Fabulous Female: Mathilde Fibiger (the First, Danish Feminist

This week’s Fabulous Female is Mathilde Fibiger, the first Danish feminist. I read a biography about her called ‘Passionsblomsten’ (The Passion Flower), which is by Bodil Wamberg. All quotes from the book (or from Fibiger’s writings) are my translation from Danish.

Mathilde Fibiger, photographed by Thora HallagerWikipedia

Fibiger was the first to bring the issue of women’s emancipation and freedom to Denmark. Her first book, published under the pseudonym Clara Raphael, was called Twelve Letters, and consisted of a series of letters from an autobiographical governess to her friend. The introduction was written by the famous writer and literary critic  Johan Ludvig Heiberg, who called her a “passion flower in a garden of cabbage”.

Childhood & Youth

Born in 1830, her early childhood years were fairly happy in spite of her parents loveless marriage. Her dad was a major in the Danish army, and in the early years of her life her family was rather wealthy. Her father, a proponent for free speech, became disliked by the Danish king, who degraded him and sent him to the other side of the country. Fibiger’s family now became very poor, and when her parents divorced and her mother remarried, she wasn’t allowed to stay with her anymore. Fibiger is 14 when her mother passes away, and she soon plans to train to become a governess so she doesn’t have to be a burden to her family.

At the age of 19 she gets her first position as a governess and she experiences her first taste of freedom – or as free as a woman in the 19th century can be. Freedom became her key word, and she wrote to her sister Anna: “All of nature is free, then should the human being be a slave? I want to be free! Free in spirit, soul, thought and word. In freedom will I love, love and work, freely will I forsake. You do not get something for nothing.”.

Twelve Letters

It is during this time that Fibiger begins writing her first book Twelve Letters under the pen name Clara Raphael, her braver alter ego, also a governess, who write these letters to her friend Mathilde – her more demure alter ego. She wrote against the authoritarian teaching styles so popular at the time: “It is easy enough for an authoritarian teacher to affect children and young people, says Clara. But later in life, how will they reach their own truth about life, once the school has brainwashed them – or tied the poor children into a spiritual corset.”

Through the writings of a Danish philosopher Poul Møller, who also influenced the most famous Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, she realized that only the people who are true in their being, can ever be free human beings.

This is when she starts talking about the importance of the emancipation of women. While she’s way ahead of her time, she’s still quite far behind what would be considered emancipated today. She categorically denies wanting to take equal part in all of the men’s rights and businesses. Rather she believes that the women’s role here on earth is to keep her soul as “a clean mirror in which the man can see the ideal.” The relationship between man and woman is like a piece of music, where the bass and the treble together bring forward “the most beautiful harmony”. However this ideal can only be achieved when women aren’t bent under the will of the man as his slave. She must develop “under her own conditions, after her own abilities and after her own spiritual needs.”

She also wrote about the “vanity” of women, a “vanity”, which I think many women still struggle with today: “Our vanity is to try and please others, and it makes us dependent. It is our vanity which draws our soul from the great, which splits our abilities, which united could have and would have worked towards a great goal.

And one finds it so innocent to want to please… that the false life little by little take over, so the real life, God in our soul, becomes weaker and weaker, and slowly die.”

The biggest problem with her idea of emancipation is that the young author has no idea what to do with her idea, how to fight for it, how to achieve it. She consoles herself with the thought, that it is a great thing just to know what one wants to do. At the time, and still today, the conclusion of her novel is it’s biggest weakness. Fibiger has her alter ego marry a young baron, letting them live in a platonic marriage, in order to attain more heavenly happiness later on.

Reactions and Response

Johan Ludvig Heiberg, one of the most prolific writers and literary critics at the time, read the young author’s manuscript, made sure it got published and wrote the foreword. They actively exchanged letters for a while, and he had a bit of an obsession with her (as he always did with young women), although she only ever saw him as a friend. The obsession cooled down after they met in person, as did their friendship.

Twelve Letters became a huge success – and a scandal, the critics praised the young authors excellent language, psychological insight and writing style. Many people were angry with her theme of women’s emancipation, and one of them, Meïr Aron Goldschmidt, wrote an even more degrading review of her short story a few months later. A Visit is the name of a humoristic story about the unequal conditions of men and women. A brother and a sister gets the idea one lovely summer morning to take a trip in the beautiful nature. The brother can leave straight away, but the sister, because of conventions ridiculous discrimination, has to wait several days while her tardy family gets ready to accompany her. For a young woman it would have been too improper to go so far away from home without company.

Her own family wasn’t happy about her new status as a writer either – especially not of the thoughts she were expressing. They were very quick to distance themselves from her and loudly expressing their disagreement. Especially her father was upset she would publish these writings, especially without his permission. Her older sister Ilia, a sister whom Fibiger had been especially close to, was the harshest in her critique, stating “she couldn’t stand writing shrews”.

Her Fate

Through the next years Fibiger moved around the country, sometimes living with friends, other times family members. Some periods were rather happy, but throughout most of her time she struggled with melancholia and depression, often exacerbated by poverty. She writes a few more books, the most controversial being Minona about two siblings incestuous (not physical) love, through which her personal lack of knowledge about romantic love clearly shines through.

Her last triumph was becoming the first female telegraphist in Denmark, she no longer tried to stir up controversy and she stopped talking about women’s emancipation and declined to help found the Danish Women’s Society in 1871. She had lost faith, not in the cause, but in herself as being chosen for the cause. She was happy working, with her own independence and leading a quiet life. She died in 1872, not even 42 years old.

Her fate is yet another example of how an exceptionally clever woman was betrayed by a society, which had no understanding of the signals of a new time. And most importantly, she was betrayed by her family, whose love and accept she always longed for, but because she was ahead of her time and broke with its conventions, she had to be punished. She never experienced being understood and accepted by her family, and in the end, the authority they had over her, took away her love of life.

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