THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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3 posts categorized "Sweden"

03 April 2015

Hope, humanity and humour: Strindberg’s Easter message for a new century

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The autumn of 1900 was a productive season for the 51-year-old August Strindberg, returning to his native Sweden and to the theatre after a long absence. Within the space of three weeks he had written two full-length plays: Påsk (Easter) and Dödsdansen (The Dance of Death). The second, a pitiless study of a couple trapped in a poisonous marriage, is in accord with the popular image of Strindberg as a nihilistic woman-hater, and the contrast with the message of redemption and reconciliation conveyed by Easter is thus all the more striking. The British Library holds a copy of the first edition (Stockholm, 1901) at 011755.ff.12 (picture below).

Strindberg Pask Cover

Strindberg set the play in Lund, a university town in southern Sweden where he had lived while recovering from a protracted nervous breakdown. Born and brought up in Stockholm, he found the atmosphere of Lund deeply uncongenial, provincial and suffocating, and constricting for one used to the fresh sea air of the archipelago and Lake Mälaren. Worse still, he was not the only member of his family undergoing mental suffering at that time; his sister Elisabeth was committed to an asylum during his period in Lund. Brother and sister had been especially close, and it was with Elisabeth in mind that he created the figure of the ‘Easter girl’ Eleanora at the centre of his play, and gave her the name of his mother.

200px-Harriet_Bosse_Strindberg_To_Damascus_1900There was a third woman in Strindberg’s life who can be glimpsed in this character – his future wife, the young Norwegian actress Harriet Bosse, for whom he visualised the role. She had moved to Stockholm and been engaged to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Dramaten in 1899, and the other-worldly quality which she possessed led her to be cast as the Lady in the premiere of Strindberg’s To Damascus (picture left from Wikimedia Commons). Strindberg’s diary account of the dress rehearsal in November 1900 describes his growing infatuation with Harriet after a dream in which she was married to him and appeared dressed as Puck, and on 6 May 1901 the couple, aged 52 and 22, embarked on a marriage (his third) which would prove as ill-fated and tempestuous as any that he could have dreamed up.

There is no trace of foreboding in Easter, however; although the Heyst family has grave problems of its own, Eleanora’s freshness, honesty and spirituality have survived a spell in a mental asylum from which she has escaped to the home inhabited by her mother, her schoolmaster brother Elis, and their lodger Benjamin, a grammar-school pupil who is preparing for his examinations. Elis – touchy, bitter, suspicious and morbidly possessive of his fiancée Kristina – is a self-portrait, and the dark shadow which hangs over the household, like the sense of guilt and shame surrounding Strindberg’s father’s irregular union with the servant whom he belatedly married and his subsequent bankruptcy, is a result of Heyst senior’s actions. His dubious financial dealings have landed him in prison, and the family lives in dread of Lindkvist, the most threatening of their creditors.

The action, which spans the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter Eve and is accompanied by Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, sees the tension increasing when Eleanora innocently takes a daffodil from a closed flower-shop and falls under suspicion of theft despite leaving payment for it. Yet in spite of the ominous atmosphere which grows stronger and stronger throughout the three acts, the play unfolds in a landscape full of signs of the approach of spring after a harsh Swedish winter – the removal of the double windows, the putting aside of heavy garments, the song of chaffinches, and the repainting of steamers in readiness for the new season. When the (literally) shadowy Lindkvist finally appears, the ogre actually reveals himself as a kindly figure prepared to renounce his claim.

There is no easy resolution; as Lindkvist says, he cannot help Heyst to escape his punishment or Benjamin to pass his Latin examination: ‘Life won’t give us everything – and nothing gratis’. But the play ends in the sunlight of Easter Day as the family gathers with a new sense of forgiveness and hope, which, although there are constant Scriptural references, is equally applicable in humanist terms as a comment on the transformations which can be achieved through reconciliation and generosity of spirit. Appropriately, the British Library holds a translation by Stellan Engholm (Stockholm, 1935; YF.2012.a.23780) into Esperanto, a language conceived to promote international unity and mutual understanding.

Following its premiere at Stockholm’s Intima Teatern the play received many more performances, including a production in 2013 in New York, transposing the action to 1950s Harlem with an Afro-American cast.

And so, let us look forward with Elis, to ‘the Easter Holiday – five glorious days to make the most of!’

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech & Slovak studies      

09 April 2014

Who or what were ‘the Vikings’?

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Interest in ‘the Vikings’ seems boundless, and the current Viking exhibition at the British Museum  makes the subject particularly topical. Googling ‘Viking’ produces forty-seven million hits –  though most of them may be for computer games or brand names  –  and a search on our catalogue under vernacular forms of the term produces over 250 titles in Scandinavian languages and thousands more in English, with dozens of the latter published this year already in the BL catalogue. Beyond that narrow focus, however, the holdings of the British Library are very rich in printed materials, from the 16th century to date, relating to pre-Christian Scandinavia.

A recent article in the Evening Standard by the great medievalist David Dumville aimed to counter the ‘revisionist’ and ‘politically correct’ views that have “covered up the crimes of a bloody era” during the past half-century. He admitted that “Vikings are in general not coterminous with Scandinavians” yet capitalised the word as if it were an ethnic label – as misleading as using ‘Cowboy’ or ‘Cossack’ to describe the entire cultures of the USA or Russia, from their art forms and technology to their political systems and modes of warfare. The ancient Scandinavians’ name for themselves was ‘Northmen’ and for their language and culture ‘Norse’ (norrœn).  

Of the two Old Norse nouns víkingr (m.) and víking (f.), the first meant ‘pirate or sea-rover’ (OED),  the second an overseas plundering expedition. Their etymology is contested but related to the noun vík, ‘bay’, or the verb víkja, ‘to turn away’ etc., referring either to people from a bay area  –  such as the Vik region around the Oslofjord (though its inhabitants were called víkverjar, not víkingar)  –  or to those who ‘set out’ on raiding voyages. But such ‘vikings’ formed only a fraction of the Norse peoples.  Overseas trading voyages had been undertaken long before then, for instance by the peaceful  ‘farbönder’ of Gotland, while the fact that travel by boat was so much faster than overland was the basic reason why so many Norse groups lived near and moved around on water. Will scholars ever agree to stop using the over-worked term ‘viking’?   

Raiders
Carelian raiders. Illustration from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus  Septentrionalibus, bk 11, ch. 7 (Rome, 1555)  British Library 152.e.9.

The causes of the increase in overseas raiding around 800 were both external and internal. The main external one was the expansion of the Carolingian empire, its threatening proximity provoking aggressive reactions. The major internal factor was technological, the rapid development of open-sea sailing ships at that time.  (The best surviving examples are the beautiful Gokstad and Oseberg vessels  –  displayed in the Viking Ship Museum  in Oslo.)  Another was the breakdown of a centuries-old social system in increasingly violent power struggles among the elites that eventually reduced the number of kingdoms in Scandinavia from dozens to the three still existing ones.  

Oseberg_ship_-_IMG_9129
Oseberg ship, built around 820, buried 834, now in the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo (Picture by Daderot from  Wikimedia Commons)

An aggressive warrior ethos – already vividly described in the Old English Beowulf  poem, preserved in the British Library – saw raiding and pillaging as a perfectly honourable pursuit, enriching the participants. Change came only with the adoption of continental Christianity and feudalism, which no longer permitted unprovoked attacks on co-religionists. When the neighbouring Slavic, Finno-Ugrian and Baltic peoples likewise converted, the now christianised Norse elites  –  after a short period of ‘crusading’ around the Baltic  –  simply ran out of legitimate targets.  


Peter Hogg, former Head of Scandinavian Collections


Recommended reading:

Stefan Brink and Neil Price (eds), The Viking world (London, 2008) YC.2009.b.524
Gareth Williams, Vikings: life and legend (London, 2014) Catalogue of the British Museum exhibition
Saga  book of the Viking Society for Northern Research (London,  1892-  )  Ac.9939; volumes to 2011 are also available online at http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/
Proceedings of the Viking Congresses (quadrennial since 1950). Volumes catalogued separately. See also: http://www.vikingcongress.com/
Viking and Medieval Scandinavia  (Turnhout,  2005-  )  9236.374400

29 May 2013

LOL! Tragic Queen Christina of Sweden liked a funny book

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Madrid Court diarist Jerónimo Barrionuevo reported on 11 November 1654 (44v):

Su Magestad envía a la reina de Suecia 24 caballos, cosa valiente, y un grandísimo número y copia de todos los libros jocosos y de buen gusto, así en prosa como en verso, que hay en España, encuadernados y dorados lisa y curiosamente, que ella lo es mucho, y se dice que los preciará más que si fueran joyas de diamantes, según lo estudiosa y leída que es.

[His Majesty [Philip IV] is sending the Queen of Sweden 24 horses, a remarkable thing, and a very great number and quantity of all the humorous books and in good taste, both in prose and verse, that there are in Spain, bound with gold foredges in smooth and artistic bindings, as she is very much of an enquiring mind, and it is said that she will appreciate them more than if they were diamond jewels, so studious and well read is she.]

Christina of Sweden was born in 1626 and came to the throne in 1650, but abdicated on 5 June 1654, arrived in Rome on 20 December and converted to Catholicism on 24 December 1654; she died there in 1689. She was, as Barrionuevo appreciated, formidably well educated.  She spoke German, French, Italian, Spanish and Swedish, and read Latin.

Drottning_Kristina_av_Sverige
Queen Christina of Sweden, by David Beck (1621-1656). Image from Wikimedia Commons

We can easily appreciate that Queen Christina might have feel the need for the consolation of laughter, but what funny books (the Spanish ‘jocosos’ is unambiguous) could Philip have meant?  Although he enjoyed theatre-going, he also launched a campaign of moral rearmament, promulgating sumptuary laws and banning the printing of novels and plays from 1625 to 1635.  We might note that like many of the orthodox, he approved of fun provided it was in good taste.  And we might recall that Don Quixote (1605-15) was first consumed as a funny book.  Sexual humour was less tolerated by this time: the Index of Prohibited Books, which in its early years had raised no objection to smut provided it respected churchmen, in the edition of 1640 now also took offence at all sexual humour.  One suspects that many of these funny books could have been chapbooks.  Section XL of Philip’s own library catalogue of 1637, ‘Libros varios de diversas lenguas’ has 245 entries, including such works as La Celestina and Lazarillo de Tormes (Bouza, pp. 139-44, 467-96)

Christina’s manuscripts were bought for the Vatican library by Alexander VIII in 1690 but not the printed books.

References: Barrionuevo, Avisos del Madrid de las Austrias, ed. J. M. Díez Borque (Madrid, 1996) p. 66; Fernando Bouza, El libro y el cetro: la biblioteca de Felipe IV en la Torre Alta del Alcázar de Madrid (Salamanca, 2005).

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies