Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Märta and Hjalmar Söderberg - A Marriage Disaster by Johan Cullberg and Björn Sahlin

We read books to read about other lives, other countries, other horizons and for a lot of more reason. However, as they say, life is often more rich than anything you can read about. This is what I thought about this book. I read a review in a Swedish paper and found the story intriguing; one of our great writers, his unhappy, 'crazy' wife, leaving the wife with three children and in the end trying to achieve a divorce by forcing her into a mental institution. Here sure is juicy details for a TV-series to run for at least 6 seasons.

I had never heard about his wife, or his marriage, or his dramatic life before, so I thought it was a good reason to buy the book. I have only read two of his books, also being two of his most famous, Doctor Glas and The Serious Game. Both of them have some real life aspects in them.

Of the two writers one is a professor in psychology and the other a publisher, author. They mention that it was supposed to be a book about Märta and her fate, but hers and Hjalmar's lives are so connected that it was difficult to exclude him from the story. Therefore, here is a biography on both of them and seeing
events of their lives from each's point of view.


When they met, Hjalmar was a journalist and aspiring writer, Märta was a socialite. Coming from a wealthy family, spoiled and educated like young women were in those days to be a perfect wife. During the first years they were in love and they enjoyed a social life in Stockholm, summer houses and spas; a typical life of the wealthier class in those days. We are talking of the very beginning of the 20th century. They got three children and then the marriage was over.

Now starts a time of friction to say the least. Märta developed a serious illness, rheumatoid arthritis, and it got worse with the years. Hjalmar had other relationships and then met a Danish woman, Emilie Voss, with which he got a daughter born in 1910. They finally married in 1917 when he could achieve a divorce from Märta.

The book looks into the procedures that took place when Märta was put in a mental institution. She was not there all the time, but transferred to one hospital after the other. At the time, married women did not really have any rights of their own, they were under obligation to their husbands. In this case, what makes it even worse, is, that the doctor who wrote the diagnosis of Märta, did not really know her, had hardly met her, and was a friend of the publisher.

The obituary of Märta has always been that she was mentally ill. Going through hospital records and other archive material, the authors wanted to show that this was really not the case. There is nothing in the records that tells them that she was mentally ill. She had other illnesses as already mentioned and this gave way to strong moods and strange behaviour. She was refused to see her children at home, although they did come to visit. Later in life, in interviews, they said they never had the feeling that their mother was mentally ill, just physically ill. She had no chance to prove her case.

It is gruesome and chocking reading. The overall verdict from doctors, is, that she was very self centred, and her illness and the treatment of it occupied her mind most of the time. However, even reading doctor's notes today, not many of them referred to her as mentally ill. 

Märta died in 1932 and Hjalmar in 1941. 



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