By Verne Moberg
© 2000 by Verne Moberg
Swedes, especially women, love to tell the story of Victoria Benedictsson; it is like a legend. (Which kind depends upon who is telling it.) This is a short version.
She was born March 6, 1850 near southern Sweden's coast, and there her warring parents raised her each their own way: her mother "as a girl" and her father "as a boy." Growing up, she decided she wanted to become a painter and go to the art academy in Stockholm, but her father refused her permission, twice. In despair, she accepted the marriage proposal of one Christian Benedictsson, widower with five children and twenty-eight years her senior, the postmaster in a south Swedish village named Hörby. They married in 1871, and she devoted herself to being a good mother. She gave birth to two children of her own: in 1873 -- Hilma, whom she disliked, and in 1876 -- Ellen, who died after three weeks. Her favorite child was her stepdaughter, Matti Benedictsson (married af Geijerstam).
In 1881 she was confined to bed with a knee injury, and there she began keeping her journal, "Stora boken" (The Big Book). In the diary she started writing stories and then a novel about a woman who had wanted to become an artist and wound up as a bourgeois wife in a provincial marriage instead. It was called Pengar (Money), published in 1885, and won her a reputation as an up-and-coming novelist especially of interest to the new women's movement. One of its leaders invited her to Stockholm where she was initiated into Swedish literary circles.
After that, as her reputation spread through Scandinavia, she began visiting Copenhagen more often, and there she met and fell in love with the man considered Europe's top literary critic, Georg Brandes. She wanted to write a novel that would impress him, and her next, Fru Marianne (Madame Marianne), about a married woman who "makes her marriage happy, was designed to please him." It didn't: he thought it was a Dameroman (ladies' novel), and this -- according to one faction of the legendeers --practically killed her: she called it her "death sentence."
(Another school of biographical interpreters is not so sure, since she called many things her "death sentence," and it was certainly unrealistic of any woman writer to expect a review from Georg Brandes, since between the years of 1870 and 1890 he did not review a single work by a female author but had his brother review the ladies -- although he, Georg, did become known for his poignant "obituaries" of women authors. She must have noticed this.)
On July 21 of 1888, exactly twelve years after the death of her child Ellen (which she claimed had had absolutely no effect on her), she succeeded in what was, over the years, her third suicide attempt: she did it by slitting her carotid artery three times with a razor as she looked on in a hand mirror. (This mirror, for some critics, established her credentials as a "producer of consciousness." However, some readers say that she used the mirror for the same reason that men use it when they shave: to see where to put the razor.)
She is buried in the pauper's quarter of a large Copenhagen cemetery. Her slogan in life was Sanning och Arbete (Truth and Work). She was a Naturalist writer who produced short stories, novels, plays, and a major diary.
Many readers today outside Scandinavia have seen a dim reflection of Victoria Benedictsson in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and August Strindberg's Miss Julie -- which she inspired. But she also moved generations of Scandinavian readers through several waves of women's movements for more than a century. Her life seemed to hold out a women's history lesson, but as Ernst Ahlgren, the author's pen name and alter ego, observed: It is in her works we should seek out her true self.
A Chronology of Relevant Dates
For further information, call the Swedish Program at (212) 854-7859; fax (212) 854-5381; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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