Reviews 2012

Becoming Human: Children, Morality and Gender in the Works of Amanda Kerfstedt, Helena Nyblom and Mathilda Malling 1880-1910

Becoming Human: Children, Morality and Gender in the Works of Amanda Kerfstedt, Helena Nyblom and Mathilda Malling 1880-1910. Maria Andersson. Stockholm: Makadam, 2011. 336 pages (five-page summary in English).

One of the perennial problems of children’s literature research is its marginal position. This comes as a consequence of the low status of children’s literature and culture, and is ultimately a reflection of the disempowerment of children. It does not really matter whether one chooses to read children’s literature as ‘Literature’ (i.e. according to the adult norm) or whether one seeks to define children’s literature as a literature of its own. For if children’s literature is not disentangled from adult literature, its unique characteristics will remain invisible, they will drown in the adult norm. Conversely, if its otherness is stressed, it is easy to dismiss it as less important, it becomes a minority literature.

In an excellent PhD-dissertation, published as Att bli människa (Becoming Human), Maria Andersson solves this paradox by studying works by authors who wrote for both children and adults. Andersson asks the pertinent question, “To what extent did writing for children or adults create different possibilities and restraints for the authors?” and, more specifically, “were ideas of morality and sexuality articulated differently in relation to children, women and men?” The advantages of Andersson’s model are that the specificity of children’s literature is not magicked-away and children’s literature is placed on an equal footing with literature for adults.

Andersson’s strategy is a liberating move in another way as well. As a researcher in children’s literature, it is all too easy to limit one’s position, to protectively defend one’s turf and one’s specialist competence while abandoning adult literature. The comparative approach can be made across time and culture and media forms, but is almost always restricted to children’s literature. Andersson takes us out of the nursery and shows how fruitful a conversation between literatures for children and adults can be.

Admittedly, at first sight the approach seems hard and unattractive. The study’s subheading is daunting in itself: Children, morality and gender in the works of Amanda Kerfstedt, Helena Nyblom and Mathilda Malling 1880-1910. These are words as heavy as the book itself, an imposing tome from Makadam publishing. To begin with, “morality” is not the lightest of subjects and, of the three authors, only Helena Nyblom still has a claim to fame through some of her literary fairy tales. The other two hold insecure positions in the footnotes to Swedish literary history. Even the mix of children’s and adult literature goes against the grain to begin with. However, all of these seeming weaknesses are eventually turned into advantages and strengths. Good research results in studies that make you see new things, and demand a little bit more from the reader!

Nineteenth century “morality” may be used as a shorthand to refer to repressed sexuality, but Andersson reminds us it is a farmore comprehensive concept:

Morality included all those qualities that characterized the ideal citizen. To lead a moral life meant that you acted in accordance with ethical guidelines and good customs. Through hard work and self-control, by being rational and law-abiding, moral man showed his loyalty to the established order, to the traditions and values of society. (20; my translation)

Accordingly, morality is not merely the responsibility of the individual. Moral dissolution was seen as a threat to the social fabric, and for that reason the upbringing and education of children could never be solely a family issue (19). Similarly, the morality of an individual was not just a private matter. Today, we expect that we are all self-determining. We expect to be able to affect our levels of competence, our economic status, how we engage with society, our sexuality, religion, health and so on. This widespread belief –whether right or wrong – are undermined in the texts under Andersson’s scrutiny. Although at odds with today’s individualistic credo, there is something attractive about the way in which societal virtues were appraised a hundred years ago, and the solidarity it bred. Today we have more subtle (not to say hypocritical) ways of influencing individual citizens.

But morality was also relative. It mattered whether you were a man, a woman or a child. A man’s morality was not tainted by a pinch of aggression, while it was an all-negative quality in a woman. Another example: in a child being natural was a positive trait; in adults ‘naturalness’ had to be curbed and pruned. In the section on innocence and sexuality, a child’s sensuality is contrasted with that of a young woman’s. Andersson uses Mathilda Malling’s Berta Funcke (1885) and Helena Nyblom’s two fairy tales ”Flickan, som mötte huldran” (1903) [The Girl who Met the Witch] and ”Oskuldens vandring” (1912) [Innocent’s Journey]. Bella in “Oskuldens vandring” is natural, sensual and physical, but since she is a child she represents an innocuous sensuality and physicality which stands in stark contrast to the dangerous sensuality and physicality of Berta Funcke. In the latter, the protagonist reads the erotic passages of romances “again and again until she climaxes” (131). Her sensuality is a “lustful, but uncontrolled passion that ruins her health” (130). Berta’s sensuality is taboo and fraught with shame, whereas Bella’s physicality is innocent and open. Thus, Bella’s journey, in which she sheds her garments, one after the other until she is completely naked, like a prolonged outdoors striptease, only further establishes her complete innocence. (What adult readers make of this public disrobing is another matter. John Bauer’s famous illustrations to this fairy tale further underscore the voyeuristic potential of the story.) The difference between Berta and Bella is not only due to age. Berta’s immorality can be traced to her childhood. She preferred playing with the boys and she is described as having been precocious and too refined as a young girl(133). Paradoxically, the child who grows up in a natural state (Bella) becomes a better bearer of culture and society than the one who is raised in the bosom of culture and society (Beata).

This is just one of many examples marshaled by Andersson which show how fruitful it can be to read literature for children and adults in conjunction in order to come to grips with complex ideological cultural issues like morality and sexuality. To become human, both child and adult must be made visible.

Björn Sundmark
Malmö University, Sweden