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||Minna Canth (1844 - 1897) - Ulrika Wilhelmina, née Johnsson, used in columns pseudonym Wilja|
Finnish playwright and short-story writer who described women's position in the society and advocated contemporary radical social ideas in magazine articles. During the early years of the young Finnish Theatre – the National Theatre was founded in 1872 – Canth's plays were performed on its stage more often than Shakespeare's. She was the first notable Finnish social realist, whose work showed the influence of Henrik Ibsen and Georg Brandes.
"To me, the life of a Finnish writer is as burdensome and hard as a laborer's who clears land to till out the wilderness. Both get hunger bread to eat in the sweat of their brow and only future generations get to sow the seeds of their toil and reap the harvest with a greater blessing." (from a letter to J.H. Erkko, August 1, 1887, in Sanoi Minna Canth, ed. by Ritva Heikkilä, 1987)
Minna Canth was born in Tampere, the daughter of Gustaf Wilhelm
Johnson and Ulrika Andersintytär (Archelin?) Johnson. Her father was a
worker at the Finlayson cotton factory, where he rose in the position
foreman. "From my infance I was the apple of my father's eye;" Canth
wrote in an autobiographical piece for the Norwegian journal Samtiden
in 1891, "and I remember how he liked to brag a bit about my talents to
the simple working people who in those days belonged to our circle of
When Canth was eight years old, the the family moved to
Kuopio, a small but culturally
active town 500 kilometers from Helsinki. Johnson worked in Kuopio as a
shop manager, and was able to provide his daughter a good education. As
a child, she had a lively imagination, she often saw visions and
dreams, and she believed to be in direct contact with God. Canth did
not have much good to say about her time in the local women's
gymnasium. The teaching was not thorough but centered around making the
girls as marriable as possible.
In 1863 she entered Jyväskylä Teachers'
Seminary, but left her studies and
married in 1865 her teacher Johan Ferdinand Canth, nine years her
senior. Abandoning her idealistic aspirations, she put all her energy
into keeping house, preparing meals, and taking care of her husband.
From 1874 to 1876 she wrote for the regional publications Keski-Suomi and later for Päijänne (1878-79).
Canth's early short fiction, including the religious short story 'Äiti
ja poika' (1878, Mother and son), was didactic in the manner of Pietari
Päivärinta (1827-1913), Wilho Soini (1854-1934) and other
Canth's marriage was not happy. Likely her negative attitude toward sex was partly a reflection of her experiences. In a letter she later said, that "every marriage is not chaste, many shameful acts are committed in them." After the death of her husband of brain fever in 1879, Canth moved with her seven children to Kuopio. She took charge of her father's shop – he had died a few year earlier, and the business was doing poorly. The draper's shop, the 'Tampereen Lankakauppa', selling Finlayson's fabrics, started to flourish, and Canth found more time to literary aspirations.
Her first book, a collection of short stories, came out in 1879.
After the Finnish Theatre visited Kuopio between 1876 and 1878, Canth
became more interested in drama. Her first play, Murtovarkaus, gained a huge success, and was produced in 1897 also in Sweden. With Murtovarkaus Canth started her ten year cooperation with Kaarlo Bergbom
(1843-1906), who had founded the Finnish Theatre. He encouraged Canth
to write ethnological, rustic comedies for the broad audience, but this
was not what the author herself wanted to do. The next play, Roinilan talossa, delighted Bergbom with its lively characters and folkdances.
Both had similar plot lines: two young people are in love and their
parents oppose the marriage. Canth herself was unhappy with this work which premiered 1883,
and dismissed it as trivial and boring. Her self-doubts and confusion
she poured into letters to close friends, but in 1884 she could declare
that she is now a keen socialist.
In the beginning of the 1880's, Canth adopted ideas from such authors as Taine, Ibsen, Strindberg and Zola. She read widely social sciences, ethics, psychology, natural sciences, religious thinkers. Canth become interested in the position of women and workers, and the conflict between religion and Darwin's ideas of evolution. Her new, more socially concerned plays, were attacked by conservative and religious authorities. Among them was the influential Fennoman party director Agathon Meurman, who also persecuted Juhani Aho and other liberal writers. The Bishop of Kuopio declared in 1885, that the emancipation of women was against God's order. Social criticism was a relatively new phenomenon in Finnish literature, and Canth was more outspoken than contemporary male writers. After reading a work by Henry George, she wrote: "Socialism, just pure socialism. It is the best I have read so far."
Canth's Kovan onnen lapsia (1888, 'Hard luck's children'), about a modern Karl Moor, was cancelled after its first performance at the Finnish Theater by the order of the Board of Trustees This act silenced her as a writer of politically radical plays. Papin perhe (1891, The pastor's family) depicted crisis in a bourgeois family. Juhani Aho, who said that he had wept when seeing it, hailed Canth as the greatest female writer in Scandinavia. Työmiehen vaimo (1885, The worker's wife), revealed the misery of a poor and submissive wife, Johanna, her husband's alcoholism, and the evils of prostitution. Johanna is exploited by her husband Risto, who controls her savings, spends the family's money on drink, and eventually steals the cloth his wife has woven. When Johanna is threatened by imprisonment, she breaks down and dies. Kerttu or "Homsantuu", the gipsy girl, represents another type of woman. She is ready to kill Risto, who has betrayed her.
However, Kerttu's bullet misses, and she is arrested. Risto goes back to tavern without feeling pity. In Canth's dark vision there is clear contrast between the prevailing social order and women's rights. In Papin perhe (The Parson's family) Canth studied ideological battle inside a middle-class family. The old-fashioned father, Henrik Valtari, do not accept her daughter's theatrical career. His son Jussi refuses to join the reactionary newspaper which his father supports and choses instead a progressive newspaper. When his children have began their own life, Valtari starts a reconciliation process.
Although Canth championed for many ideas, she left the debate about language and nationality to other writers, such as Juhani Aho, who shared her anticlerical and reformist views. Juhani Aho had been her protégé as a student, but Canth's guidance was more important for Heikki Kauppinen, later known as Kauppis-Heikki. He worked at her store as a sales assistant, and began his own career as a writer. Aho, who for a period defended Canth's views, treated her later with ironic respect.
With Sylvi (1893), written
in Swedish, Canth again shocked the Finnish public. The protagonist is
a young woman, who is married to an elderly man. She falls in love with
a young man, but discovers that divorce laws are against her happiness.
Teuvo Puro's screen adaptation of the play was shot in 1913 in
Kaivopuisto, Helsinki. The producers, Frans Engström, Teuvo Puro and
Teppo Raikas, had participated in the making of the first Finnish
fictional film, Salaviinanpolttajat (1907, The Moonshiners).
Canth portrayed her characters, who nearly always were miserable and
unfortunate, with understanding and realism. Women were more or less
victims of circumstances or the patriarchal order. However, her
suffrering wives, who had good and bad sides, were not Madonna figures.
Among Canth's most famous literary figures are the independent and
rebellious Homsantuu from The Workers Wife,
Hanna, a young girl
depressed by narrow-minded life in a small city from a short story
(1886), and Kauppa-Lopo, a warm-hearted proletarian woman living
outside the norms of bourgeois society. The family was in Canth's
writings the basis, which mirrored larger social problems. With her
brave approach to topical, polemic issues Canth was a constant target
of conservative critics, especially clergymen, but at the same time her
home in Kuopio attracted such writers and artists as Akseli
Gallen-Kallela, Jean Sibelius, K.A. Tavastsjerna, the Halonen family,
and the talented wife of General and Governor Alexander Järnefelt, and
her sons, especially Arvid. Sibelius attended with his wife a
séance held in her salon; he did not take the whole thing seriously.
Among the Finnish intelligentsia, spiritualism had turned into a
"Every civilized person is into spiritism," declared Canth, who was
interested in theosophy, as well. (Spiritualismin muotoutuminen Suomessa: Aatehistoriallinen tutkimus by Tea Holm, 2016, p. 242) Her short comedy Spiritistinen istunto
(1894, Spiritist Séance) did not ridicule the spiritist philosophy but
created humor from spirit rappings and people's credulity. The
sounds in the story are made by Renne Hammar, the suitor of Helmi
Vesterholm, as a trick
to win her from another suitor, Mr. Orell, who happens to be a visiting
medium. Curiously, the play do not show signs of having been written by
a person, who believes in spiritism. Reading between the lines, there
are many hints that the thin legged medium himself is a swindler. This
theme is abandoned when Canth wraps up the play's conflicts neatly and
ends it in harmony. Orell assures that his next séance will be no
In 1889-90 Canth edited her own periodical, Vapaita aatteita (Free ideas), in collaboration with A.B. Mäkelä, a student and later co-founder of the newspaper Työmies. The official censure forced her to be careful with the subjects and eventually the paper was closed down. It published – without asking – writings from Maupassant, Brandes, Tolstoy, and Hamsun, and introduced to Finnish readers new findings in astronomy, psychiatry, biology, meteorology and other sciences. Canth showed also understanding toward lighter literature. Although Canth was full of energy as a business woman and writer, her heath started to deteriorate in the 1890s, and she died on May 12, 1897 in Kuopio.
Canth's collected works appeared between the years 1917 and 1920. Her plays are still popular among amateur and professional theatre groups and she is considered by many critics the most outstanding Finnish playwright after Aleksis Kivi. Since 1911, Canth's stories have inspired many film directors. The third version of the triangle drama Anna-Liisa (1895) was planned to celebrate the 100th birthday of Canth. However, its production was delayed when thieves stole many of the costumes.