Tag Archives: Selma Lagerlöf

The Top 10 Posts of 1919…and a new name for a new decade

Happy New Year, everyone!

The beginning of a new decade is a good time for a fresh start. A time to review your diet, and your exercise routine, and your blog title. When I launched My Year in 1918 on January 1, 2018, I expected it to be a one-year journey to the world of a hundred years ago. Which it was, in the sense that I spent that year reading ONLY as if I were living 100 years ago. Since this is not something one can do indefinitely, I reentered the 21st century at the beginning of 2019. I found I didn’t want to leave the 1910s behind, though, so I continued reading and writing about the world of 1919.

Vanity Fair cover, January 1920, cartoon of people driving cars.

Which, since I didn’t listen to my friend Emily, who warned me about this exact scenario, left me with an outdated blog name. I didn’t worry about this too much in 2019, seeing the year as an extended victory lap. But, as the 1920/2020s approached, I was growing tired of having to give long-winded explanations about why my blog was called My Year in 1918.

So I’m excited to announce this blog’s new, non-expiring, name: My Life 100 Years Ago.*

The Crisis cover, January 1920, woman wearing turban.

Now on to the most popular posts of the year.

The Top 10 wasn’t as competitive a category in 2019 as it was in 2018, when, posting with monomaniacal zeal, I ended up with 94 contenders. Last year I only published 21 posts. Still, thanks to the magic of Google search engine optimization—the more you’ve written the more important Google thinks you are, so you end up being, say, the go-to person on glamorous spy ring leader Despina Storch—I ended up with a slightly higher number of views in 2019 than in 2018.**

Here are the top 10 posts, starting with #7 because there is, weirdly, a four-way tie in that position.

#7 (tie). Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For

Coles Phillips Vogue cover, woman with hat,

I had a great time learning about the lives and art of these illustrators. My favorite discovery was Coles Phillips, who pioneered the Fadeaway Girl technique.***

#7 (tie). Can you beat me at this 1919 intelligence test? Probably!

Number chart for intelligence test, American Magazine, 1919.

Last year, I took a vocabulary-based intelligence test from 1918 and did pretty well. This year, I took a series of intelligence tests from 1919 and, well, the title says it all.

#7 (tie). My Perfect 1919 Summer Morning

I woke up one day in D.C. to find it was a miraculously beautiful August morning, then spent the whole day inside writing this blog post. It was worth it, though. For one thing, I now know way more than I used to about 1919 deodorant.

#7 (tie). Nobel Prize Laureate Selma Lagerlöf: A Swedish storyteller whose own story couldn’t be told

Posed photograph of Selma Lagerlof leaning against Sophie Elkan.

While spending a month in Sweden, I looked into the life of the first woman Nobel Prize laureate in literature and found lots of romantic intrigue.

#6. Princeton interlude: Orange and black is the new black

Princeton students in beer suits, ca. 1926.

In which I go to my Princeton grad school reunion and take on a burning question: What’s with those goofy jackets?

#5. And the best novel of 1918 is…

Good news—clickbait works! So I won’t tell you what it is here either. Hint: it’s based on the real-life woman pictured with her family in this photograph.

#4. My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge, Part 2

I have had a huge amount of fun doing this blog. The intelligence tests! The quizzes on What’s Your 1918 Girl Job? and Did College Shrink Your Breasts?! The search for 1918 love! But setting out to earn badges from the 1916 Girl Scout handbook was the most fun of all. In this second round, I polished silver and translated Proust and played the recorder and…well, read for yourself!

#3. Children’s Books: Your 1919 Holiday Shopping Guide

Man shooting duck, illustration by Boyd Smith, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.

This was another of my favorite projects of the year, and readers must have agreed—this post shot up to #3 in only twelve days. One surprise was the amount of violence in children’s books of 100 years ago. The illustration here is from a NURSERY RHYME.

#2. April 1919 Ladies’ Home Journal Ads: A Riot of Color for Spring

1919 Uneeda Biscuit ad with slogan Peace and Plenty, illustration of cornucopia.

The popularity of this post taught me this lesson: “People don’t care what you write, just put up a bunch of cool pictures and they’ll be happy.”

#1. My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge

The humongous success of this post—it had three time as many views as the next most popular post of the year—shows that readers had as much fun as I did with the Girl Scout badge quest. Luckily, there are more badges to be earned this year, with a new edition of the Girl Scout handbook out in 1920. And if you missed the second installment, it’s just a click away at #4!

Honorable Mentions:

Downtown Provo

Exploring Provo–and Mormon History: Sometimes initial popularity hurts a post in the stats, because if you read the post at the top of the blog without clicking on it then it’s credited to the home page. This is what happened with this post, which tied the record for daily views when first published but ended up as #18 of 21 for the year.

Celebrating 100 Posts: 2017 Me Interviews 2019 Me about My Year in 1918: There’s no particular reason to give this post an honorable mention except that I like it, it wasn’t far out of tied-for-tenth place, and it’s a good introduction to the blog if you’re just discovering it now.

Dishonorable Mention

More beautiful images from 1918: I always hope that the least-viewed post of the year doesn’t turn out to be a labor of love that I spent days and days on. Luckily (and perhaps not coincidentally), this hasn’t been the case so far. 2019’s worst performer, with 10 views**** (which is at least better than last year’s two), is one of three posts of images that I published in the first weeks of 2019, when I was shell-shocked after emerging from 1918. So I guess the “people only want to look at pictures” rule isn’t infallible.

Best-Performing Post from 2018

In search of a good mother poem: Posts originally published in 2018 didn’t qualify for Top 10 honors. Which is bad luck for this one, which only came in 17th last year but was this year’s second most viewed overall. I hope that all these visitors weren’t seeking inspirational Mother’s Day verse, since they would have been disappointed. That is, I think “Dedication for a Plot of Ground,” William Carlos Williams’ tribute to his fierce grandmother, is inspiring, but I can’t imagine it on a needlepoint sampler.

All the best for the new year! I’m looking forward to sharing the Roaring Twenties with you.

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*UPDATE 1/2/2020: This blog’s URL is now officially mylife100yearsago.com. Myyearin1918.com redirects to this site, so everything should happen seamlessly from your end regardless of how you access it, except maybe RSS feeds. (Drop me a line if it doesn’t.) Everyone on the internet made this process sound incredibly scary–“you’ll want to brush up on your FTP skills,” etc.–but it ended up taking five minutes on WordPress.

**Another thing about search engine optimization: Google severely punishes broken links, which my blog suddenly has lots of. The Modernist Journals Project recently revamped its site, breaking my many links to magazines such as The Smart Set, The Crisis, and The Little Review. I’m fixing them one by one. If you encounter a broken link to something you need (or just want) to see, send me a message on the Contact page and I’ll send you the link. (To the person who clicked eight times last week trying in vain to get to the issue of The Smart Set with H.L. Mencken’s review of My Ántonia in it, here it is.)

***Phillips seems to have been the inspiration for Grace Lin’s children’s book A Big Bed for Little Snow, which was just reviewed in the New York Times, with a fadeaway illustration from the book of a mother and child. In the book, Lin writes, “Little Snow listened to Mommy’s footsteps fade away,” which I suspect is a shout-out.

****But, remember, more people read it on the home page.

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New on the Book List:

I have been very lazy about updates. I’ve recently added mini-reviews for the latest (and last) entries for 2019:

The Girl from the Marsh Croft, by Selma Lagerlöf (1908; translated 1910)
Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1916)
Pictures of the Floating World, by Amy Lowell (1919)

Nobel Prize Laureate Selma Lagerlöf: A Swedish storyteller whose own story couldn’t be told

Hello from Sweden, the land of ubiquitous candy

Candy in a store in Uppsala, Sweden.

and adorable groceries

Swedish groceries.

and clothes made of garbage

H&M label for pants made of recycled household waste.

and quaint swear words (“Devil!”)!

I’m spending September in Uppsala, half an hour outside Stockholm. The town is home to a 500-year-old university, so history is ever-present.

Sketch of Gustavianum at Uppsala University by Gustaf Johan Härstedt

Gustavianum, Uppsala University, Gustaf Johan Härstedt, ca. 1800

To get a sense of what was happening in Sweden a century ago, a relative blip in this ancient town, I turned to my trusty Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, 1915-1918. It pointed me in the direction of an article in the February 1918 issue of the women’s magazine The Delineator called “Women All Too Womanly – In Sweden.” The problem with Swedish women, it turns out, is that they’re not sparkling enough in society. They walk behind their husbands all self-effacing like this

Illustration of a Swedish woman entering a hotel behind her husband.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

instead of making a grand entrance like this

Illustration of a woman in an evening gown entering a room.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

and enchanting their dinner companions with bon mots.*

Not being convinced that skin exposure = emancipation, I decided to look elsewhere for insights into ca. 1919 Swedish women.** An article in the April 1915 issue of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas called “Selma Lagerlöf, Swedish Genius” seemed like just the ticket.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, ca. 1915.

Selma Lagerlöf, St. Nicholas magazine, April 1915 (Brown Bros.)

Lagerlöf, I learned, was born in 1858 and grew up on an estate called Mårbacka in west central Sweden. A semi-invalid as a child, she sat at home listening to visitors’ stories while her siblings played outdoors. She heard about wolves chasing sea captains across the snow and the Devil*** paying social visits, rocking in a rocking chair while the lady of the house played the piano.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, 1881.

Selma Lagerlöf, 1881

The family experienced financial setbacks that eventually forced them to sell Mårbacka, and  Lagerlöf set off for Stockholm to study teaching. While she was there, she started writing down those childhood tales. In 1891 she published her first novel, Gösta Berling’s Saga. It’s the fantastical story of a Lutheran minister who is sacked for drinking and carousing, takes up with a group of eccentric vagrants, and eventually comes to see the error of his ways.**** “And in less time that it takes to get around it,” St. Nicholas tells us, “the world hailed the writer as a genius.” Other novels, and other accolades, followed.

Like, for example, the Nobel Prize in Literature, which Lagerlöf won in 1909, beating out other contenders such as Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain, both of whom died the next year. She was the first woman to be awarded the prize.

Illustration of Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V.

Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V (Svenska Dagbladet, December 11, 1909)

If you’re thinking something sounds off here, there are a few things you need to know about the early days of the literature Nobel, which was first awarded in 1901. One is that writers from the Nordic countries had a distinct home field advantage, winning seven of the first 18 awards.*****

Also, the award in its early days bore the stamp of the Swedish Academy’s conservative permanent secretary, poet Carl David af Wirsén, who thought Nobelists should display “a lofty and sound idealism.” This, in his mind, disqualified not only Tolstoy and Twain but writers closer to home such as playwrights Henrick Ibsen of Norway and August Strindberg of Sweden.******

Photograph of Carl David af Wirsén with signature, 1877.

J. Wolf (from Literärt album, 1877)

And also, for a while, Selma Lagerlöf, whose characters, redeemed in the end or not, weren’t wholesome enough for af Wirsén’s liking. Whenever her name came up as a possible Nobelist, he would put forward other candidates, sometimes equally “unwholesome” writers who at least weren’t Swedish. But his fellow Swedish Academy members finally had their way in 1909, leaving af Wirsén a broken man.******* He died in 1912.

With her Nobel Prize money ($40,000, St. Nicholas informs us), Lagerlöf bought back Mårbacka, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Selma Lagerlof at her desk in her library in Marbacka.

Selma Lagerlöf at Mårbacka (Dan Gunner, date unknown)

St. Nicholas tells us that

With all her fame and fortune, Selma Lagerlöf remains the pleasant, unpretentious, fun-loving, kind-hearted woman of her school-teacher days. She has never married, and, since she is now about fifty-six years old, she will probably remain a spinster. But her friends are thick as the leaves in her beloved forest in full summer.

A spinster! Fun-loving! Friends thick as leaves in the forest! What could this mean? Having been through this before, I had my suspicions. I Googled “Selma Lagerlöf lesbian,” and the true story of her life emerged.

Portrait photograph of Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893.

Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893

A few years after the publication of Gösta Berling’s Saga, Lagerlöf met fellow writer Sophie Elkan, who became her lifetime friend and companion. The daughter of German Jewish immigrants, Elkan had lost her husband and only daughter to tuberculosis in 1879, and she dressed in mourning for the rest of her life.

Lagerlöf, apparently, was smitten from the beginning. At their first meeting, she lifted up Elkan’s widow’s veil, unbidden, and said, “You are very beautiful. I know we will become friends.” In a letter to Elkan, she wrote,

These kisses of yours that you convey in your letters, they are a great puzzlement to me. How am I to understand such merchandise? Are they promissory notes, or ‘samples without value’? Are such debts to be repaid in rooms milling with people, or in the greenhouse at Nääs?…In Copenhagen I see so many relationships between women that I must try to comprehend in my own mind what Nature’s intention is with this.********

Posed photograph of Selma Lagerlof leaning against Sophie Elkan.

Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan, date unknown

Lagerlöf’s desire for physical intimacy seems to have been unrequited, though. In a letter written before a planned meeting, Elkan wrote, “Hands off!”

Still, the two remained devoted friends, traveling together to Italy and to Egypt and Palestine, the setting for Lagerlöf’s successful novel Jerusalem, which was published in parts in 1901 and 1902, with this dedication:

To Sophie Elkan, my comrade in life and literature

In 1902, Lagerlöf met Valborg Olander, an educator and suffragist, and the two began a passionate affair. Life became complicated. Elkan may not have wanted a physical relationship with Lagerlöf, but that doesn’t mean she wanted someone else filling this void.

Swedish educator and activist Valborg Olander.

Valborg Olander, date unknown

Jealousy and subterfuge ensued. Olander’s letters brimmed with passion, and Lagerlöf apparently destroyed many of them so that Elkan wouldn’t find them. Her own letters to Olander were equally ardent. “Every time you are here, I try to kiss you so I can be happy for a few days, but I long for you even before you are out of the gate,” she wrote in July 1902. In another letter, she expressed the wish that Olander would stay overnight—“that would be divine.”

Elkan grew desperate, writing, “Oh dear, you won’t take Valborg—is it Valborg?—instead of me, will you?”

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander in the 1930s.

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander, 1930s (Skodsborg Badesanatorium, Copenhagen)

Olander became deeply involved in Lagerlöf’s literary affairs as well, and Lagerlöf wrote to her saying that “you are becoming a real writer’s wife.” Eventually the trio reached an uneasy peace, which lasted until Elkan’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1921.

Lagerlöf remained devoted to Elkan after her death. Toward the end of her life, she started writing down the stories that Elkan had told her about growing up as a Jewish girl in Sweden, thinking of tales of Vikings and kings as her own heritage until a schoolmate mimed a long nose and said, “Jew kid!” Lagerlöf never finished the project, but the stories she completed were published after her death, in 1940, at the age of 80.

I’ve found Lagerlöf’s books on sale at every bookstore I’ve visited in Sweden,

Books by Selma Lagerlof on a bookshelf.

Akademibokhandeln, Uppsala

but beyond her native country she’s a literary footnote, a hometown favorite who won the Nobel in the years before the award broadened its geographic and literary horizons. If she were alive today, she wouldn’t be a contender. On the other hand, if she were alive today, she would be able to live her life openly, and with pride.

Carlonia Rediviva, Uppsala, with pride flags

Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala

*The illustrations are by future New Yorker cartoonist Rea Irvin.

**In fairness, the writer of the article, American suffragist Frances Maule Björkman, does end up with a more nuanced view of Swedish women, who turn out to have not the slightest interest in sparkling in society but interesting thing to say under other circumstances.

Photograph of Frances Maule Bjorkman with a suffragist banner.

R.C. Beadle, A.H. Brown, and Frances Björkman, 1913 (Bain News Service)

***Oops, sorry, I mean the Evil One.

****It was Greta Garbo’s performance in the 1924 film adaptation of this novel that brought her to the attention of Louis B. Mayer and launched her American career. You can watch some scenes from the film, with commentary, in this interesting five-minute clip.

Greta Garbo in Gösta Berlings saga

*****This was partly because, during most of World War I, the prize was awarded only to writers from non-combatant countries. To this day, only France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have more literature Nobelists than Sweden, which is tied with Germany at eight.

******The Nobel Prize website fesses up to the errors of its ways: “As to the early prizes, the censure of bad choices and blatant omissions is often justified.”

*******Or, as a vivid if probably not very accurate Google Translate translation from this essay in Upsala Nya Tydning puts it, “a lonely and isolated loser.”

********This translation is from a fascinating article called “Selma and her Lovers” in the June 2007 issue of Scanaroma, the SAS inflight magazine (!). Other translations are mine, with the help of Google Translate.