Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Writing of Women, Not Nations: The Development of a Feminist Agenda in the Novellas of Aino Kallas

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Writing of Women, Not Nations: The Development of a Feminist Agenda in the Novellas of Aino Kallas

Article excerpt

KAI LAITINEN, a prominent Kallas scholar, in his authoritative literary history Suomen kirjallisuuden historia, writes, "Aino Kallaksen teokset eroavat seka alueensa etta kielenpartensa nojalla ajankohtansa muusta suomalaisesta kirjallisuudesta" (363) [From the point of view of both area and language, the works of Aino Kallas differ from other Finnish literature of her day]. In a literary context dominated by issues of national identity and organized by nationally delimited movements, circles, and trends, Aino Kallas (1878-1956) stands markedly alone. Apart from her earliest works, she wrote not of Finland but of Estonia, the country to which she emigrated in 1901 and which, through her marriage to Oskar Kallas, Estonia's ambassador to England, she helped represent diplomatically for more than a decade. Immersing herself in the culture and history of her adopted country, she nonetheless continued to write in Finnish, developing a complex, archaic style that mimics the manner and point of view of a medieval chronicler. In the late 1920s, at the height of her career, she was the most widely translated and internationally the best-known Finnish author after Elias Lonnrot. Yet she faced criticism from contemporaries in both Finland and Estonia, and her place in the history of Finnish women authors has been overshadowed by the more nationally focused Minna Canth (1844-97) and Maria Jotuni (1880-1943) as well as the poets Edith Sodergran (1892-1923) and Katri Vala (1901-44).

In this essay, I argue that the reason for Kallas's apparent singularity, as well as her marginal status in Finnish literary history, lies in her participation in the literary and socio-political world of 1920s London. While born and raised in a family prominent in Finnish national affairs and representing Estonia as the wife of a diplomat, Kallas freed herself of the nationalist agenda of her early works. Instead, her London novellas--Barbara von Tisenhusen (1923), Reigin pappi (1926), and Sudenmorsian (1928)--present a powerful, feminist critique of patriarchal control, especially as it impinges upon the legal and emotional rights of women. I seek to recover the context in which Kallas underwent this thematic shift and trace its effects in her writings. In particular, I argue that Kallas's unique use of diction and narrator mimics a regime of control within her texts that exposes her readers to both the sensation and the effects of patriarchal coercion. At the same time, the technique aligns readers' sympathies with the texts' female characters, who resent, reject, and ultimately resist such control and lose their lives in the process. While Kallas's life and career call into question fundamental assumptions of the nationalist framework she left behind and sometimes even parodies in her London works, they also powerfully mirror both the realities and the potentials of women during the changing era of the 1920s. While writing in her native Finnish about medieval Estonian culture, Aino Kallas participated fully in international trends regarding the rights of women and their legal and sexual status within Western societies.

NUTURED UNDER NATION: AINO KALLA'S EARLY CAREER

Aino Kallas was born in a Finland in which nation (Finnish kansa) was regarded as a key attribute of society and one of the proper focuses for literary exploration. Ever since the publication of Lonnrot's Kalevala in 1835, Finnish intellectuals had looked to literature as a powerful agent for defining a national identity in a country that had existed for six centuries as a mere region of Sweden and that, in the nineteenth century, had become an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire (see DuBois). The main lines of this agency were defined polemically by J.V. Snellman (1806-81), Finland's own Young Hegelian and a key figure in the rise of Finnish language rights in the Grand Duchy (see Nestingen). In Snellman's terms, like that of other Herderian romantic philosophers of his day, culture, language, and place were sacredly and inextricably united into a unique constellation that had both empirical status (demonstrable through ethnographic and linguistic documentation) and implicit rights culminating in political enfranchisement. …

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