The first nine years of her life, from 1844 to 1853, Minna Canth (born Ulrika Wilhelmina Johnsson) lived in Tampere, an industrial city in central Finland, where her father, Gustaf Wilhelm Johnsson, was employed in a textile mill. Although lacking in formal education, her father was highly regarded and advanced quickly in his job. In 1853, the family moved to Kuopio in eastern Finland, where Johnsson acquired a shop selling yarns manufactured by the Tampere factory. After graduating from a Swedish-language girls’ school in Kuopio, Canth continued her education in a newly established teachers’ college in Jyväskylä, which represented the highest level of education to which a young woman could aspire in Finland. In 1864, after only a year’s studies, she fell in love with and married J. F. Canth, a teacher of natural sciences at the college. During the following years, until her husband’s death in 1879, Canth devoted herself to their growing family. She did, however, find time to follow the major issues of the day, so that in 1874, when her husband took over the editorship of the paper Keski-Suomi, she was able to do most of the work. Canth translated foreign articles and wrote her own on topics familiar to audiences from her later artistic production: women’s education and alcoholism and other social ills. It was also during these years in Jyväskylä that she first came in contact with the theater, when the young Finnish Theater from Helsinki, started in 1872, gave guest performances there. Also influential was her acquaintance with the directors of the theater, Emilie and Kaarlo Bergbom. This sister and brother pair were to remain Canth’s mentors for years to come.
When Canth’s husband died, leaving his wife with six children and expecting a seventh, she was forced to find some means of supporting her large family. Returning to Kuopio, she took over her parents’ bankrupt yarn shop, and with skill and hard work, she managed to develop the business into a successful enterprise, which gave her and her family a solid living and enabled her to devote time to her writing and other cultural endeavors.
Although a small town and far from the country’s capital, Kuopio had a bishop’s seat, and the provincial governor resided there. A lively cultural life developed around the small circle of the town’s intellectuals. Much of the credit goes, however, to Canth. Her house became the “salon” frequented by young intellectuals, the names of whom are today familiar to every Finnish schoolchild: the authors Juhani Aho and Heikki Kauppinen, the members of the gifted Järnefelt family, and the brothers Erkko, to mention a few. Books by European thinkers such as Georg Brandes, Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Hippolyte Taine, Max Nordau, and the Scandinavian authors Ibsen and Strindberg were discussed. Canth translated some of their works and commented on them in her articles in Valvoja and in her own short-lived Vapaita aatteita. Under the guidance of the Bergboms, she also launched her dramatic career. Soon, however, it became apparent that the kinds of works desired by the theater did not always coincide with those that Canth felt compelled to write. Her first two plays, Murtovarkaus and Roinilan talossa, were public successes—harmless depictions of life in the Finnish countryside in the popular national Romantic style. By the third play, Työmiehen vaimo, the tone had changed. Brandes’s thesis of literature, which emphasized the inclusion of issues of current interest, found a loyal follower in Canth, who increasingly attacked the hypocrisy of society, double morality, the Church, women’s powerless position, and the economic plight of the working class.
In 1889, the performance of Canth’s fourth major play, Kovan onnen lapsia, marked a turning point in her career and private life. Its radicalism shocked the audience, and the play was canceled after its opening night. More significantly, Canth’s strongest supporters, the young intellectuals, thought that this time she had gone too far. The rift was further widened by their opposite stands in the so-called morality feud. Although both Canth and her young male supporters rejected the prevailing double standard of sexual morality, whereby men were allowed sexual freedom before and after marriage whereas women were expected to live by strict moral rules, they clashed over ways to remedy the situation. The men advocated free love for men and women but maintained that prostitution was a necessary evil in view of men’s naturally stronger sex drive. Canth, on the other hand, called for the abolition of prostitution and demanded the same virtuous behavior from men and women. She was less motivated by idealistic morality than by her pragmatic concern for the women who became pregnant as a result of “free love” and the girls, mostly from the working class, who fell victim to prostitution. Worst of all, the men’s attacks on Canth went beyond their differing points of view—they ridiculed her in public about her appearance, age, and lifestyle.
Before becoming an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia in 1809, Finland had been an integral part of Sweden for centuries. As a result, Swedish was the language of administration, culture, and education. Yet the majority of the people spoke Finnish as their mother tongue. With the nationalistic movement that reached Finland around the middle of the 1800’s, a strong, new interest was sparked in the Finnish language and culture. Both the Jyväskylä College and the Finnish Theater were products of the movement. Canth had always faithfully supported the Finnish cause and with her art contributed to its growth. Now in the 1890’s, however, she found herself alienated from both the young Aho circle and the politically conservative Finns behind the Bergboms and the Finnish Theater. In Canth’s view, a greater threat to Finland was posed by the nationalist groups in Russia than by the domestic language question. Furthermore, she encountered a more fertile soil for her ideas among such Swedish-language intellectuals as the author K. A. Tavaststjerna. That she wrote Sylvi in Swedish and offered it to the Swedish Theater did nothing to improve her relations with the Bergboms.
The times were changing, however, and new ideas were coming from abroad. The rational decade of the 1880’s was yielding to the new currents of neo-Romanticism and Symbolism of the 1890’s. Even Brandes, the father of realistic literature in Scandinavia, now espoused Friedrich Nietzsche-inspired radical aristocratism with stress on the exceptional individual. Instead of relying on the powers of reason, the new generation of writers and thinkers explored the secrets of the human mind, spiritism, and hypnotism. Canth did not remain unaffected by these ideas. Some personal tragedies, the death of three persons that had been close to her, a nineteen-year-old daughter among them, rendered her especially susceptible to the emotional appeal of the new “isms.” More than any other thinker, the Russian author Leo Tolstoy had an impact on Canth. His ideas of pacifism, love, faith, and humility can be detected in Papin perhe and became the dominant force in her work by the time she wrote Anna Liisa. Canth was at the height of her creative powers and the mastery of her craft when in 1897, in her fifties, she died of heart failure.