Gunhild Bergh was the second woman in Sweden to be awarded a PhD in literary history. She was also the principal Swedish foreign correspondent from Italy during its fascist regime.
Gunhild Bergh was born in Gävle in 1888. Her father, Carl-Axel Bergh, was the chief physician at the county hospital. The family also included her mother Alfhild Bergh, and Gunhild Bergh’s two siblings, Ragnar and Karin.
In 1907 Gunhild Bergh gained her school-leaving certificate from the Whitlock co-educational school in Stockholm and then began her studies in literary history and languages at Uppsala University. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in 1911 and her licentiate in philosophy in 1914. On 26 May 1916 she became the second woman in Sweden to defend her thesis in literary history at Uppsala University with a thesis entitled Litterär kritik i Sverige under 1600-1700-talen. The leading newspapers of the day reported on the event: “The defence was a major event within the academic town as no female humanist has defended her thesis there for many a year.”
Following her defence Gunhild Bergh embarked on intensive research. During her work on her thesis she had become fascinated by Carl August Ehrensvärd (1745-1800), an aesthete, author and artist. Between 1916-1017 Gunhild Bergh published his letters in two volumes, through Albert Bonnier publishers. Gunhild Bergh then travelled, in Ehrensvärd’s footsteps, to Rome in order to deepen her knowledge of neoclassicism, and over the course of 1922-1925 she published Ehrensvärd’s collected writings in three volumes. She soon realised, however, that it would not be possible for her to continue her career within academia. At this point she had become fairly settled in Rome, where she had lived since 1920, and she would remain there until her death.
As Italy became transformed into a fascist dictatorship, Gunhild Bergh set out on a career as a journalist. She worked for Sydsvenska Dagbladet Snällposten during two periods, 1923-1924 and 1937-1943. In addition she worked for Stockholms-Tidningen from 1924-1930. During these years she also began to write for Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning, to which she remained loyal throughout her life. She also regularly wrote for the feminist journal Tidevarvet, with a first article in the fourth edition during its first year of publication, 1923. Gunhild Bergh probably hoped to find a more literary direction in her working life. During the first ten years of living in Rome she often wrote about Italian literature, and in 1926 she translated Giovanni Verga’s major novel, Familjen Malavoglia. She also became friendly with Grazia Deledda three years before she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1930 Gunhild Bergh released a book entitled Modern italiensk litteratur, which was a survey of contemporary Italian literary trends with analyses and individual portraits of the most prominent contemporary Italian authors.
Alongside these literary efforts Gunhild Bergh increasingly began to turn her hand towards news reporting. She became the Swedish journalist who most closely followed Mussolini’s rise to power. Despite visible traces of anti-fascist contempt in her surviving correspondence, Gunhild Bergh was able to remain relatively neutral in her reporting of contemporary events. She was, however, subjected to checks and surveillance both by the Italian regime and by fascist sympathisers amongst the Swedish diaspora in Rome. For many years she used a variety of pseudonyms to sign off her articles, including Gebel, Varo, B. von S., and Pier Gudro.
Apart from reporting on the political situation in Italy, Gunhild Bergh frequently participated in the religious life of the Italian capital city. In 1924 she converted to Catholicism and, just like her friend Sigrid Undset, became fascinated by the fourteenth century Italian mystic Catherine of Sienna. When Gunhild Bergh reported on developments in the Vatican, however, she did so in the same sober and vaguely ironic tone which informs all of her journalistic endeavours.
Travelogue writing was yet another genre which Gunhild Bergh became known for. She began to undertake exhausting journeys to places such as the Italian colonies in North Africa. These were not ordinary tourist visits. She travelled in the only way available in the early 1930s, namely in the company of Italian military convoys, which thus gave her close-up exposure to the serious Libyan opposition to their Italian occupiers. Gunhild Bergh’s reports from that area are remarkably devoid of evidence of the Italian protectorate’s alleged benevolence. She was instead fascinated by the silence of the desert, the dignity of the camels, and the devout nature of the Muslim population.
In 1946 Gunhild Bergh travelled to Palestine in order to cover the “advances and working conditions of the Jewish colonisation” on the spot. The following year Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning collated her articles into a publication entitled Till Palestina.
Gunhild Bergh’s 40 years in Rome were spent in the Spartan but centrally located Albergo Santa Chiara guesthouse, not far from the Pantheon. She was no materialist; she only brought minimal baggage on her long trips and made only minor demands for comfort. An impression of a fascinating personality emerges from her comprehensive letter collection at Kungliga biblioteket in Stockholm. She is often described as gruff, and almost unpleasant, whilst also embodying some sort of Cicero for Swedes who came to Rome in order to learn about the city’s history. She was a frequent visitor to the Swedish Institute in Rome as well as to the Scandinavian association there. Her actual office was, however, the Swedish Internationella Pressklubben.
After the Second World War Gunhild Bergh returned to her literary interests which served her very well in her work as an intermediary between Swedish and Italian literature. She contributed to the 1945 Italian-language volume entitled Svezia. Saggi sulla Svezia odierna with a piece on Swedish literature which is remarkable due to the relatively large number of female authors it presents, including the likes of Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht and Karin Boye. In the late 1940s Gunhild Bergh also contributed overviews of contemporary Italian literature to several editions of Bonnier’s Litterära Magasin, as well as an essay on the daily papers Corriere della Sera and La Stampa which she supplied to Världens bästa tidningar, 1952. Further, the Swedish Academy recruited her to write the reports on the Italian Nobel Prize winners Alberto Moravia and Riccardo Bacchelli.
Gunhild Bergh died in 1961 and was buried at the Verano cemetery in Rome. A few years later a funerary monument was raised in her memory, on which it is engraved that she was a Swedish journalist and writer who found happiness in Italy.