- Anne Charlotte Leffler and Modernist Drama: True Women and New Women on the Fin-de-Siècle Scandinavian Stage by Lynn R. Wilkinson
The question of what conditions the sexes and whether there is anything that can be called a “true woman” has long been the subject of philosophical speculations. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it caused a particularly intense debate, which was also reflected in the sphere of culture. The sound of Nora in Ibsen’s Ett dockhem (A Doll House) slamming the door shut after her echoed widely, and arguments were advanced for and against her actions. The play Sanna kvinnor (True Women), which premiered at Dramaten in 1883, is perhaps the best known of Anne Charlotte Leffler’s plays. It depicts the then current point of intersection between the [End Page 136] private sphere, where matrimonial love is economically conditioned, and the public sphere, where the law gives a married woman the right to dispose of her income and inheritance by herself. Like Ibsen and Strindberg, Leffler lets the middle-class family become the players who enact the social and cultural conflicts of her time. The play’s title, Sanna kvinnor, is deliberately ambiguous with its ironic twist and implicit question mark. In what way love, freedom, marriage and sexuality were to be balanced in the relation between the sexes was a question that recurred constantly in literature and drama, and Leffler’s writings were no exception. Leffler (1849–1892) was the first female playwright of importance in Sweden, and just like Strindberg and Ibsen, she is considered to be one of the Scandinavian founders of what came to be called the modern drama. In her lifetime, Leffler was more successful than Strindberg. She wrote plays but also short stories, reviews, essays, travel accounts, and two novels. Despite her success as a playwright, her dramatic works were forgotten. In literary histories, her plays have often been designated “dramas of indignation” and seen as too conditioned by their time to be of interest. That perspective, however, is beginning to change.
The book True Women and New Women on the Fin-de-Siècle Scandinavian Stage by Lynn R. Wilkinson is an example of recent research into the breakthrough to modern drama and to dramatic works written by women. The express purpose, here, is to do a more systematic analysis of Leffler’s dramatic works and put them into a wider context, in order to study how they may have contributed to create a role model for the New Woman of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. What was the relation between Leffler’s dramatic works and contemporary drama in Europe? And are there any points of contact with the first wave of feminism? And last but not least, how was her career as a successful dramatist made possible? In the book, a picture emerges of a talented, purposeful, well-travelled, and politically conscious writer, whose dramatic output is much too complex and interesting for it to be designated merely a document of its era’s debate over gender.
Wilkinson describes the conditions of Anne Charlotte Leffler’s upbringing that make her career as a writer possible as well as how her experiences as a woman in a middle-class family nourished the political discussion about the role of women that Leffler wanted to conduct. Wilkinson points to the fact that, in all of Leffler’s plays, there is a female character who wishes for a different life from that of wife or fiancée. These are women who want to shape their lives according to their talents and interests, and love, as well, must rest on an equal basis if it is to be true. Leffler’s travels abroad widened her political perspective, something that is reflected in her depiction of the connection between class and gender. Leffler was the youngest of four children, and the only daughter. The family was affluent, [End Page 137] and Leffler...