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Book description

Book description
Opening with a glorious scene that sounds enticingly like Christmas, all snow and sleighs and abundant food (it’s actually February), The Colonel’s Family is a nineteenth-century novel rather unlike any other I’ve read. It does have known features, some of which are rarely seen in one place: high, stormy Romanticism, the strait-laced propriety of the Improving Book, early feminist polemic, and sentimentalism. (The author took pains not to be overly sentimental, and metafictionally tells us so, but to a 21st century cynic she still is a bit.) And all is bound in a curious uneven structural form – including the odd scene set out as a play - that feels entirely contemporary. Fredrika Bremer has been described as the Swedish Charlotte Bronte; to an extent I can understand why: the Romanticism, the feminism, the absurdly unlikely romances I rolled my eyes at – but the unconventionality of the book as a whole, combined with the obscurity and cultural tourism, and the wholeheartedness with which we are thrown into each subgenre made it much more interesting to me. As a modern pastiche novel, I would have had little time for it, but as a historical artefact it is fascinating; it’s easy to see why this book is studied (and perhaps a shame that it is not studied more outside Scandinavia).The structure, which can at times feel like a series of linked short stories in different styles about the family members, came about because Bremer’s publishers insisted on receiving sections of the book before subsequent ones were finished (as the Afterword describes). My liking for the book may be similar to the way in which I prefer naïve art, like the painting on the cover*, to conventionally “good” nineteenth century portraits.The extreme shortage of opportunities for women outside marriage is exemplified by the narrator, Beata [translated surname Workaday] an intelligent woman from a middle class background who in England in 1830 would most likely have been a governess. In Sweden she has a role translated as a family adviser, a paid companion who also takes on practical duties as required, moving socially between the family and the staff, a sort of household PA. Three major characters get married during the course of the novel and in each case before any wedding takes place, the woman makes a stand about her lack of power to choose who her husband is, or her involuntary dependence on her husband for economic and social standing after marriage. Some Swedish women had the vote in the 18th century – the period during which Bremer was writing was actually somewhat regressive. The early family scenes were reminiscent of the wholesome cosiness of The Vicar of Wakefield - a novel which the afterword confirms was an influence on Bremer. Emilia’s extreme anxiety about marriage – related to her friends’ bad experiences, and implicitly her lack of rights – has an effect on the household and a psychological verisimilitude not unlike Natasha in War and Peace. Everything still seems more or less cosy though, until a tidal wave of Romanticism hits with the backstory of the Colonel’s blind, depressed niece Elisabeth. In her past wishes to assert a more masculine form of thought and existence for herself, combined with high emotion and obsessive devotion to love (to many modern sensibilities these sound contradictory to one another, but in the Romantic Movement they were not) - minus the late-onset physical disabilities, she sounded much like accounts of Karoline von Günderrode a friend of writer and Goethe disciple Bettina von Arnim**, or even some of Mary Wollestonecraft.Elisabeth exists in contrast to the Beth March / Pollyanna Whittier figure of Helena, her hunchbacked cousin who is forever cheerful and helpful. For some while I thought I saw the religious implication that those with disabilities should happily accept their lot as gods will. However, considerable compassion is shown Elisabeth by narrative and characters, and although she cannot know it, she has fared better in Sweden than she probably would have at the time even in another European country. Rather than blaming her for failing to accept her lot gracefully, upbringing - as well as the limited roles allowed to women – is indicated as a cause of her unhappiness. Helenas family intentionally lavished love and gifts on her to make up for her lifelong disability. Elisabeth, whose blindness in any case had a later onset, was neglected and shipped around as a child, in a way now known to have a particularly adverse effect on those with [genetic] sensitivity. Although Bremer seems to have some understanding of the role of upbringing, (it is not entirely consistent given the example of the sweet Cinderella Hermina, to whom no-one was kind before she met her beau) there is an implied belief in the novel that women’s mental health problems would be entirely alleviated by improved rights and recognition in society - although it is also clear that very solid characters like Beata are held back by their lack of rights too.Other, minor, characters are examples of friendly families egalitarian for their time, or of strong middle-class women. (One of these takes a whip to a cheeky peasant lad who sings bawdy songs on the road. I daresay Bremer wouldn’t be any fonder than many contemporary internet posters of my interpretation of the embarrassing controversy over catcalling as, partly, a class issue, but she certainly provides a flagrant example.) The Colonel’s Family is mostly a book of eventual happy endings, most of them laughably unlikely, but as well as a possible satire on sentimental romantic novels of the period, these could be seen as Bremer’s way of creating a fictional community slightly more utopian – but not unimaginably so – than the world she actually had to live in.* Painting by an unknown artist from the 1830s, National Museum of Finland. . I love old portraits generally, and the slightly rustic / naïve style of this one. The way the cat appears to be clawing the girls dress, caught in a photographic moment of trying to escape the sitting; the perfect shading of the arms; the hairstyle (regional?), unusual with this type of well-to-do dress (from a British perspective); the too-wide classical column looking out on to fjords. The girls face is also uncannily like that of a girl I knew when I was a kid.** I know about these two thanks to Immortality by Milan Kundera, a book which otherwise wasn’t that great.
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