Harriet Hjorth was an author known for her series on flower walks: Blomstervandringar and for her depictions from Sigtuna.
Harriet Hjorth was born in Stockholm in 1908, the eldest of three sisters. Their parents were Marianne Beckeman and Harry Albihn, a director. Their home was upper-class Östermalm in style. Their father was wealthy and a patriarch typical of the time, who dominated their home. Their mother, who came from a poorer lower-middle-class home in a small town, never felt at home in their upper-class home with its demands and she committed suicide in 1928. The daughters were sent to a girls’ boarding school in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. This teenage experience later became Harriet Hjorth’s source of inspiration in her debut novel Blommande ljung in 1938. She later studied at the Sorbonne at the end of the 1920s and entered into marriage in 1929 with Lieutenant Bo Hjorth. Their daughters Agnete and Boel were born in 1930 and 1935 respectively. For some years at the end of the 1930s, Harriet Hjorth ran a children’s clothing boutique in Stockholm. During the 1930s, she started secretly writing short stories for weekly magazines under a pseudonym. Her husband did not like her writing. The marriage was dissolved in 1937.
After some denigrating reviews by critics in the press, Harriet Hjorth abandoned writing novels for a time. Instead, she started writing depictions of country life and ethnology. Summer holidays on the island Utö in the Stockholm southern archipelago from 1937 inspired her to make her poetry debut in 1944 with the collection of poems Fackelros och granit. The year after appeared her very well-received ethnographical book Utö. Ön som var ett paradis. It is an all-round depiction of island life with fishing, small farming, seal-hunting and women’s hard work with animals and their households. Ethnographical depictions reappeared later in her book Irlandskust in 1947 and Keltisk kust in 1954 with folklore from Normandie and Brittany.
Harriet Hjorth entered into a second marriage with Carl-Gustaf Wetterström, a director, in 1938. They separated in 1942. Harriet Hjorth moved with her daughters to Sigtuna. Their first residence was a small flat above what had been a bakery. In 1944, she was allowed to rent part of a two-family property near Runstigen with the ancient early-medieval church ruin of St Peter’s as their closest neighbour and delight for their eyes. Like many other Swedish authors, Harriet Hjorth wanted to travel to Europe, as soon after the end of the war as possible. In the winter of 1945 she travelled to Paris that had just been liberated. She supported herself by writing articles for Swedish newspapers. She was among other things the first Swedish journalist to interview the iconic feminist Simone de Beauvoir in 1945. During her time in Paris, she also adopted a newly born boy.
New novels followed: Treklang in 1946, Den tomma famnen in 1951, Vägen till dig in 1954 and Veronica in 1957. None of these was however praised by critics or sold well. In the 1950s, she left Bonniers publishing company and transferred to Rabén och Sjögren. She had perpetual economic problems, among others for two theatre productions in Sigtuna in 1953 and 1954 that involved considerable economic losses. Two poetry collections were published in 1959 and 1963 respectively. In 1958–1962, three volumes were published of her series Blomstervandringar. They consisted of botany interwoven with plant history and literary references, divided into spring, summer and autumn herbs. This series became her foremost sales success with 25,000 copies published. In 1960, she had the property in Sigtuna that she had owned and lived in since 1947 divided up and sold. She had the little fisherman’s cottage on the property converted into an author’s studio for herself for the summers. She spent the winters in Brittany from that year onwards. Her many visits to Brittany resulted in the book Den lilla byn i Bretagne in 1971. Other books from France were Champagne och annat festligt in 1964 and Parfym in 1969.
Her ethnological qualifications in combination with her love of the town of Sigtuna drove her in the mid–1960s to initiate an extensive writing project with Sigtuna’s 1,000 years of history as the basis of the stories. She was clearly inspired by Per-Anders Fogelström’s suite of novels on Stockholm. Like him, she carried out intensive research with the help of archive studies and by reading existing Sigtuna literature. Her remaining papers show how careful and diligent she was. She wrote five volumes about life in and around Sigtuna that appeared in 1967–1978. The first book, Staden, from 1967, dealt with the years 1000–1400 and the following year the second book appeared, entitled Hungerstad, that dealt with the years 1400–1500. The last three volumes covered one century each. Staden brinner on the 1600s, appeared in 1970; Sigtuna i nöd och lust on the 1700s came out in 1973; and the final volume, on the 1800s, appeared posthumously in 1978: Kring ett gammalt hus i Sigtuna. She used the term “documentary novel” to define them. Historical documents are their basis, but Harriet Hjorth tells her stories quite freely, mixing fact and fiction in her depictions of people involved. The reception of the first three volumes was rather lukewarm. Critics focused on the depictions of people that they found far too stiff and unidimensional. This had to do with the lack of a more animated source material before the 1700s. After that, in the next two volumes, for which there existed a greater wealth of sources, the descriptions of people are also more detailed and lifelike. The final volume takes place in the 1800s and it was received effusively. The books never became a sales success since they mainly attracted attention from the local population and other readers who had links with the town. However, the books were all reviewed in newspapers in the capital as well as in the provinces. The books’ main value was their more or less pedagogical character, and that they stimulated the interest in the town’s history.
Harriet Hjorth’s economic situation and security improved from 1971 onwards when she was awarded a state author’s annual stipend. She was thereby able to reduce in number her prolific writings for her daily bread in newspapers and magazines. Her authorship must be seen in the light of the total dominance of male perspectives both in the publishing companies and the review sections of the newspapers. Her greatest selling point was her versatility allowing her to write in many different genres. She had strong work discipline which meant that she always got up early and sat down at her writing table at 6 o’clock in the morning. She also appeared regularly on the radio in the 1950s and 1960s. Harriet Hjorth could be combative when she perceived obvious injustices, and she did not hesitate to take on conflicts, whether they were with the editors of publishing companies or those in power locally. She was very well-read and good at languages and had great power of initiative.
Harriet Hjorth died in 1977. She is buried in Maria Cemetery in Sigtuna. Her daughter Agnete completed the work on the final volume of the Sigtuna suite that came out the year after her death.