Sofie and Cecilia – by Katherine Ashenburg

by Edith Cody-Rice

Sofie and Cecilia is the debut novel of Katherine Ashenburg, a well known non-fiction Canadian writer who has published in the New York times, Toronto Life and the Globe and Mail where she was arts and books editor. The novel is set in late 19th  and early 20th century Sweden, a seemingly odd choice for a Canadian author, but inspired, she says, by a visit to Sweden to visit her daughter who was working there. The story is a fictionalized version of the lives of two very famous Swedish artists Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn, or more accurately, that of their wives. Carl Larsson became well known for his watercolour portrayals of the domestic life in his home with his wife Karin and seven children. Anders Zorn became a famous painter, sculptor and etcher, earning his living as the portraitist of celebrities of the time. His wife Emma Lamm a gifted organizer handled the administration of his business affairs and developed her own projects near and around their home in the village of Mora, where they lived. She opened The Zorn Children’s Home as well as  a public school for adults (f|olkhögskola) in Mora. Zorn became wealthy, partly through his connection to Emma’s upper middle class Jewish family.

In the novel, Carl and Karin Larsson become Nils and Sofie Olssen.  while Anders and Emma Zorn are portrayed as Lars and Cecila Vogt. The fictional couples are friends but the deepest friendship develops between the wives, both suppressed and betrayed in some fashion. Sofie, like the real life Karin is a trained painter, trained at the same Royal Academy as Nils, but, at the insistence of her husband, gives up painting on their marriage. This puts me in mind of the comments of Mary Pratt who was told by her art professor, a professor teaching both Mary and her husband Christopher, that a family could only have one artist and she should put away her paints and raise the children. Luckily she ignored that advice but similar advice was given to Sofie, who listened and gave up painting, but later found her creative outlet in weaving and decorative arts which made her famous in her own right. Her textiles are the inspiration for those we find today at Ikea.

The fictional Cecila devoted her life to her husband’s career only to find him an inveterate womanizer, a fact which humiliated her and revealed his ingratitude to his wife who was to a great extent responsible for the success of his career. She did stick with him though, as Sofie stuck with Nils. Ms. Ashenburg has stated that one of the things she wanted to do was to write about imperfect relationships which still work on many levels.

A review in Quill and Quire notes that  Sofie & Cecilia emphasizes that the cost of male success has often been women’s suppression. “Does domestic tranquility always have to come at a price?” wonders Sofie, contemplating a Dutch painting showing the ambivalent face of a wife holding up her hunter husband’s bloodied prey. “At least this time it is the hare that has been sacrificed,” Sofie says. “You mean, instead of the woman,” replies her friend Cecilia. Their companions in the gallery are baffled, but the women understand each other perfectly.

Sofie and Cecilia exchange views on their lives through the medium of English novels which they discuss when together and which are revealing to the reader. Their friendship develops and, in the end,  they both outlive their husbands and become their true selves.

The book is replete with details about art, design, European history, sexual politics, country life, and the salons of Sweden, fascinating details, especially for those who know the country only through its  authors.

One of the cover comments compares this book to the Neopolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. This novel is much more measured and less sparkling than Ferrante’s writing, perhaps a reflection of the Nordic spirit. It is a slow burn and in some respects, a somewhat flat portrait of a relationship, but absorbing nonetheless.

Published by Knopf Canada 

416 pages