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Not Just Ibsen

Friday, February 21, 2014 -
2:00pm to 4:30pm
St Catherine's College
Room C, Bernard Sunley Building

After two previous sessions looking in depth at Ibsen’s plays, this term’s event looks at his wider impact, exploring the post-Ibsen wave of interest in Scandinavian literature amongst British and European writers and artists around the turn of last century such as Rilke, Mann, Kafka, and Egerton.  There will be five speakers and plenty of time for discussion of each talk.  All are welcome to attend, and if you can only make one part of the session that’s fine.

Texts to read ahead of time if you can:  George Egerton’s stories “Now Spring has Come” and “The Spell of the White Elf” (in her collection Keynotes).  These are available online at

The programme


Dr Stefano Evangelista (Oxford, Faculty of English)

“George Egerton:  The Quintessence of Post-Ibsenism”

George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright) is one of the most important feminist writers in late-Victorian Britain.  Her collection of short stories, Keynotes (1893), created a sensation for its frank exploration of female sexual desires and became one of the iconic texts of British Decadence.  While Egerton’s feminism has been explored by various critics, she remains almost completely undiscovered as a crucial mediator of Scandinavian culture into Britain at the moment of the Northern Breakthrough.  Some of the stories in Keynotes use a Scandinavian, mostly Norwegian, setting, as a backdrop to their pioneering discussion of female sexual freedom.  Egerton discovers the untapped potential of the North which figures in her writings as a space of erotic experimentation and fulfilment.  Egerton’s exploration of the North is not confined to the construction of a myth, though, but rather becomes the source of a productive history of cultural exchange.  Keynotes was dedicated to Knut Hamsun, who was Egerton’s lover and whose novel Sult (Hunger) she would be the first to translate into English in 1899.  The influence of Ibsen on her feminism is also palpable.  Published at the height of Ibsen’s success in Britain, Egerton’s stories capitalise on the perception of Scandinavia as a source of challenging modernity in literature.

Dr Tina O’Toole (University of Limerick)

“Hermaphrodite by force of circumstances”:  The Irish-Scandinavian Roots of George Egerton’s Fiction”

The name George Egerton (1859-1945) became practically synonymous with Decadence when Elkin Mathews and John Lane’s partnership, the Bodley Head, published her sexually bold first collection of short stories, Keynotes.  The collection draws on English, Irish, and Norwegian settings and features a decidedly Scandinavian modernist style (one influenced by Knut Hamsun and Ola Hansson) and erotically assertive women protagonists.  During the 1880s, Egerton lived on a small property in Langesund where she learned Norwegian, and read the work of Ibsen, Strindberg, Bjørnson, and Hamsun; she encountered the work of Swedish author Ola Hansson and, through him, that of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work was virtually unknown at the time in the English-speaking world.  On her return to Ireland in the early 1890s, Egerton skilfully brought this Scandinavian learning into dialogue with her native context, drawing on the culture of the place she now inhabited on the Cork-Kerry border. The result was a series of narratives that created highly unusual types of subjectivity in fiction, ones that departed from normative nineteenth-century codes that sought to regulate the proper place of men and women in relation to class, gender, and nation.  In this way, Egerton’s work anticipated the literary expression of unconventional migrant experiences, hybrid national identities, and subversive intimate relations we tend to associate with later Irish modernists such as George Moore, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett.

3:00-3:15   COFFEE/TEA BREAK


Ritchie Robertson (Oxford, Faculty of Modern Languages)

“The Triumph of Ibsenism:  The Vogue for Scandinavian Modernism in Turn-of-the-Century Germany and Austria”

When writers in imperial Germany looked for foreign sources of inspiration, they tended to avoid France.  Since the Franco-Prussian War, French culture had been espoused mainly by writers opposed to the official culture (Nietzsche; Stefan George).  So that left the linguistically and racially congenial Scandinavia.  Not only Ibsen, but many other Scandinavian writers, some now little known internationally, were translated.  Their creative impact on German literature was immense.  The Naturalist movement regarded Ibsen as the flagbearer of modernity.  Hauptmann’s Vor Sonnenaufgang (Before Sunrise, 1889) draws on Ghosts.  Thomas Mann took the Norwegian novelists Kielland and Lie as models when writing Buddenbrooks (1901). J.P. Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne helped to inspire Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910).  Kafka based the plot of Das Schloss (The Castle, written 1922) on Strindberg’s By the Open Sea.  The paper will set out this background and then look especially at two female writers, Lou Andreas-Salomé, author of an early study of Ibsen, and Laura Marholm, who advocated a version of feminism based (strange as it may sound) on Strindberg’s depiction of women.

Ruth Schor (Oxford D Phil student, Faculty of Modern Languages)

“After the Birth of Modernism:  Traces of Ibsen between Vienna and Berlin c. 1900”

While Ibsen’s relevance as a mascot of German Naturalism remains undisputed, his works did much more than influence a new ideology of theatre making. Ibsen’s works assumed a central place in the German-speaking world, when engagement with the theatre and theatre going culture re-defines itself as part of a growing metropolitan sphere. Urbanity, cultural innovation and mass culture - terms intrinsically linked with Modernity and Modernism - also describe the experience of going to the theatre at the time. This paper is an attempt to re-read Ibsen’s Modernism, as it has been defined by Toril Moi in her 2006 book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, and apply it to the cultural phenomenon of a growing theatre going culture in Vienna and Berlin around 1900. It will focus on works by Arthur Schnitzler and the ways in which traces of Ibsen re-appear in the specific urban context of the time.   


Open forum:  final discussion & planning for next events



Contact name: 
Kirsten Shepherd-Barr
Open to all