Skram, Amalie (1846–1905)
Skram, Amalie (1846–1905)
Norwegian author who is regarded as one of the leading Nordic naturalist writers of her time. Name variations: Bertha Skram. Born Bertha Amalie Alver in Bergen, Norway, in 1846; died in Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 13, 1905; eldest of five surviving children of Mons Monsen Alver and Ingeborg Lovise (Sivertsen) Alver (descendants of farmers and laborers); married Bernt Ulrik August Müller (a ship's captain), in 1864 (divorced 1882); married Erik Skram (a Danish writer), on April 3, 1884 (separated 1890, divorced 1900); children: (first marriage) two sons, Jakob and Ludvig; (second marriage) one daughter, Johanne Skram.
Published first story (1882), which was followed by her breakthrough as a writer of novels (1885); married Erik Skram, who brought her to Copenhagen (1884); remained in Copenhagen the last five years of her life (1900–05).
"Madam Höiers Leiefolk" ("Mrs. Höier's Renters," 1882); Constance Ring (1885); "Karens Jul" ("Karen's Christmas," 1885); Bön og anfägtelse (Prayer and Temptation, 1885); Knut Tandberg (1886); Hellemyrsfolket (tr. The People of Hellemyr, 1887–98); Lucie (1888); Fjäldmennesker (Mountain People, 1889); Bornefortallinger (children's stories, 1890); "In Asiam profectus est" (1890); Fru Ines (Mrs. Ines, 1891); Forraadt (tr. Betrayed, 1892); Agnete (1893); Professor Hieronimus (1895); Paa Sct. Jörgen (At Saint Jorgen's Hospital, 1895); Sommer (Summer, 1899); Julehelg (Christmas Celebration, 1900); Mennesker (People, 1902–05); "Ruskvejr" ("Rough Weather," 1979).
Amalie Skram, born Bertha Amalie Alver in 1846 in Bergen, Norway, grew up in a family of nine children; her mother Ingeborg Sivertsen Alver had had all nine in the course of thirteen years. Only five of them, Amalie and four younger brothers, grew to adulthood, and her mother survived them all. Amalie was an unusually bright and pretty child who blossomed into a woman of surpassing beauty. At school, she was well liked and admired for her scholastic ability as well as for her lovely brown eyes and shining braids, long enough to form a cushion where she sat. With her Spanish looks went a hot, impulsive temper and considerable mood swings.
School was the place where Amalie could be most herself. At home, her mother's strict Lutheran views and constant demands for her daughter's domestic services tied her to the trivialities of everyday cares and petty concerns. Occasionally, she would rebel and, instead of going home after school, follow in the wake of alcoholics and street people as they wandered through the slums of Bergen. Skram would arrive home late to cold food and scoldings, but she would forget about those the next time she felt herself irresistibly drawn to watch and observe the most abject population of her hometown.
Because of her gender, Amalie was barred from entering the city's high school, but the girls' school from which she graduated furnished her with a reasonably good basic education, especially in languages. Skram had finished her schooling when her father Mons Monsen Alver went bankrupt due to unsuccessful speculations in shipping and herring. Having lost the grocery story with which he had supported his family, he subsequently emigrated to America, leaving his wife and children in near poverty. Skram's biographers have theorized that her subsequent engagement to a ship's captain, Bernt Ulrik August Müller, ten years her senior, was engineered by her mother as a means of getting her daughter financially settled. It is a fact that the new bride
was entirely ignorant of the matrimonial duties owed her spouse, and she faulted her mother for having neither offered advice nor invited questions in the matter of wifely responsibilities. As the skipper's mate, Amalie was expected to accompany her husband on his voyages to Mexico, the West Indies, South America, and Australia, and somewhat to her surprise, she found life on a sailing ship much to her liking. It suited her high spirits and energetic pursuit of knowledge, and soon her husband would brag that she was as good a seafarer as any. As a wife in the captain's cabin, she experienced greater difficulties of adaptation. She had grown up in a divisive home and bore the imprint of her mother's pietistic teachings of sin and guilt. On their wedding night, she had found Müller's sexual advances disgusting, and she appears to have refused them on other occasions to the extent to which it was possible, given their confined space and the walls of listening ears.
Amalie Skram, on the reception of her novel Constance Ring">
Not a single kind or laudatory word, neither privately nor publicly, not one, not one. Only invectives and vulgarities.
—Amalie Skram, on the reception of her novel Constance Ring
After 12 years spent either in the captain's quarters or separated due to Amalie's pregnancies and the births of their two sons, Müller turned his back on the sea and bought a mill outside Bergen. For about a year, the couple, along with eight-year-old Jakob and ten-year-old Ludvig, lived a life of great diversity albeit little genuine happiness. The beautiful wife filled her life with parties and amateur theatricals, and wrote articles and literary reviews for Norwegian newspapers. Eventually, however, the increasingly strained relationship was brought to a crisis. Amalie suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed at the Gaustad asylum. Though she recovered after a couple of months, she refused to return to her husband. Instead, she demanded a separation and spent the next three years living with first one then another of her brothers. Her divorce was granted in 1882.
The sorrow and disappointment she had suffered in the breakdown of her marriage were to some extent mitigated by the feeling of liberation that accompanied her divorce. But with that came a certain bitterness at the realization that "the world will trample on a garden that has no surrounding fence." She possessed youth, beauty, and talent, but she was also a divorcée and a onetime patient at an asylum; in sum, she was an easy target for criticism. To avoid it, she isolated herself to the extent to which she could bear the boredom of the small provincial town of Fredrikshald. She cooked and kept house for her brother and her sons and wrote newspaper articles and reviews promoting contemporary psychological and naturalistic works. She especially commended such authors as Henrik Ibsen and the Danish I.P. Jakobsen who refused to write of the world as a better place than it is and instead faced the indignities of humanity. In her opinion, they were the true agents of progress. "It is a writer's task to raise the consciousness of his readers," she noted. "It is his responsibility to break away from old patterns of thinking and behavior and thereby lay the groundwork for a better society." She endorsed Ibsen's observations that women's inferior condition in society was caused by deficiencies in their upbringing, by husbands treating their wives as things or servants, and by women's toleration of those inequities.
Skram's outspokenness and general boldness added to her unconventional social position; it also put a severe strain on her relationship with her conservative and puritanical brother, who as an inhabitant of a small provincial town had an image to uphold. It was therefore a relief to both of them when Amalie and her two sons left Fredrikshald in the summer of 1881 to move in with her brother Wilhelm Alver who was a school principal in Kristiania (Oslo). Here, she breathed more freely, sharing the air with artists and scientists and exchanging ideas with writers, painters, and women who fought for emancipation. Here, too, however, her impulsive nature and beautiful eyes invited slander, gossip, and even a caricature in a story titled "Modern Ladies." Critics of the literary left were divided in their attack or support of the piece, and Amalie felt deeply betrayed by the latter. Pressing financial concerns were added to her troubles when her brother died in 1883 and left her without means for subsistence.
A year earlier, she had met the Danish writer and journalist Erik Skram at an anniversary celebration for the great Norwegian poet Björnstjerne Björnson, Amalie's friend and mentor. Erik had fallen in love with the bright and lovely Norwegian writer and during the following year kept up an avid correspondence not only attesting to his love but initiating and encouraging discussions of literary, political, and moral issues. His courting won her heart, and they were married on April 3, 1884; from that time on, she considered herself Danish. As a writer for left-wing publications, Erik made little money, but he was a first-rate journalist and, according to his memoirs, content to give up his own novel writing to function as inspiration and mentor to his wife's greater talents. He became an unbending taskmaster, demanding total honesty and seriousness in everything she wrote based on his conviction that those were the qualities that would distinguish her work. He was able to furnish significant suggestions pertaining to style and taste as well. Amalie Skram's strength lay in her precise reproduction of the pungent, earthy speech of the laborers and farmers in the country around Bergen, but occasionally she would exceed the boundaries of decorum and good taste.
Erik Skram became an invaluable guide for his wife's literary career. He encouraged her to move from sketches and short stories to longer works, and as a journalist he protected her from attacks by Norwegian critics, especially after her first novel had been returned from the publisher upon acquaintance with its contents. Erik also supplied her with a home where she could shine among their friends with her sparkling intellect and domestic grace and abilities.
Even so, Amalie Skram found it difficult to sustain a balance between the roles of artist and wife. This became further complicated with the birth of a daughter in the middle of writing her major work, the tetralogy The People from Hellemyr. To get the solitude she needed, she would have to leave home periodically, which in turn would make her feel guilty and vulnerable to the disapproval of society. She was close to a nervous breakdown when her husband joined her doctor's entreaties that she seek help from the prominent psychiatrist Knud Pontoppidan. She agreed to spend a week or two at his hospital (Saint George in Copenhagen) but once there found herself declared insane and detained against her will. Erik obeyed Pontoppidan's injunctions against visitors and did not attempt to see his wife, even after she managed to smuggle out a note imploring him to come. She was eventually transferred to a hospital for the incurably insane but released because the doctor in charge found no evidence of insanity. On her return to the world, she was in a state of mental and bodily exhaustion from which she never fully recovered. She nonetheless found the strength to write two volumes about her stay in the psychiatric ward (Professor Hieronimus and At Saint George), so scathing in their criticism of hospital conditions that Pontoppidan found it necessary to resign from his post as head physician. Skram refused to see her husband ever again, and they were divorced in 1900. The remaining five years of her life she spent in Copenhagen with her daughter Johanne Skram .
They were difficult years. Her health was precarious and her finances no less so. Monetary worries made concentrated writing arduous even after she was granted a writer's stipend from the Danish government. "The Danes recognized her power and her importance as an artist by granting her a stipend," writes Theodore Jorgenson. "From Norway she received nothing but the execrations of the horrified upholders of social canons. Her art, however, continued to be thoroughly Norwegian." Skram died on March 13, 1905. She felt she could no longer write and in her despair may have committed suicide; her daughter suggests as much. Skram had wanted a quiet funeral without benefit of either clergy or flowers. "Let the living receive flowers, but spare the dead," reads her last will and testament. "This outrageous luxury of huge amounts of flowers in the middle of winter, at exorbitant prices, thrown into the grave to rot for the benefit of none. Think of how many hungry children could eat their fill for that money." But Denmark wanted to honor its adopted daughter and staged an elaborate memorial service. The great hall in the Students' House in Copenhagen was transformed into a hall of sorrows with black draperies and masses of flowers and wreaths. Denmark's most prominent poets and composers wrote texts and music for the occasion, and many of her friends participated, as did many of Copenhagen's cultural elite. Now the words were spoken which she had longed to hear, about her brilliance and tender heart, about the progressive work she had done at the expense of personal happiness, about the flowers she had been given too late.
These men and women in the great hall rued their failure to understand and support Skram and her works. Later generations have shown greater appreciation of her skillful handling of points of view, her precise and bold descriptions, courageous choice of themes, and undaunted explorations of the human condition. It is not difficult, however, to understand the feelings of shock and dismay that Skram's works elicited, especially in her Norwegian contemporaries: she was a woman treating the subject matter of the French naturalists, a combination no one so far had dared to visit upon the pietistic, conservative, and provincial Norwegian society of the late 1800s.
Amalie Skram's first short story "Mrs. Höier's Renters" deals with the death of baby twins whose family has been evicted one cold November night. Their father, a laborer with a wooden leg, is a brutal drunkard, dreaded and feared by his wife who has borne eight children in six years, the twins only a couple of days prior to the eviction. One child begs, another steals, and two are lame. It is a tale of hunger, cold, dirt, misshapen limbs, brutality, alcoholism, and crime. The story ends the morning after the eviction. The mother has given the babies alcohol mixed with water; she herself has drunk it straight. The twins do not wake up the next morning, and when the mother does, she finds the police have arrived to take her to jail. She is condemned to three years of forced labor, given only the meager consolation that she "would have a roof over her head for the duration." The critics' allegation that Skram had read too much Emile Zola was ironic in that she had read none; the story, she maintained, was based entirely on an experience of her own. She wrote it to show the conditions of the destitute in Norway, as she herself had observed them as a child, and to demonstrate the failure of social institutions and individual charity.
In her ensuing four novels, Skram explores the relationship between husband and wife, a theme as controversial in Norway of the 1880s as that of social inequities. It was also the foremost literary issue of the time. Flaubert, Maupassant and Daudet in France, Tolstoy in Russia, and Ibsen and Björnson in Norway were writing novels, stories and plays about marriage, divorce and adultery. Constance Ring, which is based on Skram's experiences in her first marriage, denigrates the depravity characteristic of men's bachelorhood, marriage as an institution for the support of women, and the double standards of morality. The "new" element in the work is the treatment of the main character's unsatisfied emotional and sexual longings, the nature of which she herself does not understand. Constance is "cold" and remains cold. If she "had been given twenty men, they would all have played her false," Skram wrote. Constance's early difficulties, as she attempts to respond to her first husband's advances, are caused by her too-close attachment to her mother and her adherence to her mother's teachings connecting sex with shame and guilt. This and later novels precede Freud's thesis regarding the significance of a girl's relationship with her mother as it influences her relationship to sex and her attempts at self-realization. As a contribution to the general literary debate, the novel invited discussion of the necessity for changes in the way women were brought to consider their sexuality. They must be taught about their erotic drives and taught to be wives, one critic maintained. That, in turn, would make their husbands better men. Skram agreed, adding that she had discussed the topic of sexuality with numerous women and concluded that as far as erotic fulfillment went, women could be divided into two groups. One group, the happier, were the more sensual. They were progeny of women who for generations had accepted their sexual drives. They had no sexual problems, no matter whom they married. The other kind never experienced sexual fulfillment; they were the more numerous. "They are so embarrassed," Skram writes in a letter from 1885, "so sure that they are the exception, the abnormal ones, and they are so relieved, so happy when they hear that others feel the same way."
Yet Skram did not believe that inherited attitudes and upbringing alone resulted in frigidity. Some men, too, were to blame. Their general behavior and brutishness would necessarily have an adverse effect on women and make them resist their advances. With sexual fulfillment, she noted, a woman could change and in the process raise her husband above the level his bestial nature had destined him to sink.
Given those allegations, it is understandable that the publication of Constance Ring proved, as one critic put it, to be the "most laborious birth of any book in Norway." The editor of a major publishing house had accepted the novel for publication but rejected it after a first reading, finding its descriptions of marriage too extreme. Norwegian newspapers started a campaign against the book prior even to its publication by a small Kristiania press.
Skram's subsequent books about marital disharmony deal with problems experienced by both wives and husbands. Betrayed, for example, is not only the story of a sexually experienced man taking advantage of an inexperienced young woman. It dramatizes the mutual destruction of two people who have internalized the morality and rules of behavior of their contemporaries. Living is shown to be a painful activity for men as well as for women.
The series of marriage novels was interrupted by the first volume in Skram's major work The People of Hellemyr. It tells about four generations of farmers, their family ambitions, and their feelings of inferiority and decay. Demoralizing poverty, sickness and death exceed their physical, mental, and spiritual resources and they succumb to alcohol and despair. Again, the detailed descriptions of physical and spiritual poverty invited mostly censure, although some critics conceded that Amalie Skram was a good storyteller, albeit of the photographic type. One of the major Oslo newspapers did admit that the undisguised venom directed at Skram's book was directed as much against the prevailing fashion of literary Realism and Naturalism as practiced by Zola and Tolstoy. Skram's imitations, the conservative press asserted, account for the graphic details of, for example, a birth scene or a deathbed. The living conditions she described were beyond imagining by her critics. They did not recognize the farmers, laborers, and sailors of the first two volumes and refused to acknowledge the veracity of characterizations and settings, especially because they were created by a "lady." The fact that the individual situations Skram generated were unforgettable and true indicators of her talent added to their distress.
To her great sorrow, Skram could not finish the fourth volume, which she worked on during the last months of her life. That notwithstanding, the famous Danish critic Georg Brandes pronounced The People of Hellemyr the first great Norwegian novel, placing Skram among the foremost writers of her time. "It makes one watch," Brandes marveled, "not a woman's exquisite embroidery but the weaving of the three Nornes."
Bjerkelund, Ragni. Amalie Skram: Dansk Borger, Norsk Forfatter. Oslo: Aschehough, 1988.
Engelstad, Irene. Sammenbrudd og gjennombrudd. Oslo: Pax Forlag, 1984.
Jorgenson, Theodore. History of Norwegian Literature. NY: Macmillan, 1933.
Koltzow, Liv. Den unge Amalie Skram. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 1992.
Inga Wiehl , a native of Denmark, teaches at Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington