Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Guest post from Julie Rose, author of Oleanna: Norway and Sweden in 1905

Today I'm welcoming Julie K. Rose to the blog to discuss the backdrop to her new historical novel, Oleanna, which takes place during the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905.  Oleanna, published this month, is based on people from her own family history.  More details are available at oleannanovel.com.  I'll be conducting an interview with Julie in a future post.


When you think of Norway (if you think of it at all), what comes to mind? Stunning scenery? Vikings? A successful socially liberal society? Hot blondes?

I expect the political separation of Norway and Sweden in 1905 wasn't high on your list. It hasn't exactly been a hot-button topic for historians, or for historical fiction authors. In fact, I'll wager most readers didn't realize that Norway and Sweden were ever joined, let alone separated. Here is a brief history of how the Dissolution of 1905 came to be.

Due to the geography of the area (tall mountains, deep fjords, a dearth of arable land, and over 25,000km of coastlines running from 58°N to more than 71°N) it was difficult to create a stable, agriculture-based economy and political structure beyond small kingdoms scattered throughout the country. The Viking Age saw increased wealth and the first attempts at a unified Norway under King Harald Fairhair. Later, the (often violent) promulgation of Christianity under King Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olav) from 1015-1028 allowed him to spread his political influence, unifying most of what we know as modern Norway. Despite a brief period under the dominion of Denmark's King Knut, Norway was ruled by Norwegians, including Harald Hardrada, Olaf's nephew (yes, the same Harald who died at Stamford Bridge in 1066), until 1299.In that year King Haakon V moved the capital to Oslo; upon his death, he had no sons, so the throne of Norway went to his daughter's son, King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden. King Magnus abdicated, and his son Haakon became king—he was married to Margrethe, the daughter of the Danish king, and so their son Olaf became king of Denmark in 1376 and Norway in 1380 as King Olav IV. (Got all that?)

Life continued on in Norway for hundreds of years, as the elite in Denmark ruled over Norway, and the Norwegian nobles couldn't seem to get their act together to make a run at independence. And then a strange thing happened.

In 1814, Denmark-Norway was defeated during the Napoleonic wars, and the king was forced to cede Norway to Sweden in the Treaty of Kiel. In an attempt to retain control, the Viceroy and hereditary prince of Denmark-Norway, Christian Frederik, encouraged the burgeoning independence movement ,and a constitutional convention and declaration of independence was made on May 17, 1814. This day is still celebrated in Norway as Syttende Mai (Seventeen May) or Constitution Day.

Rosemaling decorated with floral paintings
(source: Wikipedia)
Sweden, of course, was having none of it and declared war on Norway. To keep the peace, Prince Christian Frederik relinquished his claims to the throne of Norway in return for a democratic Norwegian constitution. In return, the Norwegian parliament elected the Swedish king as King of Norway.

Suffice to say, the 91-year marriage of Norway and Sweden was not a particularly happy one; Norway tended to be liberal, parliamentary, and affiliated with the United Kingdom, while Sweden tended to be conservative, monarchial, and affiliated with Germany. Norway largely had political independence, but being yoked to rival Sweden was galling.

But one interesting thing did happen during this unhappy union: the reclamation of native folk art by the political movers and shakers. Folk art, like the graceful rosemaling, had never really died. Until well into the 20th century, many villages in Norway were extremely difficult to reach, and folk ways and art continued on as they always had.

As part of the general romantic nationalist movement in Europe during the 19th century, Norwegians rediscovered their art—the most famous examples of which are bunad, the traditional folk dress for each region of the country (which of course had never died out in most of the remote villages); and the folk tale collections of Asbjornson and Moe. Throughout the 19th century, Norwegians actively promoted pride in their country, in their art, in their culture—a useful fuel to fire what came next.

Matters came to a head in the 1890s, when Norway began to insist on its own consular offices abroad rather than common consuls appointed by Sweden. The Swedish government and king rejected this, which set in motion the events that would lead to the dissolution.

Propaganda poster from the summer of 1905:
"We love our country!"
(Line from the national anthem, written in 1814)
A coalition government was formed in 1905 to establish the separate Norwegian corps of consuls; the law was passed by the Storthing, but King Oscar II of Sweden refused to accept it, and the Norwegian coalition government resigned on June 7, 1905, declaring a dissolution of the union.

The Swedish government insisted on a Norwegian referendum to understand the citizen's view; it was held on August 13, and 99.95% of Norwegians voted in favor of dissolution. Though suffrage was not extended to women in national elections until 1913, Norwegian women still collected more than 200,000 signatures in favor of dissolution.

And so, Norwegians finally regained their independence for the first time since the 14th century. Or did they? In November another plebiscite was held in which 79% of Norwegians voted in favor of a monarchy and not a republic. This proved to be a challenge, because the hereditary lines of Norwegian kings were MIA. Who did Norway choose for its king? Oh, the irony: Prince Carl of Denmark. Carl took the name Haakon VII and, alongside his wife Maud of England, was sworn in as king on November 27, 1905. (Fun fact: the current King, Harald V, married commoner Sonja Haraldsen in 1968, the first Norwegian-born queen since Margrete Skulesdotter in 1225.)

So, what did it all mean for the people of Norway, this dissolution of the union? Norway emerged into the 20th century as an economic force to be reckoned with, growing wealthy through North Sea oil; the dissolution also brought Norway fully onto the world stage when it joined the League of Nations in 1920, and it solidified the alignment of Norway with Great Britain (which unfortunately would have terrible consequences for Norway during the world wars). Above all, though, the dissolution of 1905 gave the Norwegian people a renewed sense of pride, a fresh start in a new century. Their country had become an independent entity for the first time in 700 years. They were once again truly free.


Set during the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905, Oleanna is a richly detailed novel of love and loss inspired by the life of the author's great-great-aunts.

Oleanna and her sister Elisabeth are the last of their family working their farm deep in the western fjordland. A new century has begun, and the world outside is changing, but in the Sunnfjord their world is as small and secluded as the verdant banks of a high mountain lake. With their parents dead and their brothers all gone to America, the sisters have resigned themselves to a simple life tied to the land and to the ghosts of those who have departed.

The arrival of Anders, a cotter living just across the farm's border, unsettles Oleanna's peaceful but isolated existence. Sharing a common bond of loneliness and grief, Anders stirs within her the wildness and wanderlust she has worked so hard to tame. When she is confronted with another crippling loss, Oleanna must decide once and for all how to face her past, claim her future, and find her place in a wide new world.

Julie K. Rose is an author of historical and mainstream fiction with a touch of the fantastic. She lives in the Bay Area and loves reading (especially Patrick O'Brian), watching episodes of Doctor Who, and enjoying the amazing natural beauty of Northern California. Oleanna is her second novel.


  1. What a wonderful post. I know very little about Norwegian or Swedish history, but hope to change that. Oleanna sounds like a book I would very much enjoy.

  2. This looks to be a book I'll enjoy very much. Thanks!

    Love, C.

  3. This is interesting, Julie. I'm writing about Finland and knew of that country's history with Sweden, but not Norway's. Thanks for the insight! I've put Oleanna on my list. It sounds wonderful. Congratulations.

  4. Awesome! Now I'm even more excited to read Oleanna!

  5. Thanks everyone for the kind words!

  6. David Langum5:56 PM

    What a wonderful synopsis of Norwegian history! Permit one modest emendation. Prince Carl insisted on the second plebiscite as a condition to his assuming the throne as Haakon VII. He wanted to know that he was wanted.

    Ja, vi elsker dette landet,

    David Langum

  7. Tusen takk, David, for the clarification! You are absolutely correct.