In this book, ”Room for the Day”, a form of vernacular literacy is studied, the diary writing of two women in northern Sweden in the 1930s and 1940s. The two women have a common denominator, in that they both earned their own living and lived in simple circumstances. Julia Englund (1882–1951) lived and worked in a fishing environment on the coast of Norrbotten, and Linnéa Johansson (1917–2006) in an agrarian environment in the inland of Västerbotten. Julia’s diaries are preserved from the period 1932–48. Linnéa began her lifelong diary writing in 1934 at the age of 17. In this book the diaries written between 1934 and 1942 are studied, during a period when Linnéa mainly worked as a maid. Julia and Linnéa are thus in two different phases of life during the investigated writing periods. Julia is upper middle age and Linnéa is young. Both women’s use of writing is limited to vernacular literacy.
The two women’s work situation is characterized by mobility. Julia, who shared her household with her brother, lived in the archipelago during the summer and autumn, where she fished for herring and bleak together with her brother. In winter and spring they lived in Bensbyn where Julia weaved carpets which she sold in the nearby town of Luleå. The sales journeys to Luleå did not just involve geographical mobility, but social mobility as well, since Julia’s customers were found in a middle-class environment. That way she moved between different social environments. Linnéa’s work situation involved geographical mobility as well, which in addition gave her experiences of different social environments. During the nine years that she earns her own living she works for 18 different employers and changes her place of work some 30 times. As a maid she also comes in close contact with an unfamiliar middle-class environment when she worked for the itinerant agricultural consultant, the inspector and the clergyman.
In this study, diary writing is regarded as a literary practice, which can be placed in a wider theoretical context, within the field of research comprehensively calledethnography of communication, where human communication is studied with a combination of linguistic and anthropological methods. My point of departure is the field of research known as new literacy, where methods from ethnography of communication are used in the study of writing. Literacy is understood as a set of social practices, illustrated with the term literacy practice. Literacy practices are located in time and space and thereby located in a specific time and a specific place.
That diary writing is part of a social practice may seem to be a problematic argument. A social practice is normally an interplay with other individuals or groups of individuals, which isn’t the case here. But the literacy event is here perceived as part of a social practice, based on the assumption that the literacy event is part of a process of identity construction – a process where the writer has a dialogue with herself, using writing as technique, and pen and paper as tool. In the daily literacy event, individual activities and experiences are made visible at the same time that the writer positions herself in relation to the social contexts that she, as an individual, is a part of.
By using the diary text as a basis it is possible to investigate how the subjective identity, also called the self, is formed. The continuous narrative in people’s lives is regarded as a fundamental condition for the forming of the self. The theoretical inspiration to the forming of the self has mainly been derived from the philosopher Seyla Benhabib and the historian Joan Scott. Both emphasize the individual’s own participation in the processes of identity construction, where each separate individual is assumed to be a co-creator in the narrative about his or her life.
Separate individuals thus possess a certain room of manoeuver and it is therefore possible for them to influence their situation. This means that I see Julia Englund and Linnéa Johansson as co-creators in the narratives about their lives, in the story or stories that construct their respective selves. One of these narratives is the written text that develops in their diary writing.
Naturally, Julia Englund and Linnéa Johansson are not sole participants in the forming of their life stories, in the construction of their selves. There are several cultural and social conditions, related to the construction of identity, which are specific for the time and the place where they both lived and worked. With Seyla Benhabib’s terminology they have “many established stories” to relate to, while Joan Scott states that they are “being subject to definite conditions of existence”. That way the diary material makes it possible to study one identity constructing process where the subjective identity, the self, is both created and recreated.
The comprehensive aim of my study of the practice of diary writing is to analyse the functions of the literacy practice for the two diary writers Julia Englund and Linnéa Johansson: Why do two women with little writing experience keep diaries in the northernmost parts of Sweden in the 1930s? What are the functions of their literacy practice? The comprehensive issue is also related to issues concerning identity. How do Julia and Linnéa represent their selves in the narrative which develops in their diary writing?
I also pose the question whether the literacy practice has consequences for the women’s room of manoeuver: Does the literacy practice entail an increased room of manoeuver for Julia and Linnéa? Is it possible for them, via their diary writing, to engage in activities which would be difficult to perform in other ways in their historical and social position? I have chosen to apply a spatial perspective to the material and the issues of research. Primarily this means that the diary is regarded as a written room. Secondly it means that I also take spatial dimensions into consideration in discussing the life situation of the writers.
Both Julia Englund and Linnéa Johansson write regularly in their diaries. The continuity of their writing indicates that the literacy practice has been very valuable for both of them. In Julia’s text I have been able to discern three lived rooms inside the walls of the diary: the room of business, the room of faith and the room of household. In the room of business, Julia’s activities relating to fishing, weaving and sales are noted. In the room of faith her practice of faith in the Baptist parish, where she was active, is documented. In the third room, the room of household, the work connected with the care of her home is documented. Julia is the principal character in her text, and only a few other actors appear. Julia is mainly visible in the room of business and in the room of faith, but also to a certain extent in the room of household where she writes more sporadically.
The character of Linnéa Johansson’s literacy practice changes during the investigated period. In her initial dairy writing in the agrarian environment, the farm is in focus. Linnéa herself seems to be barely present in the written room. The man on the farm is the main character, and apart from him there is a vast gallery of characters, consisting of all the visitors who come to the farm. But in Linnéa’s literacy practice in the unfamiliar middle-class environment, Linnéa herself is the centre and not the household. In this written room Linnéa is the sole main character. It is Linnéa’s work which is made visible in the written room, and it is Linnéa’s free time, and her joys and sorrows, which take up space. There is a relatively detailed account of her own chores here. The room which the literacy practice creates in the middle-class environment is built for Linnéa’s own needs. In this strange environment she needs someone to talk to, and that is how she uses her diary. Thus, in Umeå, Linnéa initiates a literacy practice where she is a more obvious subject – in an environment where she was alone and vulnerable. She also brings parts of the literacy practice which she establishes in the middle-class environment to her continued writing in the agrarian environment.
The literacy practice can be said to fill two practical functions. Julia Englund’s literacy practice constitutes a tentative beginning of a small business account. In the room of business, economic data which are important for Julia’s business activities are written down, albeit in an informal way. The diary writing can also be regarded as a chance for both women to practise their writing skills. They are here provided with a chance to daily practise their formal writing skills. Their writing also involves training in mastering the norms of the written language, which markedly differed from the spoken language that both these dialect speaking writers used.
In diary writing there is a general connection between literacy event and identity – a connection which concerns all different forms of diary writing. The recurring and regular literacy event in itself gives continuity and constancy to the writer’s identity. In the diary, everyday experiences are written into a narrative about the passage of time where the moment’s fleeting experience is given a permanent form through writing. Maybe the need for constancy and continuity was extra emphasized in Julia and Linnéa, because of their respective work situation which was strongly characterized by mobility.
The literacy practice contributes to providing the self with continuity and it also has a confirming function. Both Julia and Linnéa confirm their professional activities. Julia confirms her craftsmanship, and Linnéa gives written confirmation to parts of the maid’s chores. The two women are also provided with a chance to confirm the hardships they encounter in their work, and thus they can also make shorter reflections about their work situation. On a few occasions Julia complains that her work is hard and tiring. The maid Linnéa often confirms the difficulties she encounters in her work, mainly in the middle-class environment. They also both confirm strong feelings. In both women’s texts there are strong emotional expressions. They don’t occur too often, but they are there. Julia expresses strong feelings of sorrow and regret, while Linnéa writes down her feelings of abandonment and loneliness in an equally strong way. The use of a signature, which is sometimes frequent in Linnéa’s texts, can also be seen as a confirmation and a mark of her own identity.
In both women’s diary writings there are only a few elements with an exploratory function. Julia Englund has sometimes written down two versions of one and the same event, for example the death of her sister Mina. The literary practice has here given her an opportunity to explore new ways of looking at life by testing different forms of expression. In one respect one might also say that Linnéa Johansson literary practice is exploratory. In 1939–40 Linnéa changes her last name fromJohansson to Robertsson on some ten occasions when she writes her signature. The name change stems from a wish to change her last name, but to do so was unthinkable. But the writing gives her a chance to explore how it would feel to bear the name of Robertsson, to explore and try out an alternative identity.
The literacy practice can be said to have given the women a somewhat increased room of manoeuver. Julia’s room of manoeuver is enlarged in relation to the two public rooms that she participates in – the room of business and the room of faith. Because of her business activities she often spent time in the public rooms of the town on her sales journeys. In her literacy practice she makes her competence, her capacity and her customer’s positive evaluations visible. In the room of faith she writes down critical comments of courses of events in the Baptism parish that she is a member of, and here she expresses both concern and negative criticism. The critical comments are, however, few, but are given more weight in that they so markedly differ from her otherwise positive and tolerant attitude. The literacy practice thus gives her a better chance to confirm the value of her own work in the room of business, and a chance to express questioning comments in the room of faith.
Linnéa Johansson’s increased room of manoeuvre can be related to a private sphere, in relation to the private employers that she worked for as a maid. Through her literacy practice she gets a chance to confirm the work that she has done and at the same time complain about the hardships connected to her work. The literacy practice also makes a challenging activity possible; a careful questioning of her employer’s social position. Thanks to the literacy practice she also gets a chance to explore a new identity. Only in the written room can she assume the name of Linnéa Robertsson.
In conclusion I will state that both Julia’s and Linnéa’s literacy practice has had a strengthening effect on their subjective identity. It is mainly their professional identity that was strengthened but also their self confidence. Their literacy practice did not began with this aim in mind, and it is probably uncertain whether they were aware of this strengthening function. But maybe it is also this strengthening effect that was the driving force behind their long-standing literacy practice.
Umeå: Umeå universitet. Kulturgräns norr , 2007. , 281 p.