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Minna Canth (1844 - 1897) - Ulrika Wilhelmina, née Johnsson, used in columns pseudonym Wilja


Finnish playwright and short-story writer who described women's position in the society and advocated contemporary radical social ideas in magazine articles. During the early years of the young Finnish Theatre – the National Theatre was founded in 1872 – Canth's plays were performed on its stage more often than Shakespeare's. She was the first notable Finnish social realist, whose work showed the influence of Henrik Ibsen and Georg Brandes.

"Pahoja ne vain ihmiset olivat köyhää ja heikkoa kohtaan, silloinkin kun olivat apua antavinaan. Parempi, että veisivät hengen kerrassaan eivätkä kiusaisi puutteessa ja onnettomuudessa. Mutta köyhän puolta ei kukaan pitänyt, jokainen vain oli valmis sortumaan ja kuormaa kuorman päälle panemaan. Sen hän niin elävästi tunsi, aina kun lastensa tulevaisuutta ajatteli." (from Köyhää kansaa, 1886)

Minna Canth was born in Tampere, the daughter of Gustaf Wilhelm Johnson and Ulrika Andersintytär (Archelin?) Johnson. Her father was a worker at the Finlayson cotton factory, where he rose in the position of a foreman. In 1853 the family moved to Kuopio, a small but culturally active town 500 kilometers from Helsinki. Johnson worked in Kuopio as a shop manager, and was able to provide his daughter a good education. Canth did not have much good to say about her time in the local women's gymnasium. The teaching was not thorough but centered around making the girls as marriable as possible. In 1863 she entered Jyväskylä Teachers' Seminary, but left her studies and married in 1865 her teacher Johan Ferdinand Canth, nine years her senior. From 1874 to 1876 she wrote for the regional publications Keski-Suomi and later for Päijänne (1878-79). Canth's early short fiction, including the religious short story 'Äiti ja poika' (1878, Mother and son), was didactic in the manner of Pietari Päivärinta (1827-1913), Wilho Soini (1854-1934) and other contemporaries.

Canth's marriage was not happy. Likely her negative attitude toward sex was partly a reflection of her experiences. In a letter she later said, that "every marriage is not chaste, many shameful acts are committed in them." After the death of her husband in 1879, Canth moved with her seven children to Kuopio. She took charge of her father's shop – he had died a few year earlier, and the business was doing poorly. The draper's shop, the 'Tampereen Lankakauppa', selling Finlayson's fabrics, started to flourish, and Canth found more time to literary aspirations.

Her first book, a collection of short stories, came out in 1879. After the Finnish Theatre visited Kuopio between 1876 and 1878, Canth became more interested in drama. Her first play, Murtovarkaus, gained a huge success, and was produced in 1897 also in Sweden. With Murtovarkaus Canth started her ten year cooperation with Kaarlo Bergbom (1843-1906), who had founded the Finnish Theatre. He encouraged Canth to write ethnological, rustic comedies for the broad audience, but this was not what the author herself wanted to do. The next play, Roinilan talossa, delighted Bergbom with its lively characters and folkdances. Both had similar plot lines: two young people are in love and their parents oppose the marriage. Canth herself was unhappy with this work which premiered 1883, and dismissed it as trivial and boring. Her self-doubts and confusion she poured into letters to close friends, but in 1884 she could declare that she is now a keen socialist.

In the beginning of the 1880's, Canth adopted ideas from such authors as Taine, Ibsen, Strindberg and Zola. She read widely social sciences, ethics, psychology, natural sciences, religious thinkers. Canth become interested in the position of women and workers, and the conflict between religion and Darwin's ideas of evolution. Her new, more socially concerned plays, were attacked by conservative and religious authorities. Among them was the influential Fennoman party director Agathon Meurman, who also persecuted Juhani Aho and other liberal writers. The Bishop of Kuopio declared in 1885, that the emancipation of women was against God's order. Social criticism was a relatively new phenomenon in Finnish literature, and Canth was more outspoken than contemporary male writers. After reading a work by Henry George, she wrote: "Socialism, just pure socialism. It is the best I have read so far."

Canth's Kovan onnen lapsia (1888, 'Hard luck's children'), about a modern Karl Moor, was cancelled after its first performance at the Finnish Theater by the order of the Board of Trustees This act silenced her as a writer of politically radical plays. Papin perhe (1891, The pastor's family) depicted crisis in a bourgeois family. Juhani Aho, who said that he had wept when seeing it, hailed Canth as the greatest female writer in Scandinavia. Työmiehen vaimo (1885, The worker's wife), revealed the misery of a poor and submissive wife, Johanna, her husband's alcoholism, and the evils of prostitution. Johanna is exploited by her husband Risto, who controls her savings, spends the family's money on drink, and eventually steals the cloth his wife has woven. When Johanna is threatened by imprisonment, she breaks down and dies. Kerttu or "Homsantuu", the gipsy girl, repserents another type of woman. She is ready to kill Risto, who has betrayed her.

"Homsantuu. Did you have mercy on me, scoundrel? You deceived me treacherously a second time, seduced me worse than before. You thought: she is the scum of the world, you won't be punished for it if you ruin her. But you are mistaken. This scum of the world for whom nobody cares, takes her vengeance upon you herself.
Risto. Take it in some other way. Spare my life.
Homsantuu. No, you must die. And so must I."

(from The Worker's Wife)

However, Kerttu's bullet misses, and she is arrested. Risto goes back to tavern without feeling pity. In Canth's dark vision there is clear contrast between the prevailing social order and women's rights. In Papin perhe (The Parson's family) Canth studied ideological battle inside a middle-class family. The old-fashioned father, Henrik Valtari, do not accept her daughter's theatrical career. His son Jussi refuses to join the reactionary newspaper which his father supports and choses instead a progressive newspaper. When his children have began their own life, Valtari starts a reconciliation process.

Although Canth championed for many ideas, she left the debate about language and nationality to other writers, such as Juhani Aho, who shared her anticlerical and reformist views. Juhani Aho had been her protégé as a student, but Canth's guidance was more important for Heikki Kauppinen, later known as Kauppis-Heikki. He worked at her store as a sales assistant, and began his own career as a writer. Aho, who for a period defended Canth's views, treated her later with ironic respect.

With Sylvi (1893), written in Swedish, Canth again shocked the Finnish public. The protagonist is a young woman, who is married to an elderly man. She falls in love with a young man, but discovers that divorce laws are against her happiness. Teuvo Puro's screen adaptation of the play was shot in 1913 in Kaivopuisto, Helsinki. The producers, Frans Engström, Teuvo Puro and Teppo Raikas, had participated in the making of the first Finnish fictional film, Salaviinanpolttajat (1907, The Moonshiners).

Canth portrayed her characters, who nearly always were miserable and unfortunate, with understanding and realism. Women were more or less victims of circumstances or the patriarchal order. However, her suffrering wives, who had good and bad sides, were not Madonna figures. Among Canth's most famous literary figures are the independent and rebellious Homsantuu from The Workers Wife, Hanna, a young girl depressed by narrow-minded life in a small city from a short story (1886), and Kauppa-Lopo, a warm-hearted proletarian woman living outside the norms of bourgeois society. The family was in Canth's writings the basis, which mirrored larger social problems. With her brave approach to topical, polemic issues Canth was a constant target of conservative critics, especially clergymen, but at the same time her home in Kuopio attracted such writers and artists as Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Jean Sibelius, K.A. Tavastsjerna, the Halonen family, and the talented wife of General and Governor Alexander Järnefelt, and her sons, especially Arvid.

In 1889-90 Canth edited her own periodical, Vapaita aatteita (Free ideas), in collaboration with A.B. Mäkelä, a student and later co-founder of the newspaper Työmies. The official censure forced her to be careful with the subjects and eventually the paper was closed down. It published – without asking – writings from Maupassant, Brandes, Tolstoy, and Hamsun, and introduced to Finnish readers new findings in astronomy, psychiatry, biology, meteorology and other sciences. Canth showed also understanding toward lighter literature. Although Canth was full of energy as a business woman and writer, her heath started to deteriorate in the 1890s, and she died on May 12, 1897 in Kuopio.

Canth's collected works appeared between the years 1917 and 1920. Her plays are still popular among amateur and professional theatre groups and she is considered by many critics the most outstanding Finnish playwright after Aleksis Kivi. Since 1911, Canth's stories have inspired many film directors. The third version of the triangle drama Anna-Liisa (1895) was planned to celebrate the 100th birthday of Canth. However, its production was delayed when thieves stole many of the costumes.

For further reading: Minna Canthin elämänkerta by Lucina Hagman (1906-11); Minna Canth by Greta von Frencell-Thesleff (1944/1994); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Minna Canth. Kirjailija ja kauppias by Reetta Nieminen (1990); Vapautumisen teema Minna Canthin kaunokirjallisuudessa: naisnäkökulma kirjallisuudentutkimukseen ja sosiaalihistoriaan by Maarit Hermansson (1995); Taistelevat lukumallit: Minna Canthin teosten vastaanotto by Leeni Tiirakari (1997); Monisärmäinen Minna Canth, ed. by Liisi Huhtala (1998); 'Birth of a Nation' by Pirjo Lyytikäinen, in Europe's Northern Frontier (1999); 100 Faces from Finland, ed. by Ulpu Marjomaa (2000); Lähikuvassa nainen: näköaloja 1800-luvun kirjalliseen kulttuuriin, ed. by Päivi Lappalainen, Heidi Grönstrand & Kati Launis (2001); Minna Canth - Taiteilija ja taistelija by Kirsti Mäkinen & Tuula Uusi-Halila (2003); Passion vallassa: hermostunut aika Minna Canthin teoksissa by Minna Maijala (2008) - See also: Minna Canth näytelmäkirjailijana by Kasimir Leino (1897) - Kauppis-Heikki. Minna Canth statues: in Kuopio (sculptor Emil Halonen), in Tampere (sculptor Lauri Leppänen), in Jyväskylä (sculptor Pauli Koskinen)

Selected works:

  • Novelleja ja kertomuksia, 1879 (short stories)
  • Murtovarkaus, 1880 (play, performed 1882)
    - Film adaptation: Murtovarkaus (1926), dir. by Erkki Karu, starring Kaisa Leppänen, Waldemar Wolhström, Emil Lindh, Joel Rinne, Kaarlo Saarnio, Agnes Lindh
  • Roinilan talossa, 1883 (play, published 1885)
    - Film adaptations: Roinilan talossa (1935) dir. by Erkki Karu, starring Iivari Tuomisto, Rauni Luoma, Eero Eloranta, Toivo Palomurto, Laila Rihte, Kaartlo Kartio; Roinilan talossa (1963, TV film), dir. by Kaarlo Hiltunen, starring Anja Haahdenmaa, Rose-Marie Precht and Martta Kinnunen; Roinilan talossa (1965, TV film), dir. by Rauni Mollberg, starring Väinö Eskelinen, Mirja Venäläinen, Aarne Pentikäinen
  • Työmiehen vaimo, 1885 (her first socially engaged play)
    - Arbetarens hustru: skådespel i 5 akter (öfvers. af Hedvig Winterhjelm, 1886)
    - The Workman's Wife (translated by Hilja Karvonen) / Worker's Wife (translated by Mary Taanila Lehtinen and David Hanhilammi)
    - Musical version: Suruttomat (2004), dir. by Sirkku Peltola, music by Matti Puurtinen, lyrics by Heikki Salo
  • Köyhää kansaa, 1886 (short story)
    - Lifsbilder från finska hem. 1, Bland fattigt folk (öfvers. af Rafael Hertzberg, 1886)
  • Hanna, 1886
    - Lifsbilder från finska hem. 2, Hanna (öfvers. af Rafael Hertzberg, 1886)
  • Salakari, 1887
    - Blindskär (övers. 1888)
    - TV film: Salakari (1974), prod. Mainostelevisio (MTV), dir. by Seppo Wallin, starring Asta Backman, Kirsti Kemppainen, Martti Kuisma, Hannu Lauri
  • Kovan onnen lapsia, 1888 (play) - film adaptations: Kovan onnen lapsia (1963, TV film), dir. by Rauni Mollberg, starring Pehr-Olof Sirén, Emma Väänänren, Paula Tuppurainen; Kovan onnen lapsia (1977, TV film), prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. by Timo Bergholm, starring Mika Ahorinta, Eeva-Maija Haukinen, Hannu Kahakorpi, Kristina Klockars, Martti Kuningas, Tauno Lehtihalmes, Oiva Lohtander, Matti Oravisto, Paavo Pentikäinen, Anja Pohjola, Matti Tuominen
  • Lain mukaan. Kauppa-Lopo, 1889
    - Film adaptations: Lain mukaan (1956), prod. Fennada.Filmi, dir. by Roland af Hällström, starring Eila Peitsalo, Matti Oravisto, Fritz-Hugo Backman, Elvi Saarnio: Kauppa Lopo (1968, TV film), dir. by Matti Tapio, starring Sylvi Salonen, Veijo Pasanen, Eila Roine
  • Papin perhe, 1891 (play)
    - film adaptations: Papin perhe (1959, TV film), prod. Suomen Televisio, dir. by Seppo Wallin, starring Toivo Mäkelä, Irma Seikkula and Martti Romppainen; Papin perhe (1962, TV film), prod. Mainostelevisio (MTV), dir. by Toivo Hämeranta, Jouko Castrén, starring Veikko Uusimäki, Kerttu Krohn and Rami Sarmasto
  • Novelleja, 1892
  • Hän on Sysmästä, 1893 (play)
    - TV film: Hän on Sysmästä (1963), prod. Mainostelevisio (MTV), dir. by Ritva Laatto, Raimo Piltz, starring Holger Salin, Esko Salminen, Elina Salo
  • Sylvi, 1893 (play)
    - Film adaptations: Sylvi (1913), dir. by Teuvo Puro, starring Aili Rosvall-Somersalmi, Teppo Raikas, Teuvo Puro; Sylvi (1944), prod. Suomen Filmiteollisuus, dir. by Toivo Särkkä, starring Helena Kara, Leif Wager, Edvin Laine
  • Noveller, 1894 (autoriserad öfversättning af H. Lbg)
  • Spiritistinen istunto, 1894 (play)
  • Anna-Liisa, 1895 (play)
    - Anna Liisa (in Portraits Of Courage. Plays by Finnish Women, translations by Aili Flint et al., ed. by S. E. Wilmer, 1997)
    - Films: Anna-Liisa (1911), dir. by Teppo Raikas (unfinished); Anna-Liisa (1922), dir. by Teuvo Puro and Jussi Snellman; Anna Liisa (1945), dir. by Orvo Saarikivi, Toivo Särkkä, starring Mervi Järventaus, Edvin Laine; (Anna-Liisa (1988, TV drama), dir. by Tuija-Maija Niskanen, starring Anna-Leena Härkönen, Pekka Valkeejärvi, Heikki Paavilainen. Opera from 2008, composed by Veli-Matti Puumala.
  • Kotoa pois, 1895 (play)
  • Arvostelu Neiti Ellen Keyn viime lausunnoista naisasiassa, 1896
    - Kritik af fröken Ellen Keys senaste inlägg i kvinnofrågan (övers. 1896)
  • Kootut teokset, 1917-20 (5 vols.),
  • Kirjeitä vuosilta 1860-1897, 1944 (edited by Irja Harmas et al.)
  • Valitut teokset, 1953 (introduction by Toini Havu)
  • Suolavakka, 1954 (edited by Helle Kannila, Vappu Roos, Irene Tiittanen)
  • Valitut teokset, 1957 (introduction by Helle Kannila)
  • Valitut teokset, 1971 (illustrated by R. Westrén-Doll)
  • Minna Canthin kirjeet, 1973 (edited by Helle Kannila)
  • Valitut teokset, 1973 (introduction by Pertti Karkama)
  • Kodin suuret klassikot: Minna Canth, 1987 (edited by Ilpo Tiitinen)
  • Taisteleva Minna: Minna Canthin lehtikirjoituksia ja puheita 1874-1896, 1994 (edited by Eila Tuovinen, introduction by Tellervo Krogerus)
  • Sanoi Minna Canth: otteita Minna Canthin teoksista ja kirjeistä = Pioneer Reformer: Extracts from Minna Canth's Works and Letters, 2006 (edited by Ritva Heikkilä; English translation by Paul Sjöblom)
  • Kertomuksia, 2008 (short stories)

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