Margit Abenius was an eminent literary researcher and one of the most influential voices in literary criticism from the early 1930s up to her death. She was also an essayist, translator and cultural intermediary, and a member of Samfundet De Nio (the Nine Society).
Margit Abenius was born in 1899 into an educated middle-class family. She was the eldest of Maria Abenius’ (née Westholm) four children with Wilhelm Abenius. Margit Abenius’ early years were spent with her family in Borås. In 1915 they moved to Örebro, where her father was the headmaster of Tekniska skolan (the technical school).
Margit developed a genuine interest in poetry, folk tunes and oral story-telling from her mother. Maria Abenius, whose father was a priest, belonged to the extended Ericsson family of Västmanland. Everyday life in the Abenius was coloured by a love of literature. Margit Abenius developed a desire to study from an early age due to the credentials of her father, a lecturer in chemistry, secondary-school teacher and author of several textbooks. Her religious-studies teacher, the theologian and psalm-composer Emil Liedgren, made a lasting impression on her at school. Just like many other educated middle-class young women of that era, Margit Abenius looked to male role-models among her teachers and among the researchers and authors of the time. She showed little interest in contemporary female authors or in the female role-models who were already known in the early 1900s.
Upon completing her studies at Risbergska skolan in Örebro, Margit Abenius enrolled in a three-year programme at what was then a progressive private school Uppsala Enskilda Läroverk, commonly known as “Skrapan”, in the autumn of 1917. Subjects taught at the school included Latin and Greek as well as English. Margit’s teacher in Swedish and English was the future language-specialist Olof Gjerdman whose interest in stylistics and phonetics came to play a determining role in Margit’s future choice of studies. Gjerdman’s influence on Margit Abenius’ intellectual and personal development lasted far beyond their relationship as teacher and student. The personal and deep connection they shared survived until Gjerdman’s death in 1965.
Margit Abenius graduated in the spring of 1919. In the autumn of that year she enrolled at Uppsala University, but delayed the commencement of her studies there until the autumn of 1920. Periods of intense insomnia and low mood, which marked the beginning of her lifelong fight against depression, had started during her high school years. By the autumn of 1919 her condition required lengthy periods of rest and a break from her studies.
Margit Abenius was inspired by the research into stylistics which was then in the ascendant and her main proponent was Bengt Hesselman, professor of Nordic languages and later member of the Swedish Academy. Hesselman encouraged Margit Abenius to continue her research. She published articles on prosody and stylistics in Nysvenska studier in 1923, 1928 and 1930.
After gaining her degree in Nordic languages, English and the history of literature in 1925 and passing the licentiate degree in Nordic languages in 1928, Margit Abenius focused her research on Johan Henric Kellgren. This resulted in a thesis entitled Stilstudier i Kellgrens prosa.
During her period of studying Margit Abenius became a close friend of Karin Boye through sharing communal cooking duties. Their relationship continued after their student days and was one of the reasons that Margit Abenius took on the task of writing Karin Boye’s literary obituary after Boye died in 1941.
As a researcher Margit Abenius had already begun publishing literary articles in the Christian journal Vår lösen (published 1909-2000), where she continued to publish until 1967. Her first contribution to the journal was a review of Klara Johanson’s Det Speglade Livet from 1927. This led to an intense friendship between Margit and Klara, who was known as “KJ”. From their meetings and correspondence an impression emerges of their relationship as being one of Klara Johanson serving as Margit Abenius’ literary mentor.
Margit left Uppsala University after defending her thesis in 1931. From the early 1930s and onwards she turned to literary criticism, essay-writing, and cultural exchange through occasional translation jobs. From 1933 onwards she was a permanent contributor to Bonniers Litterära Magasin (BLM), a literary magazine founded in 1932. Her contributions included reviews and essays on both Swedish and foreign publications. She remained at BLM until 1962. Between 1933 and 1964 she also contributed to Ord och Bild. She became known to a wider audience when she worked as a literary critic on the radio from 1933 to 1967. Her distinctive deep voice and intellectual humour made her quickly recognizable. On the radio she mainly reviewed prose, and less frequently lyrical poetry. It was not long before Margit Abenius became a popular educationalist by giving official lectures and talks for cultural associations. Through her radio job she was invited, in 1944, to lead a local reading group in Uppsala, which during her leadership became known as ‘Yrkeskvinnors klubbs litterära cirkel’ (the working women’s club’s literary circle). She was highly committed to the leadership role, which she performed to highly demanding standards of quality and ambition until her death in 1970. In her hometown of Uppsala she also was part of a very closely-knit intellectual circle of friends including, amongst others, the philosopher and religious critic Ingemar Hedenius, the author couple Knut Jaensson and Tora Dahl, the author Stina Aronson and the sculptor Bror Hjorth.
During the 1940s Margit Abenius increasingly focused on her literary and essay-writing output. In 1944 she released 20 of her previously-published essays and literary articles in a collection entitled Kontakter, which confirmed her position as one of the most important critical voices of the 1940s. In 1947 she was given a dedicated entry in Svensk uppslagsbok and in 1950 she was identified by Sven Stolpe as one of the day’s best critics in Svensk yrkeskvinna. She largely acted outside of contemporary movements in literature, religion or politics, which meant that she by the 1940s already was considered as belonging to an older generation of critics. She was nevertheless ahead of her time in many ways, something which according to Anette Arnell made Margit Abenius “kind of homeless twice-over”.
Abenius’ work on Karin Boye’s literary obituary started in 1942 when she edited an anthology with Olof Lagercrantz entitled Karin Boye. Minnen och studier. Margit Abenius also edited and annotated Boye’s Samlade Skrifter between 1947 and 1950 while she was also working on a biography of the author called Drabbad av renhet. En bok om Karin Boyes liv och diktning. The biography, which was published in 1950, was very favourably received and would for decades influence not only the public’s view of Karin Boye’s writings but also the view of biographical writing. There was no lack of criticism or polemics, however, and with the passage of time Margit Abenius’ conservative approach toward Boye’s homosexuality is only one aspect that has engendered strong disapproval.
From the early 1950s Margit Abenius made efforts to bring awareness of the French philosopher Simone Weil to Sweden. Having written an essay and translated fragments of Simone Weil’s Thoughts in BLM 7 (1951), Margit Abenius then translated and annotated Weil’s La Pesanteur et la grâce (1947) into Swedish (as Tyngden och nåden, 1954). During the 1950s she undertook to popularize Weil’s writings, partly through an intensive lecture schedule. In 1956 Abenius’ essay “Varför är den goda dum?” was published in BLM, and in 1961 she published an annotated selection of Weil’s letters and essays, in collaboration with the translator Karin Stolpe (Personen och det heliga. Essäer och brev). Her view of Weil as a Christian thinker led to deep ideological polemics between Margit Abenius and her former friends Hedenius and the Jaensson-Dahl couple during the years 1954—1958.
From the late 1930s onwards Margit Abenius was equally outspoken against Nazism and communism. Until her death she remained a steadfast and active critic of the Soviet Union and of Swedish supporters of communism. In the 1940s she became involved with the plight of Latvian refugees in Sweden. During the same period she became increasingly outspoken as a Christian in her intellectual pursuits. Her literary criticism was clearly based on the aesthetic qualities of literature and depictions of people’s inner workings rather than the wider social debate. Whilst both her work and her significant birthdays received attention from the contemporary press, she still often found herself described as a learned, introverted, quiet and methodical reviewer, who belonged to a “literary cloister in which demanding jobs are performed in the shadows in order to ensure cultural growth”. Although she had contacts with several of the prominent female campaigners for women’s issues and suffragettes of the early 1900s, Margit Abenius never identified herself with the women’s movement of the time.
Between 1949 and 1969 Margit Abenius was a member of Samfundet de Nio, occupying seat number six. In 1963 she summarized her life and her work as a critic in Memoarer från det inre which was warmly received by cultural media. Two years later she was awarded the then newly established Birger-Sjöberg prize. From the 1960s onwards her contributions as a critic in the cultural press became increasingly infrequent. The testimonials which followed Margit Abenius’ death tended to highlight her perceptiveness of literature’s many different ways of portraying the human condition, as well as her research interests in the literary use of language and stylistics. Although her contribution to studies of Boye have been seriously re-evaluated, and though she was never a trend-setter, Margit Abenius’ efforts in her main line of work — to disseminate literature and the art of perceptive reading to a wide audience — has left a strong mark on twentieth-century Swedish literary criticism.
Margit Abenius remained unmarried and spent a lot of her time socializing with her brother Håkan Abenius and his family. She also promoted her sister Ingrid Triller’s and husband Erich’s work as ceramic artists in Tobo in Uppland. Margit Abenius died in 1970.