Friday, November 21, 2008

Lagerlöf and Speare

Coincidentally, two writers with anniversaries this week wrote semi-fictional diaries of childhood, but neither were actually diarists. In her final published work, Sweden’s Selma Lagerlöf, the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature, fictionalised her own childhood; while Elizabeth George Speare, born almost exactly 50 years after Lagerlof, was inspired by the real diary of a woman captured by American indians for her first historical children’s novel.

Selma Lagerlöf was born 150 years ago, on 20 November 1958, in Värmland, Sweden, and brought up at Mårbacka, the family estate. In 1881, she moved to Stockholm and studied at a teachers’ college, before, in 1885, taking a position at a school in Landskrona. In 1890, a Swedish weekly magazine awarded her first prize in a literary competition, and the following year, her first book was published. By 1895, she was receiving sufficient financial support from the royal family and the Swedish Academy to forgo teaching and concentrate on writing. In 1909, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the first Swedish person to be so honoured, and the first woman. With the prize money, she bought back Mårbacka which had been sold on the death of her father.

More information about Lagerlöf can be found at Wikipedia, Nobel Prize website or The Diary Junction. Although she was not a diarist as such, one of the last books she wrote (if not the last) was called The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf. Originally published in 1932, it was translated into English in 1936. But it was not, in truth, a diary she wrote as a child, rather a fictionalised recreation of such a diary. Helena Forsås-Scott, writing in Swedish Women’s Writing, 1850-1995 (viewable on Googlebooks) claimed Lagerlöf’s ‘depiction of some months in the life of a 14-year old girl suffering from a hip complaint is so convincing that many readers assumed it to be based on an existing diary’. And other references to the book say she ‘recalled her childhood with subtle artistry’.

However, Lagerlöf also wrote two other books about her childhood, sometimes referred to as the Mårbacka trilogy, Memories of My Childhood and Memories of Mårbacka. A few pages of this latter can viewed on Amazon, where there are also several glowing reviews of the book. It does also include extracts from a real diary Lagerlöf wrote as a child for a few weeks while in Stockholm (and presumably the source material for the third book in the trilogy, The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf).

By coincidence, another writer, this one American and born 100 years ago today, on 21 November 1908 - Elizabeth George - wrote a fictional childhood diary. She was brought up in Melrose, Massachusetts, but moved to Connecticut after marrying Alden Speare. They had two children, and it was only once they were at school that Elizabeth began writing books seriously. Thereafter, she won numerous awards for her fiction, and has been cited as one of America’s 100 most popular children’s authors, much of her work being mandatory reading in schools. She died in 1994.

Her very first novel, though, published in 1958 was Calico Captive. Wikipedia has a separate entry for this book which says it was inspired by the true story of Susanna Willard Johnson (1730-1810) who, along with her family and younger sister, were kidnapped in an Abenakis Indian raid on Charlestown, New Hampshire in 1754. The main events in the story, which occurred on the brink of the French and Indian War, and which are told through the eyes of Miriam, Johnson’s younger sister, were taken from Johnson’s narrative diary A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs Johnson, first published in 1796. The original of this book can be viewed at Early Canadiana Online.

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