Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 1

By David McDuff

1. 1900-1922

Karin Boye was born on 26 October 1900, in the Swedish city of Göteborg. On her father's side she had German blood. Her paternal grandfather, Carl Joachim Eduard Boye, was the Prussian consul in the town. The Boye family originally came from Bohemia, and most of its male members devoted themselves to various forms of financial or commercial activity, both in Europe and in South America. As a young man, Eduard Boye was head of a large English clothes manufacturing business in Hamburg until the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842 destroyed the office, warehouse and shops. He then moved to Leeds, in England, and took up clothes manufacturing there; later, he moved to Göteborg, where he was his firm's agent for a number of years. Eventually he established his own cotton and textile importing business in Göteborg, E. Boye & Co., and adopted Swedish citizenship in 1849. In addition to cotton importing, he also took an interest in industrial and marine engineering. Eduard Boye was one of the pillars of Göteborg society, and together with his wife, Hilda, ran both a town and a country home in patriarchal style, entertaining many guests at dinners and soirées, and patronizing the arts. They had five children, and it was their eldest son, Fritz (Carl Fredrik) who was Karin Boye's father. Fritz Boye trained at the Göteborg Technical High School as a civil engineer, practised as a draughtsman and designer at various works and plants, but eventually moved into the insurance business, becoming head of the Svea Fire-Life Company. He married Signe Liljestrand, an employee at his office, some eighteen years his junior - she made up in vitality and energy for his somewhat dour and retiring nature. The couple had several children, of whom Karin was the first. At first, her education was undertaken by her mother, who was very well-read in European classical literature and was also influenced by spiritualism and oriental religions. Her father remained a somewhat distant figure - his sons said later in life that they had never known him, and he seldom showed any tenderness towards his children. On the other hand, he possessed a speculative, imaginative mind, and even wrote a 'Fragment of a Story About the Future', which is inspired by notions of utopian reform. His emotional instability and nervous temperament were perhaps the real reason why he found it difficult to come close to his children.

Karin Boye attended a private junior school in Göteborg. According to Karin Boye's biographer, Margit Abenius (author of Victim of Purity, a Swedish-language account of the poet's life, published in 1950), her first teacher, Fröken Mimmie Agardh, had almost never had a pupil who stayed in her memory as Karin Boye did:

The round, soft little girl was far ahead of her school-mates, she was remarkably well-informed and could answer any question, often did so with a little rhyme or other inventive and well-chosen words. Fröken Agardh offered to let her sit and read an interesting book while the others did their spelling, but Karin wanted to take part and help. Fröken Agardh especially remembers her delight at the spring. She would jump and rejoice: 'Aunt Mimmie, Aunt Mimmie, it's spring! How happy I am!' Jeanna Osterdahl also taught at the school, and Karin told 'Aunt' Jeanna that she wrote stories. Among her papers Fröken Agardh has preserved some short verses and fables by her pupil, including this 'Story of the Crocus, by Karin Boye, aged 7':

There was once a little boy who had a little crocus. Inside the crocus there was a little elf; she could do magic spells. The crocus was yellow, and pretty. Now autumn came, and the crocus began to wilt. Krokusa (that was the elf's name) thought that was nasty, and flew away. Then the crocus fell. Have you seen a crocus fall?

The story is illustrated with a drawing of the flying Krokusa with a crown on her head, and underneath are the words: 'Krokusa flew away'.

In 1909 the family moved to Stockholm after Fritz Boye went into premature retirement because of nervous debility. This involved some reduction in the family's standard of living, but it did not affect the children's lives. Later on, Fritz Boye became an inspector in the Swedish Private Insurance Supervisory Service. At her new school, Karin made friends with a few girls of similarly introspective and imaginative temperament. Together they read the works of Dumas, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells and Maeterlinck, and also those of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore's poetry seems to have made an especially strong impression on the young Karin Boye: she immersed herself in Indian mythology, and sought to experience the country itself through Karl Gjellerup's Indian novel Pilgrimen Kamanita ('Kamanita the Pilgrim'). Above all, she studied Buddhism, and made serious efforts to learn Sanskrit. With her friend Signe Myrbäck as 'disciple', Karin played the role of guru, and the two girls would sit crosslegged on the lawn together, practising the art of breathing in and out. Signe Myrbäck relates that when their ecclesiastical history teacher once told the class that Sweden had only a small minority of Buddhists, Karin claimed to be one of them. Her history teacher, Lydia Wahlström, also once made some slightly disparaging remarks about Buddhists during a lesson, and Karin Boye put up her hand and said sternly: 'I'm a Buddhist!'

(to be continued)

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