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Minna Ulrika Wilhelmina Canth, Finnish Author, 1844–1897

by Kati Launis, University of Turku

Minna Canth (née Johnson) is a notable Finnish realist and naturalist writer of the 1880s and 1890s. She is also one of the first authors writing in Finnish, while in the literature of Finland the language before her days was mainly Swedish – for example another Finnish writer presented here, Fredrika Runeberg,

published in Swedish.

Minna Canth’s writing career began with the play Murtovarkaus (1883, ‘Burglary’). Her later plays and short stories from the phase of the so called “realism of indignation” addressed women’s issues and labour rights. In her own time she was a controversial figure due to her social activity and her radical social opinions. Her naturalist play Kovan onnen lapsia (1888, ‘Children of Misfortune’) is a depiction of total poverty of the working-class people and the effects it had on them. It was performed only once in the Finnish Theatre and forbidden after the premiere because of the fear that the radical play would disband the state grant for the Theatre. Canth did not give up. One year afterwards she published her most naturalist work, the extended novella Kauppa-Lopo (1899, ‘Lopo the Peddler’), a description of a kind-hearted, female tramp who has a tendency to alcoholism and kleptomania.

Minna Canth’s path to authorship was quite a typical one for a woman in the Finnish nineteenth century society. She came from a middle class family (her father worked as an office clerk in the cotton factory and later as a trader) and entered the teacher’s seminar in Jyväskylä in 1863. In 1865 she married her teacher Johan Ferdinand Canth and assisted him in editing the newspaper Keski-Suomi. Widowed in 1879, she took over her father’s business in Kuopio and began to write while managing the family draper’s shop and raising seven children. Despite obvious difficulties, widowhood also allowed her an independent position as a trader and speeded up her career as an author. She hosted literary salons, where many notable authors and cultural mediators, both men and women, discussed new literary, social and scientific issues such as Darwinism.

Minna Canth had many roles in the literary field of her own time. She published plays, stories and short stories, but she was also a journalist who wrote for different newspapers, magazines and yearbooks, often under the pseudonym Wilja. Together with the actress and teacher Hilda Asp she also translated the first volume of the well known Danish scholar George Brandes’s study Hovedstrømninger i det 19de Aarhundredes Litteratur (1872, ‘Main Currents in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century’) into Finnish, as well as Forteljingar og Sogar (1884, ‘Village Stories’) by Norwegian writer Arne Garborg. Canth also wrote her short autobiography, which was included in the Swedish translation of her extended novella Hanna (1886). Another autobiographical piece written by her was published in the Norwegian magazine Samtiden in April 1891.

Research has shown the important influence of male theorists and authors of realism and naturalism – Henrik Ibsen, Émil Zola, Leo Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoevsky, Stuart Mill, Georg Brandes, Hippolyte Taine – on Canth’s work. Less information is available about her relationship with women writers. Among them is George Sand, whose La Petite Fadette (1849) has influenced Canth’s play Työmiehen vaimo (1885, ‘The Worker’s Wife’). The ideas of the controversial Swedish feminist writer Ellen Key did not satisfy Canth: her last literary work (from 1896) was a pamphlet against Key’s ideas of the centrality of sexuality and eroticism.

Minna Canth’s works have not been widely translated. However, some of her works – Hanna, Työmiehen vaimo, Köyhää kansaa (1886, ‘Poor folk ok’), Salakari (1887, ‘Pitfall’) – were translated into Swedish during the 1880’s and 1890’s. It is also known that the summary of her play Sylvi came out in Wiipuri as a French translation (1894, 'Résumé de Sylvie. Drame en quatre actes de M:me Minna Canth') and in Hamburg (1908) as a German translation. Some of her works have also been translated into English, Estonian, German, Spain and Bulgaria.

Minna Canth has received an established place among Nordic realists and in the Finnish literary history. Her first biography was written in 1906 by Lucina Hagman, one of the pioneers in the women's rights movement in Finland, and her works and life are constantly studied. In Finland, her plays are performed in theatres and her works are read at schools. Statues, the home museum in the town of Kuopio, her own flag day (Minna Canth’s Day, which is also the Day of Equality) and a stamp have confirmed her place as one of the canonized, major names of the Finnish culture. Thanks to the inspiration her plays constantly offer to theatre directors, she is one of those nineteenth century writers who is still very much alive in Finnish theatres today.

AsK April 2011

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