Saturday, December 08, 2007

What's it all about?

In 1994/5, I lived and worked 'au pair' on a farm not far from Oslo. I learnt to speak, read & write Norwegian and, as I was looking after children, was totally immersed in the incredibly popular folk tales of Asbjornsen & Moe (think Scandinavian Bros. Grimm). I was also blown away by Sigrid Undset's Nobel Prize winning historical trilogy 'Kristin Lavransdatter', and thought I'd like very much to set a book there one day myself.

So, what began as an idea for a younger children's book, based on the folktales, has now, after some more research on the Norwegian women's suffrage movement, 'grown up' into the 12+ age-group and threatens to grow farther still. I am having to watch myself at every turn and guard against letting it grow up too much, or risk alienating my potential audience.

The working title is Stina Trolldatter, and the background to the story is as follows:

- Firstly, trolldatter or trollunge means something like 'troll-child' or 'changeling', and is sometimes used rather in the manner of 'cheeky monkey' - a half-hearted telling-off of a willful child. It can also mean the true daughter of a troll and his hag; such girls appear in the folk tales from time to time, usually they are slow, stupid, and come to the same sticky end as their awful parents.

- Secondly, Norwegian women began their struggle for the vote around about the 1860s, becoming significantly more organised during the 1880s, and finally getting the vote in 1907 (local elections) and 1913 (national elections).

The organisation of of women into feminist groups began with women-only bible study meetings and charity organisations, and grew relatively quickly, compared with England, even though it was a much more rural society and far fewer women were in paid work.

They were helped by contemporary cultural goings-on, such as the publication of diaries & novels by Camille Collett, the letters from America of Frederika Bremer, the translation into Danish of John Stuart Mills' On the subjugation of women, and (perhaps unwittingly) the staging of Ibsen's A Doll's House, which premiered in 1879 in Copenhagen, and was performed in Oslo in January 1880. As you may know, the protagonist of the play, Nora, leaves her husband and children at the end of the story, which scandalised audiences and lead to the play's being banned in England and given a 'happy ending' in Germany.

Okay, background out of the way, on to the story itself:

- Stina (aged about 14) and her little brother Halvor, live an idyllic life in rural Norway with their extended family. The year is 1880.

- Their mother has been taken off to Oslo on a 'shopping trip' by her younger, unmarried sister Aunt Kari (Tante Kari, in the Norwegian).

- She doesn't come back.

- At first, the children and father are just plain worried. Then comes news that she isn't coming home. She and Kari were, in fact, planning to see a performance of A Doll's House, with Kari's bible group - actually a covert feminist group. The children's mother had been uninterested at first, but experienced an epiphany whilst watching the play.

- Stina echoes her father's reaction of shame and anger, and willingly takes over the 'woman's role' in the household, simultaneously trying to shield her brother from the terrible truth through her great love of storytelling. As we know, many such folktales are highly allegorical. There are many tales to choose from, and she selects those that she thinks will help him to understand their new circumstances.

- Stina also spends a lot of time, over the next few months, amongst her mother's things, trying to understand why she left so abruptly. Under the mattress, she discovers a dog-eared copy of John Stuart Mill's book that has been passed on from woman to woman, and was finally pressed upon her reluctant mother by Tante Kari. Stina begins to read the book, although the Danish translation is hard to decipher, being somewhat different from her own dialect.

- More interesting to Stina, during these secret hours she spends reading, in between the household chores and looking after her brother, is the marginalia left by all the women who have previously owned the book. As she reads on, she begins to get why her mother left. Consequently, the stories she tells to Halvor (with her father listening in) begin to change - she is not ashamed any more. Where she cannot find a story to fit her feelings, she seamlessly invents one, and passes it off as authentic, thereby gradually changing the minds of both Halvor and her father.

- Eventually, they (or perhaps just the children - I haven't decided yet) make the journey to Oslo to bring their mother home; to a household changed for the better, and a family that appreciates her a little more than before.

- So A Doll's House does get a new happy ending, in a way, and their mother isn't saddled with Nora's lonely future.

(Well, more like 'the beginning', I suppose.)



Post a Comment

<< Home