Mathilde Fibiger (1830-1872) devoted her life to the cause of women's emancipation and her novel Clara Raphael stirred a storm of controversy concerning the political rights of women. She wrote two other novels none of which reached the critical acclaim of the first. Later she became Denmark's first female civil servant as telegraphist but continued to write on the necessity of improving the condition of women in society
By Lise Busk-Jensen
Mathilde Fibiger was Denmark’s first significant public advocate for the emancipation of women. Her debut novel Clara Raphael, 1851, addresses inequality between the sexes and women’s lack of opportunity for development. Clara writes to her friend: “For the first time in my life I grieve that I am not a man… Can it be with justice that half of humankind is excluded from all intellectual enterprise? Or has the Lord really created us of an inferior stuff to men?” The book provoked much public debate, both because the demand for equality was a politically controversial issue and because the 20-year-old author expressed her cause with such exceptional and well-reasoned clarity.
Born into a family of idealists
Mathilde Fibiger grew up surrounded by gifted idealists: “too much, both of keen intellect and dangerous emotions,” wrote her cousin, Johannes F. about the family. Her father was an army office and writer on military subjects. In 1830 he was appointed head of a new military academy on Kongens Nytorv in the centre of Copenhagen, and it was here that Mathilde Fibiger was born, the youngest of nine children. Her mother was completely devoted to to her children. The atmosphere at home was influenced by literary, political and national interests; the boys were educated in the military or at the university, whereas the girls mainly gleaned their knowledge from works of fiction. The children drew pictures and wrote poems and plays which they then performed.
In 1835 her father was dismissed from the academy and relocated to the provinces due to disagreements with his administrative superiors and his blatantly democratic disposition. This caused a deterioration in the family circumstances; the parents’ incompatible temperaments and inadequate finances led to separation in 1843. Mathilde Fibiger and her sisters went back to Copenhagen with their mother, but when she died in 1844 the home was broken up and at a young age the sisters had to try to earn a living in one of the few occupations open to women.
The novel Clara Raphael stirs controversy
During this period Mathilde Fibiger lived with her siblings and with her father in Copenhagen. In 1849 she moved to the island of Lolland where she had gained employment as private tutor to a forester’s family. It was here that she wrote the epistolary novel Clara Raphael, which she sent to one of the leading cultural figures of the day, Johan Ludvig Heiberg, requesting him to arrange for publication of the manuscript. Shortly before Christmas 1850 (1851 on the title page) the book appeared with a meticulously composed foreword written by Heiberg himself.
Clara Raphael reflects the prevailing democratic and national upheavals of 1848-50: absolute monarchy had been brought to an end and Denmark was at war with Germany. The novel consists of 12 letters, 11 of which Clara Raphael writes to her friend Mathilde. Inspired by the new social movements, Clara leaves the home she shares with her aunt and moves to the provinces, where she will make herself useful working as a governess. The first eight letters describe her new rural environment in a cheerfully ironic tone; all her talk of equality brings her into conflict with the locals, but she vows to dedicate her life to the “emancipation of women/ the ladies”. In the final two letters she writes about meeting young Baron Axel. His proposal of marriage puts her vow to the test, but he consents to a platonic relationship, which allows Clara to stick to her principles.
The book was the subject of animated debate during the first six months of 1851, leading to the publication of 11 pamphlets and more than 25 articles in newspapers and journals, and known as the Clara Raphael Controversy. The two ends of the political spectrum rejected women’s emancipation; the right wing, represented by inter alios the writers Meïr Goldschmidt and Julius Christian Gerson, wanted to retain the traditional gender-role patterns, whereas the left wing, represented by writer and social commentator Frederik Dreier, considered the issue of women’s equality to be insignificant in comparison with social revolution.
Between these two wings were reforming socialists such as Rudolph Varberg, liberals such as the writer Hans Egede Schack, conservatives such as N.F.S. Grundtvig and feminists such as Fanny Normand de Bretteville, Pauline Worm and Athalia Schwartz, who worked to open up more societal outlets in which women could participate.
Mathilde Fibiger contributed two pamphlets to the controversy: Hvad er Emancipation? [What is Emancipation?] and Et Besøg [A Visit]. In the latter she disavowed the ideas of platonic marriage that had been a stumbling block in the assessment of Clara Raphael. Heiberg kept out of the debate; he supported the view that women should have the right to intellectual development, but the idea of political revision of gender roles was alien to him.
Mathilde Fibiger writes her next novel
For the next few years Mathilde Fibiger lived in rented rooms in Copenhagen, periodically with her sister Ilia Fibiger., who was also a writer. They taught, painted porcelain and made shirts.
In the summer of 1852 Mathilde Fibiger spent some months with Marie Toft and her husband, the influential educator, writer and founder of the folk high school movement N.F.S. Grundtvig, at the manor house of Rønnebæksholm near Ringsted, and here she wrote her second novel En Skizze efter det virkelige Liv [A Sketch According to Real Life], 1853. It is the story of two orphaned sisters and their suitors. The elder sister haughtily rejects men as a whole for being weak, while the younger sister is eventually overpowered by love.
A third novel attacks gender inequality
The reviewers were pleased with this new direction in Mathilde Fibiger’s writing, where celibacy was now a thing of the past, but the book gained her neither financial profit nor literary prestige. Her final novel, Minona of 1854, was her bravest undertaking, dealing with the sensitive issue of incest. It is a philosophical novel about the entrenchment of love and gender in patriarchal power structures. Minona falls in love with her brother who has returned home after an absence of many years.
A secondary story deals with her unmarried friend Tyra who has an affair, gets pregnant and is consequently disowned by her family. Tyra defends her actions, until her lover deserts her and she is driven to suicide. Minona, on the other hand, submits to the law of society and religion and transfers her feelings for her brother onto Christ, a conversion that leads to her death too.
This emotionally overwrought novel, in which the plot is often interrupted by ethical and religious reflections, was a more vehement attack on gender inequality than her first novel had been, but it included fewer proposals for specific reforms. Minona was given a critical mauling, after which Mathilde Fibiger abandoned her career as a novelist.
The first female telegraphist
In 1856 Queen Dowager Caroline Amalie awarded her an annual allowance of 80 rigsdaler, and with this she was able to run her own household, working as a dressmaker and translator from German; she translated two of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales and one of B. Auerbach’s novels. In 1859 she reviewed Ilia’s Rettroende Eventyr [Orthodox Tales] for the newspaper Berlingske Tidende, and after Ilia died in 1867. Mathilde Fibiger wrote her biography as the foreword to a posthumous collection of her poems.
By this time Mathilde Fibiger was pursuing another line of work. The Minister of Finance, and later Copenhagen mayor responsible for hospitals, C.E. Fenger had helped her get training as a telegraphist. After a three-year apprenticeship, in 1866 she was employed as “special assistant” at Den danske Statstelegraf (State Telegraph Service) – “special” because she was the first women to enter the service and the first female civil servant.
She worked as a telegraphist for four years in Helsingør, as telegraph office manager for one year in Nysted on Lolland, before ending her career in Århus. In 1869 she wrote and excellent article dealing with the single working woman’s domestic life, published in Tidskrift för hemmet [Journal of the Home], and in 1870 she wrote an item for the same periodical about Leonora Christina’s recently discovered and published autobiography Jammersminde [A Memory of Lament]. [Leonora Christina, 1621-1698, was daughter of King Christian IV, wife of Steward of the Realm, traitor Count Corfitz Ulfeldt. Jammersminde was written secretly during two decades of solitary confinement in a royal dungeon, eds.]
Mathilde Fibiger was delighted with Georg Brandes’ translation of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, 1869, but her concept of women’s emancipation differed on a number of central points from the approach taken by what is known in Denmark as 'det moderne gennembrud' [the modern break through]. Mathilde Fibiger wanted to secure for women the freedom to develop their own identity on an equal footing with men, but she did not want them to become just like men. Encouraged by the pacifist politician Fredrik Bajer she did, however, join Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society) at its inception. “My occupation is in the province of emancipation and, even if the authoress is dead, the work-woman lives on,” she wrote to Bajer in 1871.