Mar 14, 2016

Writer Crush: Minna Canth


Minna Canth (1844-1897) was a Finnish writer, journalist, and feminist. Born Ulrika Wilhelmina Johnsson, she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and attended a Swedish-language girls' school when growing up. From a young age, she rejected the stereotypical role thrust upon women at that time and wanted to become a schoolmistress, one of the few careers open to women in the 1800s. (It was pretty much that or a midwife. Or wife and mother, the traditional choice.)

While she was studying at the seminary school in Jyväskylä, she fell in love with her science teacher Johan Ferdinand Canth, dropped out, and got married. Okay, not a very feminist thing to do, but she did refuse his proposal twice before accepting, so it probably was a hard decision for her. She helped him edit his two journals, in which she published her first articles and short stories. But their happiness didn't last: in 1879 Johan died unexpectedly of "brain fever" (so probably encephalitis or meningitis) while Canth was pregnant with her seventh child. Alone with seven children and no income, a lot of women would have given up, but not Canth: she moved to Kuopio and took over her father's yarn store, which was near bankruptcy at the time. She turned the business around in a few years, and suddenly she had the means to support her family and the leisure to become a full-time writer.

Over the years Canth wrote a number of plays and stories, and also acted as editor of a journal called Vapaita Aatteita (Free Thought). She was a vocal proponent for women's rights and very active in the community. Her salon hosted many of the brightest minds of the time. Despite having modern sensibilities, Canth was also very religious, which led to some interesting conflicts.

I picked up a collection of Canth's work because I wanted to research 19th century speech patterns for a short story, but Canth surprised me. I fell in love with her sharp wit, memorable characters, and clear voice. Canth is a realist writer, and she was also influenced by the naturalist movement, so a lot of her stories have to do with the lives of the poor and women's rights. Her literary influences include Tolstoy, Dickens, Zola, and Strindberg. Unsurprisingly, Canth's protagonists are mainly women, and a lot of the male figures in the stories are weaklings or villains. The endings aren't happy, but they do pack a punch; in most of Canth's stories, the final paragraph makes the story.

This is probably something that gets lost in translation, but I also love the old-fashioned language Canth uses. The effect is probably similar to what modern readers experience reading Dickens or other 19th century English writers. There's quite a few lovely, forgotten words in the Finnish language, and I'm glad Canth reminded me of them.

Just to give you a taste, I decided to translate a few bits for you:

Here's a bit from an essay on women's rights:

"In addition to a sedentary life and flights of fancy come corsets, to which can be attributed at least half the internal maladies of which women nowadays suffer. This artificial concept of beauty is the worst enemy of nature. A woman must be slender, and because of this is her ribcage compressed, her internal organs squashed and pushed from their proper places until they press and harm the more fragile parts of the body. Just think how this impairs the body's normal functions. And constantly people speak of a woman's innate weakness as an impediment to giving her equal rights. Were we to raise a boy in as idiotic and closed-minded a fashion as a girl and stuff him in a corset, we'd see how far his stamina and health would take him."

Yep, this made me feel guilty about buying a corset.

And here's a description of Kauppa-Lopo, a disgusting but good-hearted and wily character prone to kleptomania and drinking:

"Lopo turned her turgid face to the room and went on grinning. Rita again marvelled at her hideousness. Snot with bits of snuff glistened under her nose and at the corners of her mouth, and matted hair hung in her eyes. And what about the cheeks? Dirty, grey, and distended, it looked like she was chewing two huge wads of tobacco, but it was only snuff.

Riitta thought her choice of clothing a bit peculiar, too. Lopo's skirt was as wide on top as at the hem and her coat, black and coarse as a potato sack, bulged out at the waist. The top button was missing, revealing a neck like cured leather."

A vivid bit of description, isn't it?

If you want to check out Canth's work, here's a link to a translation of The Parson's Family, and Amazon has this translation of The Burglary and The House of Roinila. Her most famous works are probably Anna Liisa, the story of a fifteen-year-old who got pregnant out of wedlock and killed her newborn child, and The Worker's Wife, about a woman stuck in a marriage to an alcoholic who wastes all her money. More of Canth's work needs to be translated. The world needs to know about Kauppa-Lopo!

In Finland, we celebrate Minna Canth on her birthday the 19th of March (this Saturday) by flying flags in her honour. The day also commemorates equal rights. Canth is the first Finnish woman to get her own flag day.

So that's Minna Canth for you. I bet she was one tough broad.


Kodin suuret klassikot: Minna Canth, toimittanut Ilpo Tiitinen


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