Scandinavian Sexual Morality Debate

A debate about sexual morality dominated the Scandinavian intelligentsia in the late 1880’s. One of the great writers of the time, and a recognized author of great stature in Scandinavia and in literary circles, was Victoria Benedictsson who lived a short life from 1850 to 1888, when she committed suicide. The morality debate raging in Scandinavia at the time inspired Benedictsson to write her class novel, Money.

A debate about sexual roles and sexual morality swept the Scandinavian intelligentsia in the 1880’s.  The debate was apparent in the literature of the age, and claimed one famed female writer in its wake.  The debate centered around the roles of men and women in society and in the home, and also focused on free love where the sexes were equal in both freedom and responsibility. 

 

Henrik Ibsen participated in this debate with his A Doll’s House, a play he published in 1879 about marital lies and unhappiness culminating in a married woman asserting her freedom from her overbearing husband who has treated her like a doll.  In 1884, August Strindberg wrote a volume of stories on marriages of every variety, several of which presented women in an egalitarian light for the era.  In 1885, Strindberg wrote a second volume of stories reflecting on other forms of marriage including lesbianism.  Publishers initially shunned the controversial work until Strindberg found a publisher to print the work in 1886.  Strindberg was later prosecuted for anti-religious writing for which the penalty was two years penal labor, but he was ultimately acquitted. 

 

One of the great writers of the time, and a recognized author of great stature in Scandinavia and in literary circles, was Victoria Benedictsson who lived a short life from 1850 to 1888, when she committed suicide.   The morality debate raging in Scandinavia at the time inspired Benedictsson to write her class novel, Money, about a woman who wanted to become an artist but accepted a middle class life and marriage instead.  Her fame grew with the publication of the novel, and during her frequent visits to Copenhagen, she met and fell in love with a leading European literary critic, Georg Brandes. 

 

Brandes was a mercurial, domineering critic and lover.  He was merciless in his criticism of Victoria’s second novel, and her fragile ego could not handle the anguish of Brandes’ reproach.  She took her own life in 1888, but not before completing a play entitled The Enchantment ostensibly based on her relationship with Brandes.  It is  not a great play like her first novel; she was a better novelist than playright, but the play touches on themes of basic human desires, a new emerging culture of sexual freedom, inability to hate and being so sensitive that death seemed the only choice in a hard and average world. 

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