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Penwoman Redux

The enduring appeal of Elin Wägner’s suffragist classic

‘For the Hard Labour Gang, it was a summer like no other.’ This is a book about sisterhood and struggle that has won the hearts of many Swedish readers over the years. And that is why, when bulk orders from Norway and the US sent my translation of Penwoman out of stock, the team at Norvik Press pulled out all the stops to make a new, digitised edition and ensure this great novel remained available. Serendipitously, this also means we are able to bring you a sleek new cover design by Essi Viitanen, incorporating a photograph of the author taken around 1917. Wägner’s enigmatic but knowing look makes this a definite favourite of mine among images of her.

Originally published in 1910, Penwoman is the classic novel of the Swedish women’s suffrage movement. Its vividly and wittily portrayed gallery of diverse female campaigners comes together to form a collective that throws itself into tireless campaigning. They find male allies but also clash with irate conservative opponents (of both sexes) and risk both limb and reputation to advance their struggle for the vote. The protagonist is a young female journalist named Barbro, universally known as Penwoman. She is unconventional, feisty and fearless, but finds that the complications of love and friendship can take their emotional toll and be serious distractions from the task in hand.

As a pioneering female journalist over a century before the #metoo movement, Penwoman faces insults, innuendo and a very real threat of physical violence, be it at her boarding house, in her campaigning, or when going about her journalistic duties on the streets of the capital, sometimes after dark. Her experience and humanity drive her to be moved by the plight of women from every background, from the abused prostitute Klara to the lonely princess arriving with her family and retinue at the main railway station. Penwoman, sent to cover the royal visit and ‘be sure to note what she is wearing’, is deeply moved by a scribbled note tossed to her by the young woman:

Penwoman had been watching the Princess with mounting astonishment, and now gave her a direct stare, as if to ask if she had understood correctly, before picking up this unexpected message from a higher world.

“I wish I were a reporter.” Written in English. Ah, so that was what she was thinking!

The Princess was still standing there, even though the official welcomes had already begun; it was as if she were waiting desperately for an answer.

“She is like a rare, royal flower, condemned to wither young” – the phrase ran for a moment through Penwoman’s trained columnist’s brain – “her eyes looking out on the world, wide and uncertain, shifting between grey and violet like the blue fox fur round her neck…”

But she realised very well that the Princess needed comforting swiftly and unambiguously, before her archdukely aunt got hold of her, and with a quick, sad gesture containing the eloquence of a whole world, she reached out both her hands in their threadbare gloves, with a hole in every fingertip.

This multi-dimensional tale of pioneering female lives also has its moving and poetic moments. Here is one of my own favourites: in one of her confrontations with an alpha male politician whose cooperation is vital to the cause, Penwoman persuades him to make a bet. He will grant a concession if she can find a particular species of spring flowers blooming in the grounds of his home:

The Baron’s flowers, she thought suddenly, the wager! She turned off the path and began hunting among the clusters of overwintered leaves that protruded from the moss. Nor did it take long before she had found a whole clump of hepatica, which she carefully loosened with her penknife. Then she picked up the clump of flowers tenderly in both hands and turned to walk back.

    They looked like a group of little women, she thought, huddled together, bending into the wind in their downy grey clothing, modest but bold, with whole flocks of little beginners down at the hems of their skirts, and only one of them had as yet had the courage to turn her calm, blue gaze to the sky.

    Just like our own pioneers, she thought, and it was as if they only now came alive and could be taken to her heart, all those who had dared to make a start, when the frost was still biting, and the snowdrifts lay hard-packed in the forest. To her own surprise, tears came to her eyes; they were all dead, and they would never know how much we now understood, remembered and revered them.

The group dynamics of the suffrage campaigners are a central feature of this kaleidoscopic novel, and Penwoman’s youthful optimism is a perfect foil for the melancholy of her slightly older colleague Cecilia.  Cecilia’s own personal emotional tragedy lies at the heart of the unforgettable opening pages:

For a person who was once in love with a stationmaster, there are most certainly more pleasurable ways of spending the day than being carried across Sweden at a leisurely pace on a stopping train. In those days, when he was head station clerk and the only man in the world, all those stations through which a person now finds herself passing – Nässjö, Mjölby, Katrineholm – were as many imagined homes, where one knew the price of wood and meat and how to find a little cultured company. Since then, it is true, they have reverted to being sooty little halts of no significance, but a person still does not pass through them with indifference, for she has never loved anyone else. And all the while, as kilometre is added to kilometre, she is chaperoned by the certainty that, as inevitably as growing older, she is being drawn closer to that junction to which he was promoted, where there will be a twenty-minute stop for dinner, or whatever one chooses to call it. A person had at any rate decided a whole week ago not to leave the carriage this time, but did not think it would help much, for she had long since abandoned any expectations of herself. She might turn her back to the carriage window and take out her sandwiches, but one is destined to eat one’s own past sliced and cold, and when the train has stood there for twenty minutes she rises hurriedly to her feet, as if she has forgotten something vital, and hurries out onto the platform to wander up and down and with thumping heart steal a glance or two through the dirty panes of the booking office, until finally the man she would do anything to avoid emerges from a door marked “Entry Prohibited”.

Order your copy now from your favourite bookshop!

There is much more about the fascinating life and times of writer and campaigner Elin Wägner in a lively review of a probing new biography, in the spring 2021 issue of Swedish Book Review:

Sarah Death, translator of Penwoman

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The centenary of voting rights for women in the United Kingdom is today, 6 February, and will be marked with commemorative events round the country in coming weeks and months. The Representation of the People Act 1918 enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time and paved the way for universal suffrage 10 years later.

So there is no better time to remind readers about our English translation of Elin Wägner’s Penwoman, the classic novel of the Swedish women’s suffrage movement, written in 1910 amid the hopes, fears, triumphs and setbacks of campaigning.

The novel, whose central character is a young female journalist, offers exceptional insights into the dedicated work and strong sense of sisterhood uniting a group of women campaigning for suffrage. But it also explores a range of other issues affecting the situation of women in Sweden at the time, from the role of paid work to matters of morality, eroticism and love. The refreshingly disrespectful and witty style has helped make the novel one of Wägner’s most enduringly popular.

We still have some copies of this hard to find novel in our office. Please email to get hold of one.