Hidden authors and serendipitous discoveries, by Marie Nedregotten Sørbø

What did the users of the reading societies for women read? Or more precisely, how many and which foreign women did they read? In order to give a reliable answer to the question, there is no avoiding the onerous task of going through the catalogues of their book collections, line by line, letter by miniscule letter.

The easy part is recording the female names among them, and passing over (most of) the male ones for this purpose. However, in the 140 page main catalogue of the Norwegian Læseforening for Kvinder, a large number, perhaps even a majority of the names, are gender ambiguous. They often consist of initials plus surname, and sometimes only the latter. Some names are clearly pseudonyms.

The famous names are easy. We know that A. Skram is Amalie, while E. Skram is her husband Erik. We recognize M. Serao and E. Marlitt and M. E. Braddon, through frequent earlier encounters in this project. Most of these names, however, need to be checked through devious searches to try to discover something about author or title. Who would have guessed that F. C. Burgh is really Danish writer Mathilde Christensen, or that J. E Cart is her fellow country-woman Augusta Etlar? Sometimes, the searches are in vain, and a substantial list of authors like F. Dahl, C. Carvice, I. L Fletcher. M. V Gertz are still genderless.

In other cases, the results remain uncertain, as the question of whether ‘M.v. Eschen’ is really an abbreviated version of German novelist Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (who would fit the time and the bill).

The author’s gender is not only disguised in initials. Sometimes the entire name has disappeared, the books evidently having been published anonymously. Luckily, some of these titles are still well known enough to be retrievable in online sources, like Drøm og virkelighed (dream and reality). In itself an extremely ordinary title that would yield hundreds of hits, it fortunately is known as a work by Thomasine Gyllembourg, one of the best-known Danish nineteenth-century writers.

A striking case of female invisibility is the entry under L: Fra Luthers Tid (from Luther’s time). It is followed by four other titles by the same, unnamed author, all in Norwegian editions from the 1870s. There is no indication that these are translations, and no hints of nationality, gender or identity. They rather appear to be the works of a Norwegian clergyman, perhaps. A closer investigation of the titles, however, reveal them to be by English writer Elizabeth Rundle Charles.

Some discoveries are mere serendipity. Early in the catalogue, under A, the anonymous title Alene i London (alone in London) is listed. Since again the words are too common to be a good search in themselves, the hunt for an author did not at first succeed. It seemed, however, to ring a bell. Several days later, on opening the long forgotten novel The Farm on the Fjord, by the obscure Catherine Ray, there it was. She lets her characters read ‘Alone in London’ and ‘Jessica’s First Prayer’, again without giving the author’s name. The second and more memorable title, however, aroused suspicions of its origin. It did, indeed, lead straight to best-selling English writer for children in the mid-century, Hesba Stretton,  or really Sarah Smith, when all disguises are shed.

Not only does Catherine Ray let her main character read these books, she informs us that they are translated into Norwegian, ‘and have found their way to this far-off spot’ in the Norwegian fjord country where they are living. She also gives a little review: ‘They thought they had never read such pretty books before’. Sarah Smith published Jessica’s First Prayer in 1866, and it was a huge success that sold more than its contemporary Alice in Wonderland (1865). It was thus fairly recent and still much read when Catherine Ray published her novel in 1877.

I did not need Catherine Ray to tell me of these translations, I had discovered them earlier. But I did need her to remind me that the authorless title Alone in London was one of them. Such are the serendipitous, happy moments of the toils of trawling the book catalogues for hidden women.