla Collett was born Camilla Wergeland in the small town of Kristiansand in 1813, at the southern end of a country that stretches from about 58°N all the way to 71°N, with a landscape of stark, soul-searing contrasts. At the time of her birth, the Norwegian economy was largely pre-industrial, "unless one counts the large number of small distilleries," as the historian R.G. Popperwell puts it. But great change was in the making, and Collett's writing came to reflect closely the altering economic and cultural patterns and the social dislocations she observed while her country lumbered towards industrialization. She saw the plight of those whom progress did not seem to touch, of the people who remained fettered by poverty, ignorance, gender, or sheer physical isolation.
To understand the independence of Camilla Collett's mind and the forces behind the bitter political and cultural debates that became a part of her daily existence, we must consider both Norway's precarious economic position and the high feelings generated by the provisions made at the Peace of Kiel on January 14, 1814, after Napoleon's final defeat at Leipzig.
In 1807, at the height of the Napoleonic wars, the British had reacted to an impending Dano-Norwegian alliance with Napoleon by bombarding Copenhagen and forcing the Danes to hand over their fleet. When the Danish government declared war on Britain and solidarity with Napoleon, British warships blocked Norway's access to the open sea. Not only was shipping essential to the Norwegian economy, but the country was dependent on import for basic necessities such as grain. A crop failure in Norway in both 1807 and 1808 resulted in widespread famine, and the year before Camilla was born, both the crops and the fishing had failed. Norwegian bankruptcies were frequent between 1813 and 1816.
In a series of moves designed by the victorious powers to punish Denmark and strengthen Sweden (now ruled by King Charles XIV John, a politically astute former marshal of the defeated Napoleon), Norway's long union with Denmark was dissolved, and the country was placed under Swedish hegemony instead. This move infuriated those Norwegian political leaders who felt greater kinship with the Danes than with the Swedes, whose French-born king they distrusted. But it pleased those who (like Camilla's father) saw the alliance as a change from Danish oppression and a way to remain in the major powers' good graces, and who believed that their new Constitution's provisions for Norwegian
decision-making would prevent the country from becoming too unequal a partner in the union with Sweden.
Camilla's father, the cleric Nicolai Wergeland, was one of the signatories to that Constitution at Eidsvoll on May 17, 1814, a day the Norwegians still celebrate as the beginning of their modern nationhood. This made him a public figure; so it created quite a stir when, two years later, he published a treatise in which he joined those who were outraged by the Treaty of Kiel's provision that Norway should help pay the war debt of Denmark-Norway, and in which he showed his staunch belief in Norwegian national uniqueness, thought to manifest itself especially in the peasant culture.
His private and public convictions proved fateful for his family. When Camilla was barely four years old, he obtained a living at Eidsvoll parsonage, where he so recently had helped midwife the birth of a self-conscious new Norway, and where his passionate, romantic nature envisioned a perfect setting for his own work as well as for the rearing of his family.
But nationhood had been conceived and baptized in the heady rush of a northern spring as well as in the flattering glow of a late-blooming and peculiarly Norwegian national romanticism. Dean Wergeland soon found the peasants crude and the physical and intellectual isolation of inland Eidsvoll (a long day's ride north of Oslo) devastating, and he grew dark and brooding. Little Camilla witnessed an even greater change in her mother Alette Wergeland , now responsible for a big rural household and deprived of almost all human contact outside her family. In "Night Six" of the autobiographical work I de lange Nætter, Camilla writes of her mother: "Thus she vegetated next to Father, the two of them forming the greatest contrasts ever devised by Nature, without absorbing anything from him. He protected her in the same way an overhanging cliff protects and shelters the quivering flower it also deprives of sunshine."
Collett never raised the issue of whether her mother had been consulted about the move to Eidsvoll. She was not concerned with the division of power between a man and wife who had chosen to live together, as her parents had done, but with every woman's lack of power within a social, cultural, and economic framework that made it difficult for women to follow their hearts and control their own marital fate in the first place. It has often and accurately been noted that Collett addressed a problem especially affecting women of her own privileged class. Some see this as regrettable insularity on her part, while others consider it honest reporting of the Jane Austen school.
Austen and other 19th-century novelists taught that solitude was prized by young women who needed time away from the prying, censorious eyes that followed them everywhere, and Camilla Collett's writing was no different. But she never romanticized the rural isolation that was the lot of so many Norwegians, for she knew the stress of living in small, isolated communities. The fear of gossip may truly govern people's lives, as Collett later demonstrated in The District Governor's Daughters. Even with a modern population of almost 4.5 million people, Norway is a sparsely inhabited country. At the time Collett wrote her novel, the country had scarcely 1.5 million, and only about 163,000 of those lived in the urban areas that had chiefly grown up around waterborne trade.
You're a man. You're free. You may seize life and be active, you may create things, in a word: you may live!
—Camilla Collett in a letter to her brother
At the beginning of the 19th century, the ancient fish-trading city of Bergen still had more people than the capital's population of around 12,000. Compared with most of the rest of the country, however, both cities were bustling metropolitan areas. In great part owing to the Constitution's stipulation that Stortinget (Parliament) was to meet in Christiania, the capital began to grow as a political, cultural, and economic center during precisely those years when young Camilla gained her footing among the city's intellectual and mercantile elite. Both her fiction and her nonfiction reflect these changes.
In rural as well as urban areas of Norway, the literary climate during Camilla's formative years was lit by the rays of late romanticism from Danish and German writers such as Oehlenschläger, Novalis, Tieck and Steffens. In addition, a uniquely Norwegian brand of national romanticism in art and literature flourished. But Aagot Benterud, a modern biographer of Collett, notes that a growing admiration for the classical style, which stressed simplicity, virile strength, restraint, and control, ran parallel to the current of late Continental romanticism in Norway in the years after 1814. Females were expected to be passive, and it was a terrible breach of etiquette for a woman to show tender feelings for a man before he had revealed serious intentions. Collett later named this constraint the "Law of Femininity" and claimed that it blighted all her adult life.
While Dean Collett and his wife were languishing in their rural existence, their children enjoyed great physical freedom at the Eidsvoll parsonage, and household discipline was haphazard. Until she was about 13, Camilla led a rough-and-tumble life interspersed with bouts of tutoring by her father and the teachers secured for her brothers. This was because primary education, until the School Act of 1827, was left entirely to local initiative and private exertion, while any family that could afford it sent their children abroad for their secondary education until a Latin School for boys and the Nissen School for Girls were founded in Christiania in 1843 and 1848 respectively.
Camilla's often bizarre tutors furnished her with a rogue's gallery that any writer would envy, but they did not provide the polish Dean Wergeland wanted for his beautiful youngest daughter, his pride and joy. In 1826, he enrolled her in Miss Pharo's school for girls in the capital, where Camilla felt very much out of place. Later (1837), she explained in a letter to her close friend Emilie Diriks that she and her siblings had grown up in all innocence with faults that came home to roost when they finally were turned loose among other people.
After a year, Camilla was sent to Christiansfeld in Schleswig, to a school run by the Herrnhuters, a sect of the Moravian Brethren. Here she stayed for two years. Private correspondence shows that those were difficult years for the shy country girl from Norway, although she did well in her studies. Her later reminiscences dwell more on friendships formed and on her gratitude for this first exposure to Continental culture and sophistication. Here, she began a lifelong journey of self-discovery. In "Night Eight" of I de lange Nætter, she describes her unformed self just at the outset of this period: "I was… a good-natured, obedient, well-brought up child, insignificant to look at and shapeless in all my ways, and I understood the secret of my innermost self about as much as I understand mathematics to this day."
A far from robust child, she jeopardized her health when betting with her school friends that she could live for a week on food purchased for four shillings a day, but she discovered in the process that she possessed pride, fortitude, and willpower, all qualities that stood her in good stead later. In every way, her years at Christiansfeld had a profound influence on her later development. She remained deeply religious all her life, although without much outward demonstration of piety. According to her son Alf, she never rid herself of a tendency to use German words and phrases; a modern reader will certainly find her prose difficult at times. Most important, her experiences and mental horizon were expanded beyond Norway. This made her less willing to accept status quo back home, and better equipped to explore new solutions to what she regarded as age-old and peculiarly Norwegian problems.
She returned to Eidsvoll in 1829 and was prepared for confirmation that autumn by her father. That same year, her elder sister was married off, at age 19, to a man she did not want. Collett's horror at her sister's fate is delineated in the character of Louise in The District Governor's Daughters, and it put her on notice regarding the rigid code by which she and the other women in her circle were expected to live, and which her own mother passively supported.
Louise's sister Sofie Kold, the young heroine of Collett's only novel, reflects the author's own experience in returning home as a smoothly polished lure intended to catch a desirable husband who will take her off her family's hands. The trouble with both the fictional Sofie and the reallife Camilla was that they returned to an isolated rural setting where they had plenty of opportunity to think and brood, and where eligible young men were thin on the ground. Trips to the capital were called for.
In Camilla's case, visits to Christiania became increasingly frequent during the next several years, although such journeys meant a day's travel by horse and carriage via a system of relay stations. In winter, snow and ice smoothed the roads, so that was the season for markets and social events requiring travel. Thus it was that the 17-year-old Camilla found herself in Christiania in January of 1830, escaping from the deep gloom that had descended anew on her father's parsonage once the Christmas festivities were over.
Her beauty, talents, and excellent connections gave her instant social success, which she was far from rejecting. She was extremely fond of dancing and very musical (she sang and played both the piano and the guitar), and her passionate nature suited her well for both friendship and love. She encountered the latter when she met Johan Sebastian Welhaven formally in the Herres' drawing room soon after she had watched the handsome, reserved young poet leaving the family's house by the stairs.
Their meeting resulted in a seemingly mutual coup de foudre, which he immortalized in a poem describing the impact on everyone when she entered the room—and which she kept in her heart for a lifetime. His romantic looks and deep, expressive voice immediately captured her imagination, while her fastidious temperament as well as her firm grounding in Continental culture drew her towards his camp of people dedicated to maintaining the cultural influences and connections formerly obtained through Denmark. She fell deeply in love. Welhaven was also strongly attracted to Camilla, but he was poor, proud, ambitious, and cautious, and the stern moral climate that made it impossible for Camilla so much as to hint at an attachment until he had declared his intention to marry her, added greatly to the strain of their relationship.
As Alf Collett noted many years later, his mother's social success was not due to the considerable reputation of her father and of her brother, the barnstorming young poet Henrik Wergeland (1808–1845). On the contrary, the circles in which she traveled, and of which Welhaven was an important part, used their literary organ Den Constitutionelle to attack Henrik Wergeland as a person, politician, and poet. Unfazed, their target continued to champion the need for general education, the virtues of simple, peasant-style living, the need to cleanse the Norwegian language of foreign influence, and the right of Jews to enter the Norwegian realm, to name but a few of his passions.
Camilla's father shared his son Henrik's political ideas and the attacks made upon him, and both of them forged sharp arrows aimed back at Johan Sebastian Welhaven and his followers. Camilla, who was well aware that her family (and just about everybody else) knew of her emotional and intellectual involvement with Welhaven, stood her ground, but the conflicts with her family and the uncertainties of her protracted relationship with Welhaven made her ill. Early in the spring of 1834, her father took her to Paris to cheer her up and obtain medical help.
They stayed in Paris for several months. Camilla formed a lasting admiration for French writers (she especially admired George Sand 's style) and took lessons in singing, drawing, and painting. She had inherited her parents' keen aesthetic sense, and her father always encouraged her to develop her artistic talents with the exception of her deep yen for acting, which he was dead set against. Despite the Parisian diversions, Camilla's health remained poor. On their journey home, she became so ill that her father feared for her life. After a lengthy stay in Hamburg, they returned to Eidsvoll late in the autumn of 1834, where old problems lay waiting and fresh ones were brewing.
Each new controversy between Welhaven and Henrik Wergeland added to Camilla's burden. In 1833, Norwegian farmers had begun to demand the use of powers granted them in the Constitution of 1814, causing a debate in which Welhaven and Camilla's brother took opposite sides. In addition, Welhaven was an exponent of the "romantic realism" associated with das junge Deutschland, as fresh romantic breezes were reaching Norway from Denmark and Germany. This new form of romanticism brought with it a different feminine ideal from the neoclassical one, but the movement did not succeed in making life easier for Norwegian women in general or Camilla in particular, since modern factory-based industry was also making itself felt by this time. The latter stressed materialistic achievements and left little admiration for qualities in which women supposedly excelled, such as a talent for selfless love.
Camilla met Welhaven again in Christiania in the winter of 1834–35, at which time the battle raging around her brother's poem Norges Dæmring (The Dawn of Norway) was in full cry and grew worse when Dean Wergeland published a highly polemical work defending his son and attacking Welhaven. In her diary for February of 1836, Camilla wrote that Welhaven had said the mere fact that she was her father's daughter made him bitter towards her. They exchanged only a few awkward letters while she visited friends in Hamburg from August of 1836 until the summer of 1837.
Upon her return home, her mood was one of despair—much of it due to her father's anger that she had refused an offer of marriage from a wealthy Hamburg man. She poured out her heart in letters to Emilie Diriks, whose quick intelligence, well-formed literary tastes, and bruising experiences with a domineering mother made her an accepting and sensitive friend. At the same time, Diriks (who died in 1843) became the testing ground for Camilla's developing literary style, in which a lifelong preoccupation with the plight of women forced into marriage was already taking form. In a letter written from Hamburg at Whitsuntide in 1837, Camilla wondered why even loving parents were in such a hurry to get rid of their children that they began planning for it while the children were still small. Another recurring theme in Camilla's correspondence is the repression of young girls and the consequences of an education and training that make them unable to cope with life's vicissitudes.
Before going abroad in the spring of 1837, Camilla had written: "My love for Welhaven is extinguished. I love him no more." Later, events show that this was untrue, but her statement suggests that she was ready to form a new attachment. In January of 1838, she met the lawyer Peter Jonas Collett, a well-known and articulate member of the pro-Welhaven faction, who saw no reason to discontinue his attacks on Henrik Wergeland even after he fell in love with Camilla. The latter again stood her ground against her family, and on July 14, 1841, she and Collett were married.
Their Christiania household was considered somewhat eccentric, but that did not prevent it from becoming a gathering place for the capital's intellectual élite. Despite this stimulation, and despite enjoying a marriage of inclination, Camilla—who had inherited her father's tendency to brood—suffered recurring bouts of melancholy during the next ten years. Four small sons eventually clamored for her attention, and the practical details of running a household frustrated her. She was fortunate in having a mate who not only assumed some of those daily responsibilities, but who understood that the root of her frustration was her increasing need to develop artistically and intellectually. He encouraged her to write for publication, and they collaborated on several pieces. Her first independently written article appeared in Den Constitutionelle in 1842.
Peter Jonas Collett was appointed professor of law at the University of Christiania in 1848. In addition, he took on much outside work in order to meet the financial demands of his growing family. His health suffered in consequence, and just before Christmas of 1851 he succumbed to typhoid fever.
Camilla Collett refused to enter into the secluded, penurious widowhood awaiting women in her position. She declined an offer of financial help from two of her husband's brothers, but allowed her eldest son to become the ward of an uncle and sent her youngest son to another. After selling the house in Uranienborgveien, she went to Denmark with her two remaining sons, and here (in the summer of 1853) she completed Part I of The District Governor's Daughters, which she had begun before her husband's death. It was published anonymously in 1854; the second part followed in 1855. It was the first Norwegian novel to address social problems directly, and it caused an uproar. Some reviewers missed the point of the book entirely, while others found it too accurate for comfort.
The novel tells the story of two young people, Sofie Ramm and Georg Kold, who believe that only a love freely given is a worthy foundation for marriage, but who have reached their convictions by such different avenues that in the end, their hearts and lives are forced apart. Neither of them is a match for the ruthless "realism" of Sofie's mother, who uses every stratagem afforded by her society to get her daughters respectably married as expeditiously as possible. The novel's influence upon the works of such male Norwegian writers as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Jonas Lie, Alexander Kielland, and Henrik Ibsen, was profound, and of all Collett's works, The District Governor's Daughters has remained the most widely read. Now a classic in Norwegian literature, it introduced realism and everyday concerns into fiction writing and began a strong tradition of women writers addressing a rapidly growing circle of women readers.
The storm raging around her novel could hardly have come as a surprise to Camilla Collett. Her husband had warned her that the time was probably not yet ripe for the things she wanted to say; a warning that must have grown out of his own involvement with drafting legislation to improve the economic conditions of Norwegian women. In 1854, just after the publication of Part I, Norwegian women were given equal inheritance rights with men, thanks in no small part to Jonas Collett. But that was just a beginning. Goaded by her sense of social injustice, by the public reaction to her book, and by old emotional wounds she would not permit to heal, Camilla was no longer willing to remain anonymous in speaking out for women's rights. She produced no more fiction, but wrote essays and engaged in newspaper discussions until the year she died.
In a peripatetic existence that repeatedly took her back and forth between Norway and the Continent (where she formed a lasting friendship with Henrik Ibsen and his wife Susannah Thoresen Ibsen ), Camilla became increasingly occupied with the growing struggle to improve the conditions for women, and she became a public figure. In her private life, she found it as hard as ever to create a balance between the emotional demands made upon her by her writing, by her sons, by her sense that she had failed her gentle husband, and by her attempts to reach some kind of modus vivendi with Welhaven, who had married a friend of hers and become the father of six children. After a period of strained relations in Christiania, she resumed her gypsy existence and had only occasional, though friendly, contact with Welhaven until he died in 1873.
Her anger and frustration never cooled, however, and she once declared that had it not been for the great turmoil she had been forced to endure in consequence of her relationship with Welhaven, she would never have written a word. While that surely was an exaggeration, she certainly was determined that future generations of women should not suffer as she had done.
Camilla Collett thought that women must first of all be educated to see themselves in a different light, and that they must be free of economic bondage. Political privileges would then follow of their own accord. Not everyone within the women's movement agreed with her, but progress was made on all fronts. In 1863, unmarried women above the age of 25 were declared legally competent. By 1875, Camilla had helped form a Women's Reading Society, and, in 1882, women gained the right to take the examen artium, the series of final exams from the gymnasium that also serve as entrance exams to the university. After 1884, they could obtain university degrees. That was also the year the Women's Cause Association was formed, and Camilla Collett was made its first honorary member. Recognition for her work in securing women's rights began to replace the reputation for social and literary bohemianism that followed her even after King Charles XV of Sweden and Norway presented her with the gold medal Literibus et artibus in 1863.
The Cause gained further momentum when the Women's Suffrage Association was formed by Gina Krog in 1885. The first women's journal, Nylænde ("Newly Cleared Land"), was started in 1887, and in 1889 the old marriage vows dating from 1688, which declared that a wife should be subservient to her husband, were changed. In 1901, six years after Collett's death, Norwegian women won limited rights to vote in municipal elections (since 1884 the franchise had been extended to all men above 25 years of age and with a certain minimum income). Norwegian women obtained full suffrage in 1913.
Much of Camilla Collett's writing gives the impression that she considered herself born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Seen in historical perspective, however, she came along at a perfect time. Her life coincided with the eventful period in which the Norwegians redefined themselves as a nation after more than four centuries of Danish hegemony, and her struggle for women's rights not only paralleled, but in many ways helped shape the social and legal developments that enabled Norway to meet the 20th century as a modern European state.
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Amundsen, Leiv, ed. Camilla Collett, and P.J. Collett, Dagbøker og Breve (Diaries and Letters). 4 vols. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1926–33. Vol. 1: Optegnelser fra Ungdomsaarene (Youthful Memoranda); Vol. 2: Breve fra Ungdomsaarene (Letters from Youth); Vol. 3: Frigjørelsens Aar: Brevveksling med P.J. Collett og andre 1838-1839 (The Years of Liberation: Correspondence with P.J. Collett and Others 1838–39); Vol. 4: Før Brylluppet: Brevveksling med P.J. Collett og andre 1840–41 (Before the Wedding: Correspondence with P.J. Collett and Others 1840–41).
Collett, Camilla. Samlede Verker (Collected Works). 3 vols. Kristiania (Oslo) and Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel (Nordisk Forlag), 1912–13.
Kirsten A. Seaver , historian, novelist and translator, including Camilla Collett's The District Governor's Daughters (Norvik Press, 1992)