Amalie Skram meets the 21st century
Translations of the 19th-century Norwegian novelist introduce her to new audiences
Port Townsend, Wash.
Three Norwegian novels: A pretty, high-spirited singer at Copenhagen’s Tivoli captures the heart of a gentleman who hopes to give her a better life. A woman married to the Swedish consul in Constantinople thinks of taking a lover. A new bride aboard a ship on the Atlantic argues bitterly with a captain husband who has a past.
On the surface, this trio of short, late-nineteenth-century works, published in English by Norvik Press as Lucie (2001), Fru Inés (2014), and Betrayed (2018), would seem to be commonplace romantic fare. But in the hands of the gifted Norwegian writer Amalie Skram (1846-1905), the vividly written novels burst with social commentary and questions about male and female relationships.
Katherine Hanson, co-translator with Judith Messick of these novels, along with Skram’s earlier masterpiece, Constance Ring, believes that even today readers can respond to the emotion in the books: “I think Skram’s fiction resonates with the anger currently expressed by women about sexual misconduct.”
Hanson, a lifelong Seattle resident, has been working with Messick for over 30 years to translate the work of the Bergen-born author who drew on her own life to create memorable portraits of women who struggled against conventional social mores. In Betrayed, Hanson and Messick’s latest effort, Skram writes about the young Ory, on the eve of her marriage to the much-older Captain Riber, and what happens when this couple sets off to sea with very different expectations of sex and marriage. But as Hanson writes, “If you think you know where this story is headed you may be surprised. You would expect Skram’s sympathy to be squarely with Ory… but Ory is not always as sweet tempered and innocent as she first appears.”
Skram herself was married off at age 18 to a prosperous older ship captain, in part because her bankrupt father left his family to emigrate to America. Her experiences sailing around the world in the Norwegian merchant fleet in the 1860s provided the background for Betrayed. But unlike Ory, Skram eventually divorced her husband, moved to Oslo, and turned her interest in writing into a career. The scandalous success in 1884 of Constance Ring, which tackled the double standard and male-dominated society, put her on the literary map.
Its publication in English a hundred years later was a milestone in the rediscovery of Norwegian women authors, a venture that began when Hanson was asked in the early 1980s to edit an anthology of Norwegian women’s short fiction, An Everyday Story. This collection became a hit when it was originally published by Seattle’s Seal Press not only in Scandinavian literature classes, but among many Norwegian Americans discovering their literary heritage. Constance Ring, which followed in 1988, was reviewed by The New York Times and is still in print with Northwestern University Press.
Like many translators, Hanson fell into the work somewhat accidentally. After receiving her doctorate in Scandinavian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington in 1978, she was offered a teaching position at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Marriage to Michael Schick, a physics professor at the UW, brought her back to Seattle. The two lived on a houseboat on Portage Bay for many years as they pursued their professional careers, which in Hanson’s case became teaching and translation. Hanson found she loved the challenge of bringing the Norwegian language to life in expressive English. For An Everyday Story she read extensively to unearth stories from past and present by notable women writers from all over Norway, including Camilla Collett, Amalie Skram, and Sigrid Undset. A second edition of An Everyday Story (1995) added further stories by contemporary authors, such as Sámi author Kirsti Paltto and Chinese-Norwegian writer He Dong. Two years later Hanson translated an exquisite collection of stories by He Dong, Ask the Sun. Meanwhile, the work of Skram had become an enduring passion for Hanson.
It was Constance Ring that brought Hanson and Messick together in the mid-1980s. Messick, with a doctorate in English literature, had fallen in love with Skram’s writing when living in Bergen in the 1970s; she had recently finished a draft of Constance Ring. The two translators found they had complementary strengths. Working from their homes in different states, but frequently in contact, they went on to complete Constance Ring together, as well as to take on another Skram project, two startlingly modern novels (published in English in one volume as Under Observation in 1992) about a woman painter wrongly imprisoned in a mental institution by a male doctor who resolves to break her spirit.
Under Observation was based on an episode in Skram’s own life. In 1884, she married Erik Skram and moved to Copenhagen. The marriage turned difficult, and Skram herself ended up temporarily in a mental institution. Then, as now, female anger often manifests as depression. Over the years, Messick and Hanson grew to admire Skram’s courage in tackling the social injustices and contradictions that she saw all around her and that she lived in her own life. In their study of Skram’s correspondence, they found a brilliant woman writer who battled critics, money problems, and rejections from publishers, yet who still managed to become one of Norway’s most significant authors.
These days, Skram is much studied in Norway. A prize for writers who address women’s issues is named for her. There’s a statue of her in Bergen. But she is still less known in English than she deserves to be, and Hanson continues to work to change that. She’s taught the work of Skram in classes over the years and knows firsthand the powerful impression her novels make on readers. One student at the UW wrote in a paper that the troubled fate of Skram’s female protagonists made him think of his own mother in Korea. Others are moved to share stories from their own lives.
With Betrayed, Hanson and Messick bring their talents as translators to Skram’s tale of another complicated woman in an evocative maritime setting.
Barbara Sjoholm is a Norwegian and Danish translator and the author of many books, including The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland and Black Fox, a new biography of the Danish artist and ethnographer, Emilie Demant Hatt. She lives in Port Townsend, Wash.
This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.