Gertrud Lilja was a much-discussed and treasured author of the 1930s-1950s.
Gertrud Lilja was born in 1887 in the small Småland village of Långasjö, into a well-to-do farming family. After her father’s death, when Gertrud Lilja was just five months old, the family fell into dire economic straits. Her mother was forced to sell both agricultural land and forest while she also tried to carry on with her dead husband’s business. For lengthy periods of her life Gertrud Lilja had to help support her family. She had dreamt of gaining an education from an early age, but it was only her brother Hjalmar who eventually graduated from school. Gertrud Lilja trained as an engraver and for many years worked as a drawing master in Ronneby before she began to write full-time.
In 1911 Gertrud Lilja learned that she suffered from a hereditary form of hearing impairment and she was dissuaded from getting married as pregnancy was believed to worsen the condition. As time progressed she became largely deaf. She was tormented by the contemporary often terrible humour at the expense of the disabled and often remarked in her letters how poorly those with sensory impairment were treated. She lived a rather isolated life. Although she spent several years living in Stockholm she never visited Bonniers Förlag, the company which published her books for forty years. All the same, she was a prolific correspondent who wrote for years to fellow authors such as Vilhelm Moberg, Johannes Edfelt, Astrid Väring and Py Sörman.
In 1939 Gertrud Lilja married Axel Johansson, who worked at the publishing company C.E. Fritze’s Bokförlag AB. Her husband died after just nine years of marriage. Gertrud Lilja repeatedly states in her written work how much she misses him. Having commuted between Stockholm and Långasjö, she returned to Småland and spent the remainder of her life in her childhood home, until her death in 1984 at the age of 97.
Gertrud Lilja made her debut in Idun, in 1921, with the short story “Puckelryggen”. In 1924 she released her first collection of short stories through Albert Bonnier’s publishing company entitled Den besvärliga gåvan. This collection was well-received by the critics and became a success. Gertrud Lilja was given glowing reviews by the likes of Sten Selander and Anders Österling. Three years later she released her first novel, Paulina, and although she continued to write short stories it was her novels that made her famous. Her bestselling novel was Kvinnorna i släkten, 1936, in which she made allusions to her own background and even made use of extracts from her own diary that she had kept when she was younger.
The recurring themes of her writing are mistrust of the emerging modern society and criticism of the so-called “good old times”. Gertrud Lilja’s stories contain portraits of strong women and she alternated idealised depictions of traditional gender roles with harsh criticism of patriarchal society. Her novel Men somt föll på Hälleberget, 1955, contains a searing take-down of the traditional church perspective on God and on the church. Her writing comprises several texts which discuss belief in God and the power of the church whilst also considering the role of women in Christian faith.
Several of Gertrud Liljas novels were included in the Svalan book club range and, even though interest in her work declined over the years, it is apparent from company correspondence that she had a wide and loyal readership. It was mainly her novels which sold in substantial numbers, but she also found success with a couple of collections of aphorisms, such as Genom ofärgade glasögon, 1960.
Although Gertrud Lilja was critically well-received and awarded grants from Albert Bonnier’s stipend fund on four separate occasions, she still found it hard to earn her keep at certain times. Throughout her writing career she also wrote short stories for various weekly journals and for the period of 1942-1947 she was responsible for “Fru Gertrud’s spalt” in Veckorevyn, where she would answer questions on everything from what to wear the first time you meet your mother-in-law to how to deal with adultery in marriage.
After having received mainly positive reviews for her early pieces Gertrud Lilja came increasingly to be treated as a “female author” or “country-side author”. When her last novel, Döttrarna, was released in 1964, several critics labelled it an example of light entertainment literature. She wrote several letters to the publishing company expressing her disappointment with how her work was being treated. She also had a solid readership which led the company to encourage her again and again to write more novels.
Gertrud Lilja died in 1984 and is buried at Långasjö cemetery.