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Cora Sandel: Alberte og Jakob (Alberta and Jacob)
This is the first in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels. It covers one year (1904-1905) in the life of Alberta Semler. She lives in a small Northern Norwegian town, clearly based on Tromsø, where Sandel and her family lived. Jacob is her younger brother but, despite the fact he has joint billing with her in the title, he is definitely a secondary character. Alberta and Jacob live with their parents and they do not get on with their parents nor do mother and father get on, which makes for a difficult life. Indeed, Mrs Semler (Henrietta) and Alberta are often in tears because of the gruff, controlling behaviour of Magistrate Semler. He is described as a coarse brute.
Life is fairly hard, even for the bourgeois Semler family. It seems that the Semlers have had financial problems so the two necessary constituents – food and warmth – are in short supply. Alberta is constantly cold (the book opens in late 1904). Warmth was life, cold was death.Alberta was a fire worshipper in the full primitive sense of the word. She is always seeking warmth, staying in her warm bed as long as she can, trying to consume copious quantities of coffee, hug the coffee pot and steal coal from her father’s office to warm her own room.
Alberta is at that awkward age. She has left school but is still dependent on her parents and has to help her mother in a variety of household tasks. Mrs Semler has a detailed calendar of what needs to be done every day. Alberta is eager to escape the home so she will wrap up well and go off for a walk, fantasising of escape to the warmer South. She does read, particularly books she is not allowed to read. However, not only does she clash with her father but also with her mother. It is not within my power to make a useful person out of my daughter, says Mrs Semler. Mr Semler takes a stronger view: Womenfolk – devils the lot of them.
Opportunities for women were very limited. We see the five options: teacher, wife/mother, servant, prostitute and old maid. The fate of the old maid is shown towards the end of the book when we meet one, Jeanette. She was queer. Some said a little crazy. Everyone knew it was because she was not married. She always looked unkempt and dishevelled, and dressed below her station in life in old ugly clothes.
Alberta has no desire to be married, despite a brief crush on Peter, the chemist’s son but that was now forgotten. During the course of the book, four men will show at least some interest in her, despite her mother’s comments: You don’t take sufficient trouble over your appearance. Her mother is continually mentioning other young women who have got engaged.
For Alberta , there seems to be nothing. She did nothing. She simply existed did nothing, and became nothing, while life rolled past somewhere here far away to the south. Jacob, of course, has more options. Indeed, he hates his father and cannot wait to escape, considering going to sea, with or without his father’s assistance or approval.
Alberta does have a friend. She is Beda and an interesting contrast to Alberta. Beda is unruly, lively and disobedient. Boys like her and she gets on with her mother, a well-travelled Swede. She has no tenue, says Mr Semler. Mother and daughter live beyond their means but seem happy. Alberta is always glad to visit them, as there is food, warmth and friendship. However, things do not work out for Beda any more than for Alberta.
Alberta is quite protective of her younger brother. For example when he and his friend break a marble table in the local hostelry and Jacob has to come up with twenty krone to pay for it, it is Alberta who sells her bracelet, knowing full well there will be serious problems when her mother finds out.
Jacob does go away to sea, leaving Alberta on her own. She makes friends with the children of the Governor but, even then, she remains within herself. You must learn to talk, to express your opinion, says the son, Frederick, to which she replies I have none, I’m stupid. It is Frederick’s sister who introduces her to art. (Sandel became an artist as well as a writer.) However, they go South, leaving her once again on her own. She suggests going back to school or getting a job as a governess but her parents are opposed to both. You are a great grief to your mother, her mother tells her. Nothing seems to work. Everything was dead, joyless, sickening, without hope.
This novel shows the limited opportunities for women, particularly intelligent, educated women, not just those in Norway but elsewhere. We know that Sandel did break out and no doubt that will be covered in the later books in the trilogy, particularly in Alberte og friheten (Alberta and Freedom), as the title indicates, published five years after this work. However, in this book, we have the sad tale of a young woman lost, not able to express herself, shy, wrapped up in herself, and wondering what, if anything, life holds for her.
First published in 1926 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 1962 by Peter Owen
Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan