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The Place of the Nation in Camilla Collett’s Amtmandens Døttre

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 431-454 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0039

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The year 2013 marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Camilla Collett. At this juncture, it is safe to say that her position in the Norwegian canon is secure, but there is still much that remains unexplored in her writing, even—as the following analysis will demonstrate—in her most widely known work, the novel Amtmandens Døttre (1855; The District Governor’s Daughters). Much of the scholarship dedicated to Amtmandens Døttre has focused on the symbolic locus of Sophie Ramm’s grotto—the cave to which the young protagonist retreats as she attempts to define her identity as a woman in an oppressively patriarchal society. Major studies of the novel have treated the grotto as a key to explaining the text, yet the fact remains that there are other symbolically productive loci in this complex novel, and that a reading that focuses on these places brings to light entirely different concerns than the feminist struggle to find a voice that has almost universally been accepted as the singular message of the text.1 Without at all undermining the centrality and urgency of Collett’s feminist critique, in this analysis I propose that Amtmandens Døttre is also, in important and ambivalent ways, a novel concerned with national identity. My evidence for considering Amtmandens Døttre to be a national novel springs from a reading of three specific loci in the topography of the novel, namely the Ramm family’s seter (shieling or summer dairy), the hytte (cabin or cottage) belonging to fisherman Anders, and Pastor Rein’s prestegård (vicarage), which becomes Sophie’s home at the end of the novel. In the book Topographies from 1995, J. Hillis Miller argues that, contrary to popular belief, the actions that take place in novels “are not so much placed against the background of a scene as generated by it” (Miller 1995, 18). He argues further that “[n]o account of a novel would be complete without a careful interpretation of the function of landscape (or cityscape) within it” (Miller 1995, 16). Miller’s study has paved the way for topographical readings of literary texts, such as the one I undertake here.

In the opening of Amtmandens Døttre, the narrative perspective lies with Georg Cold. While at first it appears that Collett presents her readers with an urbanite’s first meeting with the countryside, we later learn that Cold has a rural origin, as the only son of a wealthy mine owner (Collett 1855, Vol. 1, 41–2). Liv Bliksrud claims: “Amtmandens Døttre åpner med en lansering av et av romanens hovedmotiver, nemlig reisen” (Bliksrud 1993, 85; emphasis in the original) [The District Governor’s Daughters opens with a presentation of one of the novel’s main motifs, namely the journey]. In my reading of the novel, it is not the journey in itself that is a key motif, but rather it is the notion of what Edward S. Casey calls “re-implacement”—the establishment of a place of belonging at the end of a displacing journey (Casey 1993, 291). The search for a place in which one might authentically belong lies at the heart of the novel, and—metaphorically at least—parallels Collett’s critique of patriarchal disregard for women’s emotional needs because “re-implacement” for Sophie is inextricably linked to marriage.

After a brief overview of theories of the “national” novel, I will give an explication of these three places that demonstrates their semiotic power in relation to broader nineteenth-century Norwegian discourses on national identity construction. I will argue that the seter, the cabin, and the vicarage are every bit as pregnant with meaning as Sophie’s grotto, but that modern readers have tended to take such loci at face value only, and have thus unintentionally erased an important discourse level from the novel.

The National Romance

Camilla Collett’s Amtmandens Døttre is the first major novel by a Norwegian author, and it holds a special place in the Norwegian canon, both because of its high quality and because of the social criticism that it raises. It has been understood almost exclusively as a novel that critiques gender relations and the...



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