One of the great events of our summer in Edmonton is the Fringe Festival which offers an amazing assortment of acting talent, both local and international. While there is certainly something for everyone amongst the plays and musicals on offer, many are on the zany or surreal side. When I noticed that a serious drama, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, was to be performed I jumped at the chance to take it in. The local theatre group that put it on, 50 % Fruit, offered a rather unorthodox take on the play and made a mistake in my mind by updating the time frame (the play was written in 1888). There was a lack of gravitas in the approach. That being said, it was acted with enthusiasm and led me to haul out my old copy of this one-act play and re-read it with total absorption. I next viewed the classic film adaptation, Alf Sjoberg’s 1951 version which won an Oscar. Sjoberg was able to open the play up, taking it out of the kitchen where the original had been confined, into the Swedish countryside at the time of the Midsummer’s Eve celebrations.
Miss Julie is a naturalistic drama depicting a desperate and titanic struggle between the aristocratic head (along with her father, the Count) of a country estate and Jean, manservant to the Count. We witness a searing power struggle and a battle of the sexes (major class issues confront us as well). The pair quickly develops something of a love/hate passion for one another during the carnival period of Midsummer’s Eve and after making love, hatch plans to flee the estate and indeed Sweden itself to set up a “distinguished” restaurant in Italy. Before long it becomes apparent to this desperate, unconventional woman, raised as a boy and developing into an ardent bluestocking, that her lover has no desire to do anything beyond using her and her supposed wealth for his own mercenary ends. The full complexity of their relationship can only be grasped by reading Strindberg’s remarkable text. The play ends, as it must, with the tragic suicide of the tormented woman, with the suggestion that the manservant has hypnotized her prior to her slashing her throat.
It is worth noting that the depressive playwright drew on real-life situations and models for his plot, and at least in part, for his characters. Strindberg was a commoner who had launched himself into a torrid affair with a beautiful young baroness, involving first a suicide attempt on his part and then his partner’s divorce from her husband. She then married the penniless playwright and is said to have capped that shocking event by promptly going on the stage, before long even playing Miss Julie herself. However, the playwright claimed there was at least one other more obvious model for Miss Julie…a general’s daughter who behaved scandalously. As well, another close correlation was to the Swedish novelist Victoria Benedictsson. She had left behind an unhappy, highly circumscribed marriage to a widower with five children and, with great effort and resourcefulness, established a successful career as a writer of fiction. This “bluestocking novelist,” one of a limited number of independent women in her era, embarked on a love affair with Scandinavia’s most powerful literary critic, Georges Brandes. The combination of his breaking off the relationship and his brother’s extremely negative review of what turned out to be Benedictsson’s last novel, led the distressed and vulnerable writer to take her life.
While Miss Julie was not at all a programmatic work designed to demonstrate sexual inequities (indeed some say quite the opposite), it certainly sparks considerable reflection on the part of the reader or viewer on the serious obstacles a woman like Miss Julie might face in attempting to break out of a stifling, conformist environment to establish an independent life for herself. Discriminatory and repressive laws and customs in Swedish society, as with similar situations elsewhere, had the effect of hemming in all but the boldest and luckiest of middle and upper class women in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Many professions were closed to women and, in any event, their education would not have been geared toward long-term careers.
A Swede who a lot more Canadians would have been thinking about over the past few years was the late crusading journalist turned powerhouse novelist, Stieg Larsson. His Millennium trilogy, beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has sold a gazillion copies and been made into films in Swedish, English and no doubt Swahili. A major reason for the success of this intermittently fast-paced thriller chock full of murders, sexual assaults, libel claims and ensuing trials, is Larsson’s creation of at least two fascinating characters. One is the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the other is, of course, the trilogy’s strongest hero, the underdog who has been knocked down but is not out, possesses a savage bite and is seeking revenge, Lisbeth Salander. She is a feisty woman with, indeed, a prominent tattoo, at times a Mohawk hairdo and rebellion to burn. She has superhuman will power and computer skills second to none. Hacking into the accounts of firms and the email and facebook accounts of others goes with the territory – secrets are not safe from her or Blomqvist. Part of the plot’s fascination lies in the attraction but also simultaneous distrust Lisbeth has for her would-be journalist ally. Ultimately, when it counts she does assist the editor of the anti-fascist magazine Millennium. In return, her best friend and ally in her time of need is Blomqvist.
As a reader, coming from the world of literary fiction, I found aspects of The Girl books difficult to accept. The novels are a unique blend of popular fiction, with a classic good versus evil conflict. The good is apparently outgunned at every turn but possesses tenacious resolve, and has elements of journalism focused on social justice and fundamental rights, with parallels to actual aspects of contemporary Swedish society. The characters are compelling if sometimes given incredible powers that beggar the imagination. That being said, I certainly admire the ability Larsson has to provide us with a propulsive storyline that does explore major issues of freedom of expression, women’s equality and fear of physical harm with verve. The literal translation of the first volume is Men Who Hate Women.
There are a few substantial differences, apparently, between Swedish law and Canadian law that a reader will want to bear in mind as she marvels at the intrepid determination of crusading journalists like Blomqvist to refuse to provide information on sources for the explosive stories filed by the magazine Millennium. The combination of Lisbeth hacking her way into an unsuspecting capitalist shark’s email, and her writing partner Blomqvist asserting that his source was anonymous and to be protected, would almost certainly have led to a lengthy and exhausting court case for the pair should they have operated in Canada. With greater constitutional protection for his journalism, the Swede can shoot off zingers in his article, like “[the corporate superman] was devoting himself to fraud so extensive it was no longer merely criminal.” (Recognize that the trilogy opens with Blomqvist being found guilty of defamation but this hardly stops him or his magazine in their advocacy of social and legal justice.) For a first rate article on Larrson’s novels which touches on the legal issues, I urge you to read Paul Wilson’s piece “The Archivist,” from the March 2011 issue of The Walrus. In addition, consider the landmark 1986 decision of Goodwin v. United Kingdom by the European Court of Human Rights, holding that an attempt to force a journalist to reveal his source violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This line of reasoning can be contrasted to some extent with the case-by-case approach to claiming journalist-source privilege adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada in Globe and Mail v. Canada (2010).
The final volume, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, ends with a lengthy trial scene. Lisbeth herself is on trial for the attempted murder of her father and with various grievous bodily harm offences, unlawful threats and break and enter – and that’s just what I can remember. Her defence counsel is none other that Mikael’s sister Giannini, which is convenient, because Mikael has explosive evidence that he has gathered and is able to entrust with her. We sit in on a case of various twists and turns in true legal thriller fashion, most of which seem at least slightly implausible to someone familiar with the workings of courts, but why spoil the general reader’s fun? I like the emphasis on violation of constitutional rights that springs up from time to time in the proceedings. I do think that anyone wishing to emulate Lisbeth should think twice before donning lurid garb to go with a Mohawk haircut if they are placed in the uncomfortable position of appearing in the dock. Further, while it may be tempting to insolently refuse to answer the prosecutor’s question on the grounds that it is not really a question but an assertion, remember Shakespeare’s adage that “discretion is the better part of valour.”
In any event, Lisbeth is indeed someone who not only serves as an updated version of the Pippi Longstocking character whom every Swedish child knows in depth, but also a Miss Julie who is ready and able to fight the male establishment to the bitter end and prevail against considerable odds. Her life is bound to end with a bang, not a whimper.