Feature Story | 13-Apr-2023

Among noble ladies, literature and politics

Linköping University

What did ladies of the nobility read, and how did they read? Were they active readers who discussed books, and did literature enter their salons to become part of political discussions? Johanna Vernqvist, PhD in literature at Linköping University, takes an interest in this. Her research focuses on the women of Löfstad Castle, their reading and political engagement.

The library at Löfstad Castle looks exactly as you would imagine a country estate library. Massive wooden furniture and rows of ceiling-high shelves filled to the top with books. Johanna Vernqvist is balancing on a ladder to reach the books on the top shelf. She pulls out a few books, delves into the hundred-year-old pages, turning them carefully. 
There are 5,000 volumes in this library. 

“It’s fantastic to have been given this opportunity to browse among the books here,” says Johanna Vernqvist.

She is on the hunt for books read by the noble ladies of Löfstad Castle. The castle was built in the 17th century and was owned mainly by women, until its last owner Emilie Piper passed away in 1926 and the castle was turned into a museum. This is what makes the collection of books at Löfstad so interesting. It was created largely by women and can give us an insight into what and how they read.

“Women’s reading and reading culture has not been studied much in a Swedish context. Yes, there is research into it, but much more remains to be done. The library at Löfstad is an incredible asset for this research.”

Johanna Vernqvist’s research project Reading cultures and politics among the women of Löfstad Castle is run in collaboration with Löfstad Castle, which is part of Östergötland's museum. The project focuses on women’s reading cultures, the social aspect of reading. Was literature shared and discussed? She is particularly interested in whether their reading culture interacted with politics. What political issues were raised, and did literature transcend the library walls and enter the salons and the political discussions?

“I’m studying what these women read, how they read, and whether this had an impact in other contexts, outside the library.”

Her focus is on the 18th and 19th centuries. This was the Age of Enlightenment, characterised by political tension. Literature was becoming increasingly political. The women of Löfstad were close to these discussions as they had connections to Swedish political and cultural power. As an example, Sophie Piper, who lived permanently at Löfstad from 1811 until she passed away, was a close friend of Queen Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta.

Understanding the Löfstad women’s reading is pure detective work. Johanna Vernqvist is in an early stage of her project, spending quite a lot of time in the castle library looking for titles, browsing, reading. Trying to find traces of reading in the books, she is aided by the library catalogue produced by researchers involved in earlier projects at Löfstad. Are there any markings or notes that can indicate what the reader found important? Any ex libris seals to reveal who owned them? The next stage of the project is to interpret the traces and go through archive material such as letters and diaries, that are also important sources.

So far it is clear that the library contains many works by what we would today refer to as feminist authors, dealing with subjects such as women’s rights and education. It houses works by, for instance, forerunners of one of the greatest philosophers advocating women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft.

“The ladies of Löfstad Castle were undoubtedly interested in raising the issue of women’s rights. But it’s too early to say whether they were in favour or more conservative, and whether this impacted political discussions.”

It has also become clear that many of the books in the collection belonged to Emilie De Geer, who lived at Löfstad Castle between 1817 and 1828. The extent and contents of her contribution to the book collection has not previously been particularly highlighted. In Johanna Vernqvist’s opinion, it is a privilege for a researcher in literature to be given access to a book collection like this one.

“The first time I was allowed into the library I was completely blown away.”

And she is not the only one interested in this plentiful collection of books. In collaboration with Löfstad Castle, Johanna Vernqvist has given talks for teachers and members of the public, as well as seminars for Linköping University students. These seminars have proved very popular, and students have shown an interest in writing theses etc. on the Löfstad book collection. Together with historian My Hellsing, she is now also planning a major conference.

There is, of course, also an interest among academia. Not much research has been done into women’s libraries and reading, but interest in this is growing. One of Johanna Vernqvist’s contacts is Professor Ronald Schechter, who studies the library of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, whose alleged lover Axel von Fersen was the brother of Löfstad’s owner Sophie Piper.
Johanna Vernqvist’s research covers women in and behind literature, the representation of gender, love and sexuality. She wants to bring attention to women’s contribution to literary history and, with this project, also to women’s reading.

“I want to highlight the women who paved the way and showed new thinking. Many women have been written out of literary history, but research can change this, one step at a time. With this project, I hope to help provide a picture of women’s role in the Age of Enlightenment.”

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