Ida Bäckmann was a journalist and an author, and she is best known for her biographies of Gustaf Fröding and Selma Lagerlöf.
Ida Bäckmann grew up in Åmål, where her father, Nils Bäckman, was a master painter. The family home was deeply religious. Ida received a good education; first she attended a new primary school for girls in Karlstad and then she was sent to Stockholm, where she eventually graduated from the Wallin school. Afterwards, she returned to Värmland and from 1890 to 1895 she worked there as a teacher and director of the private school for girls in Säffle. Following a failed romantic relationship with the managing director of Säffle canal company, David Lilliehöök, she resigned and took up a post as teacher at the co-educational school in Åhus from 1895 to 1898. She then worked as a teacher at Sofi Almquist’s co-educational school in Stockholm from 1900 to 1907. After this, she retired from teaching and started her career as a travelling journalist. During the later part of her life she ran a farm in Himmer in Värmland along with Stina Sahlin, a former missionary.
Ida Bäckmann’s first book was the novel Tantali kval, published in 1898, but it was her travel journalism, which was published in Dagens Nyheter and Stockholms Dagblad, and eventually came out in book form, that made her famous and popular in her lifetime. She undertook several travels to politically troubled Russia and reported on the bloody street battles of Moscow and Odessa. She travelled to South Africa when the Boer War was ongoing and she went to Argentina to report on colonialism. In 1905 she travelled all the way to Baku to report on the oil exploitation by the Nobel enterprises. She also interviewed many celebrities such as Leo Tolstoj.
However, it was Ida Bäckmann’s book on Gustaf Fröding, published in 1913, which came to be decisive for her posthumous reputation. Having met him once, Ida Bäckmann started corresponding with the already sick Fröding. At the turn of the century, as Fröding became more unwell and spent longer periods in the mental hospital, Bäckmann visited him frequently until 1904, when Fröding’s sister, Cecilia, banned Bäckmann from meeting with him. This is the period covered in Gustaf Fröding – skildrad af Ida Bäckmann. The book was published two years after the poet’s death and caused quite a scandal. The image of Fröding, which Bäckmann portrayed, was far more complex and contradictory than the established idealised image of the poet and as a result Bäckmann became the target of a lengthy hate campaign.
Bäckmann had been encouraged to write down her memories of Gustaf Fröding by Selma Lagerlöf, whom she had met at a women’s congress in 1911. Selma Lagerlöf had also promised to write a foreword for the book; a promise which she fulfilled only in 1940, when Bäckmann published a new edition of the book with the new title Gralsökaren.
Selma Lagerlöf also encouraged Ida Bäckmann to write about her childhood and in the 1930s, Bäckmann published three books about a girl called Röpecka. The red-haired Röpecka, who is up for any mischief and risky business, is not entirely distinct from the Pippi Långstrump character in Astrid Lindgren’s books two decades later. The first of the Röpecka books is entitled Röpecka, Gud och Lennart and the title is telling. Like in the book on Fröding, and in the later book on Selma Lagerlöf, God and the spiritual world take centre stage as mediators between the main character and the person she wants to be with, in this case Lennart. The books are all written from the girl’s perspective, albeit using an adult sense of irony. Röpecka takes everything seriously. She believes that her mother can’t have given birth to her naturally as she was brought by an angel. She also does not understand the irony in the talk on her town’s history, which the local teacher gives at the opening of the railway line. She socializes fearlessly with the local drunks. But she does mature and in the last book, Röpecka går upp i studenten, 1937, she is the head teacher’s favourite and can respond cleverly to every question the teacher asks.
Being friends with Selma Lagerlöf was very important to Ida Bäckmann. As Selma Lagerlöf aged and became lonelier, their correspondence intensified and became more personal. The letters took on an increasingly intimate tone and they began to use petnames for each other: Ida was Röpecka and Selma was Svalört. After Selma Lagerlöf’s death, Ida Bäckmann published a two-volume set on their friendship entitled Mitt liv med Selma Lagerlöf: en skildring byggd på 30 års korrespondens, 1-2, 1944. Like Gustaf Fröding, Selma Lagerlöf is portrayed as an almost divine being, who Bäckmann credits for having given her an essential zest for life.
Ida Bäckmann died in 1950 and is buried in By cemetery in Säffle. She willed her estate to a trust fund, “Ida Bäckmann’s award fund in memory of Gustaf Fröding and Selma Lagerlöf”. The fund is managed by the Swedish Academy.