Thursday, 4 April 2013

Pengar / Money by Victoria Benedictsson (3/5)

First published: 1885 (under the pseudonym Ernst Ahlgren)
Original title:
Pengar
Original language: Swedish
Translation to English by: Sarah G Death
Page count: 200


The back says: Set in the rural landscape of Southern Sweden where she lived, this is Victoria Benedictsson's first novel (1885). Selma Berg, a complicated heroine whose fate has much in common with Madame Bovary, develops from a naive girl into a woman desperate enough to destroy her respectability by leaving her husband. She is forced to give up her dream of going to art school when her uncle persuades her, at sixteen, to marry a rich older squire who is an incurable womanizer. Profoundly shocked by her wedding night and by the mercenary nature of the marriage, she finds herself trapped in a life of idle luxury. Her only pleasure is her friendship with her cousin Richard. Their mutual regard seems destined to lead them into adultery, but Selma resists, and chooses instead to break away in a search for self-fulfillment.

Money's qualities of naturalism and implicit feminism place it firmly within the radical literary movement of the 1880s known as Scandinavia's Modern Breakthrough. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Victoria Benedictsson committed suicide after her lover, the critic Georg Brandes, criticized her second novel.

I say: I read this in Swedish for uni and probably would never have picked it up if I wasn’t forced to. The main reason being that I simply cannot stand women like Selma, i.e. these so called heroines marrying men they don’t love, commit adultery and then blame everyone but themselves – I’m looking at you Madame Bovary, Catherine Earnshaw, Tess of the D’urrstpids, et al – granted, Selma doesn’t commit adultery, but even so.

Now, I understand that this is a critique of Swedish law, which severely discriminated against women, and that is the main reason this novel gets a 3/5 because, in the end, Selma refused to see herself as a victim. It’s true that, prior to that, she wanted to please her uncle by marrying a wealthy man, but she did have a choice and she rather relished in turning up her nose to those who had looked down on her before.

She was only 16, so the naïveté is acceptable, I suppose.

Other than the early marriage, the predictability of falling in love with her cousin and then breaking free of her husband, this was a rather meh read. It was short and thought-provoking, with a statement that overshadows the story.

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