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L. Onerva (1882 - 1972) - Hilja Onerva Madetoja, née Lehtinen


Finnish poet of beauty and humanity, the lover of the poet Eino Leino. Onerva was a prolific writer, who also published prose, drama, essays, and Leino's biography. Familiar with French literature, she translated into Finnish works by Voltaire, Honoré de Balzac, Anatole France, Paul Bourget, François Mauriac, and Henri Barbusse.

"Yhden kerran elämässä tuliruusu aukee,
yhden yön se kukoistaa ja aamulla jo raukee;
sill' on syvä silmänluonti, kutsuva ja kuuma,
sill' on hehkuheteillänsä keskiöiden huuma."

(from 'Tropiikin alla')

Hilja Onerva Lehtinen (L. Oneva) was born in Helsinki, the daughter of Serafina (Sarholm) Lehtinen and Johan Lehtinen, a clerk and later a superintendent of a lumber business. The two older children of the family had died before her birth. During her early years Onerva suffered endless  punishments by her mother. When Onerva was six, her mother was taken to a mental hospital. From then on, Onerva grew up pampered and protected by her father and grandmother. Serafina Lehtinen spent the rest of her life in an asylum – at school Onerva told his classmates that she was dead, but she actually died in the 1930s. For several years, the family lived in Karhula and then in 1900 they moved to Kotka and five years later to Syväsalmi. Johan Lehtinen played violin in Robert Kajanus's orchestra and bought her daughter books of poetry.

Onerva had been writing poems since the age of 13. While still at school, she showed her texts to Maila Talvio, who encouraged her writing, but Onerva's first efforts were rejected by publishing companies. Later a frequent visitor at Talvio's famous literary salon, Onerva met there many young writers, including Larin-Kyösti, Ilmari Kianto, Otto Manninen, V.A. Koskenniemi, Kasimir Leino, and Eino Leino.

Onerva studied at Suomalainen tyttökoulu (Finnish girls' school) in Helsinki. In the secondary school she was the best student of her class. Upon graduating as a teacher in 1902, Onerva continued her studies at the University of Helsinki, studying and traveling occasionally in Paris, Dresden, Florence, and Roma. In 1905 Onerva married the forest officer Väinö Streng, with whom she moved to Räisälä. A year later the couple returned to Helsinki.

A central role in Onerva's life played the writer Eino Leino (1878-1926). They had met in 1902 when Onerva was still a student. She had asked Leino what arts she should pursue – she painted, sang, composed, wrote and was fascinated by the theatre. Leino answered: "Get married." Angered by his words, she published two years later her first collection of poems, Sekasointuja (1904). Her penname as a poet, L. Onerva, had been suggested by the poet and journalist J.H. Erkko. 

Sekasointuja was printed with the help of Albert Gebhard, a painter, with whom Onerva sang at a choir. 'In the Tropics' interpreted female erotic passions and new joie de vivre: "But once within a lifetime opens a fiery rose, / that for but one night blossoms and in the morning goes..." And in the second stanza she continued: "It has a leaf all bloody; it has a purple lip / it has a dizzy fragrance like spring winds on the steppe." (translated by Keith Bosley) This poem shocked some of her conservative readers, but in general, the collection was well received. The poem 'Keinutan kaikua' was set to music by Toivo Kuula in 1910; also Leevi Madetoja turned it into a song, but 36 years later, and his piece is rarely performed. In total 45 of Madetoja's songs were based on Onerva's texts.

Onerva was Leino's life companion after his marriage with Freya Schoultz ended. She had made friends with the poet in 1907, when she started to contribute to the daily newspaper Päivälehti. Leino, a celebrated writer, was its most prominent figure. At that time Onerva had became disappointed with her marriage and Leino on his own side felt that he was connected to a strange woman. His first love letters Leino wrote to Onerva in the summer of 1908: "Have mercy on me, my own Onerva."  She followed Leino to Rome, they quarreled and she returned alone to Finland in 1909. Leino depicted their relationship in the novel Onnen orja (1913), which did not flatter much her. 

Onerva contributed art, theatre, and literature reviews to the newspaper Uusi Päivä, and worked as a literary critic for Helsingin Sanomat in 1910-11 and in the 1920s. In 1913 she married the great Finnish composer Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947); it was the year when Leino married Aino Kajanus – their marriage was short-lived. From 1915 to 1917 Onerva worked in Leino's magazine Sunnuntai. Her biography Eino Leino: runoilija ja ihminen I-II (1932) gave an insider picture of the leading Finnish author of the early 20th century and his circle. Onerva's work did not undermine the popular image of Leino as a bohemian fulfilling his inner and higher calling. In their private life, Leino was for some years the only person whom she could turn to after her father died.

For researchers the biography has remained an invaluable source. In spite of the shortcomings, it gives first-hand information about Leino's personal life especially in the 1910s. Leino himself did not say much about Onerva, and she was not mentioned in his collection of essays from 1909, dealing with Finnish writers. However, Onerva was Leino's Muse and his great love, although he had other relationships, among others with the writer Aino Kallas

Onerva's best-known works include Murattiköynnös (1911), a collection of poems, and  Mirdja (1908), the first modern Finnish novel, which brought into Finnish literature a new kind woman character, an active, independent, unconventional  personality. The story is set in the urban and narcissistic world of intelligentsia and decadent artists. Mirdja Ast, the protagonist, admires her own beauty; she wants to be adored by men. Rolf, an alcoholic dreamer, encourages Mirdja to become a femme fatale, but her test of love with Mauri is undermined by bourgeois ideals of sexual roles. "Men are created to rule over women," she says. Her other roles turn out to be empty, her marriage ends with the death of her husband, Runar. At the end, Mirdja has lost her touch with reality and she is left to wander in search for her imaginary child.

By breaking the paradigm of male polygami and female monogamy, Onerva criticized traditional gender stereotypes. Her female characters express their anger against the men who play with their feelings. "Love doesn't exist. There is only violence," says one of the characters in the short story collection Mies ja nainen (1912, Man and woman) The titles of her early poetry collections reflected her feelings of freedom, rebelliousness, and confusion of her time: Sekasointuja (Jangled harmonies), Murtoviivoja (1909, Broken lines),  Särjetyt jumalat (1910, Shattered gods). "Minä olen vankina vaarallinen / ja kelvoton alamainen," she wrote (I am dangerous as a prisoner, and unworthy as a citizen). The character of Mary Magdalene becomes her "heroine of the fairy tale". In her later work the sensual poetry of instincts changed into meditative silence and melancholy. "Miten ääretön, ah, väsymykseni onkaan" (Oh, how endless is my fatigue).

Onerva stayed in Helsinki much of the time, when it was  held by the Red Guards. Like V.A. Koskenniemi and many other writers of her generation, she praised after the Civil War of Finland (1917-18) the heroism of the victorious "Whites" over the "Reds."  Madetoja's brother was killed by the Reds and his good friend Toivo Kuula was shot dead by a Jäger after a drunken brawl. Gradually pacifistic themes became prominent in her work – she connected these views with feminist goals, and her own broken ideals with general feelings of loss and aimlessness of her generation. Along with a number of citizens, she signed a petition against the death penalty, too. The Government's proposal in 1936 of bringing back the penalty was not accepted.

In the late 1920s Onerva's health started to waver. She had already abandoned plans to finish her  dissertation on the French Rococo art. Partly due to her excessive use of alcohol and psychic problems, she spent long times in hospitals, but still writing and also drawing. Her husband fell in love with his young student, Taru Pellinen; in 1927 he even proposed to her in a letter. Madetoja was a celebrated composer, and Onerva's own work as a poet was shadowed by his fame. Pursi, a collection of poems which came out in 1945, was an expression of her loneliness a cry for help. Onerva felt that her husband had deserted her, like her father did to her mother.  Moreover,  literary circles ignored her. Onerva was not mentioned in Unto Kupiainen's history of Finland's literature, Suomen kirjallisuuden vaiheet (1958).

In 1947, after Onerva's husband had died of alcohol, she was released permanently from Nikkilä Psychiatric Hospital, where she was sent in 1942 against her will. There is indirect evidence, that she was in the hospital far longer than it was necessary on medical grounds. What is beyond doubt is that she was betrayed by her own doctor. "I am a fully normal person," she wrote  to Madetoja, but doctor Jalmari Lydecken, his friend, wanted to let the composer work in peace, and turned down her appeals.  During this period Onerva wrote manically in the small study provided her by the hospital.

In her last decades Onerva produced the unbelievable amount of over 100 000 poems, of which several thousand can stand on their own merits. By 1963, her eyesight had deteriorated so much that she could not write any more. Onerva died in Helsinki on March 1, 1972. Several collections of her poetry have been published posthumously: Etsin suurta tulta: valitut runot 1904-1952, (1984), Toisillemme: valikoima runoja (1986), Siivet: runoja vuosilta 1945-1952 (2004), Pilvet ja aurinko: runoja vuosilta 1953-1963 (2005), Liekkisydän:  valitut runot 1904-1946 (2010). An exhibition of Onerva's paintings, which she made at Nikkilä, was arranged in 2004 at the Helsinki City Art Museum. As an interpreter of woman's personal freedom and sensuality, Onerva has offered for feminist literary research an alternate view to the first decades of the 20th-century Finnish literature, dominated by male writers.

For further reading: 'Näkymä L. Onervan lyriikkaan' in Lyyrillinen minä by Lauri Viljanen (1959); 'L. Onerva - ensimmäinen huomattava naislyyrikkomme' in Käännekohtia by Eino Krohn (1967); 'Naiset arvojen ja asenteiden muuttajina' in Kirjallisuudentutkijain Seuran vuosikirja 34 by Maria-Liisa Kunnas (1982); Elämän punainen päivä by Reetta Nieminen (1982); 'Eino Leino & L. Onerva' in Suurin on rakkaus by Kaija Valkonen and Elina Koivunen (1997); Suomen kirjallisuushistoria, Vol. 2, ed. by Lea Rojola (1999); Nalle ja Moppe: Eino Leinon ja L. Onervan elämä by Hannu Mäkelä (2003); Uponnut pursi by Hannu Mäkelä (2004); L. Onerva. Valvottu yö. Runoilijan maalauksia pimeydestä valoon by Hannu Mäkelä and Berndt Arell (2004); Onnen maa. L. Onervan elämä ja runot by Hannu Mäkelä (2007) - Film: Runoilija ja Muusa (1978), directed by Jaakko Pakkasvirta, screenplay by Titta Karakorpi, Jaakko Pakkasvirta, starring Esko Salminen (as Eino Leino), Elina Salo (as L. Onerva), and Katja Salminen (as Freya Schoultz), depicted Leino's life and women in it.

Selected works:

  • Sekasointuja: runoja, 1904
  • Mirdja: romaani, 1908
    - Mirdja (i översättning av Sixten Johansson och Irene Virtala, 1995)
  • Runoja, 1908
  • Murtoviivoja: novelleja 1909
    - Brytningslinier (öfversättning af Bertel Gripenberg, 1910)
  • Särjetyt jumalat: runoja, 1910
  • Nousukkaita: luonnekuvia, 1911
  • Iltakellot: runoja, 1912
  • Mies ja nainen: novelleja, 1912
  • Inari: romaani, 1913
  • Kaukainen kevät: runoja, 1914
  • Vangittuja sieluja: novelleja, 1915
  • Liesilauluja, 1916
  • Yksinäisiä: romaani nykyajalta, 1917
  • Murattiköynnös: runoja, 1918
  • Neitsyt Maarian lahja ynnä muita legendoja, 1918
    - Jungfru Marias gåva (övers. av Hagar Olsson, 1918)
  • Lyhtylasien laulu ynnä muita runoja, 1919
  • Valittuja runoja, 1919
  • Madame de Stael, 1920
  • Elämän muukalainen: sikermä unikuvia, 1921
  • Jerusalemin suutari ynnä muita tarukuvia, 1921
  • Helkkyvät hetket: runoja, 1922
  • Salainen syy: novelleja, 1923
  • Sielujen sota: lyyrillinen sarja, 1923
  • Syyttäjä: nelinäytöksinen draama, 1923
  • Maan tomu-uurna: runoja, 1925
  • Uponnut maailma ynnä muita satukuvia unen ja toden mailta, 1925
  • Liekki: runoja, 1927
  • Valittuja runoja, 1927
  • Dadaistinen taulu, 1929
  • Säleristikon takana, 1930
  • Eino Leino: runoilija ja ihminen I-II , 1932
  • Yö ja päivä: runoja, 1933
  • Häistä hautajaisiin: novelleja, 1934
  • Rajalla, 1938
  • Pursi: kohtalovirsi, 1945
  • Iltarusko: runoja, 1952
  • L. Onervan kauneimmat runot, 1956 (toim. Eino Kauppinen & Sirkka Rapola)
  • Valitut teokset, 1956 (johdannon kirj. Rafael Koskimies)
  • Etsin suurta tulta: valitut runot 1904-1952, 1984 (toim. Helena Anhava)
  • Toisillemme: valikoima runoja, 1986 (toim. Reetta Nieminen ja Jorma Rakkolainen)
  • Puoluepukarit ja Geisha, 2002 (toim. Annikki Yrjäinen)
  • Siivet: runoja vuosilta 1945-1952, 2004 (toim. Hannu Mäkelä)
  • Pilvet ja aurinko: runoja vuosilta 1953-1963, 2005 (toim. Hannu Mäkelä)
  • Yölauluja: L. Onervan ja Leevi Madetojan kirjeitä 1910–1946, 2006 (toim. Anna Makkonen ja Marja-Leena Tuurna)
  • Liekkisydän: valitut runot 1904-1946, 2010 (toim. Hannu Mäkelä)

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