Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Enjoy thy existence

‘Another day, another revolution of light and shade. Enjoy thy existence, sayest thou, holy dawn of morning, animating glance of love, beam of God! Thou wakest me once more from my darkness, givest me a day, a new existence, a little life.’ So begins a short diary kept by the Swedish writer and feminist reformer Fredrika Bremer, born 220 years ago today.  Although this diary and some entries from a childhood diary have been translated and published in English, most of Bremer’s autobiographical writing was published in the form of letters and travelogues.

Bremer was born on 17 August 1801 near Åbo, Sweden (now Turku, Finland), the second daughter of five children in a well-off family. Aged three, the family moved to Stockholm where they purchased Årsta Castle, some 20 miles from the capital, as a place to spend the summers. Along with her sisters, she was tutored privately, taught to cook and manage a house, and enjoyed family journeys in Europe. A gifted linguist and talented miniaturist she was also considered an awkward and rebellious child. Biographies note, for example, that she struggled with her constricted, secluded existence, and that diary entries from 1822 to 1823 reveal her impatience: ‘How stagnant, like a muddy pool, is time to youth dragging on a dull and inactive life . . . I am only twenty-two, and yet I am often tired of the world and wish I were taken from it. But then, we do lead a very dull life.’

Bremer found some fulfilment in charity work around the castle estate; and she took up writing - her work being published anonymously - to raise funds to help the cottagers. Eventually, however, once her writing had become popular, she revealed her identity, and she won an award from the Swedish Academy. Her father died in 1830, and thereafter she felt less constrained by family mores. She went to live with a friend - Countess Stina Sommerheilm - in Norway for some years. She wrote and published several novels - her 1837 masterpiece, The Neighbors, being inspired by the countess’s tales of an elderly relative. Partly thanks to translations by Mary Howitt, the novels brought her international fame. In 1849, she travelled to America, touring the Atlantic Coast and Deep South, intent on studying the social and political conditions as they applied to women. She met many eminent American writers, and letters she wrote at length to her younger sister were later published.   

Following her return to Sweden, Bremer co-founded the Stockholm Women’s Society for Children’s Care, to assist the orphans left by a cholera outbreak in 1853, and the Women’s Society for the Betterment of Prisoners to provide moral guidance and rehabilitation of female inmates. In mid-1854, the London Times published her “Invitation to a Peace Alliance” alongside an editorial rebuke of its pacifist appeal to Christian women. In the latter years of her life, she continued to make appeals to society for money to benefit various charitable institutions. She lived to see Sweden pass a law that unmarried women could attain their majority at 25 years of age, and she experienced the introduction in Stockholm of a seminary for the education of female teachers. From 1856, she spent five years on the Continent and in Palestine, thereafter publishing an account of her travels in several volumes. She died in late 1865. Further information is available from the Fredrika Bremer website, Wikipedia and Enyclopedia.com

Bremer seems to have kept a diary during different periods of her life. Some early diary entries can be found in Life, Letters, and Posthumous Works of Fredrika Bremer, edited by her sister, Charlotte Bremer - available online at Internet Archive. But a more substantial diary written later in her life -  during an unidentified year in fact - is contained in A Diary, The H___ Family, Axel and Anna, and Other Tales as translated by Howitt (also available at Internet Archive). The style is quite chatty; many of the entries are pages long and include long passages of dialogue. The following extracts are from the fourth edition published by George Bell & Sons in 1892. 

1 November 18__
‘Another day, another revolution of light and shade. Enjoy thy existence, sayest thou, holy dawn of morning, animating glance of love, beam of God! Thou wakest me once more from my darkness, givest me a day, a new existence, a little life. Thou lookest upon me in this light and sayest, follow the moments! They scatter in their flight, light and flowers; they conceal themselves in clouds, but only to shine forth again all the lovelier; follow them, and let not the shade find thee before thou hast begun to live!

Thus thought I with a great, home-departed spirit, as in the dawn of morning I awoke and saw the beam of daylight penetrating into my chamber, and involuntarily stretched forth my arms to meet it. It was neither bright nor cheerful ; it was the misty beam of a November day, but still light from the light which brightened my life’s-day, and I greeted it with love. . .’

14 December 18__
‘We have passed some weeks in visiting the collections of works of art, academies, and various other public institutions of the capital. To many of these I shall often again return, for many of them have had great interest for me. And wherein indeed lies the worth of a solid education, if it does not enable us to understand and value every species of useful human activity, and open our eyes to life in all its affluence. It offers us also an extended life. I remarked too with pleasure, how willingly scientific men turn themselves to those in whom they perceive a real interest, and where they feel that they are understood.

Lennartson, who was our conductor in these visits, by his own great knowledge and by the art of inducing others to unfold theirs, increased our pleasure in the highest degree. And how highly esteemed and valued is he by all. Flora listened attentively to him, but seldom to any one else, and betrayed quite too great a desire to shine herself. Selma belongs to those who say little themselves, but who understand much, and conceal much in their hearts. Lennartson and I listen attentively to all her remarks. They always contain something exciting, and often something suggestive. She has a beautiful and pure judgment. A good head, together with a good heart, is a glorious thing in a human being.

Now it is necessary to sit still; to be industrious, and to finish Christmas knick-knacks in ten days. It is not my affair.’

1 January 18__
‘A bouquet of fresh flowers, and a cordial hand-pressure from the Viking - is the glad impression which I have derived from the forenoon visits.

In the Evening. Ready-dressed for the Exchange Ball, in black, with lace; pearls in my hair, on my neck and arms.

Be quiet, Selma, dear! Thou shouldst not make me vain! Thou shouldst not mislead thy elder sister.

Flora goes with “the Beauty” to the Exchange, and makes her toilet with her. I am not in good spirits, and I fancy that I shall have no pleasure. But still, however, a quiet observer need not experience any annoyance, when she herself will not play any part. It is now more than ten years since I saw the world in a New-Year’s Assembly in Stockholm. How will it now appear to me? “Allons et voyons!” ’

11 January 18__
‘St. Orme comes hither sometimes early in the morning, and desires to speak alone with my stepmother. She always looks disturbed at this; and when she returns from these conferences, she is always annoyed and uneasy till some new impression removes this. I suspect that their private conversations have reference to money which St. Orme borrows. May the good-nature of my stepmother not bring her into embarrassment. I have heard that which is bad spoken of St. Orme’s affairs, of his life and connexions. Felix also may be misled by St. Orme’s sophisms, and by the example of his friends, the Rutschenfelts, into evil ways. I have spoken with Brenner of my suspicions respecting St. Orme; but the Viking takes the field for him, and is, since his residence in Paris, under obligations to him, which makes him unwilling to believe anything bad of him.’

13 January 18__
‘My bad suspicions have their entirely good, or I will say, bad foundation. Hellfrid Eittersvärd wrote a note to Selma this morning, wherein she asked a loan of fifty rix-dollars. She needed this sum to pay the pension of her youngest brother, and would be able to repay it in two months. With eyes flashing with desire to gratify Hellfrid’s wish, Selma showed the letter to her mother, and prayed her to advance the desired sum, which she had not now herself.

“With infinite pleasure, my beloved child!” exclaimed my stepmother, who is always ready to give; hastened to her writing-desk, and opened the drawer where she usually keeps money; but suddenly she appeared to recollect something, and turned pale. She took out a purse, which a few days before was full of heavy silver-pieces, put in her hand instinctively, but drew out merely a few rix-dollars. A painful confusion painted itself on her countenance, as she said, almost stammering, “Ah! I have not - I cannot now! St. Orme has borrowed all my money. He promised to bring it me back again in a few days, but - in the mean time - how shall we manage it?”

My stepmother had tears in her eyes; and her troubled appearance, her pale cheeks - I sprang immediately up to my chamber, and came down again quickly with a few canary-birds (so my stepmother and Selma, in their merry way, call the large yellow bank-bills; whilst the others, just according to their look and their value, have the names of other birds).

Selma embraced me, and danced for joy at the sight of the yellow notes. But my stepmother took them with a kind of embarrassment - a dissatisfied condescension, which somewhat grieved me. She promised that I should soon receive back the bills. And if I “must borrow from her, I might be sure that,” and so on.

Her coldness cooled me. In the mean time we governed the state together in the afternoon, and handled “the system,” and other important things, I will not venture to say exactly according to what system if not — according to the system of confusion. My thoughts were in another direction. They followed Felix and Selma. He seemed to wish to speak to her alone, and she seemed on the contrary to wish to avoid him, in which also she succeeded.’

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