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...
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