Document 16B: Fredrika Bremer, Hertha or the Story of a Soul, translator Mary Howitt (New York: Putnam, 1855). Reprinted in Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen, eds., Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, Volume I, 1750-1880 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983), pp. 319-23.
The first novel Bremer wrote after her return from the United States, Hertha, was enormously popular among mid-nineteenth century feminists. In Germany, Mathilde Franziska Anneke named one of her daughters Hertha. In England, a protégée of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon changed her name to Hertha. In the novel Bremer attacked Sweden's "Paternal Statues" of 1734, which maintained fathers' legal guardianship over their adult unmarried daughters. The novel depicted Bremer's own experience of suffering under male guardianship of her finances until she was almost forty. Public response to the novel led in 1872 to the full legal emancipation of Swedish women at the age of twenty-five. In this excerpt Hertha tells her sister Alma how Swedish women are suffering under the old laws and how they need to be changed.
"I have held my peace so long, I have left unspoken so much that stirs my whole being, Alma! With you alone can I give vent to my feelings. You only can read my heart. I feel as if your glance had a healing power. Lay your hand there; let it rest there for a moment; perhaps it may allay this bitterness, which I now feel towards them who gave us life, against them whom we call our father in Heaven, and our father on earth. Bitterness against one's father is a frightful feeling! Oh, Alma! when I think that it is our father's fault that you are lying here heart-broken; that you might have been the happy wife of the man who loved you if our father's obstinacy and covetousness had not separated you!"
"Do you speak of it, Hertha!" interrupted Alma, whilst a death-like paleness overspread her countenance; "do not touch upon that subject."
"Forgive me, beloved! But I know that it is that which is killing you. Ever since then have I seen you fade and waste away, as by some secret malady; your eyes become larger; your cheeks emaciated, and you—oh Alma, sweet Alma! I feel I shall hate him!"
"Do not hate him. Pity him rather. Believe me, he is not happy. He has not always been as he is now. Ever since our mother's death, Anna says that his temper has become gloomy and morbid; and our aunt made him more morose than he otherwise would have been."
"But he is also unjust and severe! Had he given us our right, then you would not have been as you now are. Why does he withhold from us our mother's property? Why does he render us no account of what we possess, or of what we ought to have?"
"We have, in fact, no right to desire it. We are, according to the laws of our country, still minors, and he is our lawful guardian."
"And we shall always continue to be minors, if we do not go to law with our father, because it is his will that we should ever be dependent upon him, and the laws of our country forbid us to act as if we were rational, independent beings! Look, Alma, it is this injustice towards us, as women, which provokes me, not merely with my father, but with the men who make these my country's unjust laws, and with all who contrary to reason and justice maintain them, and in so doing contribute to keep us in our fettered condition. We have property which we inherit from our mother; yet can we not dispose of one single farthing of it. We are old enough to know what we desire, and to be able to take care of ourselves and others, yet at the same time we are kept as children under our father and guardian, because he chooses to consider us as such, and treat us as such. We are prohibited every action, every thought which would tend to independent activity or the opening of a future for ourselves, because our father and guardian says that we are minors, that we are children, and the law says, 'it is his right; you have nothing to say!'"
"Yes," said Alma, "it is unjust, and harder than people think. But, nevertheless, our father means well by us, and manages our property justly and prudently with regard to our best interests."
"And who will be the better for it? We? When we are old and stupid, and no more good for anything? See, I shall soon be twenty-seven, you are twenty-nine already, and for what have we lived?"
Alma made no reply, and Hertha continued:
"If we had even been able to learn anything thoroughly, and had had the liberty to put forth our powers, as young men have, I would not complain. Is it not extraordinary, Alma, that people always ask boys what they would like to be, what they have a fancy or taste for, and then give them the opportunity to learn, and to develop themselves according to the best of their minds, but they never do so with girls! They cannot even think or choose for themselves a profession or a way of life. Ah, I would so gladly have lived upon bread and water, and have been superlatively happy, if I might but have studied as young men study at universities, and by my own efforts have made my own way. The arts, the sciences—oh, how happy are men who are able to study them; to penetrate the mysteries of the beautiful and the sublime, and then go forth into the world and communicate to others the wisdom they learned, the good they have found. How glorious to live and labor day by day, for that which makes the world better, more beautiful, lighter. How happy should one feel, how good, how mild; how different that life must be to what it is, where there seems to be no other question in the world but, 'What shall we eat and drink, and what shall we put on?' and where all life's solicitude seems to resolve itself into this. Oh, Alma, are we not born into this world for something else? How wretched!" and as if overwhelmed by the thought, Hertha buried her face in her hands. Presently she became calmer, and continued, looking steadily upwards:
"How dissimilar are objects in the world, as well as in nature as among mankind. The Creator has given to each and all their different impulse and destination, which they cannot violate without becoming unnatural, or perishing. This is allowed to be an unquestioned law as regards the children of nature. People do not require from the oak that it shall be like a birch, nor from the lily that it shall resemble the creeping cistus. With men it is the same; they are allowed each one to grow according to his bent and his nature, and to beome that which the Creator has called them to be; but women, precisely they who should improve every power to the utmost, they must become unnatural, thoughtless, submissive tools of that lot to which men have destined them. They must all be cast in one mould and follow one line, which is chalked out for them as if they had no souls of their own to show them the way, and to give them an individual bent. And yet how different are the gifts and the dispositions of women; what a difference there is, for instance, among us sisters, all children of the same parents. What a clever and active practical woman will our Martha become, and Maria, on the contrary, how unusually thoughtful and pleased with study is she! You, my Alma, are made to be the angel of domestic life, and I—ah, I do not know, I cannot tell what I was created to become. I yet seek for myself; but if I had been able to develop myself in freedom, if the hunger and thirst which I felt within me had been satisfied, then I might perhaps have become something more than ordinarily good and beneficial to my fellow-creatures. Because, though it may be bold to say or think it, I know that I might have been able to aquire the good gifts of life in order to impart them to the many; I would liberate the captive and make the oppressed soul happy; I would work, and live and die for humanity. Other objects are for me too trivial. There was a time when I believed what people and books said about home and domestic life, as woman's only object and world; when I thought that it was a duty to crush all desires after a larger horizon, or any other sphere of action; weak, stupid thoughts those, which I have long since cast behind me! My inward eye has become clearer, my own feelings and thoughts have become too powerful for me, and I can no longer, as formerly, judge myself by others. There was a time when, above all things, I thirsted after an artist's life and freedom; but that, even that, is a selfish, circumscribed aim, if it be not sanctified by something higher. Marriage is to me a secondary thing, nay, a wretched thing, if it do not tend to a higher human development in the service of light and freedom. That which I seek for and which I desire is, a life, a sphere of labor, which makes me feel that I live fully, not merely for myself, but for the whole community, for my country, my people, for humanity, for God, yes, for God! if he be the God of justice and goodness—the father of all. Perhaps I may never attain to that which I wish for; perhaps I may sink down, buried in the inner life, which is mine and so many other women's portion in this world; but never, never will I say that it is woman's proper inheritance and lot, never will I submit, never will I cease to maintain that she has been created for something better, something more; yes, if she were able fairly and fully to develop all the noble powers which the Creator has given her, then she would make the world happier. Oh! that I could live and labor for the emancipation of these captive, struggling souls, these souls which are yearning after life and light; with what joy should I live, with what gladness should I then die, yes, even if to die were to cease for ever! I should then, nevertheless, have lived immortally!"
"How handsome you are, after all, Hertha!" exclaimed Alma, as she looked up with rapture to her sister, who looked radiant in her longings after freedom and love.
"Handsome," repeated Hertha, blushing and smiling sorrowfully. "Ah, there was a time when I know I might have become, might have been good-looking, if—but that time is gone by. Now I grow plainer every day, because my soul and mind are embittered more and more against both God and man. I have sometimes had the most extravagant thoughts of how I might deliver us from this misery. I have thought of going to Stockholm and speaking to the King!"
"To the King! Ah, Hertha!"
"Yes, to the King. They say that King Oscar is noble and just; that he does not refuse their rights to any of his subjects. I should speak to him in this manner (now you are the King and I am your subject): 'Your Majesty, I come on behalf of myself and many of my sisters. We have been kept as children, in ignorance of our human rights, and duties, and held as minors, in order that we may not become mature human beings. Both our souls and our hands are in bonds, although God has bade us to be free, and although we demand nothing but that which is good and right. In other Christian countries, and, even in our sister-land, your Majesty's kingdom of Norway, her rights have been determined by law to woman at a certain age, and this the age of her best powers; but in our country, in Sweden, the law ordains, that the daughters of the country shall for all time be under bondage, and declared to be under age, unless they happen to be widows, whatever their age may be; or they must appeal to the seat of justice to demand that freedom, which still their guardians can prevent their obtaining.'"
"But now, if the King should say, 'My dear child, you and your many sisters need support and guidance. You could not manage or keep things in order for yourselves.'"
"Then would I reply, 'Your Majesty, let us be tried, and your Majesty will then see that it is quite the reverse. Many noble-minded and liberal-minded women have shown it to be so, and these might become more, might become many, if the laws of our country allowed it. Children could not learn to walk alone, if they were not released from the leading strings; they could not use their eyes unless light were allowed to enter their rooms.
"'Let us only know that we may be, that we are permitted to be our own supporters, and we shall learn to support ourselves and others. Your Majesty! grant us freedom, grant us the right over our own souls, our lives, our property, our future, and we will serve you, and our country, and all that is good, with all our heart and all our soul, and with all our powers, as only they who are free can do!'"
"Well said, my beautiful, noble Hertha!" exclaimed Alma. "I wish that the King and the estates of the realm could both see and hear you, they would then repent of having done an injustice to the Swedish woman—having been willing to depreciate her worth and limit her future."
"And that of the community at the same time," added Hertha, warmly, "because a great deal of that which is so wretched in morals and in disposition, proceeds from the want of esteem which women have for themselves, the want of fully comprehending their high vocation as human beings. . . ."
| Documents Projects and Archives | Teacher's Corner | Scholar's Edition | Full-Text Sources | About Us | Contact Us |