Irja Browallius was an author. Her novels and short stories are typically expansive epic depictions of the transformation rural Sweden underwent during the 1900s.
Irja Browallius was born in Helsinki in 1901. Her parents were Carl Browallius and Gerda Pisani, who were both travelling actors. They moved to Sweden shortly after her birth. Irja Browallius spent most of her childhood at Skinnarviksbergen in Södermalm, which was where her maternal grandfather – an immigrant of Italian origins – worked as a plaster maker. Irja Browallius’ parents divorced when she was a teenager, which broke up the family home. She and her sister stayed with their mother. Although Irja Browallius maintained contact with her father, who subsequently remarried, she carried on living with her mother and sometimes her sister.
After gaining her school-leaving certificate in Stockholm in 1921 Irja Browallius began to study medicine. She never completed the course. She was hospitalised at Söderby sanatorium for a time to be treated for tuberculosis. She tried taking some art courses but finally settled on training to become a småskola (junior school) teacher, just like her elder sister Greta. In 1927 she got a job as a teacher at Glottra school in southern Närke, the same place where her sister was already working.
Irja Browallius’ experiences of working with the children of rural Närke released the inner writer in her. She not only became acquainted with her pupils, but also with their parents, the land they lived on, local agricultural and forestry practises, and the social relationships and customs of the countryside which were entirely unfamiliar to her as a city girl. She began to write short stories about the lives of locals she met during the ten years she spent working as a teacher. She released her first book in 1934 already, through Albert Bonnier publishers, which was a short-story collection entitled Vid byvägar och älgstigar. The themes of the eight short stories were inspired by the surrounding area which Irja Browallius eventually adopted as her own. The 1934 edition of Bonniers Nyheter includes a photograph of Irja Browallius in a school class-photo. Bonnier publishers were pinning their hopes on an ‘author who knows and understands her particular corner of the earth’. The dialogue in Irja Browallius’ writing was influenced by the local dialect from her very first stories – which was not an obvious choice for a writer brought up with Standard Swedish.
Irja Browallius, whilst heavily influenced by the reality of what to her was an inspiring but isolated rural environment, also benefited from her well-read literary background. In 1948 she discussed her most memorable reading experiences in the article ‘Böcker i mitt liv’, printed in Bonniers Litterära Magasin that year. She began to read Russian authors in her youth, during her earlier period in the sanatorium, in particular Dostoyevsky, Chekov, and Gorky’s autobiographical accounts. She also enjoyed French authors such as Flaubert, Maupassant, Anatole France, and Proust. She often re-read Marcus Aurelius’ Självbetraktelser (Meditations) and work by the philosopher Schopenhauer. It is worth noting that Irja Browallius did not make mention of any contemporary Swedish writers who represented the wide-ranging realistic story-telling tradition of which she was also a member.
Irja Browallius, much like Moa Martinson, Ivar Lo-Johansson, Jan Fridegård, and Vilhelm Moberg, belonged to the generation of writers who emerged in the 1930s. She was not, however, one of the agricultural labourers-turned-writers of that time. She laid claim to her own view of reality and unpretentiously depicted human life by reflecting those she met through her role as school-teacher in a remote forest settlement. Although she herself had not experienced what she wrote about, her portrayals were poignant and empathic. The Albert Bonnier publishing house valued her skills as a rural writer. Irja Browallius occupied a special place, both in the Folket i Bild’s series on local peoples and in Bonniers folkbibliotek (people’s library), and her books were printed in large runs.
However, Irja Browallius could not entirely escape her chequered big-city background. Her short story Josef gipsmakare from 1935 was a tribute to her maternal grandfather. This account also provided a fine general impression of the life of an immigrant among the outsiders of run-down wooden shacks of Söder. Her 1936 novel Plats på scenen! was dedicated to the acting life she was so familiar with through her parents’ experiences.
Irja Browallius’s major breakthrough as an author of Närke stories and portrayer of rural society came through her three novels entitled Synden på Skruke, from 1937, Elida från gårdar, from 1938, and Två slår den tredje, from 1939. These were terse and gloomily depicted family dramas. Disappointment and sacrifice, sudden malignant death, serious accidents and tragedies were all portrayed against a background of changing seasons in the borderland between deep forest and rough settlements. The uncompromising realism can come across as lacking in humour and as unforgiving. However, it is also their penetrating gravity which turns these novels into great art. In his review of Två slår den tredje for Aftonbladet John Landquist stated that: “In Irja Browallius Sweden has gained a natural born story-teller.”
In what was a departure from her usual output Irja Browallius published a novel in 1940 about a bourgeois family called Marméns. But the very next year she returned to her usual literary Närke landscape in her novel Någon gång skall det ljusna, followed in 1942 by an attempt at portraying the arrival of a young female teacher in a remote hamlet in Ringar på vattnet. It is no idyll that she describes, rather a story of confrontation and culture clash between town and countryside. Despite Irja Browallius’ devotion to the people in her area – in particular to the children and women – she sometimes had to pay a high price for her writing. She generated ill-will amongst some of the locals who felt they were being targeted as characters in her novels. The Pentecostals would pray for her in chapel because they felt her writing was sinful.
In 1937 Irja Browallius left the closed world of southern Närke for a few years in order to live in Örebro with her mother. She actually gave up her teaching job and lived entirely off her earnings as a writer. She was interviewed for Idun in 1940 at Laxå manor, where she had settle in one wing of the house. She had always dreamt of living in the countryside, preferably in a long white row house with her own garden and a potato-plot. The agricultural surroundings of Laxå became the inspiration for the widely-circulated novel Eldvakt, from 1943. Having thoroughly studied the history of the 1800s, she portrayed the gentry and servants of an ironworks in central Sweden. This was her only attempt at a historical novel which in some respects is reminiscent of Hjalmar Bergman’s Bergslagen skits.
Irja Browallius was elected onto seat number 6 of the Samfund De Nio (the Nine society), replacing Karin Boye. She decided, of her own volition, to demit from the society eight years later. She had never really settled into the group and indications are that the discussions and disagreements that occurred within it detracted from her writing energy. Solveig Landquist, the wife of John Landquist (the doyen of De Nio), described Irja Browallius as “a fresh-faced red-cheeked farmer’s daughter” – an observant and retiring person who rarely discussed literature when she was not required to.
Despite this Irja Browallius managed, during her period in De Nio, to write yet another major Närke-based novel called Jord och himmel, which was published in 1947. The novel is a masterful portrait of a woman and provides one of the best portrayals of the impact of the revivalist movement on people’s life choices.
After Irja Browallius resigned from Samfundet De Nio her next major novel, Vänd ryggen åt Sivert, from 1951, was reviewed by her successor in seat number 6, namely Margit Abenius. The latter claimed that this was Browallius’ masterpiece and the pinnacle of Swedish prose-writing. Irja Browallius then followed this up with En fågel i handen, from 1952, a rural-based novel which had been released the previous year as a serial in Folket i Bild. In 1953 Irja Browallius published her second collection of short stories, Torplyckan. Just like her first collection, all the stories were entirely based on rural themes.
Irja Browallius returned to novel writing with impressive force with Ung, published in 1954, and then a trilogy comprising Paradisets dagg, from 1957, Vårbräckning, from 1959, and Om sommaren sköna, from 1961. These novels, which told the story of fatherless Birgit and her difficult childhood spent in a variety of foster homes, revealed a warmer and more empathic side to Irja Browallius as an author. They form some of our prime literary portrayals of children.
Following these releases Irja Browallius returned to her roots for more Närke-based novels: the small agricultural world, the forest, the country store, and the railroad in a backwater. Her novel, Ut ur lustgården, from 1963, provides an almost sociological account of the dismantling of this limited world through the introduction of mechanisation and urbanisation. There is still a rich gallery of characters, but it is the actual geography and landscape which has pride of place. The author even provides a map of the location. Carl-Eric Nordberg, in Bonniers Litterära Magasin in 1963, stated that Irja Browallius “is one of our most eminent portrayers of folklife ever” and that future historians “will be able to turn to her novels when they seek to understand what rural life was like in our particular days”.
Irja Browallius sought to dig deeper into the fracturing of the Swedish ‘folkhem’ (welfare state). She visited reform schools and in Skur på gröna knoppar, from 1965, and Instängd, from 1967, she devoted her final energy as an author to the character of Ann-Kristin, an adopted child. Irja Browallius figured as one of the most popular Swedish story-tellers in the annual Christmas book-rush during those years, amongst the likes of Sven Delblanc, Ivar Lo-Johansson, Pär Lagerkvist and Vilhelm Moberg.
Irja Browallius died in Lidingö in 1968. She is buried in Lidingö Cemetary. John Landquist’s tribute to her for Aftonbladet noted that: “Irja Browallius rose to be one of the most prominent Swedish realist authors during the 1900s.”