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Jenny Bergenmar, Göteborg Universitet

The North seen from the South in the reception of Selma Lagerlöf in Spain

  • Name: Jenny Bergenmar
  • Academic credentials: Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Department of Literature, History of Ideas and Religion, University of Gothenburg

Abstract: In the nineteenth century, the Nordic countries were seen as a Utopia, spared the upheavals of industrial modernity and preserving a “natural” rural life (Fjågesund and Symes). This idea is activated in the international reception of Selma Lagerlöf, who came to personify the authenticity and anti-modernity of this northern Utopia. When Selma Lagerlöf became a Nobel laureate in 1909, she was translated to new languages and introduced in countries where she was previously unknown, among them Spain. In this paper, I aim to trace the image of Sweden and Scandinavia in the reception of Selma Lagerlöf in the Spanish press and periodicals around 1910.

The idea of a distinctive Nordic or Scandinavian identity is visible in the critic's characterizations of Lagerlöf’s works. However, there is a tension between viewing Lagerlöf as a representative of Scandinavia or the North, and describing Lagerlöf as a representative of a nation, or even a particular province (Värmland). How are regional, national and provincial identities used to support a particular idea of Lagerlöf as an author? What literary contexts, geographies, and stereotypes are activated in the reception, in particular, ideas of the North and the South?

There are both similarities and differences between how Scandinavia and Spain were imagined: as Narváez Lindholm has pointed out, both were places on the European periphery, but Spain was associated with the past and the North with the future, as for example in the image of the progressive women of the North. In the 1890ies the Nordic woman was introduced by the Spanish press as a symbol of modernity and progress through Ibsen’s Nora (Narváez Lindholm).

Despite being the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize in literature, Lagerlöf is not included in the notion of the progressive Nordic woman. Instead, she is generally associated with authenticity and tradition and a conventional motherly femininity. I argue that this can be explained by two factors: 1) the critics lay stress on the revoking of the past in Lagerlöf’s texts (folklore, oral storytelling and remembrance of the past), combining it with existing notions of the North 2) literary criticism (in this case, mainly imported from France), was re-used, circulating an established image of the author as a representative of a far-away North. Lagerlöf and her work were made part of the North as a “mental geography” (Stadius 2005), comprising both ideas of progress and escape from modernity.


  • Fjågesund, Peter and Ruth A. Symes. The Northen Utopia. British Perceptions of Norway in the Nineteenth Century. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2003.
  • Narváez Lindholm, Elena. “The Valkyrie in a Bikini. The Nordic Woman as a Progressive Media Icon.” In Communicating the North. Media Structures and Images in the Making of the Nordic Region, edited by Jonas Harvard and Peter Stadius, 197–218. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.
  • Stadius, Peter. Resan till norr. Spanska Nordenbilder kring sekelskiftet 1900. Helsingfors: Finska Vetenskaps-Societeten, 2005.

Theme: Scandinavia in the Eyes of the World