David Gedin, Att få lov. Kvinnor och baler kring 1880-talet. (May I? Women at balls in the late Nineteenth Century.)
The ball, as a central literary theme, symbol and milieu, is as old in Swedish literature as the bourgeois, realistic novel. But it is among female writers that it occurs frequently, while it hardly exists among male authors. The obvious reason is that in the life of an unmarried bourgeois woman, the ball was the scene and marketplace for her transformation from her role as daughter to a new one as wife and another as mother.
Going to her first ball was an important and delicate occasion. She was “coming out”, that is, leaving the relatively secure and isolated hearth of the family, to become a commodity on the open match-making market. Her value was a combination of her dowry, social background, looks and behaviour. This was the day of reckoning of her upbringing.
And her success not only decided her own future, but also influenced that of her family. If she did not find a proper husband, her family would in most cases have to support her for the rest of her life. On the other hand, a good marriage could mean a great social and financial improvement for her parents, brothers and sisters. She could, for example, be able to take care of a less fortunate spinster sister.
Demands on the appearance and behaviour of the young woman were both rigorous and paradoxical. A good wife should raise children and rule her household with a firm hand, survive pregnancy and childbirth, and see to her husband’s sexual needs. But to attract the attention of a man with good prospects and the financial means to marry, she should appear modest, controlled, innocent and attentive towards her husband’s wishes. That is, to have a social and financial career, she had to appear to be without any monetary interests, and to become a mother she must seem totally unaware of her sexuality.
It is no wonder that young women required some help, and it was provided by the novels’ detailed descriptions of ideal male and female behaviour, as well as warnings about irresponsible and ruthless men and offensive female appearances, such as that of scheming or coquetry.
But though the market in the bourgeois, liberal society was far from romantic, it was at least, to some extent, free. Even though the stakes where high and the rules rigid, the ball represented an opening, a period of possibilities and relative freedom. The time available depended on the young woman’s desirability, but should have lasted no more than ten years, from the age of 16 to her mid to late twenties.
By depicting this period in a young woman’s life and dealing with it at length, female authors not only shed light on this freedom, but also made the shadows of unhappy marriages or childhoods appear more distinctly.
This becomes more evident in the eighteen-eighties, when the young generation of realistic writers stood up and criticized established society. Female writers described in particular detail the business of courting and matchmaking at the balls without the traditional romantic glow of love and romance. In their stories, it is also depicted as materialistic and cynical. Consequently, the descriptions effectively functioned as a severe critique of the situation of the bourgeois woman as well.
This marked the beginning of the end of the nineteenth century ball, and both their practical and symbolic significance, in social life as well as in literature. This development was emphasized further by the next generation of female writers. It becomes especially evident
in the early works of Selma Lagelöf, in her unpublished epic poem “Madame de Castro” or “Marknadsbalen” (“The Market Ball”), written about 1885, and in “Gösta Berlings saga” (1891). In those stories, she expropriates the ball as a scene, transforming it into a stage populated by poets and artists. Matrimony, the patriarchy, social position, beauty and money are dismissed; that is, all of the central values in the construction of the hierarchy that defined the bourgeois woman becomes but a petty background to the real drama of individuality, artistry and freedom. Moreover, the ball is banished to an artificial past in witch Lagerlöf is free to caricature and thereby sharply criticize the actual conditions of women. In this way, she gives life and form to the ongoing upheaval of the established order, and the banishing of the central practical and symbolic function of the balls at the threshold of the twentieth century.
Uppsala: Svenska Litteratursällskapet , 2007. Vol. Årg. 128, 52-109 p.
Kulturhistoria, borgerliga romaner, borgerligheten, genus, dans, bal, åttitalet, Lagerlöf, Gösta Berlings saga