The enduring appeal of Elin Wägner’s suffragist classic
‘For the Hard Labour Gang, it was a summer like no other.’ This is a book about sisterhood and struggle that has won the hearts of many Swedish readers over the years. And that is why, when bulk orders from Norway and the US sent my translation of Penwoman out of stock, the team at Norvik Press pulled out all the stops to make a new, digitised edition and ensure this great novel remained available. Serendipitously, this also means we are able to bring you a sleek new cover design by Essi Viitanen, incorporating a photograph of the author taken around 1917. Wägner’s enigmatic but knowing look makes this a definite favourite of mine among images of her.
Originally published in 1910, Penwoman is the classic novel of the Swedish women’s suffrage movement. Its vividly and wittily portrayed gallery of diverse female campaigners comes together to form a collective that throws itself into tireless campaigning. They find male allies but also clash with irate conservative opponents (of both sexes) and risk both limb and reputation to advance their struggle for the vote. The protagonist is a young female journalist named Barbro, universally known as Penwoman. She is unconventional, feisty and fearless, but finds that the complications of love and friendship can take their emotional toll and be serious distractions from the task in hand.
As a pioneering female journalist over a century before the #metoo movement, Penwoman faces insults, innuendo and a very real threat of physical violence, be it at her boarding house, in her campaigning, or when going about her journalistic duties on the streets of the capital, sometimes after dark. Her experience and humanity drive her to be moved by the plight of women from every background, from the abused prostitute Klara to the lonely princess arriving with her family and retinue at the main railway station. Penwoman, sent to cover the royal visit and ‘be sure to note what she is wearing’, is deeply moved by a scribbled note tossed to her by the young woman:
This multi-dimensional tale of pioneering female lives also has its moving and poetic moments. Here is one of my own favourites: in one of her confrontations with an alpha male politician whose cooperation is vital to the cause, Penwoman persuades him to make a bet. He will grant a concession if she can find a particular species of spring flowers blooming in the grounds of his home:
The group dynamics of the suffrage campaigners are a central feature of this kaleidoscopic novel, and Penwoman’s youthful optimism is a perfect foil for the melancholy of her slightly older colleague Cecilia. Cecilia’s own personal emotional tragedy lies at the heart of the unforgettable opening pages:
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There is much more about the fascinating life and times of writer and campaigner Elin Wägner in a lively review of a probing new biography, in the spring 2021 issue of Swedish Book Review: https://swedishbookreview.org/den-besvarliga-elin-wagner-review
Sarah Death, translator of Penwoman