Faking the Eighteenth Century
Carina Burman

This article appeared in the 1998:1 issue.

A great deal has been said about fraud, and how manuscripts are faked to collect large sums at Sotheby’s, or simply to bring fame to their "discoverer". I have exposed one or two forged letters myself. Quite often, these frauds are fairly easy to see through, and if it is difficult to judge by the handwriting, there are always ways of testing the age of paper and ink. In a contemporary edition of an old manuscript, though, these ways are ruled out.

I do not intend to deal with deliberate fraud, however, but with more innocent fakes — how to make people feel that a literary text derives from a certain period, let’s say the 18th century. Not cheating them, but perhaps fooling them. I have good reason to know how this is done, because I am a faker myself; I shall therefore concentrate on my own attempts in this profession.

This article will refer to four books: my doctoral thesis, Vältalaren Johan Henric Kellgren (1988), my first novel, Min salig bror Jean Hendrich (1993), my edition of Fredrika Bremer’s letters (1996) and my latest novel, Den tionde sånggudinnan (1996). Two scholarly works, and two fictional ones. As you see, I have a split personality — sometimes I am just a scholar, sometimes only a writer of fiction. In what follows, I will try to step in and out of the two different roles, and at the same time take the opportunity of introducing some Swedish authors.

It all began when I started doing research on the 18th century, about 15 years ago. The 18th century in Sweden begins with war and turmoil, and continues with a period of economic resurgence and expansion in the sciences. During the reign of Gustav III — from the 1770s until 1792, when the king was assassinated at a masked ball at the Opera House in Stockholm — the arts flourished: the king considered the cultivation of arts and language a necessity for a modern nation, and hence supported artists, writers and musicians. His favourite domain was the opera, where the various arts were combined. It was also Gustav III who founded the Swedish Academy, an institution which in those days, long before the Nobel prizes, was charged with cultivating the Swedish language.

I chose the 18th century out of my own interest — so it was not one of those cases where the supervisor tells a student what to do. To be honest, I was quite taken up by the 18th century, and especially by the poet Johan Henric Kellgren. Of course, I was very young at the time, and was easily carried away by my own enthusiasm... On the other hand, I still work that way. Enthusiasm is half the work done. And so I started working on my doctoral thesis.

Kellgren, a good-looking womanizer, was a parson’s son, an M.A. and fellow of the University of Turku, who made a stunning career as one of the king’s poets. He was one of the first 18 members of the Swedish Academy. He combined this with promoting the radical Enlightenment in his daily newspaper, Stockholms Posten, writing lascivious rococo love poetry and also catching up with pre-romanticism.

Nevertheless, Kellgren had been educated in the old type of school, which had its roots in Latin scholarship of the Ancients and the Renaissance. I wanted to point out that although he was a follower of the French philosophes, the tools he used to promote his modern ideas were often quite traditional. Hence, I studied his upbringing, his youth and career, sketching out his rhetorical education. Moreover, I analysed his speeches. As rhetorical style is dependent on the person speaking, I did not lose track of Kellgren the man — and I became rather infatuated with him. Eventually, some years later, the thesis was finished: Vältalaren Johan Henric Kellgren (The Orator JHK).

When this book was finished, the children arrived: first Annie, in the same year, and then Alice two years later. Life was full of nappies, sleepless nights and teaching at the university. Then my husband was awarded a scholarship to do research in Italy, and off we went to Pisa, to the beautiful Tuscan hills.

Unfortunately, the Italian libraries did not cater for my needs. That left me in doubt as to what to do — and suddenly, a lot of bits and pieces that were left over from my thesis started cropping up in my mind. What on earth should I do with them? Write a biography of Kellgren? No. One had been published fairly recently, and in any case that was not really what I wanted. So I started working on a novel — and this is where I began to split up: first the scholar began writing a novel, then the writer cropped up and tried to get her own way.

Anyway, the outline of the novel is this: after Kellgren’s death in 1795, his brother and his mistress are asked by one of his friends, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, to write down their memories of him. Both of them write proper biographies, which run in parallel. Eventually, these two biographies are combined and hidden away in an unnamed archive, where they are discovered in the early 1990s by a scholar with the initials C.B.

I enjoyed working on this book immensely, picturing the poet through these other people’s eyes. The brother is a rural parson, rather naive, and in many respects a remnant of the 17th century; the mistress is a burgher’s daughter and a burgher’s wife, interested in literature but quite taken up with food and family. Both admire Kellgren immensely. Thus, he is seen in a positive light by two persons who want to be part of his life, but who are not his equals. This narrative technique meant that I could also keep Kellgren himself at arm’s length, romantic and mysterious. If I had used him as a narrator, I would have had to enter his head and also fake his style — an impossible task.

Anyway, to return to this question of "faking", something which I suppose I should really should call writing pastiche: how does one go about writing a story set in the 18th century, and supposedly narrated by 18th century people?

First, the stylistic side of it: I thought about all the disadvantages of pastiche. It is often a nightmare to anyone familiar with the period. Characters use more antiquated language than any real person has ever done, and the more involved the writer gets, the more the reader giggles. So I considered a rather modern style — but then, on the other hand, that could sound quite strange, coming from the quill of this 18th century parson.

This left me no option. I had to fake the 18th century! So I embarked on a stylistic bungy jump... In fact, to some extent, I still clung to the idea of a modern style. I tried to write fairly normal, late-20th-century prose, but robbed it of everything with too much of a contemporary whiff. Imagine a dress without any ornamentation, one of those full-length, woollen dresses whose appeal lies in its very simplicity; and then I started embellishing it with embroideries and jewels, adding a couple of French words, some typical 18th century idioms, a Latin phrase for the parson, the names of some sweets for the mistress... This was the faking part. The idea was not to create an 18th-century language, but to create the feeling of it. Therefore, I did not avoid anachronisms — sometimes I even put them there deliberately, as an ironic wink to the reader. I wanted the reader to feel that this was how 18th century Swedish sounded.

Another problem was how people thought in those days. I believe that if we could meet these people, we would have difficulty in understanding each other. It would not only be a question of how language has changed, but also of manners and customs — mentalities, if you like. They would certainly consider us intensely vulgar, with our strange clothes and our lack of ceremonies in social life. As we all know, the modern human being — the individual — had not yet been invented. In Sweden, he and his companion, the genius, did not appear until about ten years into the 19th century.

But for the moment, we don’t have to bother about that period. 18th-century people saw themselves as representatives of a social group, and adapted their personalities when moving between different groups. A Swedish poet in the 17th or 18th century did not write primarily because he felt an urge to express his feelings, but to show his intellectual abilities, and in that way to get a job in the civil service, the court or the church.

If I had written a book based on 18th century psychology (or tried to, because I don’t think I would have succeeded), it would have been unintel-ligible for people today. And although I liked the process of actually writing the book, I did want readers! So I tried to make it as faithful as I could to both periods, walking on a tightrope between 18th and 20th-century thinking.

I also did my best to check the facts — so that people did not live in houses that had not yet been built, that dinner was served in the right way, and that the colour of stockings in courtly dress really was white, and not red. I do not claim that everything is correct, but I have good reason to believe that there are not many errors as far as dress, milieu and customs are concerned.

The book was published in 1993, with a fictional preface and an epilogue by the "editor", who was probably myself, in view of the fact that we share initials. The book was favourably reviewed, and people even read it — but the surprising thing was that a few reviewers bought the whole concept of this being an edition of a newly-discovered manuscript. I was stunned. I mean, I was not the first one to use this type of narrative technique, was I? But the fact remains: I had fooled a few quite knowledgeable readers. And occasional letters still arrive from people who ask me to make a proper, scholarly edition of this manuscript.

I somehow get the feeling the literary historian inside me is getting anxious to speak, to modify somehow or other the self-centred attitude of the writer. I would like to point out that history is very popular in Sweden at the moment. It looks as if the good old days of the 1960s and 70s, the early 80s produced a sudden change in our outlook. Instead of being bright and optimistic about the future, Swedes began to display a need for history, something that had not been seen for forty years. Popular history suddenly became "the in thing".

One of the leading writers of historical books of this kind, and the one who seems to have started the trend, is a young historian: Peter Englund from Uppsala. His book Poltava deals with the biggest defeat in Swedish military history, when the main part of Karl XII’s army was killed or captured by the Russians. This put an end to the days when Sweden was a "superpower". Most Swedes had an ancestor at Poltava — I do not know if I have any, but an ancestor of my husband’s survived the battle and escaped to Turkey alongside the king. Peter Englund has written a couple of other books after Poltava, all of which have been successful. As a historian, he keeps his facts straight; but he is not above slipping into semi-fictional prose now and then. Of course, in an historical book, the borderline between a work of history with semi-fictional interventions, and a fictional work about historical persons, can be rather vague.

As for the 18th century, it seems to have given rise to more books with pretty pictures than what one might call popular history. Art and design flourished, and the Swedish Gustavian style has been very popular of late — reproductions of Gustavian furniture are even produced by IKEA.

In novels, the 18th century has often been used for a setting. Some of these books are highly romanticized, concentrating on dazzling noblemen in handsome wigs; others are more serious. Carl Jonas Love Almqvist — one of the best Swedish writers of the early 19th century, and the grandson of one of the most active Gustavian journalists — published several novels in a Gustavian setting. Drottningens juvelsmycke (The Queen’s Diadem), written in 1834, involves a romantic intrigue; but is also a pastiche of Gustavian literary language. It is as exciting today as when it was first published — an English translation was published in 1992 (by Yvonne L. Sandström, published by Skoob)

Over the last three or four years, there has been quite a vogue of novels about authors in Sweden. Somehow or other, it seems to have been accepted that one way of approaching history is to depict a genius. One Swedish author (Torbjörn Säfve) even specializes in novels about artists and writers — each of them somehow resembling himself.

When reading novels about historical persons, I often find myself wondering about how much is actually true. How much has the writer made up? Of course, one can never cling to the truth entirely; but what I experienced when writing about Jean Hendrich was that all those little gaps one can find even in a well-known person’s biography are gold-mines for a writer. If one sticks to the facts (as long as there are any) and lets one’s imagination handle the rest, one might end up with an entertaining book, that still gives the impression of honesty to history.

I apologize: the writer has just interrupted the scholar!

At the time of our Italian sejour, I was already knee-deep in a new research project: I was editing the letters of Fredrika Bremer. Bremer was a Swedish novelist and feminist, who started her life as the gauche daughter of wealthy parents — a hopeless case in the high society of those days — and she made her fortune both literally and spiritually through writing novels. These often deal with a family, where the daughters try to find out what to do with their lives and find alternatives to marriage and children. There is a mixture of realism, romanticism, humour and — something which might put us off — sentimentality. Bremer’s novel Hertha (1856) is a feminist manifesto, arguing for things that are taken for granted by women today, such as legal responsibility and the possibility of handling one’s own money.

Bremer’s novels were translated into most western languages, but were especially popular in England, where Bremer cooperated closely with her translators, Mary and William Howitt. William Howitt’s name was often omitted from the title page, because the publishers wanted to promote Bremer’s novels as products of women’s co-operation. Bremer herself claims that she made more money out of the English editions than out of the Swedish ones. She also influenced many of the Victorian writers — an interesting fact, as they are widely read in Sweden today, and often regarded as the originals. One of her novels, The Colonel’s Family, appeared in a new English translation the other year (translated by Sarah Death, Norvik Press, 1995).

To keep in touch with all her friends, at home and abroad, and to keep all these translators and publishers in order, Bremer had an abundant correspondence. She often claims to be a lazy letter writer — well: in the 1910s four volumes of her letters were published. However, this was only 50 years after her death, and the editors soon discovered that some letters had been held back. Soon, new letters appeared as Bremer’s young friends (who had grown old by then) started to die off — many of those letters were bought by Swedish research libraries and archives. So, about thirty years ago, efforts were made to have the "new" letters published; but it all came to nothing, and in 1990 my professor called me and asked if I would do it. They needed a scholar who was young, and familiar with work in archives — they were probably unable to find anyone else foolhardy enough. So, although I was more interested in the 18th century, I started working on the Bremer edition; six years later, two volumes of letters finally appeared.

This was the work I was engaged in when my first novel was published. I soon found out that many of those who took an interest in my novel took it for granted that research — and particularly research in archives — was incredibly boring. Two questions were particularly common: didn’t I want to give up all that boring stuff, and was I going to write a novel about Fredrika Bremer next?

I certainly did not! I loved my research — I still do — and I would feel cut in half without it. As for the second question: Bremer has many advantages, but she would not be a suitable protagonist for a novel — at least, not one of mine.

New ideas started to take hold of me. Shouldn’t I tell all these people that scholarly work is actually exciting? Shouldn’t I once again take advantage of my research? What if I were to write a novel about the collecting and editing of letters — placed, say, around the time of World War I?

So I did. The letters in my novel are not those of Fredrika Bremer, but of a Swedish writer with a similar name: Sophia Elisabeth Brenner, who was active over the years either side of 1700. So once more, I found myself in the 18th century, although it was now late baroque instead of rococo. I’ll just mention a couple of things about Brenner, and then I’ll give a brief outline of the novel.

Sophie Elisabeth Brenner was obviously a talented girl. At the age of four she began school, together with boys, and she soon picked up Latin and started to write. Her parents seem to have supported her thirst for learning, and when she married the civil servant and artist Elies Brenner, he encouraged her to learn new languages and embark on a career as a poet. She wrote poetry all her life — she died in 1730 at the age of 71 — but she also adapted to the role of wife and mother. Fifteen children were born in the marriage, of which five survived to maturity. Elies Brenner also had two children from a previous marriage.

One of the things I like about Brenner is that she managed to do it all: it was her job to take care of children and household, and also to write poetry; and she took pride in both. Naturally, she did have servants; but having merely three children myself, I am bound to say I find her admirable. Brenner became one of the most famous Swedish poets of her day, writing in several languages as was usual then, and she was also the first Swedish author to receive a state pension — a writer’s salary paid by the government. She is now sadly and unjustly forgotten.

And so, Brenner is the subject of my latest novel (published in 1996). The plot is as follows: in 1909, a young literary historian from Uppsala, Lissie, makes a bet with her Mefistophelian professor that if she is able to collect an interesting scholarly edition of Brenner’s letters, she has an opportunity to rise in the world of learning; if not, well, her soul might be in danger. Together with her two friends, Choice and Thea, she travels all over Sweden and Europe to find letters. The letters reveal a secret feminist organization of nine women — the muses — led by the tenth, who is Brenner. The aim of this organization remains mysterious, even for me who dreamt it all up, but it seems to have something to do with peace, and it all revolves around the goddess Diana.

Once again, I found myself writing pastiche. This time it was easier, though, as I had some idea of how to do it. The difference was, that while I could keep to the style of one single period in my first novel — albeit somewhat modified between the two narrators — I now had a multitude of styles to deal with.

Besides faking, I also developed the art of pinching. Thus, I pinched a couple of letters from Brenner — although I have to confess that I had to simplify the language, as even 17th-century scholars find them hard to understand — and one of her poems, a beautiful sonnet about her dead baby. The trick I used in the first book, of embellishing the simple style, worked fairly well here too. This time, though, I extracted certain expressions and words out of Brenner’s own writings to add to the (faked) authenticity.

As for the style of the 1910s, there was the advantage that cultivated Swedish has not changed very much in the last 80 years. To remind the reader that the setting is not contemporary, the characters occasionally wash with Florodol soap, have problems with their corsets, or have to order their telephone calls.

One amusing thing was the spelling. The Swedish in Jean Hendrich was spelt in a modern way, although there were certain words that kept their (mostly French) spelling. Now I could really indulge in the semiotics of spelling: Brenner’s letters are spelt in a 17th or early 18th-century way, albeit fairly modified. Important words begin with capital letters, and when Brenner gets flustered, she mixes German with Swedish. Lissie, the narrator of the 1910s, spells quite normally, but one of her left-wing friends uses an extreme modernized form of spelling — there was a radical phalanx in Sweden that wanted a total reform of spelling rules. Their idea was to "spell as you speak", and to a modern eye, the words often look quite absurd.

There are several letters in the book, not only from Brenner but also between the protagonists, and between Lissie and the male research fellows of Uppsala university. Having worked for several years editing letters, I was quite in the habit of reading letters, and the step to writing them, or (to return to the subject) faking them, was not a large one to take. This also involved playing a game with different styles, not only in language itself, but in how the letters were composed, dated and addressed.

The three women visit archives in Sweden, Germany, Italy and Russia. I had myself been looking for letters — from Bremer, not Brenner — in Berlin, Wolfenbüttel and the so-called secret archives of the Vatican, so I had plenty of source material. However, the three travellers not only experienced the excitement of manuscripts, but other adventures as well. Lissie gets her claws into a Russian prince in Berlin, and really strikes lucky, as his family owns some important letters. All three of them are trapped in Germany when World War I begins, and two of them later find themselves in the middle of the Russian revolution. These events are parallelled in the 17/18th century, and a modern reader might be able to find parallels in our own time.

In real life, Brenner was not a member of a feminist conspiracy, let alone the leader of it. But somehow, truth tends to be more surprising than fiction: one of the reviewers, an otherwise learned man, wrote that I had been rather too bold in my lies — I even claimed that Brenner corresponded with Sor Juana de la Cruz in Mexico. In fact, Sor Juana did know about the real Brenner, and wrote a laudatory poem to her! For all we know, they might have corresponded. And although there was no conspiracy, Brenner certainly aligned herself with 17th-century feminism.

"Surprise" is a word one could use quite often to describe our relationship with history. Not only the time elapsed, but the differences in customs and mentality tend to amaze us. Anyone who has read a popular history book for children — or even a crime story in a historical setting — can see quite clearly the struggle between telling the truth and making us understand. The same struggle can also be found in scholarly works, although it is not so clear and generally avoids the same kind of errors. We are biased, and every time we approach history, we fake it, more or less. Through intellectual understanding, we can bring ourselves closer to it; but there is also a need of emotional understanding. Every time we read their poetry, listen to their music and watch their art, we try to bridge the gap. For many people, historical novels might be emotional bridges to the past. But not all readers are aware that these bridges are rather untrustworthy, since all their builders are more or less honest fakers of history.