Tag Archives: Marie Wells

Writing Norwegian Literary Histories. The Marie Wells Collection in the Bodleian Libraries

By Marie Martine, on behalf of the TORCH critical thinking community for Scandinavian Studies (in collaboration with Leif Bjarne Hammer and Sarah Fengler)

A Transformative Donation

exhibition posterIn 2023, the Taylor Institution received a generous donation from Dr Marie Wells, comprising a substantial selection of Norwegian books (along with some Danish titles), significantly enriching the institution’s collection. As part of our TORCH critical thinking community for Scandinavian Studies, we organised this exhibition ‘Writing Norwegian Literary Histories’ to showcase the best holdings of this recent acquisition.

This donation will undoubtedly support the work of current and future scholars in Scandinavian Studies, including the work of Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, expert in Ibsen’s theatre and Professor Dan Grimley, expert in Scandinavian music and the Head of Oxford’s Humanities Division. Numerous DPhil students currently research Scandinavian cultural history, among them the four co-convenors of the TORCH critical thinking community: Leif Bjarne (History) who analyses in his thesis eighteenth-century university culture in Oxford and Copenhagen; Marie Martine (MML) who researches women’s writing at the end of the nineteenth century, including the Norwegian feminist writer, Amalie Skram;  Sarah Fengler (MML) whose thesis in German and Norwegian literature explores European Old Testament tragedies in the Age of Enlightenment; and Tzen Sam (English) who uncovers in her research Ibsen’s women translators into English. We sincerely hope that this donation and this exhibition will encourage an even more active engagement with Scandinavian Studies at the University of Oxford.

Plural Literary Histories

The exhibition title ‘Writing Norwegian Literary Histories’ not only refers to the various literature histories included in the collection, but also pays homage to the diverse range of voices, styles, and genres that characterises modern Norwegian literature.

The exhibition starts from the 1800s which marks Norway’s entry into the European cultural scene and its trajectory towards modernity. It thus does not include Old Norse texts, considered as part of a wider pan-Scandinavian literary tradition. It also does not delve into the fascinating evolution of Norwegian literature from Christian writing, the baroque, classicism and enlightenment eras. Instead, the exhibition starts from the date 1814, when Norway gained its independence from Denmark and entered a political union with Sweden. From this pivotal cultural and political moment, Norwegian authors and intellectuals concentrated their efforts to carve out a distinctly ‘Norwegian’ identity, through language, literature, and culture. It is also at that time that Norwegian became distinct from Danish, by creating two written languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk. Concurrently, many writers gained critical acclaim abroad, notably through their creative appropriation of European literary movements, ranging from Realism to Modernism.  The authors featured in this exhibition showcase a diverse spectrum of writing styles, spanning from Norway’s quest for independence to the present day.

Norwegian Realism

As Norway achieved political and cultural independence, it emerged onto the European cultural stage, engaging with and contributing to its literary trends. While Norwegian authors at the beginning of the nineteenth century embraced national romanticism to convey Norwegian identity and rediscover folktales, starting in the 1850s, many shifted their focus towards realism.

The transition from a romantic style to a realistic one is evident in the trajectory of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s career (1832-1910). He started his literary journey with Synnøve Solbakken (1857), which aligns with the ideals of national romanticism, but then took on a realistic approach in his prose. His dramas and novels provide a critical examination of Norwegian society in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Bjørnson is also celebrated for his poetry, particularly ‘Ja, vi elsker dette landet’ (Yes, we love this country), which became the Norwegian national anthem, set to music by his cousin, Rikard Nordraak.

The first Norwegian novel adopting a realistic style is Camilla Collett’s (1813-1895) Amtmandens Døtre (The District Governor’s Daughters, 1855-6) which tells the story of Sophie Ramm who is prevented from marrying the man she loves by the social conventions of the time. This novel set a precedent for the realistic representation of life typical of that period. While many women authors featured in this exhibition have only recently been rediscovered by scholars, their success during their lifetime was significant. An author like Collett had a great influence, setting a precedent for the realistic representation of life typical of that period.

Women’s Voices

photo of Amalie Skram

Ovesen, R., Portrett av Amalie Skram, Nasjonalbiblioteket Oslo (1877)

Another major woman author within the Norwegian literary tradition is Amalie Skram (1846-1905). Born in Bergen, she moved to Denmark in 1884 when she married the Danish author, Erik Skram. She was an influential member of the Danish literary circles and at the end of her life she declared that she was a ‘Danish writer’ because she found her country of adoption more accepting of her writing than Norway. Nevertheless, Skram’s works focus on Norwegian society. Her saga Hellemyrsfolket (The People of Hellemyr, 1887-1898) is considered a masterpiece of the naturalist canon. Feminist scholars have recently refocused attention on what they term Skram’s ‘marriage novels’, depicting unhappy marriages, ruined by double standards and women’s lack of freedom.

In Skram’s footsteps, we find Cora Sandel, pseudonym of Sara Fabricius (1880-1974), painter and writer who grew up in Tromsø. Sandel tried to pursue a career as a painter while living in Paris between 1908 and 1911, where she was also active as a journalist, before moving to Sweden and becoming an author. In her most famous work, the Alberte trilogy (composed of Alberta and Jacob, Alberta and Freedom, and Alberta Alone, 1962-1965), she describes the trajectory of Alberte, who grows up in Norway and later comes to Paris, a journey which draws on Sandel’s own life. The trilogy offers a poignant portrayal of a woman grappling with finding her voice in a patriarchal society, emerging as a writer—a powerful symbol of emancipation.

A prominent figure in 20th-century Norway, Torborg Nedreaas (1906-1987) was a communist and feminist and played a pivotal role in shaping Norway’s post-war literary landscape. Her debut novel, Av måneskinn gror det ingenting (Nothing Grows by Moonlight, 1947), fearlessly confronts the topic of abortion and women’s reproductive rights at a time when abortion was still punishable by imprisonment in Norway. Following a similar narrative trajectory as Sandel, Nedreaas’ ‘Herdis trilogy’ (1950-1971) chronicles the journey of its heroine from childhood to womanhood.

Modern Norway’s most famous feminist writer is Gerd Brantenberg (born in 1941) who earned critical acclaim with her novel Egalias døtre (1977) which was translated into English as Egalia’s daughters. In this utopia (which reveals itself to be a dystopia), Brantenberg imagines a society where women hold power over men, a gender hierarchy justified by men’s inability to bear children. It is a difficult novel to translate as Brantenberg highlights how language is gendered by making everything feminine: the hero, Petronius, indeed dreams of becoming a ‘seawoman’, a job forbidden to him as a man. Because it inverses gender norms to better unveil women’s oppression, this novel quickly became a classic of feminist literature.

Norwegian Literature and Politics


Krohg, Christian, Albertine i politilægens venteværelse, oil on canvas, Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo (1887)

Norwegian literature counts numerous other politically engaged authors. An author who made history was the realist painter and novelist, Christian Krohg (1852-1925). His novel Albertine (1886) was forbidden as soon as it came out. It portrays the fall of a young seamstress into prostitution and her abuse at the hands of a patriarchal system supported by doctors and the police. One of Krohg’s best-known paintings depicts a scene from the novel in which Albertine goes to the police station to undergo a medical examination. This novel and Krohg’s painting sparked wider debate on prostitution in Scandinavia, culminating in the abolition of public prostitution in 1887.

Jens Bjørneboe (1920-1976), was a renowned poet, playwright, and novelist. He is also celebrated for his radical political views, notably expressed in his polemical essays. His novel Jonas (1955) presents a harsh critique of the public school system and 1950s Norwegian society and is considered one of the most significant Norwegian literary works of the post-war era. In Under en hårdere himmel (Under a Harsher Sky, 1957), Bjørneboe describes his contemporary society and criticises its practice of imposing death penalties with retroactive effect, leading to intense debates upon its publication.

A Country of Prize-Winners

Norwegian literary history also features a lineage of Nobel Prize laureates in literature.

The first Norwegian laureate was Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson who was awarded the third Nobel prize in literature in 1903 for his poetry, although he is now mostly remembered for his realist prose.

Knut Hamsun won the prize in 1920 for his monumental novel, Growth of the Soil (1917), set in rural Norway. This neorealist novel uses the stream of consciousness technique to convey the characters’ inner lives and criticises modernity, advocating for a return to nature. Hamsun’s most renowned novel today is arguably Sult (Hunger, 1890), chronicling the wanderings of a failed artist through the streets of Kristiania (the former name of Oslo), tormented by hunger. Hamsun’s legacy is however tarnished by his support for the Nazi regime towards the end of his life, sparking debates among scholars regarding the influence of his political beliefs on his literary works.

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1928, principally for her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter (published between 1920 and 1922) which chronicles the experiences of Kristin in medieval Norway. While Undset’s fictional works may be set in the Nordic Middle Ages or in contemporary Norway, they consistently centre around women.  Beyond her literary writing, Undset actively participated in the public debate on women’s emancipation.

The latest Nobel Prize winner in literature is Jon Fosse (born 1959), honoured with the prestigious award in 2023. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Fosse tells how he was overcome by fear when asked by his teachers to read aloud and how writing became a way to reclaim a voice: ‘In a way it was as if the fear took my language from me, and that I had to take it back, so to speak. And if I were to do that, it couldn’t be on other people’s terms, but on my own. I started to write my own texts, short poems, short stories. And I discovered that doing so, gave me a sense of safety, gave me the opposite of fear. In a way I found a place inside myself that was just mine, and from that place I could write what was just mine’. Language and the struggle to articulate one’s emotions and perspectives through it are central themes in Fosse’s plays and prose.

Nynorsk Voices

Fosse’s writing also exemplifies another significant facet of Norwegian literature through his use of Nynorsk, a written Norwegian variant that emerged in the nineteenth century.

Norwegian indeed counts a high number of dialects which follow either one of the two written variants: Bokmål (literally: ‘the language of the book’) and Nynorsk (‘New Norwegian’). In the nineteenth century, the political and cultural elite used Danish for both oral and written communication, but Norwegian dialects were spoken by around 95% of the population. After declaring its independence from Danish rule in 1814, Norwegian intellectuals sought to build a unique and unified Norwegian culture and language. There were three central positions defended by nationalists: keep speaking and writing in Danish (a solution which was ultimately rejected), developing a new written language based on Norwegian dialects, or ‘norwegianise’ Danish.

Knud Knudsen (1812-1895), a grammarian, had the goal of altering Danish orthography until it reflected the informal speech of the educated classes in Norway. It was established as a norm (Bokmål) with a spelling reform in 1907. Bokmål is used as a written form by 85% to 90% of the Norwegian population, but the spoken dialects can differ greatly.

Ivar Aasen (1813-1896) was a linguist and poet from rural Norway. Drawing from rural dialects in the western and central regions of southern Norway, he pioneered the language standard known as Landsmål, culminating in the publication of a grammar book in 1848. It was renamed Nynorsk in 1929.

A pioneer of adopting Nynorsk as a literary language was Arne Garborg (1851-1924). His literary and journalistic works provided an example for Nynorsk authors after him. His enthusiasm for and defence of rural dialects led to the official recognition of Landsmål (later Nynorsk) in 1885, even though his work was dismissed by some of his contemporaries. Garborg even translated The Odyssey into Nynorsk.

In the same vein, Olav H. Hauge (1908-1994) was a Nynorsk poet and translator. In 2016, his poem ‘Det er den draumen’ (‘It is that dream’, 1966), was chosen as the best Norwegian poem of all time by the national TV channel NRK. Hauge is praised for the expression of deep human concerns in his poetry, as well as his descriptions of nature, often in concrete language and in humorous ways.

A major figure of Norwegian modernism and Nynorsk is Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970). His 1957 novel Fuglane (The Birds), written in Nynorsk, tells the story of Mattis, who has a cognitive disability and lives with his sister in rural Norway. Vesaas described this novel as a self-portrait, a description of an artist longing to attain the ineffable as symbolised by the language of birds. He is also known for his symbolic novel Is-slottet from 1963 (The Ice Palace), and today he lends his name to a high-profile literary award for debutants.

Despite Bokmål being the majority written language, Nynorsk can pride itself of having a long and exceptional literary history.

Henrik Ibsen

portrait of Ibsen

Peterssen, Eilif, Henrik Ibsen, oil on canvas, Private collection, Oslo (1895)

Among all these extraordinary books (and this article has not even brushed on the collection’s holdings of the works by great authors like Alexander Kielland, Jonas Lie, Liv Køltzow, Aksel Sandemose, Tove Nilsen etc.), the Taylorian now holds many works by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). Ibsen is indisputably Norway’s most renowned playwright, appreciated for his nuanced character portrayals, often giving female protagonists the central role within his work. His play Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House, 1879) scandalised European audiences by foregrounding the perspective of Nora, a young housewife, who leaves her husband and children when she realises that her marriage stilted her self-discovery.

In the exhibition, we made a deliberate choice not to place Ibsen at the centre, despite his renown. Instead, we aimed to present him alongside a diverse array of authors and networks that collectively define Norwegian literature. Ibsen, while undoubtedly significant, is just one captivating facet of the multifaceted and distinctive Norwegian literary heritage.

‘Writing Norwegian Literary Histories’ is an exploration of Norwegian literature, its linguistic richness, diverse voices, and varied thematic explorations. This exhibition represents only a part of the Marie Wells Collection and we do hope it will encourage students and readers to further explore Scandinavian literatures and histories.

With many thanks to Nick Hearn (Subject Librarian for French) and Emma Huber (Subject Librarian for German), the Taylor Institution Library, and TORCH for their support.

More information on the TORCH Critical-Thinking Community for Scandinavian Studies here: https://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/scandinavian-studies-network