Journal

by Birgitta Hjalmarson

Devil, Reformer, or Both?

May, 2019

Published in 1839, Det går an* shocked men and women both. The author, Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, found that his friends had turned against him; he had to resign from his position as headmaster at a school in Stockholm; a critic challenged him to a duel and spat in his face.

The novel opens in the midst of the Swedish summer. Albert, a young sergeant, meets Sara Widebeck onboard a steamer. “A charming and remarkable intermediate!” he tells himself. “Not a country girl, not at all a peasant girl — nor yet entirely of the better class.”

They go ashore and share a meal at an inn. He watches her take off her lilac gloves, her fingers just “a bit too fleshy.” It is obvious that they “had never played the lute, touched piano keys, wielded paint brushes, or turned over the leaves of fine books, for which narrow and lithe fingertips are needed.”

Sara tells him that her father is dead and that she herself carries on with his glazier’s shop. Since she is unmarried, Albert fears she lacks protection. “On the contrary,” she says. “If I had a husband as irritable and drunk as my mother’s was, I should be defenseless and miserable. No, I tell you, I shall get along just as I am.”

They fall in love but Sara refuses to marry. She insists that they must have separate households and separate finances. Love alone will bind them. But can it be done? Not even Sara is sure. “Will it do?”

Judging by the response of the readers, the answer was no. Women in particular felt threatened. With no laws to protect them, unmarried women would be branded as whores. Separating sexuality from marriage would be a carte blanche for lecherous men to come and go as they pleased. What would happen to the children?

In 1851, accused of trying to murder a usurer, Almqvist fled Sweden. It was a sordid affair — the main evidence was a bowl of oatmeal soup, allegedly laced with arsenic. To this day questions remain. Was he a base and demonic nature, the cause of his downfall all his own? Or was he the victim of a conspiracy, driven out of a country that saw him as a danger to the social order? After running a boarding house in America, he wanted to return to Sweden, but with the police waiting to arrest him, he never could. In 1866 he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Germany.

Still, Sara Widebeck lived on. Fleshy fingers and all.

*Sara Widebeck – The Chapel (Library of Scandinavian Literature, translated from Swedish)

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