Camilla Collett was a feminist writer from Norway. She wrote the first Norwegian novel dealing critically with the position of women and is known as the “first Norwegian feminist.”
Collett was born in 1813 in Kristiansand, Norway to Nicolai Wergeland, a noted theologian, politician, and composer in his time, and Alette née Thaulow. At the age of 4, Collet’s family moved to Eidsvoll, and her father became the parish priest and participated in the Eidsvold Assembly, which led to the Norwegian Constitution and propagated Norway’s cultural break with Denmark. Collett was encouraged in her education by her family, and wrote from a young age in her diary. She attended the Moravian Church’s school for girls in Christiansfeld, Denmark, after which she spent time in Paris with her father, partly due to health problems.
Between 1836 and 1837, Collett lived in Hamburg, where she met Therese von Bacheracht and attended her Salon, where she was introduced to the writers Rahel Varnhagen and George Sand. Both of Bacheracht and Sand influenced her writing, the former for her travelogues and the latter for her striving to develop an oral style of writing. In 1841, Collett married political, literary critic and member of Intelligenspartiet (the Intelligence party), Peter Jonas Collett. He encouraged her in her writing, and in 1842 she published a feminist essay entitled “Nogle Strikketøisbetragtninger” in the Den Constitutionelle newspaper.
During the 1840’s, Collett wrote articles, sketches and short stories, all of which were published anonymously. In 1851, after a decade of marriage she became a widow. Collett was thrown into financial difficulties and forced to sell her house. She continued writing, and in 1854 her best known work Amtmandens Døtre (The District Governor’s Daughters) was published anonymously in two parts, with the second appearing in 1855. The book is considered to be one of the first political and social realism novels in Norway and deals with the struggles of being a woman in a patriarchal society. It focuses on forced marriages, and details how social prejudices concerning ‘womanliness’ and marriage serve to undermine the relationship between men and women. This in turn makes it harder for women and men to marry for love, as marriage is considered a way in which to maintain, or increase status above all else. The novel was probably inspired by her own, unusually egalitarian marriage.
Collect continued to write, and cement herself as a feminist writer, and the first feminist literary critic in Norway. She supported women’s rights and campaigned for social and political change for equal rights in her writing. Her articles on women’s rights were initially publishing anonymously, but later collected in a book of collected works. At the time, women were shunned for writing and sharing feminist ideas and this negatively affected her career. Collett used this to fuel her writing, and explored this stigma while calling for a new image for women, leaving behind the self-sacrificing and submissive stereotype. In 1863, her memoirs, I de lange Nætter, were published in which she reflected on the difficulties the genre posed for women writers.
Collett became an icon for the Norwegian women’s right movement of the 1880s. She died in 1895, and is now thought of as one of her country’s foremost authors of memoir literature due to her four published volumes of Dagbøker og breve (1926–33; “Diaries and Letters”). She now belongs to the Norwegian literary canon as a celebrated feminist pioneer.