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Fredrika Bremer: Sweden’s Charlotte Brontë

Cover image of The Colonel’s Family. Credit: an adaptation of an image in E. Neil’s 1891 book The Everyday Cook and Recipe Book published by J. S. Ogilvie, New York.

Our recent reissue of Fredrika Bremer’s The Colonel’s Family, translated by Sarah Death, is guaranteed to provide cheer – we are delighted to have brought it back into print, and with a glorious new cover, no less.

Often referred to as Sweden’s Charlotte Brontë, Fredrika Bremer (1801–1865) was widely translated during her lifetime and became internationally acclaimed as the author of an impressive series of novels and travel books. The Colonel’s Family first appeared in two parts in 1830–31 as part of a series which she called Sketches from Daily Life – a title which boldly signals her intention to step into the world of published storytelling and weave engaging, thought-provoking fiction on the domestic details of women’s lives. 

What was less immediately apparent to her contemporaries was her courage in abandoning the prevailing conventions of insipid romantic fiction in order to explore more profound social and moral problems. Her novel is now recognised as a sensitive exploration of the problems of a frustrated, silenced woman, a creature of strong repressed passions, in an era of highly constrictive marital conventions. The striking narrative style is a combination of the picaresque, the sentimental, the realistic, the comic and even the farcical. This translation of a classic of Swedish literature preserves the freshness and idiosyncratic flavour of the original.

Below, we provide a sample from the novel in the tragic-comic vein: eager son of the family, Cornet Carl, who holds a rank in military music, has for some time been ardently in love with Hermina, the only child of mysterious, unsociable parents who live in a house in the forest. Discovering to his dismay that the family appears to have done a moonlight flit, he sets out on a quest to find his beloved and starts by interrogating the neighbours. In the process he finds himself ensnared …

All at once there came from the next-door room a terrible noise, a shriek, a laugh, a din, an unparalleled jubilation. There was a scraping of fiddles, a clattering of fire-irons, there was singing and whining and squeaking. And amid all this din, the only sound to emerge with any clarity among diverse other cries was:

‘Papa, Papa! Now we know which play! Now we can get ready for the spectacle! Hurrah, hurrah!

The cheering crowd came pouring into the room like a roaring torrent, but when the young people saw Cornet Carl, their joy knew no bounds. Up went a general cry of ‘Iphigenia, Iphigenia! Hurrah! Hurrah! Long live Iphigenia the Second, long live Cornet Iphigenia! Long live…’

‘Death and damnation!’ thought the Cornet, as the wild crowd fell on him and tried to drag him off, shouting, ‘Come on Iphigenia! Come on Cornet Carl, quickly, quickly! We are just going to have a rehearsal. The Cornet can read his part … come on, do come on!’

‘Hocus pocus over Cornet Carl! Kneel down and arise as Iphigenia.’

The last was trumpeted by sweet little Agnes D***, who was standing on tiptoe trying to place a veil on Cornet Carl’s head, but could reach no higher than his ears. Lieutenant Ruttelin came to her aid. Eleonora D*** and Mina P*** had already draped a large shawl around his shoulders, and three young gentlemen wound a sheet around him to look like a skirt. Lieutenant Arvid was also in evidence among the aides of the Misses D***.

The Cornet resisted; to no avail; he raised his voice, even shouted – to no avail – in all the noise, he could not make himself heard, let alone understood. Utter desperation born of pure vexation overwhelmed him, and led him to a desperate decision. Using his strength in a manner that was hardly polite, he elbowed the crowd aside to right and left, tore off the sheet and – ran. Ran through an open door which he spied in front of him, found himself in a long series of rooms, looked neither right nor left, just ran, ran, ran! He knocked over a maidservant, three chairs and two tables, and ran on from room to room, until he emerged in a large dining-room. Beyond it lay the entrance hall. The Cornet knew this – and is about to set off in that direction when to his dismay he hears the cheering troop coming towards him from the hall, blocking his path and uttering loud and reproachful cries of ‘Iphigenia, Iphigenia!’ Deeply agitated and on the verge of turning back to repeat his grand tour, the Cornet catches sight of a half-open door, leading to a little spiral staircase.

He went down it like an arrow. It was dark and cramped – kept on going round and round. The Cornet’s hand was going round and round too, by the time his feet touched firm ground. He was standing in a dark little passageway. A shaft of light came from an iron door standing ajar. The Cornet went through this door too. Through a window opposite, protected by heavy iron bars, the dull light of a setting autumn sun fell on the whitish-grey stone walls of the tiny room. The Cornet found himself – in a prison cell? – No, in a larder.

The Cornet searched for a way out. There was indeed a door in the little passageway, facing the door to the vault, but it needed a key to open it, and there was no key. The Cornet searched and searched – in vain. He sat down on a bread bin in the vault, freed himself from shawl and veil, and was comforted to hear the sound of the wild hunters going by up above and moving further off in their efforts to track him down. Yet they still sounded close enough to prevent the Cornet going back upstairs. Miserable, indignant, tired, feeling bitter towards the whole world, he stared vacantly ahead. A plate of pastries, the remains of a pie, of some roast veal and blackcurrant fool, standing in the sunlight on the table, met his eyes in a friendly and beckoning manner.

The Cornet felt a strange sensation; in the midst of his despair, tormented by a thousand agonizing thoughts, he felt – hungry!

Poor human nature! O humanity, pinnacle of creation! Dust-king of the dust! Is it Heaven or Hell which dominates your breast? – Yet you must eat! One minute an angel, the next an animal! Poor human nature!

And conversely: Fortunate human nature! Fortunate dichotomy, which alone maintains the unity of the being. The animal comforts the spirit, the spirit the animal, and only thus can the human being exist.

The Cornet existed – was hungry – saw food, and wasted little time in satisfying his hunger with it. The pie had to surrender its forcemeat and poultry filling to that purpose.

Forgive me! Forgive me, my young lady readers! I know … a lover, and a hero of a novel in particular, should not be so prosaic, so earthy … and our hero may be in danger of losing all your gracious sympathy. But consider, consider, you sweet creatures who live on feelings and the scent of roses, he was a man, and worse – a Cornet; he had had a long ride and eaten not a bite all day. Consider it!

If you would like to read more, you can order The Colonel’s Family here, or from your favourite local bookshop. To learn more about Fredrika Bremer’s delicious writing, see our previous blog: https://norvikpress.com/2022/08/06/its-women-in-translation-month-witmonth/ (which includes a link to an essay on Bremer’s fictional way with food: Shaky Puddings: Fredrika Bremer’s fictional way with food and drink by Sarah Death).

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It’s Women in Translation month! #WITMonth

It’s our favourite time of year again: August, and Women in Translation month! #WITMonth

To celebrate, we are enjoying reading our friends over at Swedish Book Review

…and we are making available online a truly scrumptious essay from the Swedish Book Review archives: Shaky Puddings: Fredrika Bremer’s fictional way with food and drink by Sarah Death. This essay is an abridged version of a conference paper originally delivered in Swedish, and appeared in print in the Swedish Book Review Food and Drink Supplement, 2003 (pp. 13-17). We love all sorts of puddings here at Norvik, particularly nice cool shaky ones – blancmange, jellies, panna cotta, I could go on!

Further gems from the Swedish Book Review archives are available here.

Now, where’s our hammock?!