Catharina Ahlgren was the editor of the journal Brefwäxling emellan twänne fruntimmer and was also active as a journalist and translator. She was a female pioneer in the publishing industry of the eighteenth century.
Catharina Ahlgren was born in 1734 in Ljung parish in Östergötland. She was the oldest child of the chief district judge Anders Ahlgren and his wife Laurentia Juliana Ljungfelt. The family resided at Sjöbacka manor near Motala river. Although her father appears to have been a driven man his posthumous reputation was that of a man who had been living an enterprising but improper life, implying that he was hardly a role model of morality. He was survived by his wife and seven children when he died in 1751.
At the time it was the norm for girls of a certain social standing to learn to write Swedish and French, and possibly to learn to play an instrument. Catharina Ahlgren, who described herself as keen for knowledge, presumably also took advantage of the teaching offered by her brothers’ tutor. She later wrote in her journal: “Throughout my life I have taken great pleasure in reading so that even as a child I used to write verses over my books.”
In 1756 Catharina Ahlgren married Bengt Edvard Ekerman, who was then a low-ranking officer in the Livdrabantkår. Their daughter Beata Charlotta was born in 1758 and seven years later their second daughter, Catharina Juliana, also known as Catharina Julie, was born. Two more boys, Bengt Gustaf and Christopher, completed the family. Rumour had it that vice admiral and head of the Stockholm fleet Christopher Falkengréen was the father of the young Christopher. Despite this, Christopher was known throughout his life as an Ekerman and upon the death of his sisters he received his due inheritance.
On 19 April 1768 the Stockholm consistory court issued the Ekermans a letter of divorce. Catharina Ahlgren and her children then moved to Söder in Stockholm. The divorce left her in a dire economic situation. Three years later she married Anders Bark, a book printer’s apprentice. However, barely two years later the couple were registered as living at two separate addresses. Catharina Ahlgren had now moved to Gamla stan. Her financial problems continued to worsen. For a while, during the 1780s, she was financially supported by her daughter Catharina Julie, who in turn was being supported by Governor-General Carl Sparre. A letter from Catharina Julie to Carl Sparre from 1790 reveals that her mother’s financial situation remained precarious. By this time Catharina Julie was married to Secretary Nils Björkegren, whom Sparre saw fit to see appointed as town mayor of Linköping. In her letter to Sparre Catharina Julie expresses worries not just regarding her mother’s financial situation but also for her psychological state. Her mother’s mental health had been severely impacted by the death of her first daughter, Charlotta, that same year.
Despite her poverty and ill health Catharina Ahlgren lived on. In 1796 she moved to Linköping, where, a few years later, she became a member of her surviving daughter’s household. In 1800 Catharina Juliana died and Catharina Ahlgren and her son Christopher inherited the proceeds of the sale of the deceased’s Linköping farm, in accordance with her will.
Catharina Ahlgren’s first publication was an occasional poem dedicated to Queen Lovisa Ulrika, which was printed in honour of her 44th birthday on 24 July 1764. The poem was written in French and printed in Stockholm by Hesselberg press. It consists of two verses, each of eight lines, using high-register vocabulary to praise the queen. Catharina Ahlgren’s praise is presumably related to her time spent as lady of the court at the queen’s court. Without dating this event Henric Braad states in Ostrogothia literaria that Catharina Ahlgren had been forced out of the court after just a few weeks due to alleged conspiracies.
However, Catharina Ahlgren did not begin what could be termed a professional career until after her divorce from Bengt Edvard Ekerman. The first edition of the journal which she became known for, Brefwäxling emellan twänne fruntimmer, was released in 1772. The journal was typical of its time; the 1770s was the decade when so-called women’s journals made a breakthrough as official literary publications. However, the editor Adelaide (Catharina Ahlgren’s pseudonym) made it known that she wanted to appeal to both male and female readers. This broad target audience was offered reading material which was not at all limited to the female sphere. A broad range of subjects was covered, from contemporary moral discussions to topics related to royalism. It may therefore be more accurate to describe the publication as an essay journal.
Brefwäxling emellan twänne fruntimmer was published from October 1772 until May 1773. The journal was printed on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday every week. After the first 24 editions had been released the journal changed its name to Bref-wäxling emellan Adelaide och någre wittre snillen i omväxlande ämnen. Following a further 24 issues the name was changed yet again, this time to Fortsättning af Adelaides Brefwäxling angående Fru Windhams Historia (“continuation of Adelaide’s correspondence regarding Mrs Windham’s history”). Mrs Windham’s history was a serial which the editor herself translated. Further to serials, the most common form of printed text in the journal was letters, just as the title implies. Amongst all the more or less fictitious letters which were published there was one which stood out. The sender was Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht. It is dated Lugnet, 8 March 1763 and celebrates the friendship between the sender and the receiver. It appears to be a genuine letter, lending veracity to the editor Adelaide’s comments on friendship, the most frequently discussed subject in the publication. Although Adelaide is romantic and passionate in her friendships, when she writes about the love between a man and a woman she takes a sensible perspective.
In two editions Adelaide published a letter to her daughter, which is a paradigm of virtues. She writes as a mother who is worried about her 14-year-old daughter’s entry into the wider world. The core of each letter is fear of God; for educational purposes the relationship with “God’s Higher Being” is compared to the natural love between parents and their children. As a daughter loves her mother who, comparatively, has only given her minor benefits, how much more must she love “the Almighty”, who has given her an immortal soul. Adelaide recommends her daughter to read decent, useful and informative books in order to nourish her mind. In this aspect the letter is similar to the female advice literature which was a common literary genre at this time. With her journal Catharina Ahlgren’s created a document which provides us with insight into one particular woman’s internal world. Despite her lack of formal education, we can see how she reflects and leaves her own mark on the contemporary issues in Sweden of the 1700s.
Catharina Ahlgren was also active as a translator. Her first translation, as far as is known, was Abrahams bedröfwelse, a biblical epic by Christoph Martin Wieland, which was published in 1772 by Henric Fougt’s company. It was translated from French. Catharina Ahlgren’s translation of le chevalier de Mouhy’s La paysanne parvenue, known in Swedish as Den lyckliga bondflickan, was begun in 1796 and only completed in 1811.
Throughout her life Catharina Ahlgren was a writer, a lively linguist, a female preacher, and a public educator. She was unique but was viewed with a great deal of suspicion. Jonas Apelblad’s handwritten anonymous reference work Anonymi & pseudonym Sveciæ lists her as “Femina potens sed ingenio plena”, a powerful woman but full of talent.
It is not entirely clear when Catharina Ahlgren died, she can only be traced in the sources until 1800. In Catharina Juliana’s inventory proceedings (20 December 1800) it is noted that the mother was present. She next appears on the cover pages of the various parts of Den lyckliga bondflickan, where she is named as translator. The last part, number 12, came out in 1811. It is unclear whether Catharina Ahlgren was still alive.