Martha Sandwall-Bergström was a Swedish author of children’s- and youth books. She is best known for her series of books about Kulla-Gulla, a daughter of the manor.
Martha Sandwall-Bergström was born and raised in Nävelsjö parish in Småland. Her childhood was coloured by a deeply-held religious belief and by an obvious work ethic and great enterpreneurship. Both her paternal grandfather and her father were preachers, the latter was active within the newly established Svenska Alliansmissionen (Swedish alliance mission). When Martha Sandwall-Bergström was nine years old her father purchased Lannaskede spa which lay close to where they lived. The whole family moved to the spa where her father had often preached in the past. The resort, which was an important and well-known health spa at the time, comprised bathing areas, restaurants, a central building, office, stables, houses and more. Martha Sandwall-Bergström’s parents ran the resort together: her father set up a Sunday school for children whilst her mother, Elisabeth, handled health matters. Following her father’s premature death in 1924 Martha Sandwall-Bergström’s mother took over the running of the business whilst also caring for her five children. She successfully managed the site for twenty years. The children helped as well, which meant that Martha Sandwall-Bergström performed both simple and more complicated tasks as required. She gained good insight into the range of Swedish social classes.
Martha Sandwall-Bergström tended to use her spare time to read and write. She had a very keen interest in literature and read most of what she could get her hands on: books, fairy tales, religious works, and poetry. She also wrote her own short stories which she submitted to various newspapers. She was only twelve years old when her first short story, “Hedningens offer”, was published by a newspaper which had put out a request for “true-life stories”. Martha Sandwall-Bergström really wanted to write a novel and also wanted to gain her school-leaving certificate. Her brothers had been able to gain theirs but she had been forced to quit school after completing lower school. At the time she had been boarded at Sävsjö in order to be able to quickly study for the lower school exam and sit it as a private student in Eksjö. She did attend a summer course at Kvinnliga medborgarskolan (the female citizens' school) at Fogelstad, albeit unlike other female writers – such as Moa Martinson, for example – this apparently had no significant impact on her life.
Martha Sandwall-Bergström initially earned her living by working as home-help, although she was not at all happy doing this. She continued for several years, nevertheless, initially working for a Swedish family living in Poland, and then for Swedes living in France, and finally for a family in Stockholm. She also continued writing and dreaming of being an author. She eventually enrolled on a one-year office-clerk’s course at Påhlmans Handelsinstitut (institute of business) in Stockholm. It was during this period that she met the man she went on to marry, an archaeologist named Lars-Erik Bergström. They married in 1939 and had a daughter together, named Britta-Clara. The family lived in various places depending on where Lars-Erik Bergström was doing his archaeological digs, and eventually settled in Lidingö in Stockholm. Martha Sandwall-Bergström ran the household, caring for their daughter, who had special needs due to brain damage, and she subsequently became her husband’s carer as well, when he was left disabled after falling seriously ill. The family needed an income and so she increased her written output. Many of her short stories and serials were published in weekly journals such as Husmodern, Allas Veckotidning and Hela Världen. Some of her short stories were published anonymously, given that she wrote for several journals at the same time, and some of her stories lacked a named author altogether. Eva Söderberg described the short stories as “the typical love-intrigues of weekly journals”. The stories, which portrayed heterosexual love stories, played out in rural areas. The main theme was that of the hard-working woman seeking a man who would help her run her farm and with whom she could enjoy a good life.
Martha Sandwall-Bergström dreamt about writing a novel and becoming a proper author. When Albert Bonnier Förlag (publishing house) advertised a competition for a girls’ book in 1945 she submitted her rapidly-written novel, Kulla-Gulla. Despite winning first prize in the competition she had no plans to carry on writing more books centred on Kulla-Gulla. However, both the publishers and her readers were eagerly awaiting a sequel. Martha Sandwall-Bergström was persuaded by Gerhard Bonnier to write another episode in the life of the poor, orphaned croft girl Kulla-Gulla who became a maid for the Karlberg family in Kulla. Some way into the series Martha Sandwall-Bergström reveals that Kulla-Gulla is actually the grand-daughter of the Höje factory-owner and subsequently he allows her to come and live in his manor. The series deals heavily with issues of class and gender, as well as frequently referencing previous girls’ books such as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s series, Anne of Green Gables. Just like the Anne of that series Kulla-Gulla, who is angelic, wise, and strong, finds her man and eventually marries him. This is Tomas, the new book-keeper at the manor, and together they take over Höje. Eva Heggestad has interpreted the series finale as a sort of utopia in which Kulla-Gulla is presented as a “female social reformer”. Society is changing and the world of the factory-owner is disappearing as a new modernity awaits.
The first seven parts of this story following Kulla-Gulla’s psychological development were released in the period 1946–1951. These comprise: Kulla-Gulla håller sitt löfte, from 1946, Kulla-barnen på herrgården, from 1947, Kulla-Gulla i skolan, from 1948, Kulla-Gullas sommarlov, from 1949, Kulla-Gulla finner sin väg, from 1950, and Kulla-Gullas myrtenkrona, from 1951. The series received mixed reviews. Contemporary critics were favourably inclined towards the first part, but negative reviews began to increase as the series continued. Ten editions of the series were printed in the period 1945–1965, and they are still being read now. They have been translated into many different languages and form part of the most borrowed book series, second only to Astrid Lindgren’s books. The average annual borrowing figures from libraries total ca. 250,000 copies for the period 1959–1965.
Martha Sandwall-Bergström did not want to end up typecast as a girls’ book author through her Kulla-Gulla series so she also put her hand to other genres. She won first prize in the 1949 best film script competition with her first attempt at a film script for the film En pojke också. The previous year she had released a youth book called Johanna, again through Albert Bonniers Förlag, which told the story of a medieval Cinderella-type character. Martha Sandwall-Bergström’s adult novel Objuden gäst, which was a contemporary account published under the name of Anna Loo, was released in 1950. The publishers wanted to re-release the Kulla-Gulla series during the 1960s and this time they were printed in eleven volumes, with new covers as well as a certain amount of language edits. In 1972 a new volume was released, namely the newly-written Kulla-Gulla på Blomgården in which the story covered the time before Kulla-Gulla became a maid at the Kulla croft. During the 1980s two picture-books about the character were also published, Kulla-Gulla på barnhemmet, in 1986, and Kulla-Gulla lillpiga, in 1987.
Following her success with the Kulla-Gulla series Martha Sandwall-Bergström wrote another three trilogies. The first was a contemporary social-realism account of a girl from Stockholm called Majken. The series comprises Aldrig en lugn stund hos Oskarssons, from 1952, Allt händer hos Oskarssons, from 1953, and finally Majken Stolt, född Oskarsson from 1954. The trilogy was a success amongst contemporary reviewers but readers did not take to it the way they had with the Kulla-Gulla series. This second series has only recently come to the attention of modern research. Majken, the central character, can be seen as the direct opposite of Kulla-Gulla. She is an angry, rebellious teenager reminiscent of both Anne of Green Gables and Pippi Långstrump, albeit she is also vain and becomes a model. Majken gets married, just like Lisa Eurén-Berner’s character Fröken Sprakfåle and becomes a housewife. This series can also be likened to Astrid Lindgren’s contemporary trilogy based on the character of Kati, in that the heroine’s goal is to get married, thus bringing a conventional ending to the rebellion and independence that precedes it.
In the 1950s Martha Sandwall-Bergström moved to Malaga in Spain where the family acquired a lemon grove and kept goats. One of the reasons behind the move was that both her husband and daughter fared better in a warmer climate. Another reason was that the author herself was tired of the attention and negative reviews she was getting for the Kulla-Gulla series. Her time in Spain involved hard work but she was also able to write during her spare time. Martha Sandwall-Bergström produced a trilogy based around the character of Pepita, a pious Spanish teenager who is portrayed in conventional female fashion and is a Madonna-like figure. The series comprises Silvermånen, from 1959, Elddansen på Silvermånen, from 1956, and I Silvermånens tecken, from 1962. The author took her inspiration from her surrounding environment, just as she had with the Kulla-Gulla series. Once again, the series received mixed reviews. Another series she wrote, about the character Arabella, was poorly received. Neither of these series has been reprinted.
Both the conventional and more subversive elements within Martha Sandwall-Bergström’s three trilogies have recently been highlighted by academic researchers. Eva Söderberg was the first to discuss this in her 2004 thesis entitled Askunge, Madonna eller feminist? Kontextuella läsningar av Martha Sandwall-Bergströms Kulla-Gullasvit. The subject was subsequently continued in articles that were published as part of marking the 70th anniversary of the first publication of Kulla-Gulla in 2015.
Martha Sandwall-Bergström became a widow in 1963. She moved back to Sweden in the 1980s and settled in Malmö. She died in 2000 and is buried in the family grave at Nävelsjö cemetery.