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Camilla Collett, Norwegian author, 1813–1895

By Torill Steinfeld, Universitetet i Oslo

Jacobine Camilla Collett (née Wergeland) (1813–1895), a major feminist writer in 19th century Scandinavia, was the daughter of a priest. Like many feminist pioneers, she had a very supportive father. She was educated at a school in Denmark, run by the Moravian church (Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine), visited Paris for months together with her father, and lived in Hamburg in 1836–37, where she got to know Therese von Bacheracht, who probably introduced her to George Sand’s novels. Sand’s influence became important for her effort to develop an oral style of writing, while Bacheracht probably was an inspiration for her travelogues and may be also her later literary criticism. Camilla Collett married a university professor and literary critic in 1841. A widow after 1851, she traveled widely in Europe and met many authors and intellectuals.

During five decades, from the 1840s onward, she published fiction, memoirs and essays. In her novel Amtmandens Døtre (1854–55, “The District Governor’s daughters”), she explores the upbringing of middle class young women, whose lot in life was to be married. Her main point is that the prejudices which inform both women’s and men’s opinions on womanliness and marriage, pervert women’s character, undermine the relationship between women and men and are socially destructive. True love between women and men, therefore, is unattainable within society as it is.

Camilla Collett published numerous essays and books discussing the women situation, dealing both with the small annoyances of women’s everyday life and more general problems, such as for instance the image of women in 19th century novels and prostitution. She was recognized as an important author, but some male critics praised her writing style more than her themes, and quite a few, both men and women, rejected her social criticism. Collett became an icon for the Norwegian women’s right movement of the 1880s. Nowadays Camilla Collett belongs to the Norwegian literary canon and is a celebrated feminist pioneer.

AsK November 2010

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