Reportage / 9 March 2020

The Darlings of Textival

Week of the Festival: Littfest, Umeå, Sweden

In the fall of 2018, Textival organised the programme series Darlings for the first time. During four evenings, a panel of researchers, writers, playwrights, artists and poets gathered to discuss and bring to life works by four more or less forgotten writers from the 16th to the 18th century: the Italian lyricist Gaspara Stampa, the French prosaist Madame de La Fayette, the Swedish poet Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht and the Swiss travel writer Isabelle Eberhardt. The programme took place in the beautiful cultural heritage-listed Gathenhielmska huset in the centre of Gothenburg, which preserves much of its original interior from the 1740s.

In the run-up to the programme series we hosted a discussion on the role and function of the literary classic and how one can approach a classic literary work in an innovative way. Our ambition was to create an open and permissive space wherein different thoughts, ideas, and perspectives would be able to meet.

A classic is usually thought to be characterised by its ability to extend beyond its own time and speak to future generations. We also know that every text is historically situated, and that what we currently consider a classic is anything but permanent, and that such valuations are affected by contemporary politics. We have therefore sought, through our selection of books, to pay particular attention to authorships that have been historically marginalised or for various reasons have fallen into oblivion.

By inviting experts from different fields, and by applying both scientific and artistic approaches to the selected classic works, we were able to have lectures on literary history as well as to bring the works to life through talks and readings with contemporary writers.

The title of the programme series is borrowed from a fanzine that was published in Sweden in the 90s called Darling. Darling became a feminist milestone and set a whole new tone in the Swedish magazine world. Inspired by our shameless big sister, we wanted to open up the programme for various forms of personal address, including impassioned and critical types of readings, all the while cultivating a searching curiosity in the tone of our conversations.

Among all the fantastic, terrible and brilliant women and men without which literary history would surely have been much sadder, we’d like to include the Italian Renaissance poet Gaspara Stampa (1523–1554). She is completely unknown to most people today, despite being one of the most prominent female writers of the Renaissance, whose lyrical talent and cultural significance cannot be overestimated. Stampa creatively used established codes for genre and style, as well as for gender and love, in brand new, subversive ways. And thanks to new generations of academics, she is getting more and more attention.

In her home country of France, Madame de La Fayette (1634–1693) is a great name, and her best-known novel La princesse de Clèves (1678) is still mandatory reading at school. The novel, which was both a success and a scandal when it was first published, is a hybrid form that mixes historical and fictitious characters, while bringing forward psychological problems and social criticism without reverting to allegorical figures. This was unusual at the time and gives the work its modern feel.

Sweden’s first feminist, and the first Swedish woman to live by her own writing, was the poet Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht (1718–1763). Nordenflycht was an important figure in the Swedish enlightenment and in her long poem Fruentimrets försvar (1761, “In Defense of Women”) she attacked the French enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his claims that girls should not be educated. She was one of the foremost Swedish 18th-century poets, and her rich and varied oeuvre encompasses everything from elegies, occasional poetry, pastorals, philosophical poems and epics, to heartfelt love poems that could have been written today.

For most of her adult life, the author and adventurer Isabelle Eberhardt (1877–1904) lived a nomadic life in the North African desert, not infrequently under the assumed identity of Si Mahmoud Essaadi and dressed in Bedouin men's clothing. Despite her short life, Eberhardt published a number of books and travelogues, as well as numerous articles in newspapers.

In a time and environment that was largely characterised by both social and geographical immobility, strict class and gender divides, and the colonial order's separation of “us” and “them”, Isabelle Eberhardt was an anomaly who is, in many ways, closer to us than she is to her contemporaries.

And similarly, one could argue, we often feel closer to many of the authorships we talked about during the programme series than to our own fragmented time. The writers speak to us about destinies and problems of the human hearts, that for sure, still challenge us today.

The article was commissioned and edited by Helena Fagertun