Norwegian Proto-Feminist Cora Sandel

Born Sara Cecilia Görvell Fabricius in 1880 in Oslo (and therefore an almost exact contemporary of Virginia Woolf’s) and growing up in Tromso, Cora Sandel was a painter turned writer who lived in Paris for fifteen years before and after the First World War, then moved to Sweden with her Swedish sculptor husband, whom she divorced a short while later. Her Alberta trilogy is inspired by her own life among the artist community, and her own struggles to make her voice heard (and use her creativity) in a society where women were still very much marginalised. She gave up painting after she had her son, although she deeply regretted it, and wrote her first book at the age of 46.

I should have started with the first book in the series Alberta and Jacob, which describes Alberta’s youthful struggles as a shy but creative girl in a very confined small-town society. Jacob is her brother, who becomes a sailor and finally emigrates to Australia. In the second book Alberta and Freedom, she has been succesful in her rebellion and moved to Paris, but struggles to make ends meet, to write (in the book, she has no talent as a painter herself) and falls prey to all sorts of predatory men. However, I started with the third volume, Alberta Alone, because the blurb on the back says that this is an accurate depiction of the corrosion of a relationship against the background of the aftermath of the war, and how a woman tries to reconcile her responsibilities as a mother with her creative needs.

And I’m glad I did, because it is probably the most obviously feminist of the three books. Alberta is still somewhat insecure, but she is starting to find her voice, to stop being a doormat, to fight for herself and for her son. She falls somewhat in love with a married French author: she is spending the summer at the seaside with him and his family. However, this is mainly because he seems to be the only one who understands her creative urges and encourages her to take her writing seriously. Her womanising painter husband is insufferable, tries to take her child away from her because he believes she mollycoddles him, compares her unfavourably with other women, and for most of the book she has given up trying to contradict him or tell him anything. Mostly, this book reflects the interior journey of a woman from dependence and fear to independence and pursuing a goal.

Although it was published in 1939 (the first two volumes were published in 1926 and 1931 respectively), the book contains such accurate and contemporary insights and observations both about the feminine condition and about being a writer (unsure of her own talent and lacking the support of her family), that it could have been written today.

[Alberta’s writing]…it amounted to pile in a folder. It had grown in slow stages and as far as possible in secrecy. But suddenly, when she had begun to believe that she had achieved a certain amount of order and coherence, new material had presented itself, at times in such quantities that she became sickened and felt that she could not face it… The task threatened to be endless and the old glint had returned to Sivert’s eye a long time ago when he asked after it. Or he might say: ‘Have you done any scribbling today?’ And then she felt as if he had handled her roughly, and she did not know which she detested most, herself or Sivert [her husband], or the pile of papers.

Alberta is a great procrastinator and self-flagellator when it comes to her writing and probably reflects the author’s own disdain for dilettantism. She can be equally scathing about motherhood and children, although Alberta is clearly very much concerned about the welfare of her rather sickly son.

Neither Pierre nor any other man possessed that endless patience, that faculty of being able to hang about with [children] hour after hour, of answering precisely and good-naturedly the countless questions they use to hold you fast. And those women who really do possess it are usually elderly or a little simple-minded.

But right after she gives birth, when she holds her baby in her arms, she feels:

There existed nothing more helpless or more dependent on human good-will… Her first coherent reflection had been: Now I am truly vulnerable. Now I can be hurt as never before.

The work is filled with so many precise observations, in almost throwaway lines, that I could easily quote them one after another.

It struck Alberta how stooping most women’s work is. Man stretches: he rows, or reaches out for stones or planks. He is often bent beneath burdens, but woman bends over almost all her tasks, except when she hangs up washing.

Certain moments were almost too painful to read: they resonated a little bit too much with me. Sandel is almost recklessly candid, there is no sugarcoating or attempt at political correctness in Alberta’s inner monologue.

The boy suddenly seemed to resemble Sivert in a way that was almost horrible: Sivert’s ability to dash cold water over one’s enthusiasm and extinguish it effectively and at once. It was not right that a child should be so like an adult… She put the things down to take him in her arms, but did not do so. One can be reserved in one’s love for a child, just as in other relationships.

When Sivert tells her he has fallen in love with someone else and promptly follows that declaration with a lecture on how it is in fact her fault, Alberta finally speaks up – and not only in her head.

He gave a brief lecure on woman as mother and mistress; she was either the one or the other, seldom both. Then there were those who were neither the one nor the other. Exhaustion drifted through her brain as black patches… thoughts for which she failed to find the words immediately: something to the effect that we are not divided into categories, we would like nothing better than to be both, but it takes strength and the right conditions. Not even a plant will develop all its qualities in any kind of soil…

Then he said something that left her wide awake. ‘You said, I love you, first.’

‘Did I? It must have been at some moment-? It must have been in your arms?’ Alberta searched her memory confusedly…

‘You did. And it’s a mistake. It’s the man who should say that sort of thing first.’

Suddenly Alberta did not know whether to laugh or cry. ‘You – you ninny!’ It was a word that Sivert had taught her. At home they said booby.

The fiercely individualistic Cora Sandel did not want to become known beyond her pseudonym, nor did she want to be part of the feminist movement. Her work was revered in Norway, and adapted for film, but she was only translated into English by Elizabeth Rokkan in the 1960s but somehow failed to make a lasting impact.

I happened to come across some old Peter Owen editions for sale outside the Waterstones in Gower Street. I’ve been so blown away by her work that I will not only read the other books in the trilogy but have also ordered her only other book translated into English The Leech (about which I know nothing other than the title). She reminds me in a way of Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen, who perhaps has more humour in her memoirs, but is equally honest and unafraid in her writing. I would love to see a resurgence of interest in Cora Sandel’s work, further translations of her work and a reissue of her novels.

The Merry Divorcee

Two days ago, The Sunday Times Style magazine (not my usual reading fare) conducted a survey of over 1000 divorced men and women, and concluded in huge capitals:   MEET THE NEW BREED OF HAPPY DIVORCEE: WOMEN WHO ARE EMPOWERED, POSITIVE AND THRILLED TO BE SINGLE. While I have minor quibbles about the methodology and the slightly sensationalist way they presented the findings, I completely agree with the sentiment. Forget about Lehar’s Merry Widow, this is the age of the Merry Divorcee! Why? Mainly because it’s a bloody relief to be carefree and single again.

Well, who wouldn’t be merry if they were as glamorous as Lana Turner in
The Merry Widow?

It is surprising how little I miss being married – which probably shows that I had been getting very little out of that marriage for many, many years before it ended. I was responsible for all of the children’s medical appointments, school admin, payments, extracurricular activities, holidays, homework, shoe and clothes shopping, haircuts anyway, so in fact it is an improvement that occasionally they spend time with him and he has to organise days out with them or take them to the orthodontist twice a year.

How relaxing to have the whole bed to myself, to be able to switch on the bedside lamp to read when I suffer from insomnia, to not have all of his mobile phones and tablets flashing and beeping all night, to not see his blissfully unaware sleeping form on cold mornings when I need to get up early and get myself and the children ready for school, because he can’t be bothered to do the school run because he is not a morning person. I no longer have to remember the entire family diary (including his parents’ birthdays, his sister’s nameday, his nephew’s shoe size, his cousin’s promotion) or organise our entire social calendar only to have him moaning about the time, place or people involved, while I do all the cleaning, shopping, cooking, pouring out of drinks and conversation when we have guests, because his idea of small talk was usually something involving particle physics or berating of others for their political views. Oh, and how free will is entirely illusory. You’ve heard it seven times, you’ve heard it all. Do you know how much more interesting my conversations have become since I am by myself – even with my sons?

A Higgs boson for breakfast, lunch and supper, anyone? I have plenty of physicist friends who can talk of other things as well.

I can watch the TV I want instead of the droning of Formula 1 every second weekend. Or not watch it at all and read for hours before bedtime without someone sulking that I am not paying them enough attention. I can write a book review, or blog post, or scribble a poem or goof about on Twitter without constant questioning. Above all, I no longer get frustrated that my partner is not pulling their weight, because I know exactly how much I can do and when, rather than having any false expectations or relying on somebody else. I can get up and make a tea for myself without glowering that no one is offering to make me one. I can drill holes in the wall and hang pictures without a running commentary about how badly I do all those things. I can decide not to cook when I am tired and ask the children to either have toast with peanut butter or prepare their own pasta. I can make mistakes, be untidy, burst into giggles or be ignorant without a patronising sneer or far too earnest attempt to ‘teach me’.

As for loneliness, what loneliness? I’ve been going out much more frequently than at any point over the past 15 years (helped, of course, by the fact that the boys are older now and learning to fend for themselves). I keep in touch much more regularly with friends, whom I tended to avoid during the dying years of marriage because I didn’t want to deal with their uncomfortable questions or even sympathy.

Once a year, about this time of year, I do miss the masculine touch: I struggle to ‘bleed’ the radiators before switching them back on for the winter. But that’s an infinitesimal reason for marrying – I’m sure a handyman is less expensive in the long run and better for your health.

Poetry Link-Up: Content Inside

She’s forgotten the hot shiver
of a new hand
stroking her hair

Her skin stretched and soft
like blotting paper
no longer absorbs
the ink bruise of lovebites.

Crooning a broken record of a lovesong
she tangles her hair
for the few seconds
her body convulses

And feels the power she once had given
to the nook of broad shoulders on men.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

I’ve been submitting quite a few poems to literary magazines lately, so I’ve been using this blog only to post very rough first drafts or discarded poems or poems which require substantial reworking. Apologies for that! I’m still cheekily linking this up to dVerse Poets Open Link Night, which starts later on today, because I always enjoy going there for a visit. Join me if you can!