Ulla Torpe was a teacher, an author, a literary scholar, and a polemicist. She was also one of the founders of the feminist network known as Grupp 8.
Ulla Torpe was born in Stockholm. She grew up in Karlstad, where she gained her school-leaving certificate. She began to study at Uppsala university during the 1940s. She married Sten Henryson – who later became a professor – in 1949 and they had two daughters, named Mia and Tjia born in 1950 and 1951 respectively. During her Uppsala university student years Ulla Torpe was part of the circle which formed around Gudrun and Sandro Key-Åberg and Sara Lidman. Ulla Torpe came up with the idea of setting up Litteraturklubben (the literature club). It was during this time that she also made her debut as a writer. After gaining her Master’s degree she spent two decades working at Nacka high school teaching English, psychology, and Swedish.
Ulla Torpe also continued her university studies at Uppsala whilst working as a high school teacher. Towards the end of the 1960s she attended Könsrollseminariet led by Karin Westman Berg, a docent in literature. Along with seven of the other seminar attendees – Barbro Backberger, Birgitta Svanberg, Birgitta Bolinder, Gunnel Granlid, and Anita Theorell – as well as Åsa Åkerstedt she set up the feminist network known as Grupp 8 in 1968.
Ulla Torpe was also an active trade unionist. In 1970 she helped to establish an interest group called Socialistiska Lärare (SOL) (Socialist teachers). She published successful textbooks such as her 1989 Dikter – en källa till glädje, tröst och vrede and the 1991 Manligt och kvinnligt i litteraturen (which was co-written with Birgitta Svanberg). As a literary expert she was also involved in Kvinnornas litteraturhistoria and Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria, both released by the Författarförlaget publishers. She was also frequently active as a cultural journalist and contributor to a range of daily newspapers and journals such as BLM, Vi Mänskor, Hertha, and Kvinnovetenskaplig Tidskrift.
Ulla Torpe’s feminist activism is threaded throughout her extensive and comprehensive output. Her first piece of fiction was a novel entitled Ann which was published in 1961. The story centres on a strong and independent woman who has several children but is not accepted in her Värmland hometown. Nearly two decades passed before Ulla Torpe released her second novel, Utmaningen, in 1977 and it won the first prize in the Lantbruksförbundets Tidskriftsförlag (LT) (farmers’ association journal publishing house) literary competition. Ulla Torpe can also be described as a portrayer of the countryside. Her novels depict the contrasts between the rural and the metropole and her heart remains steadfastly allied to the rural population. She was deeply connected to Värmland and this has led to her usually being considered to be a Värmland author, albeit her novels actually tend to portray the vulnerability of socially insignificant individuals. Her prize-winning Utmaningen tells the story of a group of people in western Värmland who join together to fight bureaucracy and large-scale and profit-based thinking. This is a fast-paced and entertaining fanciful tale which has a very serious undertone. Ulla Torpe’s third, and final, novel called De slutna rummen, from 1979, is completely different in character and tone. The story is set in the mid-1940s and concerns a woman who is bereft of the strength she once had. She withdraws, with her two young children, and examines herself, the life she has lived, and the relationships she has had. She has given herself a year to do this and when the time is up she abandons her children, writing a farewell letter which ends: “It is not the right time for women. Not yet”.
Ulla Torpe was constantly researching literature focused on Selma Lagerlöf. In 1992 she gained her doctorate with a thesis entitled Orden och jorden: en studie i Selma Lagerlöfs roman Liljecronas hem, revealing how central the academically-overlooked novel on Liljecrona’s home had been to Selma Lagerlöf’s writing. Ulla Torpe’s thesis presented a new image of Selma Lagerlöf and introduced the theory of co-dependency which was so important to subsequent research into Lagerlöf’s work. From 1994 onwards, and until her death, Ulla Torpe served as chair of the Selma Lagerlöf society. During her final years she was busy arranging the Lagerlöf symposium to be held at Kulturhuset in Stockholm during the city’s year of culture. That year she was also awarded the Ingemar stipend from the Nås Hembygdsgille.
Ulla Torpe died in 1998.