- Other Mothers and the Limits of Bohemia in Alberte og friheten and Bare Alberte
In the urban metropolis some of the formative ambiguities of gender and class were managed and policed by the discourses on race, so that the iconography of imperialism entered white middle- and upper-middle-class identity with fundamental, if contradictory, force.—Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather2
In Cora Sandel's trilogy, protagonist Alberte Selmer struggles with daughterhood, romantic desire, and motherhood, all of which are understood to pose threats to her writing practice. Alberte og Jakob (1926; Alberta and Jacob, 2003), Alberte og friheten (1931; Alberta and Freedom, 2008), and Bare Alberte (1941; Alberta Alone, 2009) follow Alberte from a time of sexual and creative awakening in a northern Norwegian town; through bohemian life, loves, and early pregnancy in Paris just before the Great War; to the postwar coast of Brittany; back to Paris; and lastly to southern Norway. Here, she leaves her husband and child after finally producing a complete manuscript. This document is described as a potential ticket to independence and as a sign of a dark future, in which she will continue to struggle with the "løst og [End Page 337] fillet" (Sandel 2004, 757) [loose and ragged] offspring of her aesthetic bent.3 Throughout the trilogy, Alberte expresses both longing for and skepticism regarding opportunities to develop her creative practice. She often focuses on the ways in which the female body and its reproductive functions impede the achievement of independent personhood in both bourgeois and bohemian European contexts. Sandel's novels illustrate how heightened awareness of a shared lack of reproductive freedom could attend the newfound freedom for (certain) women to locate their self-worth outside the bourgeois home. The trilogy is an example of what might be called the feminist literature of sexual difference: a literature that treats "woman," openly and searchingly, as a sexed category and as an embodied experience that marks an individual's difference from men, as well as her difference from herself.4
In this article, I consider how Sandel's depictions of differences among women complicate the difference of woman as shared reproductive destiny, gendered subordination, and "samled[e] fornedrelse" (2004, 545) [collective degradation]. More specifically, I consider how raced rhetoric in Alberte og friheten and Bare Alberte attend and alter Alberte's efforts to express sympathy and solidarity with other women across class and culture lines. A primary manifestation of Alberte's anxious relationship to class difference is her bohemian existence in France, where she lives out her estrangement from her familial and national culture, the embetstand, or civil class, of Norway. According to historian Jerrold Seigel, bohemia "was the appropriation of marginal lifestyles by young and not-so-young bourgeois, for the dramatization of ambivalence toward their own social identities and destinies" (1986, 11). Alberte's life in France is also the scene of encounters with non-Norwegian peoples, including various European ethnicities, Africans in a traveling exhibition, and Breton peasants. Her observations of ethnoracial differences often pass with limited self-critical commentary, thereby taking the form of a racist (if benevolent) lack of awareness. Racial differentiation also serves to redefine the boundaries of her [End Page 338] Northern European selfhood, and can refocus the reader's attention on her bourgeois formation.5 In the end, Alberte's position as the citizen of a peripheral nation residing at the cosmopolitan heart of colonial Europe—Paris-métropole—underwrites the primary focus of the trilogy: the fits and starts of her bohemian project of self-realization. Sandel's depictions of differences among women thus complicate Alberte's appeals to universal humanity and what has sometimes been treated as a cleaner "oppbrudd" [disruption or leave-taking] with her "borgelige bakgrunn" [bourgeois background] (Selboe 2003, 87).
In order to reopen the question of race, I engage Ellen Rees's important assessment in "'Hudens Angst': The Function of the Female Nude in the Opening and Closing Scenes of Cora Sandel's Alberte og friheten" (2002) and "Spectacle, Politics, and Writing in Cora Sandel's Alberte og friheten and Bare Alberte" (2005).6 Rees argues that Alberte moves from object of the male gaze to...