In many ways, the Norwegian writer Amalie Skram (1846–1905) was an archetypal feminist. Outspoken and daring as a child, she had set out as a teenager for a life of adventure as the wife of a ship’s captain, sailing round the world before she was twenty-five. She later published critical articles in the national papers, and was unafraid to clash swords with public figures such as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Georg Brandes, leaders of the Modern Breakthrough movement. She divorced her first husband despite the fact that such an action was regarded as scandalous, and determined to make her living by her pen, which she duly did.
Amalie Skram’s second husband, the Dane Erik Skram, was as unusual a man as she was a woman; a journalist and writer himself, he thoroughly accepted her compulsion to write, and supported her career in any way he could, to the extent of caring for their little daughter while she wrote. Yet writing was for her a continual struggle, and making a living from it always precarious. At a time when most Nordic writers of any distinction were supported by government grants, Amalie Skram was refused a grant by Norway – because she was married to a Dane – and refused a grant by Denmark – because she was originally Norwegian. After her second marriage failed, she spent several years in illness and poverty, before dying at the age of 58.
It was during Amalie Skram’s years in Denmark that the European women’s movements began in earnest, and in 1888 the first meeting of the various Nordic societies for women’s emancipation was held in Copenhagen. The energetic chairman of the Danish society, Matilde Bajer, wrote to Amalie Skram to ask her to participate. Her answer was unequivocal: ‘I cannot be involved as a participant or committee member for the Women’s Congress. Although I have of course great sympathy for and interest in the cause of women’s emancipation, it is my immovable decision to refrain from all practical involvement. There are many ways of working for a cause, and the way I have attempted to do so takes up all my time, all my abilities and all my love.’ (Letter 7/2/1887)
So it is to her novels that Amalie Skram maintained we should look for her feminist commitment – and indeed it is in evidence there. Norvik Press has published three novels by Amalie Skram, all in translations by the indefatigable Katherine Hanson and Judith Messick: Lucie (1888), Fru Inés(1891)and Betrayed(1892). All are stories of women whose hopes of a life of love and fulfilment are dashed by the societies they live in; all are in some way betrayed. Lucie is a fun-loving former dancer, whose besotted lover marries her – but can then never forgive her for being unable to transform herself into a refined middle-class lady and lose her ‘over-familiar’ manners. Fru Inés is a Spanish Levantine living in Constantinople and married to a sadistic older man; she seeks love in an affair with a much younger lover, but finds only disillusion and disappointment. And Aurora in Betrayed is a lively young woman who, like her author, marries a sea captain and sets sail for a life of adventure, only to find that her sheltered upbringing has left her ill prepared for the realities of married life.
Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Betrayed, where Aurora is talking to her mother on her wedding day:
‘A bride who loves her husband is entering into the greatest joy in life. And you have taken him of your own free will, and for love, haven’t you, Ory?’
‘Yes, but now I have to sleep in the same bed with him’— her voice changed to a broken, distressed whisper as she straightened up, walked quickly across the room and faced her mother, her hand clenched on the corner of a chest of drawers. ‘Granny Riber told me that she had brought her mother’s bridal bed down from the attic and that it was going to be my bridal bed too.’ She gasped and looked at her mother as if expecting her to collapse in horror.
‘You knew about this!’ Ory leaned forward. ‘Knew it and didn’t say a word about anything to me. Oh Mama, Mama, how could you do that!’ Ory threw herself down in a chair, writhing as if in pain.
‘Why should I soil your imagination before it was necessary? Sit up, Ory, you are crushing your dress against the drawers.’
Ory obeyed and looked over at her mother with a pained, questioning expression.
‘You are behaving unnaturally, Ory. And besides, it’s only for one night.’
‘Then why couldn’t I stay home on this one night,’ Ory said despairingly as she prowled around the room, biting her handkerchief. ‘What was the point of all this fuss about staying at Granny Riber’s? To think you would refuse me this, Mama, after all my begging and pleading.’
‘Please, Ory, we could hardly let Riber stay at the hotel on his wedding night. If only to keep people from talking we couldn’t do that.’ …
‘Well, why didn’t you tell me about this before, Mama? Then I could have saved myself in time.’
‘I really thought you and your girlfriends knew about these things. It was different when I was young, but now in 1869?’
‘I don’t know anything,’ Ory said, trembling with anxiety. ‘Mally told me once that you got babies by being alone with your husband at night, but I thought that sounded like nonsense.’
‘Just be sweet and obedient, Ory, and everything will be fine. It’s really not so bad, believe me.’
‘You said soil,’ Ory wept. ‘You didn’t want to soil my imagination, you said. Oh Mama, Mama, how could you—my own mother—treat me this way?’
‘I just want the best for you, my dearest daughter. Only the best for you. And so it’s my duty to tell you that from now on your husband has complete power and authority over you. You must yield to him and be as obedient as a lamb, otherwise he will be poorly served by his sweet little wife. And otherwise you set yourself against God’s commandments, which is the worst thing of all.’
This is a new translation of a Norwegian literary classic, Forraadt (Betrayed) by Amalie Skram. When Forraadt was first published in 1892, Skram was well-known in Scandinavia as the controversial author of novels that exposed marriage as an institution demeaning to women. She had broken social taboos with her frank discussions about sexuality and the double standard. In Constance Ring, Lucie and Fru Inés she had explored the demoralizing effect of a system which allowed men to pursue sexual pleasure freely while insisting women remain pure before marriage and then absolutely faithful to their husbands. In Betrayed she sharpens her focus and examines a marital relationship from its very beginning.
The novel opens on the night of Ory’s wedding. Family and friends are gathered in the home of Ory’s parents to celebrate the marriage; the party is breaking up and the groom, Captain Adolph Riber, is impatient to leave with his young bride and finally be alone with her. But Ory wants desperately to stay, not merely in her parents’ home, but in the nursery with her younger brothers and sisters—she has just been told she will be sleeping in the same room, even the same bed, as Captain Riber, and she is terrified.
If you think you know where this story is headed, you may be surprised. You would expect Skram’s sympathy to be squarely with Ory, the child bride whose mother failed to prepare her for married life. The mother’s parting admonition to her daughter is to honour and obey her husband, strive to please him in every way. But the Captain, though gruff and short tempered, is not a demanding and unfeeling husband. He is troubled by his wife’s unhappiness, struggles to understand what is causing it, asks himself what he might have done or said to offend her. Riber is well-intentioned, but not very perceptive; and Ory is not always as sweet-tempered and innocent as she first appeared. The reader finds her sympathy shifting as the story unfolds.
Skram is a wonderfully descriptive writer and one of the pleasures of reading Betrayed is taking in the sights and sounds and smells of life in London and aboard a merchant ship in the 1860s. The day after their wedding the newlyweds sail from Bergen to London where Captain Riber’s ship is being loaded with cargo. There are vivid depictions of London’s street life, restaurants and dance halls, and the wharf on the Thames where the Orion is docked. The last half of the novel takes place at sea and the ship and its crew are portrayed in authentic detail—as a young woman Skram had herself sailed as a captain’s wife on Norwegian merchant ships. As the Orion passes through storms, then good weather, and is finally becalmed in the doldrums, the onboard tensions build to a horrifying conclusion.
By Katherine Hanson and Judith Messick, translators of Amalie Skram’s Betrayed.