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Fredrika Charlotta Runeberg, Finnish-Swedish author, 1807-1879

By Heidi Grönstrand, University of Turku

Fredrika Runeberg (1807-1879) is one of the earliest women novelists in Finland. This author, who is also the first Finnish newspaper-woman, is best known for her historical novels Fru Catharina Boije och hennes döttrar. En berättelse från stora ofredens tid (1858) and Sigrid Liljeholm (1862) which both deal with history from the perspective of women. Runeberg wrote in Swedish and while her debut novel was translated into Finnish in 1881, it was not until the 1980’s before she was really recognised by the Finnish speaking population. During this decade her novels and her collection of short stories became available in new Finnish translations. Although we do not know very much about the reception of Runeberg’s works abroad, especially in Scandinavia, it is known that her debut novel was published in Sweden in 1861, only three years after it had been published in Finland. Moreover, her second novel, Sigrid Liljeholm, was acknowledged by at least one Danish journal because the review has been found in the archives of her work.

Fredrika Runeberg was well known in her own time. Her first biography was written over a hundred years ago by Aleksandra Gripenberg (1857-1913), a pioneer in the women's rights movement in Finland. Many literary scholars of recent years have also been interested in examining for example Runeberg’s impact on the development of the historical novel in Finland as well as her general position as an early woman writer. Moreover, researchers dealing with Fredrika Runeberg do not have to worry about a lack of source material. Due to the fact that she was married to J.L.Runeberg, the Finnish national poet, her manuscripts, extensive correspondence and other kinds of literary material including flower care instructions, accounting books and even the brown paper bag in which she kept her texts, have been very well archived.

Her position as the wife of J.L.Runeberg certainly gained Fredrika Runeberg a place in the literary field. Also, Runeberg came from a well educated family which realised the importance of educating both boys and girls. Beside the extensive home education, Fredrika Runeberg (née Tengström) was given the possibility of attending a the pension for girls in Turku for one year. In this school she learned English, among other things, which was not very common in Finland in the 19th century. As she knew English, she had a possibility to read English novels such as those by Walter Scott. In fact, Fredrika Runeberg was the one who introduced his work to the reading public in Finland. It is also known that she used to translate simultaneously texts from French, German and English into Swedish for her husband. On the other hand, Fredrika Runeberg was not only an author but first and foremost a mother for her six sons and a spouse who would not dream of waking the maid to make her husband’s coffee at four in the morning, but would rather do it herself. There is also a fourteen-year period during which Fredrika Runeberg acted as a nurse for her paralysed husband. Yet even during this period she was productive in terms of writing. Some of her essays were published in a journal which was read both in Finland and in Sweden.

Fredrika Runeberg died in 1879, but some of her works has been published much later. The most interesting work is undoubtedly her autobiography Min pennas saga (1946, "The story of my pen") in which she portrays herself as a true and ambitious author. The autobiography further strengthens the image of Fredrika Runeberg as a woman who was committed to her work as a writer; writing was an integral part of her life ever since her childhood until her last years.


AsK November 2010

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