Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Author's Portrait: Amalie Skram
Amalie Skram (1846-1905)
 Source: Wikimedia Commons
scan from Samlede Værker
[Collected Works]
by Amalie Skram
Past Sunday, on 15 March 2015, was the 110th anniversary of the death of Amalie Skram, one of the foremost women writers and feminists that Norway saw in the nineteenth century. Her books were subject to much controversy in her time because they openly branded the often lamentable living conditions of women in patriarchal Norwegian society. Many of her works are still in print in Norway and the neighbouring countries, but outside Skandinavia Amalie Skram is little known today although – to my great surprise – at least five of her novels and the correspondence with her second husband Erik Skram are available in not too old English translations.

Born Berthe Amalie Alver in the important sea port and commercial town of Bergen, Norway, on 22 August 1846, Amalie Skram grew up in a bourgeois, predominantly male household because she was the only girl among altogether five siblings. Her father had a small business, but he risked the family’s livelihood in speculations which divided the family and eventually ruined him. After the bankruptcy, in 1863/64, he was supposed to serve a short term in prison, he preferred to immigrate to the USA, though, leaving wife and children behind without means. The event marked the end of Amalie’s childhood which had reportedly been unhappy anyways.

Having five children to care for alone, Amalie’s mother was in a dreadful situation. To relieve it at least a little she urged her daughter to marry ship captain Bernt Ulrik August Müller who was nine years her senior… which Amalie did, when she was only eighteen years old. This marriage of convenience gave her much opportunity to travel, but it was unhappy because her husband was unfaithful and it ended after she had suffered a (first) nervous breakdown which required treatment in a mental hospital. In 1877 Amalie divorced Captain Müller and moved to Kristiania (today: Oslo) with her two sons to escape gossip and slandering in the social circles of her married life.

After the divorce Amalie made her living writing for periodicals, which was unusual as well as quite scandalous at the time, and soon she became part of the literary community. She made friends with authors like Arne Garborg and the Nobel laureate of 1903 Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. In 1882 the Nyt Tidsskrift accepted her short story Madam Høiers leiefolk (Madam Hoier's Hirelings) for publication which was the beginning of her career as a writer of fiction. It still appeared under her first married name Amalie Müller, though. Only in 1884 she became Amalie Skram marrying the Danish writer Erik Skram, this time out of love. From then on she lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, and published only under her new name.

In 1885 Amalie Skram brought out her first novel Constance Ring which was closely followed by Lucie (1888), Fru Inés (1891), and Betrayed (Forraadt: 1892). All of them were radical and controversial at the time because they revolved around women who are unhappy and dissatisfied in their limited roles as submissive wives, devoted mothers and little else. With this choice of topic, the author broke a taboo and challenged society to a degree that she had to face open hostility. As far as I can tell, the mentioned marriage novels are all available in English translation, with the exception of the last from 1892 even under their unaltered original titles.

However, Amalie Skram’s chief work is another one, namely the tetralogy Hellemyrsfolket (People of Hellemyr) consisting of Sjur Gabriel (1887), To venner (1888; Two Friends), S.G. Myre (1890), and Afkom (1898). In these novels which are considered as the most important classics of the Norwegian naturalist movement the author depicts the lives of four generations of a family from the point of view of its women who are maids, prostitutes and – most shockingly for her contemporaries, especially men – bourgeois wives who aren’t happy as society expects them to be because they are well provided for by their husbands and don’t need to work for a living.

Also the life of Amalie Skram and her second husband wasn’t a bed of roses. The couple was happy at first and they had a daughter together, but as time went by they became estranged from each other. Moreover the constant pressure of society under which the author lived thanks to her provocative writings and her own unorthodox life-style cost its toll and reduced her literary production. In the first half of the 1890s she only published two collections of short stories, namely Børnefortellinger (1890; Children's Stories) and Kjærlighed i Nord og Syd (1891; Love in the North and South), and her only play Agnete (1893).

In 1894 Amalie Skram had another nervous breakdown and was forced to seek help in a mental hospital again. Despite all she continued to write, now about her experiences as a patient suffering from mental disorder. The most important works of this period are the largely autobiographical novels Professor Hieronimus and At St. Jorgen’s (På St. Jørgen) from 1895 which have been published in English in a combined edition titled Under Observation almost a hundred years later. She also brought out a collection of letters Mellom Slagene (Between Conflicts) the same year.

During her final years Amalie Skram still wrote and published the final volume of the People of Hellemyr tetralogy, ie Afkom (1898), a collection of short stories under the title Sommer (1899; Summer) and the novel Julehelg (1900; Christmas Season). In 1900 she also divorced her husband, but stayed in Copenhagen. Her last work Mennesker (People) remained unfinished and was released shortly after her death. Amalie Skram died in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 15 March 1915.

After her death the work of Amalie Skram sank into almost complete oblivion until it was rediscovered notably by feminists in the 1960s.

The original Norwegian texts of Amalie Skram are, of course, in the public domain in all countries where copyright protection ends 70 years after the author’s death. Unless her work wasn’t translated in her time, there may also exist English editions in the public domain, but I found none. There is, however, a public domain translation into German of the novella Knud Tandberg (1896) which is available for free on ngiyaw eBooks.

This article is based on biographical articles on:

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