I had meant to return Cicely Hamilton’s Modern Sweden to the London Library yesterday, but I started to reread it on the train down, and I could not quite bear to return it. It is an account of a journey around Sweden in the late 1930s (published in 1939) undertaken by a woman of intelligence and energy but no Swedish.
She has the rare gift of writing with non-destructive wit about very boring things. Here is her account of the founder of Swedish gymnastics:
while Jahn, in Germany, was raising the banner of physical culture, the same thing was happening on the other side of the Baltic; Ling, the Swede, was evolving his new methods of mental and physical training. Like Jahn, his motives were largely patriotic; like Jahn, he desired to work on the minds as well as on the bodies of his pupils; and — again like Jahn — he started his work in a nation exhausted by misfortune. When he began to teach, it was but a year or two since his country had emerged from an inglorious war with the Russian empire, a war which had ended with the Tsar’s annexation of Finland and left Sweden drained alike of her wealth and her power. But in Sweden, as in Germany, disaster was followed by revival of the national spirit, and Per Henrik Ling, of gymnastic fame, was among the men whom his country’s misfortune stirred to desire of service. In his earlier years his patriotism expressed itself in verse which, unlike his system of physical culture, was not destined to influence succeeding generations and carry his name round the world; even in his own day Ling’s lengthy poems found few admirers and it was when he discarded literature for gymnastics that he entered on the work of his life.
I love that last sentence.
But her life was not all finely turned epigrams. She was also shown the activities of the Young Farmers’ Union (or “league” as she mistranslated it) and here you can catch a glimpse of the real hardships of a foreign correspondent:
The activities of the league are many and various; its aim is not only to train good landworkers but to bring interest and amusement into the landworker’s life. Some of these activities I had a glimpse of, in the course of a day spent with one of its officials and his kindly wife in the southern province of Halland — which is among the best agricultural districts of Sweden. One of our excursions was to the scene of an open-air competition where eight young people raced against each other in the thinning of a field of root-crops. The competitors, girls as well as boys, were waiting at the field as we drove up — a sturdy, jolly company of youngsters and all of them eager for the fray; each was allotted three rows to thin out — three lengthy rows, for the field was by no means small. The prize to go to the lad or lass who came in first — the requisite thoroughness being, of course, understood.
This form of competition is only one of many organized by J.U.F. — as the league is called for short; prizes are given for all sorts of agricultural accomplishments; the care of animals, the growing of fruit and vegetables.
Although the girl-member of J.U.F. is instructed in the field-work she shares with her brother — the planting of beans, the thinning of root-crops and the like — is also encouraged to perfect herself in the necessary arts of the housekeeper; I did not see a cookery lesson in progress but I was shown a photograph of a group of girls displaying a row of outsize sausages — their recent achievements in the kitchen.
I imagine her sitting up late over a typewriter in her hotel room that evening, staring back at a sheet of blank paper with the expression of a cornered rat.